Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities

Mar 3, 2012 | 9:00am
Scholar and Feminist Conference
Barnard Hall Lobby

Scholar and Feminist Conference 2012 image


General Information

This spring’s Scholar and Feminist Conference, “Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities,” will explore the concept of vulnerability as a fundamental and universal characteristic of the human condition. We are vulnerable on many different levels—from our own embodiment; to our place within a community; to the privileges we may lack as a result of our gender, race, or class. Scholars and activists alike have explored the way in which an understanding of these common vulnerabilities has the potential to transform our kinship structures, communities, and institutions into ones that recognize the importance of human interdependency. The conference will provide a space for thinking about how to incorporate a vision of shared vulnerability into social and political discussions, bringing together academics, activists and professionals working among especially vulnerable populations—prisoners, communities affected by environmental degradation, and so on—as well as activists who leverage vulnerability as an critical and effective organizing tool. The conference will feature a plenary panel on the emerging field of vulnerability studies, as well as an afternoon artist’s talk by feminist performance artist Coco Fusco. Lunchtime workshops will center around topics including prisions and capital punishment; immigration; environmental justice; and the politics of care.

Plenary Panel: Theorizing Vulnerability Studies

  • Colin Dayan, Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University
  • Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor at Emory Law School, founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project, and co-director of Emory’s Race and Difference Initiative
  • Ilaria Vanni, Head of the Cultural Studies Group at the University of Technology, Sydney
  • Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Julian Park Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Buffalo

Lunchtime Workshops

  • Prisons and Capital Punishment (with Cathleen Price and Shari Silberstein)
  • Immigration (with Sunita Patel and Rachel Tiven)
  • Environmental Justice (with Tanya Fields, Rachel Sapery James, and Elizabeth C. Yeampierre)
  • The Politics of Care (with Ai-jen Poo, Miliann Kang, and Ynestra King)

Keynote Speaker: Coco Fusco, New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer and Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design.

The image for this year’s Scholar and Feminist Conference, “Vulnerability: The Human and Humanities,” comes to us from the Italian activist San Precario Movement, named for the invented “Saint Precarious,” the patron saint of precarious workers and people. The image adapts the figure of Vaishno Devi, a multiform of the Hindu goddess Durga. The traditional objects held by the goddess in iconography that represents her have been replaced in the San Precario adaptation of the figure by symbols representing the aspects of human social existence that the movement seeks to support: education, health care, housing, transportation, work, environmental security, freedom of movement, and privacy.


Saturday, March 3

9-10 AM

Barnard Hall Lobby

10 – 10:30 AM
Opening Remarks

Elizabeth Castelli, Acting Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women
James Room, 4th Floor Barnard Hall

10:30 AM – 12:30 PM
Plenary Panel


James Room, 4th Floor Barnard Hall
How does a shift from focusing on the “autonomous and independent subject” to a framework of shared vulnerability transform intellectual, legal, and activist terrains? This interdisciplinary panel will explore how our ideas of personhood, the state, politics, organizing, religion, consciousness, arts, and ethics change when vulnerability becomes the lens through which we examine them, focusing particularly on relationships of interdependence and structural inequality.
Panelists: Colin Dayan, Martha Albertson Fineman, Ilaria Vanni, and Ewa Plonowska Ziarek
Moderator/Respondent: Jennie Kassanoff

12:45 – 2:15 PM
Concurrent Lunchtime Workshops

A. Prisons and Capital Punishment

Prisoners are often subject to extreme vulnerability—through loss of access to rights granted others, by being placed in harsh and invasive conditions, and in facing the possibility of state-sanctioned violence. This workshop will seek to uncover the challenges and strategies involved in working on prisons and capital punishment along with the broader implications of a vulnerability approach for systems of justice.
Leader: Cathleen Price, Equal Justice Initiative; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA

B. Immigration

The Obama Administration’s new “secure communities” program suggests that without extensive surveillance, immigrants can render their communities vulnerable. Meanwhile, the question of one’s potential vulnerability in their country of origin remains a key determinant in qualifying for asylum in the U.S. This workshop will investigate who evaluates vulnerability and what part such judgments play in this country’s immigration system.
Leaders: Sunita Patel, Center for Constitutional Rights; Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality

C. Environmental Justice

There are increasing indications of worldwide environmental instability, but the consequences of this vulnerability are not equally distributed across the globe. In this workshop, panelists will discuss their work dealing with the impact of environmental degradation and creating opportunities for community empowerment and justice.
Leaders: Tanya Fields, The BLK ProjeK; Rachel Sapery James, marine biologist; Elizabeth C. Yeampierre, United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park

D. Politics of Care

Care work, whether paid or unpaid, highlights our needs and vulnerabilities throughout the life cycle, and points to the value of human interdependence. Panelists in this workshop will explore the intersections of family, intimacy, health and labor through a range of lenses, including domestic work, beauty services, and disability.
Leaders: Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Miliann Kang, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Ynestra King, Feminist author and activist

2:30 – 4:30 PM
Artist’s Talk


James Room, 4th Floor Barnard Hall
The Empty Plaza/La Plaza Vacia is a new video work around the power of public space, memory, and resistance. Following the screening, Fusco will discuss the project and look into the precarity of government, dissent and collective action.

4:30 PM
Closing Remarks



COLIN DAYAN is the Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of A Rainbow for the Christian West: Introducing Rene Depestre’s Poetry (1977); Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987); and Haiti, History, and the Gods (1995, 1998). Her recent books include The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007) and The Law is a White Dog (2011).

TANYA FIELDS is the Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK, which she founded in 2009. Tanya used her experiences as an underserved, low income woman and mother to inform and enrich the work of several high profile local environmental organizations such Mothers on the Move, Sustainable South Bronx and Majora Carter Group. The BLK ProjeK seeks to create economic development opportunities that address food justice, environmental justice and public and mental health issues. By empowering underserved women of color through political education, beautification of community spaces, urban farming and holistic health programming, by creating equal access to these enriching experiences, we strengthen our entire society. She holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science with a concentration in Black and Hispanic Studies from Baruch College. The BLK ProjeK is nominated for a 2011 Union Square Award and are opening a year long community led farmers market in the Bronx.

MARTHA ALBERTSON FINEMAN is a Robert W. Woodruff Professor at Emory Law School. An internationally recognized law and society scholar, she is a leading authority on family law and feminist jurisprudence. Professor Fineman is founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project, which was inaugurated in 1984, and also serves as the founding director of Emory’s Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary theme of the Laney Graduate School. Her scholarly interests are the legal regulation of family and intimacy and the legal implications of universal dependency and vulnerability.

COCO FUSCO is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer. She has performed, lectured, exhibited and curated around the world since 1988. She is a recipient of a 2003 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Fusco’s performances and videos have been included in two Whitney Biennials as well as others in Sydney, Johannesburg, Kwanju, Shanghai and the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre. Her work has also been shown at The Museum of Modern Art, The Tate Liverpool and Le Palais de Tokyo in Paris. She is the author of English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (1995), The Bodies that Were Not Ours and Other Writings (2001), and A Field Guide for Female Interrogators (2008). She is also the editor of Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (1999) and Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (2003). She received her Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture from Middlesex University, her M.A. in Modern Thought at Literature from Stanford University, and her B.A. in Semiotics at Brown University. She is currently Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design. Fusco is represented by Alexander Gray Associates in New York.

RACHEL SAPERY JAMES is a passionate marine, environmental, human rights & women’s advocate with a Master of International Studies of Aquatic Tropical Ecology and Conservation. She strives to raise public awareness and education on the importance of conservation, protection and restoration. Rachel holds the position of Social and Environmental Management Systems Officer and Go Green Ambassador for Bank South Pacific, where her work covers Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. She has been Miss Papua New Guinea/ Miss Humanitarian PNG since 2010 and lives in Port Moresby.

MILIANN KANG is associate professor in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is also affiliated faculty in Sociology and Asian/Asian American Studies. Her book, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work (2010, University of California Press) addresses gendered processes and relations in immigrant women’s work focusing on Asian-owned nail salons. It received the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award (American Sociological Association Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities), the Distinguished Book Award (American Sociological Association Section on Sex and Gender), the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award (American Sociological Association Section on Race, Gender, and Class) and the Sara Whaley book prize from the National Women’s Studies Association. Kang is currently researching work-family issues for Asian American women, and the racial politics of mothering. Her research has been supported by the American Association of University Women, the Ford Foundation, the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, the Labor Relations and Research Center at UMass Amherst and the Social Science Research Council.

JENNIE A. KASSANOFF is an Associate Professor of English at Barnard College. She teaches courses in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and culture, including “American Literature, 1871-1945,” “American Fiction,” “Cultural Approaches to the American Past,” and “Sense and Disability.” In addition to her teaching duties for the Department of English, she directs the American Studies Program at Barnard and is a founding member of the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies (CCIS). Her research focuses on post-Civil War American culture. She is currently at work on a book about voting, race and gender in American culture, the working title of which is Pregnant Chad: Gendering the Ballot. She is the author of Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race (Cambridge UP, 1994), and her essays have appeared in various books and journals, including PMLA and Arizona Quarterly.

YNESTRA KING is a feminist teacher, writer and oral historian. Her current work is on disability narratives and body politics, focusing particularly on women and disability. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts and Columbia University, and she has taught at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University and the Institute for Social Ecology. She is also at work on a memoir tentatively entitled Falling.

SUNITA PATEL is currently a Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where she litigates racial profiling, immigrant justice, and other human rights issues. She is counsel for NDLON v. ICE, a FOIA lawsuit seeking records related to the illusive “Secure Communities” program of the Immigration Customs Enforcement agency; Floyd v. City of New York, a federal civil rights class action lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices and Turkmen v. Ashcroft, the class action suit on behalf of Arab and Muslim men rounded up in immigration sweeps after 9/11. Prior to her position at CCR, Sunita held a Soros Justice Fellowship at The Legal Aid Society in New York where she represented immigrant detainees in removal proceedings and worked with criminal justice and human rights groups to create independent community oversight. Sunita is a former law clerk for the Honorable Judge Ivan L. R. Lemelle in the Eastern District of Louisiana. She published an article in 2006 entitled “Performative Aspects of Race: ‘Arab, Muslim, and South Asian’ Racial Formation After September 11” in the UCLA Asian Pacific American Law Journal. Prior to law school, Sunita investigated conditions of confinement in Alabama and Georgia juvenile detention centers, prisons, and jails as a paralegal at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

AI-JEN POO, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996. In 2000 she helped start Domestic Workers United, the New York based organization that spearheaded the successful passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. In 2007, DWU helped organize the first national domestic workers convening, out of which the National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed. Ai-jen serves on the Board of Directors of Momsrising, National Jobs with Justice, Working America and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Among Ai-jen’s numerous awards are the Ms. Foundation Woman of Vision Award and the Independent Sector American Express NGen Leadership Award.

CATHLEEN PRICE is a 1992 graduate of Columbia College who presently practices law. She works on behalf of death-sentenced prisoners, offenders subject to excessively harsh punishments, and communities marginalized by poverty and chronic discrimination. She is a 1996 graduate of Harvard Law School, which in 2004 awarded her its Gary Bellow Public Service Award.

SHARI SILBERSTEIN is the Executive Director of Equal Justice USA, a nationally recognized leader in the movement to end the death penalty. Since joining the staff of Equal Justice USA in September 2000, Shari has provided hands-on technical assistance, capacity building, strategic planning, training, and campaign coordination to more than two dozen state organizations working for death penalty repeal. She played a leading role in the first two state campaigns that ended the death penalty in the modern era—New York in 2005 and New Jersey in 2007—developing strategies that have since become the norm across the movement. In 2008, she led a transition process to separate EJUSA from its former parent organization, the Quixote Center, and launch as an independent organization. Under her leadership, EJUSA has grown tenfold since 2004. Prior to joining the staff of Equal Justice USA, Shari worked as the Programs Director for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), and has volunteered for numerous other organizations. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, Television, and Radio from New York University and a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She is also a former filmmaker, a swing dancer, and plays the electric bass.

RACHEL B. TIVEN is the executive director of Immigration Equality and Immigration Equality Action Fund, national organizations fighting for equal rights for LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants and their families. Under Rachel’s leadership, Immigration Equality has more than tripled in size, quadrupled client services, and opened a policy office in Washington, D.C. The organization serves more than 3,000 LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants each year, and has won asylum for nearly 500 people. Immigration Equality Action Fund has also made LGBT families a core part of the immigration reform conversation, led the Uniting American Families Act to broad support in Congress and built robust Faith and Business Coalitions in support of the legislation. Nancy Pelosi, who has worked with Immigration Equality, said she was “very proud” of the organization’s work and was “honored to be associated with them.” Rachel began her career as a reporter and television producer for Bloomberg Business News, and later joined Lambda Legal’s media team. She graduated from Harvard University and Columbia Law School, and served as a law clerk to the Honorable Barbara S. Jones in the Southern District of New York. Rachel and her partner are raising three children in New York City.

ILARIA VANNI studied Art History at the University of Siena in Italy and was awarded a PhD in Art Theory by the University of New South Wales, Australia. She currently works at the University of Technology, Sydney, where she is the Head of the Cultural Studies Academic Group and Senior Lecturer in International Studies. Her research interests are in the areas of Visual Cultures, Multimedia Practices and Activism; Cultural Practices, Migration and Transculturation; Political Imaginaries; Objects, Theories and Histories. Her research projects include a study on activist practices in Italy, with a particular focus on precarity and a research on new media arts production in Western Sydney, Australia.

ELIZABETH C. YEAMPIERRE is the Executive Director of United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE), an environmental justice and social justice community based organization located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She is a Puerto Rican civil rights attorney of African and Indigenous ancestry born and raised in New York City. Her vision for an inter-generational, multi-cultural and community-led organization is the driving force behind UPROSE; she is a long-time advocate and trailblazer for community organizing around sustainable development in Sunset Park and holds a law degree from Northeastern University along with a Certificate of Non-Profit Management from Columbia University. Elizabeth serves on Mayor Bloomberg’s Sustainability and Long Term Planning Advisory Board, and served as a Commissioner on the historic NYS Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission. Elizabeth is the first Latina chair of the US EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council where she initiated the inclusion of a youth forum dedicated to developing youth leadership dedicated to environmental justice.

EWA PLONOWSKA ZIAREK is Julian Park Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Buffalo. Her teaching interests include feminist theory, modernism, ethics, and critical theory. She has published several books, including Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (forthcoming from Columbia 2012) and An Ethics of Dissensus: Feminism, Postmodernity, and the Politics of Radical Democracy (Stanford 2001) as well as numerous articles on Kristeva, Irigaray, Agamben, Foucault, Levinas, Fanon and literary modernism.


BCRW will be live-tweeting the conference from @bcrwtweets. Use the hashtag #sfconf to join the conversation or follow along.

Call for Responses

Ideally, a conference is both the culmination of various strands of research and action and the beginning of a richer, interconnected conversation. For this year’s Scholar and Feminist conference, we would like to encourage the development of such a conversation by soliciting short papers which respond to conference themes. We will select several of these to be posted to our website and social networks, hopefully inciting further discussion.

What These papers should be no more than 700 words and written in the format of a semi-formal blog post or short magazine article. They should respond to a particular theme or topic within the conference, such as the relationship between vulnerability and the state, the use of precarity in social movements, the politics of care, etc.

Who We welcome submisisons from scholars, activists and writers who will attend the March 3rd conference. We hope to solicit another set of responses once the material is posted online.

Why BCRW is committed to exploring diverse methods of knowledge production, scholarship and collaboration. We hope that this model will further engagement with the material and concepts presented at the conference.

When Send your submission to no later than March 23, 2012.

More from this event:

The Barnard Center for Research on Women engages our communities through programming, projects, and publications that advance intersectional social justice feminist analyses and generate concrete steps toward social transformation.

© 2017 Barnard Center for Research on Women | 101 Barnard Hall | 3009 Broadway | New York, NY 10027