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10th Annual Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies conference fosters dialogue, learning

Students, Professors and speakers from the WGS conference
Celebrating the successful conference are (from left to right) Megan Wilensky ’20, Kenai Class ’18, Professor Jennifer Nelson, keynote speaker activist Loretta Ross, Chelsea Fomin ’18, and Professor Kimberly Welch. (Photo by William Dahlin ’18).

On March 22 and 23, the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) Department hosted the 10th Annual WGS Studies Student Conference. As one of the organizers of the event, I not only found the proceedings inspiring, I learned a lot from the process of putting the event together.

Students Kenai Class ’18, Megan Wilensky ’20, and I, with the help of WGS Department Coordinator Denise Spencer and WGS Interim Director Kimberly Welch, started planning the conference months ago, all the way back at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

Our first task was to come up with a theme to guide those submitting artwork for the event. We settled on “Nonetheless They Persisted,” inspired by this year’s Women’s History Month theme “Nevertheless She Persisted.” We decided to change the “she” to “they” to emphasize the gender-inclusiveness nature of the conference.

“Female Flame” by Kenna Heller ’18 won the Best Art Poster contest.

Next, we began to advertise for art and paper submissions by making posters and visiting classrooms. And we received more art submissions than ever before! As organizers, this was a mixed blessing, as we struggled to pick just one poster among the impressive submissions. We finally settled on “Female Flame” by Kenna Heller ’18, but ended up showcasing all of the art submissions during the conference as a recognition of their outstanding quality.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of WGS and busy schedules of the participants, the most daunting organizing challenge was grouping paper submissions together on panels and finding faculty willing to moderate and comment. However, we managed to arrange the panels and confirm participation, and, when the conference arrived on March 22, we were ready!

The conference opened with the keynote address event. After Johnston alumna Maggie Ruopp ’16 performed a stand-up comedy routine to warm up the crowd, Loretta Ross, a reproductive justice activist, addressed the issue of white supremacy in the age of Trump. Ross defined white supremacy as a body of ideas that include racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and she urged dismantling it with a human rights framework in which Americans refuse to let people to go hungry in the richest country in the world.

The conference continued the following day, providing students from departments across campus an opportunity to present papers and engage in discussions relating to topics including mastectomies, trans culture, feminist theory, and reproductive politics. To facilitate community involvement, community organizations including the Open Door, the American Association of University Women, and San Bernardino Sexual Assault Services were present.

For me, the conference highlight was the last panel, which included Johnston and College of Arts and Sciences students in the WGS Senior Seminar presenting their research capstones. Students spoke on a range of topics—identity, sex education, Hindu menstruation practices, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and rape crisis centers.

Overall, I believe the conference met its goal of giving a platform to students to talk about issues surrounding women, gender, and sexuality, and I hope I did my part to sustain the conference tradition in the years to come by teaching younger WGS majors and minors how to organize.