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WAM-n-me

A lot of discussion about WAM! is going on. Some of it's in public blogs, like here, and here, here, here, and here. (I know, that's a lazy way of linking, but I'm tired....) Also here. (OK, I promise I'll stop that.)

A lot of the discussion is also happening over email, and so it's not public.  I've participated in some of this email discussion, but in the interest of being open about my perceptions, I'd like to mention some of the things I've written about in emails…

This was my first WAM! experience, so I have no direct points of comparison. In all honesty, I've outright avoided WAM! up until this year. Here's why...

When I first learned of WAM! a few years ago, one of their sponsors was Whole Foods Market. That was my first clue that WAM! did not promote the kind of feminism I adhere to—one that includes in its conception things like labor/workers' rights, local economies, community-building...

In the interest of full self-disclosure, Whole Foods has long been a particularly sharp thorn in my side. I've participated in efforts to raise public awareness of their history of violating workers' rights, destroying local economies, food webs, and small farms, strategically opening stores in communities where small local grocers and co-ops are struggling to survive. I was also involved in a grassroots and community-based unionizing campaign at one of their stores. 

Anyway. So I was suspicious. And pessimistic and jaded—I'd had enough experiences intended "for women" and "for feminists" to know how far out in the margins I am with my belief that feminism isn't all about "women," and that any feminism that doesn't critique privilege, power, elitism, state violence—capitalism—is, frankly, not only a waste of time but totally destructive to movements for actual social change.

And indeed, the email list affiliated with the conference and reports from politically radical friends and colleagues who'd attended provided truth to my assumption that the prevailing type of feminism at WAM! would be disconnected—from things that should be central to it, like racial/economic justice, from challenging privilege, from critiquing state violence… I don't mean to imply that there wouldn't be exceptions. Nor do I mean to imply that it's solely the obligation of the conference organizers to change this culture. Like many nonprofits, the Center for New Words—of which WAM! is a program–is working within the confines of having a tiny budget, a tiny staff, and a tiny amount of resources.

Moving on... I decided to attend WAM! this year. 

And I'm very glad I did. I met a number of amazing and inspiring folks. I was touched by the number of people who came up to me to tell me how valuable Bitch is in their lives, and touched further by the number who asked how they could support our work. I'm incredibly grateful to WAM! for offering scholarships to those of us in financial need. I'm grateful to other folks who, despite their misgivings, took a risk and gave it a chance—in particular, women of color/queers/radicals/young folks/anyone who feels marginalized and left out of feminism.

I attended a few phenomenal sessions—most notably one on empowering youth through media. I was thrilled to sit in a packed room of mostly young people (a number of whom were actually still in high school) who were invested in feminism and media justice. I was profoundly moved to listen to their stories and experiences—trying to understand what it's like to be a politically aware and active teenager in this age of reality TV, celebrity worship, and suffocating commercialism in every open space.  Hearing young women of color talk about how damaging shows like Flavor of Love are to their lives, to their perceptions of beauty and relationship expectations was incredibly moving. Heartbreaking. 

I was thrilled that so many people came out at 9am on Sunday to participate in a discussion about how to grow and sustain mission-driven feminist/social change-oriented media: in the room were folks from New Moon (a magazine for "girls and their dreams," ad free!), Make/Shift (an awesome new politically radical feminist magazine, of which the incredible Jessica Hoffman co- edits/publishes), Shameless (a magazine out of Toronto aimed at girls and young women but with writing so great it's engaging for all ages), In These Times (one of the few publications importantly focusing on labor/union/workers' rights), $pread (the only [I think?] magazine specifically about sex workers and the sex industry); also the wonderful Tara Roberts of the-now-defunct Fierce (who's now an editor at Cosmo Girl; talking to her reminded me of how essential it is to have feminists involved in mainstream publications like this), the ever-dedicated and tireless Jen Angel of the-now-defunct Clamor.... Near the end of the discussion, I even recognized the voice of someone from my entry into the world of feminist publishing, the publisher of the Minnesota Women's Press, where I volunteered many, many years ago. Unexpected! Audacia Ray and Amber Rhea "live blogged" the session (a concept I hadn't even heard about), and we even had a question from someone following the live blog.  Coooool... 

But.

Overall, in terms of my own politics and identity, I felt tremendously out of place (as, among other things, a radical, as a queer, as not-class-privileged, as someone who doesn't really identify with the label "woman," as someone who finds the schmoozing-aspect of conferences, well, kind of tacky).  I was frustrated at the overall energy of the conference, in terms of how feminism is (and, more importantly, isn't) conceived. I was dismayed at the number of people who, frankly, seemed solely interested in promoting their work, uninterested (unaware?) of the deeper struggle, oblivious to the fact that really, shouldn't we all be "working" ourselves out of work? 

When this discussion came up on the email list affiliated with the conference, lots of folks jumped in to express what an amazing experience it was for them, especially folks who work within mainstream publishing and face every day the horrors of blatant sexism, misogyny—things I am extremely lucky to not be confronted with overtly, hourly, in the relative "safety" of Bitch. I'm grateful for them that they have this space—one weekend a year—to strategize about things like dealing with those experiences and figuring out how to get more feminist voices in the mainstream. 

Others added that lots of folks coming to WAM! are totally new to feminism, so find the space almost revolutionary, compared to what they're used to. 

Wonderful, I say.

But. There are other people who didn't have such a great experience (and some who had a downright painful experience), and it's critical that those voices are heard and that we make change.   

As I explained on the email list, yes, of course it's essential to make a space that feels welcoming to people just beginning to come into an awareness of feminism. But equally important is to create a space that feels welcoming to those of who are way past that point, who see the need for systemic change, and are trying to do something about it.  And especially welcoming to those who've been marginalized and left out of "feminism."  And when these people are telling you they don't feel welcome, or they have criticisms, that's a huge problem that we all have an oblgation to deal with, especially those with the power to do something about it.

As I also explained on the list, frankly, over the past several years, it's been increasingly difficult for me to even call myself a feminist. As I'm endlessly saying (in fact I think this is the third time in this post), I think feminism without capitalist critique is not just a waste of time, I think it's absolutely destructive. I think the reluctance (and too many times outright refusal) on the part of "professional feminists" to engage with the hard work of facing the clear strains of, among other things, racism and class privilege within feminism/within themselves is beyond fucked up.

Perhaps part of the conference could be a session teaching self-awareness skills?  I'm only half-kidding. 

It's deeply disturbing to me that it's so difficult to find like-minded people at conferences like this. And more disturbing to discover (again) the unwillingness of those with the power to listen, to yield, to make space. I know it's true that people don't concede power without a struggle. But damn. Sometimes it just seems like it shouldn't be this difficult.

I hope the folks who went and felt marginalized won't give up yet. I really do think there's potential in this space. I appreciate WAM!'s "big tent" approach; it offers an amazing opportunity to bring folks together with all sorts of perspectives, backgrounds, approaches. And it's an amazing opportunity to radicalize people. 

Anyway. I'm losing steam. There's so much more to say, but I'll end for now.

 

 

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Comments

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A Crucial Reminder

Debbie,

When I first heard the word "feminism," I understood/assumed it referenced only women; men could be feminists—at least I got that right away—but it was all about women. I was blown away—more than pleasantly—when a professor finally introduced the bigger picture to me, which you've succinctly explained here, Debbie. At the time I thought, oh, now I will be in on all these conversations I've been missing because I had no concept. But you're right, the critiques and inclusion needs you list are not as much a part of the dialogue—and the action—as they need to be. That college class has become this fuzzy memory in my mind—did my professor really say what she said? Did I understand correctly? Why do I keep reaching for feminism and feeling like I'm missing it somehow? Thank you for raising the point—and the concern—so well again.

What were the responses when you made these comments by the participants and organizers of WAM? I too ask that question recognizing and appreciating the benefits of conferences like WAM and the limited resources its organizers have. But I'm curious what people said specifically about the definition of feminism you raised. Do they see it as lacking in most "feminist" work too? Surely this question has been raised in the past—what steps have been taken? Will you apply to facilitate a workshop on this at next year's WAM, or something more?

And, Debbie, when you struggle with calling yourself a feminist, do you sometimes substitute a different term, and if so, what?

more on wam

From the little I know and have seen, WAM organizers seem genuine in their efforts to seek out critical feedback and make change. Part of the problem -- as they've pointed out -- is that WAM is based on a proposal-driven system, so sessions/panels/workshops need to be proposed to even be considered. And so already that leads to problems of whose voices and which perspectives will be heard.

I'm still processing a lot of what's happened at the conference and in the aftermath (and indeed, things are still unfolding -- see Andi's post about Seal, for example). I still have a lot of things to think about -- including, as you mention, what my role will be at future conferences, and what sessions -- if any -- I might propose.

It occurred to me today that another reason I'm grateful for going is that in the near future, we at Bitch will be doing some planning/(re)visioning/evaluating where we're at and where we need to go, and as painful as some of the conflict is surrounding WAM, it's also an amazing opportunity to learn and agitate and make change.

As far as the definitions of feminism, good question... People on the email list are coming from a variety of perspectives and levels of experience with the idea -- any idea -- of feminism. Not many people actually expressed their definition of feminism (unless I missed it; I don't read all the posts).

As for a replacement word for "feminism," that's something I've been pondering for a long time. I think qualifying it is always helpful, tho that, too, is tricky -- I'm always tempted to call myself a radical feminist (since I have radical politics), but that has second-wave connotations that I don't identify with. Lately, I've found myself doing the opposite -- qualifying the types of feminism that I find destructive ("liberal feminism," "mainstream feminism," "white feminism," etc.) tho but I realize that's problematic and not very creative/inspiring. I'll keep thinking...

Do you have any suggestions?

ugh

i'm so unbelievably weary of hearing wam! praise. as an activist woman with a personal blog no one really reads (i shut down my feminist one long ago to preserve my sanity), i know i'm not in the discussions about wam's problems, even though i blogged about why i chose not to attend. i live in boston, but i can't be bothered to go across the river for something that feels so unwelcoming and alien to me. i'm a white woman, but i'm rarely in a space where i feel the concerns of myself and allies of color are almost categorically ignored, and i feel genuinely depressed after conferences like wam, where professional feminists seem to run the show - and it's definitely just that. i wish more people would be honest about how they felt in this space - i know many were, i'm just saying we can't have too many - because as much as i'd like to not hate, it's the only way i imagine a space like this will ever start to change.

I understand

the desire to avoid WAM altogether. It's hard to know what's more effective -- staying and fighting, trying to create a separate space, something in the middle... It's hard to keep fighting.  

For me personally, one of the reasons I decided to go this year was because I felt obligated to experience it firsthand (I'm not implying that you, or anyone else should feel obligated, only that by nature of my work I felt I should go).  I haven't figured out yet if I'm being overly optimistic in thinking that there's hope in that space.  But yes, it will require a lot of action and probably fighting to make the space what it should/could be.  

Professional feminism -- I totally hear you. It's becoming startlingly apparent how much we need to address this issue. Jessica Hoffmann's letter to white feminists raises many excellent points and questions, one of which is for self-identified feminists to be asking themselves, "What is my feminism for, and why does it matter?"  

Also, I tried to read your blog, but the link isn't working -- can you repost it? I'd love to read it. 

This is a fantastic post, but I do want to stand up for WAM...

I could not agree more about the unwillingness of people with power to yield it, of people with privilege to be willing to work to end that privilege.

And I hear what people are saying about their experiences with the conference, and feeling alienated. I am not at all intending to deny or minimize the racism and classism/elitism that was present in the space.

*BUT* I think it's really important not to lose sight of some other things as well, things that I think are really important.

40% of the conference presenters were women of color. I believe this has been true for the two previous years as well (though I am not sure about that). I do not say this to give WAM a metaphorical gold star or cookie for outreach work (I hope it's clear from my tone how dumb I think that would be); I say it in the context of highlighting the fact that session presenters literally *make* the conference's content. To say that the conference was all about elite white women (as many critics are--and I do not mean this post as much as other posts I've read and other conversations, both online and off-, that I have been a part of) is not entirely accurate.

*Much more important*, though, is the tendency I have seen (a little here and much more elsewhere) to treat the mainstream stuff, the bad and offensive things that happened, the talk of money and career advancement, as Teh Agenda of WAM while the radical sessions/sessions that challenge this conception of feminism (and there were many: the youth media session Debbie mentioned, "Immigration in the U.S.: The Women’s Rights Crisis Feminists Aren’t Talking About", the session on survivor-centered trauma coverage ["Less Trauma/More Impact: New Ways to Cover Tough Issues"], "We B(e)lo(n)g: Womyn of Color and Online Feminism", "Resisting Walls and Bars: Amplifying Voices From Death Row and the Prison Industrial Complex", "Raising Women’s Voices/Building Women’s Power: Collaborative Approaches to Strategic Communications for Social Justice", "Strategies for Making Change: Models for Progressive Feminist Media Action", "Going Grassroots Globally: How Feminist Journalists Are Using the Power of the Internet to Explore and Expand Local Community Radio" and more), the good things that happened, the connections made and alliances started or strengthened, are treated as accidental or incidental or, even worse, somehow contrary to the true goals of the conference. (Wow, sorry for that loooong and awkwardly structured sentence.)

Again, I want to emphasize that I am not saying this to deny anyone's experience, but to add my own perceptions to the mix and MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, encourage people NOT TO GIVE UP ON WAM, to keep going and using the space to organize and make it what you want it to be.

Excellent points

I told Jaclyn (WAM program director) but I should've mentioned here, and I apologize for not... the sessions looked phenomenal (and the few that I attended were). It was frustrating having to choose which session to go to, but Jaclyn pointed out that that's the one problem you want to have at a conference because it means the programming is strong. Makes sense, though I think it'd be a wise idea to consider having certain sessions as stand-alones and encourage everyone to attend.  

For me, and a lot of folks I've talked to, it was much more about the vibe of the space -- the feeling that to too many people, feminism is more of a network than a movement. And a network for a select few, upholding a version of feminism that, to put it mildly, sucks. I have the privileges of being white and being a part of a respected publishing organization, and I still felt aliented. I can't imagine how others felt. But I don't think this is a problem unique to WAM; I think it was just a reflection of "feminism as it's popularly conceivied."

Speaking of networking... As long as we're mentioning sessions, I'd also like to acknowledge Deanna Zandt for her presentation on empwering online communities.  I admit I often just want to run in the other direction rather than learn about the latest online development or social networking tool, but incorporating online tools and networking capabilities is an essential part of this work, and a case where networking really can lead to movement-building. 

 

 

 

But what are the solutions?

I hear so many women saying they felt alienated...and I really hate to hear that, because it seems like WAM tries to be inclusive. But what are the solutions? What exactly was it that made you (and others) feel alienated? It sounds to me - and please don't take this the wrong way - that most of the critiques tend to be of the "there just weren't enough people like me there" variety. A valid point. But why? Is it because the WAM organizers are doing something wrong? Not doing something right? Those who felt alienated need to come forward with solutions or suggestions; expecting the organizers to psychically mold an etherial "vibe" is asking a little much, don't you think?
As for critiques of the "networky" aspect of the conference - *every* social change movement needs networking or it dies. Period. Without contacts and allies in *all* society's arenas (both inside *and* outside the capitalist framework) we're setting ourselves up for extinction. I'm all about criticizing and working to change the exploitative capitalist system we're all in. I'm also all about finding a job that both pays the bills and doesn't compromise my ethics. This absolutely can't be done without some sort of networking - at least not until we all live in the utopia we're trying to create.
I hope this post doesn't sound snarky or rude - I'm just offering a critique of the critique, as it were! :)

You don't sound snarky

You don't sound snarky or rude, and I appreciate your critique and questions. You're right that it's not just up to the conference organizers – it's also up to those of us who want to see change. But keep in mind that there's opposition to some suggestions that have been made (e.g., changing the title to something more inclusive than "Women"). It'll take me more time, thought, and much more discussion to know what solutions should look like, but I'll try to clarify/answer your questions.

I suppose it's fair to frame my sense of alienation as me saying, "there aren't enough people like me," but only insofar as what that means is that my sense of alienation comes from being in a space with so many people who consider themselves feminists but who don't seem to include an analysis/critique of power and privilege in their version of feminism – regardless of what they're doing to pay the bills. I'm not talking about folks who are new to feminist ideas, who are coming to the conference to learn more about feminism. I'm talking about people who've been involved in feminism long enough and deeply enough to understand these issues, people who have a responsibility to be making these connections.

I would deepen the statement that "every social change movement needs networking or else it dies" to "every social change movement *needs a critique of the economic structure we live in or else it dies*." Worse, it destroys. That doesn't mean I think people should sacrifice their own wellbeing, refuse to take jobs that aren't fully aligned with their politics (frankly, if I were saying that I wouldn't be working at Bitch; I identify with anarchist politics, and Bitch is not anarchist*). I realize we're all forced to make compromises to varying degrees. What I mean is that it's important, for instance, for the folks working within mainstream structures, or within reform structures to support and connect to the media justice and independent media producers.

As I've said, I think WAM organizers are trying hard to live up to their responsibility. And I'm genuinely amazed and inspired by what they pulled off. They're a tiny staff with a tiny budget doing the work of dozens. And I very much believe that their efforts to improve things are genuine. I don't think I've ever seen organizers so eager and willing to receive feedback, even (maybe especially) critical feedback. That says a lot.

And you're absolutely right that the conference organizers can't mold a vibe, but they can set the mission statement and values. I know there's only so much they can do; a lot of it rests on those of us attending and who see these problems. But for folks who already feel marginalized, fighting the create a more welcoming space might feel like too much work, and though I hope they won't throw in the towel, I wouldn't fault them if they did.

Anyway, I realize here I'm not addressing specific solutions. Here are some ideas, but I'm still thinking about a lot of this, and hoping all of these discussions will yield more:

1 – Consider having a keynote talk by someone who can explicitly speak to idea of feminism as a movement (and/or consider *not* having a keynote talk by someone who will espouse the values of white, mainstream, liberal feminism)
2 – Find ways for folks of different approaches to come together and talk, learn from each other, share, strategize (media reform folks, media justice folks, media creators, etc.)
3 – Evaluate/reevaluate the name and mission of the conference and explicitly state what it's for, what the values are, what the objectives are
4 – Consider bringing these contentious debates into the conference so people can have face-to-face conversations
5 – Consider having certain sessions/tracks stand-alone tracks so everyone can attend
6 – Consider highlighting organizations doing work in the margins in conference programs

This is only a start. I'll keep thinking, I promise.

* Nor do I think it should be!