Fourth annual Women of Color Conference fosters dialogue

Photo by Dana Pan '20

Photo by Dana Pan '20

BY SHELL LIN '17

The Women of Color Conference took place at Mount Holyoke College for its fourth year on April 1, gathering more than 100 students from marginalized communities in the Five Colleges and beyond to create an open dialogue about racial and gender-related issues, and promote social justice on a college level.

The one-day event spanned from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and was spread across campus and workshops in Blanchard with its headquarters in Chapin and Skinner Hall. The event featured keynote speaker Staceyann Chin, a New York-based Jamaican poet, artist and activist: it also offered a business expo, networking session and workshops covering a variety of topics including sisterhood between women of color, political activism in today’s America and the healing power of spoken word poetry.

“We just had BOOM on Monday, so I feel like many students are energized about the conversation on diversity,” said Sarah Hwang ’17, a board member of the SOCC, “We were expecting a big turnout, but because of the snow, [many might not be able to come].” She glanced at the more than 30 name tags on the table, indicating people who were registered that hadn’t shown up.

However, the snow that continued from Friday did not stop many. At lunchtime, two rows of long tables in Chapin were almost full. Attendees were dressed in full suits and chatting over fried plantains and chicken enchiladas provided by El Comalito of Amherst.

Quanita “Q” Hailey FP ’14, founder of this conference, was walking around conversing comfortably among the attendees. Three years ago, when Hailey was a senior religion major, Mount Holyoke held the first conference.

“In 2014, 104 people registered, 52 showed up. It wasn’t bad for the first one,” Hailey remembered. Now, co-sponsored by student organizations, academic departments and cultural centers, the conference has integrated current students, faculty, staff and alumnae in the events. “It’s amazing to see its growth each year, to see the students’ involvement and also to see it [attracting] students from outside,” Hailey said, referring to students who came to the conference from New York.

In the course of four years, the conference has seen an expansion both in the range of topics discussed and amount of students and organizations involved. This year, there is a newly added element — a business expo. “Here we don’t deal with the business aspect a lot. It’s nice to watch how Dean Denson and the Students of Color Committee have added to the vision I had,” Hailey said.

For Hailey, the biggest difficulty now is to create a scholarship fund of $100,000 which will be used as tuition for marginalized female students of color. “I think the school does a great job [in supporting its students]. There are a lot of things we can do on our own, always,” Hailey added, “I gave myself a 10-year time limit. We are at year four now, so I have another six years to go."

Currently a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Hailey still comes back to Mount Holyoke for the conference each year. “This is MoHome!” Hailey said. “You never lose your love for Mount Holyoke ... I’m thankful that Mount Holyoke has kept my vision alive. I’m looking forward to [seeing] in the next 10 years.”

Amy Sanchez ’17, one of the more than 20 volunteers for the event, was also at the lunch table. Sanchez, who is close to many members on the SOCC board, came to help with serving food and ushering participants.

“I think [the conference] really tries to bring together the community of color at Mount Holyoke, and they also bring in people from outside,” Sanchez said. When comparing it with BOOM, the school-hosted conference focusing on diversity last Monday, she commented, “I enjoy this 100 percent more. Even though it’s student-run, I feel the students have put a lot of dedication [into] picking specific workshops that aim at the topic. There is more intimacy.”

Volunteering enabled Sanchez to attend the events free. The admittance fee for entry was $10 for Five College students, staff and faculty. However, it was difficult for her to choose between Self- Care and Self-Love and Navigating the Working World as Queer Women of Color, which were among the seven workshops squeezed into the 1:15-2:15 time frame. “They have way too many good workshops in one section. This is too hard to choose from,” Hailey said.
The Asian American Activism and the Myth of the Model Minority in Blanchard 227 was one of the workshops during this session. A dozen students were listening while Jai Pemmaraju ’20 of Asian American Sisters in Action presented the history of Asian American activism in the US.

After Pemmaraju’s talk, the room discussed how stereotypes of Asians hinder their personal development, bringing up the difficulties of forming a political coalition across different Asian cultures, career limitations to Asian citizens and psychological burdens to Asian children growing up in the U.S.

Bringing the conversation back to campus issues, the group also discussed ways to better use the cultural houses and expand the multicultural perspectives graduation requirement.

Angela Hernandez, an active participant in the Asian American focused workshops is a Latinx student from Amherst College. “One of the ideas that I live by is Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ So I don’t think my Latina identity should prevent me from being an ally to other groups,” she said, “Even though I’m not Asian, I want to learn more.”

“At Amherst College, there are lots of conferences that focus on leadership, business or policy, but it hasn’t been set out to support women of color,” Hernandez said, “I think it’s great to have a space to talk about how being a woman of color affects policy and business and leadership, because we are not all the same. It’s inspiring for me to see so many women of color at once in one room, not being afraid to say ‘I’m oppressed’ and ‘I’m radical about my oppression’ without censoring themselves.”

Hernandez advocates for more promotion of the conference among the Five Colleges, since many people at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Amherst College and Hampshire College might not know about it. She also hopes that more women show up for this event. “It’s hard. A friend was gonna come with me but she still had work,” Hernandez said, “Women of color are always [occupied] with work and they are struggling, you know.”

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