Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Raising the Barr in Berlin

We’re proud to announce our director of volunteer development, Stephanie Barr, was invited to speak in Berlin on her thesis paper which focused on solidarity within a diverse feminist movement.

Stephanie presented her paper called “What Unites Us? Effective strategies for Fostering Solidarity Within a Diverse Feminist Movement” this past July at an international conference titled Collectivity Beyond Identity. The three day conference was organized by and held at the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at Humboldt-University of Berlin. It hosted 38 speakers from the US and Europe including famous feminist theorists Linda Alcoff, Linda Zerilli, and Adriana Cavarero. The base question presented by the conference was, “How might we rethink the notion of community and how can we conceive of collectivity, when the seemingly crucial aspect of collectivization – identity – has become the object of critical study?”

To learn more about Stephanie’s experience at the conference, I asked her a few questions:

How did you become interested in feminist theory?

I took some feminist philosophy courses in college that really impacted the way I view feminism. I identify more as an activist than an academic, but I think theory is really important because it informs our strategies for achieving social change. As feminist theory has evolved it has helped us better understand the role identity plays within feminism, power dynamics between feminists, and how we can become a more effective, increasingly inclusive movement. So for me feminist theory provides a framework for thinking about how I want to engage in this work.

How did you feel when you were invited to speak?

I had to apply to present at the conference, so when I heard that my paper had been accepted I was shocked and thrilled and a little intimidated. But mostly I was excited that I would have the opportunity to share my research with new people, and have the opportunity to meet other people with similar passions and learn from them.

How was your experience in Berlin, the city?

Berlin is an amazing place with a rich and complicated history. The people of Berlin have been incredibly thoughtful about not erasing the past—even the dark moments of Nazi Germany—but also looking towards the future with eyes wide open. I biked along what remains of the Berlin wall, covered in political graffiti, then relaxed on a sandy beach along the riverbank, just on the other side of the wall. I never knew what to expect. It is a unique mix of past and present, urban but integrated with nature. It’s diverse and has a relatively young and creative population, so for me that environment was fun and invigorating.

How was your experience at the conference?

The conference was stimulating and challenging, and at times overwhelming. As I said, I consider myself more of an activist than an academic, and feminist theory encompasses so many different disciplines that there was a lot of new information for me to take in. But it was also really inspiring to hear other feminist theorists present research about their passions and their visions for the future of feminism. Ultimately the conference was focused on feminist collective identity, so everyone was genuinely interested in how we can motivate more people to feel like they belong to the feminist movement. That gave the conference a great energy, I think.

What was your favorite part of the conference?

I enjoyed sharing my research. The big fear in academia is that no one cares what you’re doing and no one will ever read your research once you finish. So just getting to engage with other people and hear their feedback was exciting. A woman who works in Sweden for the European Women’s Lobby asked to read my thesis, and that felt incredible.

I also really enjoyed a talk on Jewish queer poetry presented by a woman from Israel. It made me think about what creates a sense of belonging, and how powerful it can be to rediscover and celebrate your identity within a community that made you feel unseen in the past.

Will you be presenting your paper again in the future?

Not exactly that paper, but I’m investigating ways to present my research here at the Y. I’m so grateful to work somewhere that recognizes the connection between my research and the work that we do. It would also be great to continue using it to develop concrete strategies that organizations can put into practice. My ultimate goal is to be able to write a short paper on specific strategies non-profits could use to explore the issues of diversity and solidarity within their organizations. I think the research applies beyond feminist organizations because it’s really about doing coalition work and what that brings up for people.

Were there any speakers or topics there that you were particularly excited about?

It was a real honor to hear some of the keynote speakers present their work. One remark that has stayed with me was shared by Linda Zerilli. She said that feminism keeps trying to devise the perfect theory to address power imbalances, and no perfect theory exists. There are strategies for dealing with power dynamics in practice, but there is no single theory that will solve all of these problems. I really appreciated hearing that because I think striving for perfection is great, but expecting perfection can make us miss the huge strides we’re making and actually become an obstacle to moving forward.

What new or exciting concepts did you walk away with?

One of the other US presenters on my panel researched how multiracial Black youth form a collective identity with their peers in school. Her presentation expanded my understanding of some of the challenges people who identify as multiracial might experience, particularly during their teen years when so many are seeking understanding and acceptance. It was another reminder of how complex and personal identity is for each of us.

Would you do it again? 

I would, although most likely with new research. It was an incredible learning experience to meet feminists from so many different parts of the world and hear about the research they’re conducting. I definitely think the experience of sharing ideas with people who have similar passions is worthwhile.

What advice do you have for aspiring feminist theorists?

You may not know how you’re going to apply it once you graduate, but if you can find the funding and make the time, the degree is worthwhile and can lead you to new opportunities. Choose to research topics that have some practical application because that’s how you can really make an impact. And finally, even if you research the worst results of sexism, it helps to focus on solutions. One of my mentors once told me “you can’t work towards a better world if you don’t believe it’s possible.” Retaining that optimism is essential. It makes all the difference to nurture your hope and to remember that there is a whole movement of people committed to the same goals. That, above all, is what I get from participating in feminist communities of all kinds, and that’s why I wanted to study feminist solidarity. I hope that anyone committed to gender based justice can find a place to belong, because there is so much potential in our collective power. Like we say at the Y, strong alone, fearless together.

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