Spanning April 7 through 25, the Office of Campus Life and Diversity invited several experts to hold a workshop series on intersectional antisemitism, intersectional racism and Islamophobia. The series was designed to directly engage up to 75 students in discussions about the relationships between those three forms of oppression and the broader sociocultural meanings of those interactions. These workshops are especially relevant given recent campus climate conditions, epitomized in the controversy surrounding BDS.
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Samuel Speers explained, “The key feature of these workshops on racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia is that they are designed intersectionally—meaning that they deal with multiple forms of oppression together, so that we see the connections between these three different forms of oppression being considered. Each of the workshop leaders is committed to presenting their session in relation to the other two sessions.”
Workshop leaders Talia Cooper and Sonia Alexander presented the session on intersectional antisemitism, the first event in the series. Cooper reflected, “I think we really got the message that students did not feel that they were being heard around a lot of topics that were affecting their lives and that students, when they talk about it, want to be supported by the Administration. It sounds like continuing to have some of these conversations will be really great for the campus.”
The workshop series encourages student-faculty interaction by giving them a common language for engaging in conversation about these three topics. Speers elaborated, “The model for each of these workshops is to have both a session for students and a session for faculty and administrators. So we think this relatively small program can have a significant impact, given the extensive networks with which each participant is connected. It’s a pilot initiative for programming that we hope to develop more fully in the future.”
Serving as an introduction to discourses about power, the session outlined the theoretical apparatus for this line of thought. Alexander explained, “The main point of the workshop is to take a look at antisemitism from an intersectional analysis, so looking at how antisemitism operates along the four I’s of oppression: Institutional, Ideological, Interpersonal and Internalized, which is a model we apply to any form of oppression.”
At this level of abstraction, the discourse about power applies equally well to racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Cooper noted, “Our workshops are an introduction to how power works, how racism works, how privilege works, getting to understand some of the basics, how these factors function in our own lives and on our own bodies.” Working from the analogy of a multidimensional Venn diagram, this line of thought conceptualizes each factor of power as a sphere that overlaps with every other factor of power. The individual sits at the locus of the multidimensional Venn diagram, so that the point of intersectionality defines the individual’s identity.
These workshops are intended to supplement ongoing campus efforts to combat identity discrimination on multiple fronts. Existing resources try to take into account the inherent interconnectedness of students’ different identities and the oppression they face because of those identities. Associate Dean of the College Edward Pittman wrote in an emailed statement, “The main offices of Campus Life (ALANA, International Services, Religious and Spiritual Life, Women’s Center, LGBTQ Center) have always sought to approach this work without always having students to ‘choose’ which identity is important at a particular moment.”
Speers agreed that campus offices have been working to incorporate intersectionality in considering questions of identity and oppression. He said, “For some time, Campus Life and Diversity has sought an intersectional approach in its work. Any other approach risks a) pitting historically under-represented communities against one another and b) leaving assumptions and structures in place that need changing.” He continued, “Of course intersectional work has to get to the level of concrete practices and behaviors, and these workshops seem promising as [one] way of doing that.”
The workshop used narrative knowledge of the interaction of these systems of oppression and discrimination to connect the particular experiences of students with the abstract apparatus of discourses about power. Alexander reflected, “We organized the workshop through a bunch of interactive games and activities, looking at stories and having discussions about what was going on in those stories.” From narrative knowledge, the workshop directed participants toward further reading, discussion and activism through a process called praxis.
The workshop leaders developed their expertise through a careful synthesis of personal experience, scholarly research and extensive discussions with people from all backgrounds in workshop settings. Alexander stated, “I think being involved in activist communities and activist movements for a very long time, and also grappling with Jewish identity and seeking out radical Jewish life experiences, were some of the personal things that led me to want to learn more about this work.” She continued, “I did specific reading and research so that I could understand and be a part of some of the history that is involved—reading Penny Rosenwasser, and then having discussions with a lot of people to understand what is the complicated history around Jews.”
Cooper chose research questions that question the implications of her own identity. She described, “In order to be effective activists, we have to be grounded in our own identity: What does it means to be a white, Ashkenazi Jew? Answering that question means doing more research, so that we can be more effective in what we do.”
Campus Life is beginning to take into account these same types of research questions in its programming. Speers explained, “I see these workshops as an important opportunity to open up further consideration of the relation between intersectionality–looking at multiple identities and forms of oppression simultaneously—and spirituality. What are the inner resources for intersectional work? What is the relation between identity work and the growing interest in spiritual and contemplative practices?” Considering these inner resources, he cites, “Part of what I love about my work at Vassar is that it is profoundly interreligious. I see students from many different worldviews (both secular and religious) enjoying Friday night Shabbat at the Bayit or attending programs like the special Jummah prayer we held on campus this year in conjunction with a local mosque, or embracing their experience at a local Buddhist monastery.”
Considering the campus climate as a whole, Alexander observed, “I think it’s great that Vassar wants to have these conversations.” The structure and tone of such conversation will remain major factors for determining its impact on the community. Although recent efforts seem to have established a direction towards freedom of expression and a strong sense of self-identity among students, Campus Life is still working out the implications of its workshop series. Speers urged, “Addressing underlying forms of oppression needs more than a problem-solving mode; we need to make it an ongoing part of our institutional culture.”