Feminism In/Action: Detroit report back
Thank you, TrumbullPlex folks, for opening up your space for Sunday's discussion. Thank you, Adele, Clara, and Jess for making the event happen here, and for getting the word out (and special thanks to Clara for the tour and history of the TrumbullPlex [a radical housing collective in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit]). And a huge thank you to everyone who attended. I think between 20 and 25 people came. I felt honored to be in the presence of so many people committed to honesty, sincerity, openness, and creating a safe space to share what are sometimes difficult and differing perspectives.
I've been churning over the discussion in my head since then. People have asked me to write something here, but I've been reluctant for a few reasons. Everyone has their own impression, including of what they thought went well, what they thought didn't go well, what the stand-out points were, etc. It also feels awkward because I'm not part of that community. So before I go any further, I want to say that out of this discussion will emerge a podcast/radio project, driven by folks in Detroit but as part of our work here at Bitch. We recorded the discussion, and follow-up discussions and interviews will be done by Detroit folks to explore what came up in further depth, and also explore the work being done in their communities. The project will be done in time for the Allied Media Conference, and we're hoping to have the listening launch as part of a Detroit/Prometheus Radio Project already being done.
I feel extremely regretful and embarrassed for not having the foresight to get everyone's contact info. I apologize for that. I'm doing my best to get word of this post around to the folks who attended, in hopes that they'll offer their own feedback.
So I'll just say a bit here, and add more as other discussions take place... People came with very different experiences with – and relationships to – the idea of feminism. Someone shared that he didn't know much about feminism, and came to the discussion wanting to learn what it was all about. A number of others shared that they have scars from feminism because they don't feel it speaks to their lives or experiences (as, for instance, people of color, people coming from poor backgrounds, people not having gone to college). A few others proudly self-identified as feminists. A number of others were conflicted, and preferred to use language like "human rights" or "women's empowerment" rather than "feminism." It was incredible to have folks with so many different perspectives in the same room. But of course it also made it difficult to find a starting place, and a focal point. And the fact that we only had two hours (and it took us pretty much an hour to introduce ourselves and briefly share our stories) added to the challenge of finding the most meaningful way to use the time.
People I spoke with afterwards or since then (and I want to point out that this number is only about 15 of the 25-or-so people who were there) have said they thought it was a useful, productive first step in opening up the dialogue here. A number of people told me that for a city that's so multiracial, the (organized) feminism here is still very white- and middle-class- centric. As I mentioned, further discussions will be organized around the issues that came up, and a discussion may take place specifically around Jess Hoffman's open letter to white feminists that was mentioned on the discussion announcement/flyer. People also gave me useful suggestions for future discussions, like keeping the introductions shorter, nailing down more concrete questions, and facilitating more tightly.
Part of the purpose of these discussions is to inform our work and upcoming visioning/organizational refounding process here at Bitch, and that's where I feel most appropriate speaking – drawing connections to our work. I wanted to start these discussions in Detroit because when we talk about feminism and issues of marginalization, I think it's important to consider which geographic areas themselves, broadly-speaking, are marginalized. And Detroit is in many ways a city on the margins. Sunday's discussion very much reinforced my own increasing resistance to the term "feminism," and made me question more deeply the message we're sending when we call our work feminist. From women feeling excluded because they don't feel it speaks to their experiences, to men feeling excluded from the very word itself, to people feeling the word is too intellectual, too college-centric, too devoid of feeling, I definitely left the day focused on the question of whether it's time to evolve to new language to define the work we do, and if so, what language.
Obviously this project is just getting off the ground. There are no answers (yet), and there's much more work to be done, more discussions to take place. But I felt it was important to say something of substance.
Later that night, I attended a fundraiser for Critical Moment, a volunteer-based, collectively-run free newspaper/magazine dedicated to social justice politics and organizing in Southeast Michigan. It was a night of music, spoken word, and donated art, clothing, and cards for sale at the Cass Cafe. They used to have two collectives, one in Ann Arbor and one in Detroit, but the Ann Arbor collective recently dissolved, and with it, much of the funding for the paper (because they used to get student org funds and money from local advertisers), so they're in even more need of
support (so please, if you live in Southeast Michigan, support them – donate, get involved, spread the word).
Anyway, thd day/night brought to my mind one of my own scars from "feminism." When I lived in Madison a number of years ago, I was involved with a similar collectively-run, community newspaper called the Madison Insurgent. One day I approached the feminist bookstore in town to ask them to support our work by buying an ad. The person behind the register told me they couldn't financially support our work because we weren't "a feminist publication." At first, I couldn't believe it. How did this person not see the work we were doing – which was covering issues like labor rights, immigration, gentrification, war protests (perspectives that other local papers ignored) – as feminist? But upon further thought, I realized that it really wasn't that surprising at all.
(To end on a brighter note, isn't it amazing what you can make with a bed sheet, stencils, and paint? That's Adele there on the left!)
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