Club tackles harassment with poetry
By Geoffrey Billeter
Room 102 glowed with a warmth atypical of the space just off the lobby during the Women’s Empowerment club’s event.
When Barbara Smith took the stage, she showed no nerves. There was a halo of light shining from lights wrapped around the mic.
“When [women] wear [an] outfit that is appealing, some men think ‘Oh, because she’s dressed nicely, she’s dressed nicely for me’ instead of thinking ‘Oh, she’s dressed nicely for herself,’” Smith said about the speech she gave at the event “Elevated by Nurture.”
Smith spoke from experience, saying later that the only part of her piece that was a performance was the outfit: a fitted top, short skirt, and matching black heels.
The energetic and personal poetry of “Elevated by Nurture” put a spotlight on the unfair standards, lack of respect, and sexism women face. The advocacy of the Women’s Empowerment might shape HWC into a community that meets these issues with solutions. At least, that’s the what the group’s founders hope for.
Junee Kim thought of making the club during her first semester at Harold Washington when she noticed that none of her five professors were female. She approached Tondalaya Smith, and the two decided to start the intersectional feminist group--something that was absent from the school at the time.
“With things like #MeToo and all of the sexual assault and harassment allegations going on, not just in Hollywood, but within the government, [there’s the understanding] that it’s not something that’s happened recently,” Smith said. “So having the conversation about it now is a good thing.”
Women’s Empowerment club strives to facilitate conversation about building an intersectional feminist community on campus. It meets every Thursday.
“This semester we’ve focused on reproductive rights, women in the workplace, sexual violence and dating abuse,” said Kim. “I think those are all things that women of the HW community go through. For example, it’s hard for undocumented students to get affordable birth control, so that’s an issue that directly affects us.”
Men make up a healthy number of members in Women’s Empowerment, Kim and Smith said. The male presence prompted discussions about what men can do to support women at Harold Washington and in their communities. While Kim and Smith describe the group as feminist, neither see that dissuading anyone from joining the conversation.
“We look at different identities and how they relate to each other and the female identity,” she said, adding that, in respect to what men can do, questioning the behavior you see in other men is the place to start.
“What are some things that you observe [and] would like to change, and how can you change that?” said Smith.
Although the group has been meeting for only one semester, it is possible to see Women’s Empowerment becoming a great resource for Harold Washington’s female students.
Harold Washington is over half female, according to school’s headcount enrollment of 58 percent for female-identified students for the 2016 fiscal year.
Women’s Empowerment is seen by its members as a vital outlet for navigating a world that’s often hostile towards women.
Women’s Empowerment does have a supportive element, but the group is “much more than [a support group],” Kim said.
In their November evening meeting, a group of around 35 were seated amongst the several round tables or talking by the provided refreshments before the event began. Artists like Janelle Monae, Amy Winehouse and Beyoncé played throughout the night and between performances.
At the event, poets shared female-centered pieces on body image, domesticity and blackness. The evening also benefited incarcerated women through a book drive.
Elevated by Nurture featured a wide array of performers; poets whose work came alive in the room as a personal account of societal expectations, some read their poems off phones with a sure-voiced rhythm, one speaker performed her poem about motherhood entirely in Spanish and was met with raucous applause and cheers from the audience.
Barbara Smith did not bring notes with her up to the stage. But to say she was unprepared would be untrue. She spoke with conviction and authenticity.
“I was in the process of writing something but I felt like reading it off the paper wouldn’t be good enough for my standards, so I thought I’ll just do it during the open mic,” Smith said.
While unsure about being labeled “feminist,” Smith felt it was important to speak at the open mic not only to relay her struggles for the benefit of others, but also for personal growth.
Smith recounted her experience growing up in a black household.
“[That] impacts my experience as a woman mentally, and emotionally,” Smith said, “because usually black women are raised to be strong and not rely on men, and specifically, my household was of all women. So that’s the mentality that I grew up with.”
In the black community, women being taught to not rely on anyone else, makes it difficult for them to accept help from others or open up to people, Smith said. That kind of emotional pressure was a topic for other speakers as well.
One student performed a rap from the perspective of a woman he saw on the bus who seemed weary from single-handedly looking after the children who accompanied her.
Smith has not been harassed with catcalls or derogatory terms on campus, she said, but there was an incident where she was admonished for not smiling.
“Why don’t you smile?” Smith recalled the person saying. Smith responded that she did not feel like smiling.
This exchange was reminiscent Smith’s point about the outfit she wore during Elevated by Nurture. Women face scrutiny not only of their clothing and bodies, but also their perceived attitude, she said.
There is the idea that for the culture to change, everyone has to get in on the conversation.
“I would love to see administration attend our meetings and join the conversation, that would be pretty cool,” said Tondalaya Smith, adding that some faculty had already attended the weekly meetings.
The co-presidents and Smith represented similarities in what advocacy for women looks like: Educate yourself, listen, and believe women when they speak.