BCRW’s Scholar & Feminist conference on Utopia featured a workshop with the activist and writer Reina Gossett, contributor to Captive Genders: Trans Embodiement & The Prison Industrial Complex whose work at New York’s Sylvia Rivera Law Project centers on providing services to low-income queer and transgender people. If the packed-to-the-brim classroom was any indication of the pertinence of the issue at hand, the workshop on Prison Abolition attempted to cover both issues and solutions to incarceration in the United States today. As it currently stands, the U.S. incarcerates more people than another other nation in the world. With the criminalization of poverty, police brutality, and spiking stop-and-frisk rates in neighborhoods just outside Morningside Heights, where Barnard is located, the incarcerated population is only continuing to grow.
As an activist, Reina is unafraid of proclaiming her conviction that prisons should be abolished. After a few group activities in which workshop participants identified what made them feel safe and what principles officials use when enforcing the law and punishing people, Reina directed our attention to a video featuring Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. From there, the discussion focused on specific problems that transgender and queer people face in prison.
BCRW’s 2013 Scholar and Feminist Conference on “Utopia” created a space for its attendees to take our desires seriously and to imagine better outcomes. A broad array of topics were covered, from poverty, to media and pop culture, to food justice. I attended the workshop on the latter, entitled “Beyond Food Fights: Re-Imagining Food Justice,” facilitated by Pamela Phillips and Gwen Beetham. Earlier that day I had attended the prison abolition workshop and my mind was already swimming in ideas about what a prison-free world would look like. In the Prison Abolition workshop, facilitator Reina Gosset contextualized the prison industrial complex within a larger framework of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, pointing out how interrelated forms of oppression often are.
Food justice is no different. Our food systems are embedded within a capitalist “corporatocracy,” as one workshop attendee phrased it. Although food production and distribution happens on such a large scale, food remains extremely personal, a source of pleasure and nourishment to the bodies who consume it. Thus, the fight for food justice is one for self and community care in the face of political and economic institutions driven by capitalism.
Although solutions were an important part of the discussion we had (it was a conference on utopia, after all), we spent a good part of the workshop just unpacking what the various problems are that obstruct food justice. From the rights of laborers who grow the food all the way to the nutrition of food going into people’s mouths, we touched on almost every aspect of the food industry that needs changing. Gwen discussed how our taxes subsidize the production of corn, wheat, soy and rice, grains which flood our diets, while more nutritious vegetables are referred to as “specialty crops” and remain more expensive and difficult to access.
For those of us who identify as feminists, being a consumer of mass media – whether willingly or not – is an often painful, infuriating, and downright exhausting experience. The limited and limiting images of women can make a trip to the movies or a simple ride on the subway into a cause for distress. Through our studies, work, and activism, many of us have learned to be critical of these images, to deconstruct them in order to understand the assumptions and messages behind them. While this critical process can be empowering, it can also feel inadequate. A necessary step, but one that does not stem the continuous onslaught of negative images. A deconstruction without constructing something new in its place.
So how can we as feminists move beyond criticism and actively talk back to mass media and culture? How can we negotiate between being critics of pop culture and fans of it? And how, ultimately, do we transform critical consciousness into creative practice?
This is where feminist remix comes in. Feminist remix is the art and practice of taking what already exists in mass culture and reworking it into something new, something that better reflects feminist values. Media is the material; editing techniques, creativity, and a critical eye are the tools.
Think, for example, of seeing Mad Men focus exclusively on its female characters. Or of watching a queer Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.
That is the work of Elisa Kreisinger, feminist video remix artist, self-proclaimed pop culture pirate, and workshop leader at this year’s Utopia conference. Kreisinger and her co-facilitator, Francesca Coppa, spoke of the power of feminist remix to redefine dominant narratives of women in our own terms. Their workshop, Talking Back to Culture through Feminist Remix, encouraged feminists to appropriate and remake the very media that makes it difficult to fully enjoy a television show or take that subway ride.
The workshop “Another World is Possible: Creating Communities that Reinvent Ourselves as we Reinvent the World,” at The Scholar & Feminist 2013: Utopia, offered incredible insight into the process of creating a community based on ideas of equality and respect for diversity. Building utopia requires a complete transformation of the existing notions in society. The ultimate utopia for feminists is based on complete and irrevocable equality between the genders, races, classes, abilities and more. Already, several small communities all across the world are experimenting with creating a new kind of world. The Common Fire Foundation is one of the pioneers in intentional cooperative housing that attempts to provide a safe space for people where their multiple identities can fully engage with each other in the community environment. Common Fire aims to “support cultural transformation by helping create intentional communities where people are committed to leading lives that are joyful, just, and sustainable, from the ground up and the inside out, and to their communities being catalysts for change in the broader society.” The organization is founded on “The Four Essential Characteristics” which focus on: personal growth, engaging diversity, believing the mission statement, and connecting the community to the world.
The workshop not only informed the participants about how communities such as those supported by Common Fire are built, but also engaged the audience around the conflicts that arise from building a community that in essence opposes the status quo. Co-founder Kavitha Rao extensively spoke about the process of setting up the community in New York. The founding members of the Common Fire community started off as strangers who decided to live together, sharing both resources and beliefs. It took almost two years just to negotiate the mission of the organization and its function. Even though Common Fire works against classism, negotiating finances proved to be one of the toughest challenges of setting up the community. The Mission Statement, too, had to be reiterated regularly to ensure all members had a common goal. Despite these hurdles Common Fire expanded its communities across the Unites States and is paving the way for many more cooperative living structures like itself.
What do a quilt, a scarf, and a vision of a feminist Utopia all have in common?
They are all at work changing the realities of our world. In the morning keynotes opening up this year’s 38th annual Scholar and Feminist conference “Utopia” we heard from several feminists at work changing the material realities of what is represented and who is seen and heard, using craft and critical design to challenge existing realities and create alternatives. Most striking was the extent to which our utopia needs be constructed; physically, in the objects we interact with, and perceptually, in the images we use to represent people and movements.
Activism Through Craft
Melanie Cervantes presented to the audience her philosophy of activism through craft, centered around “stitching lessons from stories and visions of women who shaped who we are.” A member of Dignidad Rebelde (rebel dignity) she spoke of the group’s founding motivation to push back against the idea of individualism that is dominant in US society and culture.
How? By reflecting solidarity with indigenous and international struggles through images that “agitate and inspire,” produced in her living room and reaching organizers and activists as far away as Bangkok. Reacting to day laborers’ inability to be the face of their own movement because of being “vilified” in the minds-eye of greater America, she makes images that re-incorporate and re-present the faces of those “on the frontline of a battle for dignity and human rights for all of us;” faces otherwise subsumed by a narrative over which they have no authorship.
Speaking to the theme of the conference, Cervantes said that to her, “working for a better world” means “working with other artists and movement leaders to lift up the women who don’t get to be put on a pedestal, whose names don’t get put in the history book, to understand how incredibly influential they will be… it is our responsibility to hold up those stories.”
This Utopia, she asserted, is built by connecting stitches and juxtaposing tapestries, and remembering every step of the way that “in many cultures there are roots within which we need to reach for because they have lessons for us.”
Melanie Cervantes and Elandria Williams, “Building Utopia: Stitching the Lessons from Stories and Visions of Women in Our Lives”