Nadine Swartz did not get what she expected this weekend at the Women’s Studies Graduate Organization conference.
When a Harlem-based modern dance company put on its performance titled “The Window Sex Project” to a small audience of graduate students, faculty and State College residents, Swartz (graduate-French) was surprised at how moving it was for her.
“Normally, when I think academic conference, I don’t think I’ll be tearing up multiple times, but I definitely did just now,” Swartz said. “It was so much more than I expected.”
This year’s 12th annual conference theme was “Speaking Up: A Feminist Practice” and was held at the Bank of America Career Services Building on Saturday. The conference also consisted of concurrent panels given by graduate students, a keynote address by a guest speaker and a spoken word performance by Ryan Vinson.
The evening dance performance aimed to tackle the practice of unsolicited verbal street harassment, Sydnie Mosley, of the Sydnie L. Mosley Dances company , said.
Although the dance is usually 60 minutes long, it was shortened to about 12 minutes for its Saturday performance. Mosley told the audience that the dance was still very unique to the conference’s theme of speaking up because it uses the body and voice to call attention to women and public space.
This year’s theme was chosen as a result of what has happened in the past year at Penn State, WSGO President Deniz Durmus , said. WSGO Treasurer Catherine Jampel said child abuse has been a big issue at Penn State recently, but she didn’t want the conference to be exclusively about that kind of abuse.
“Every year we choose a theme that is inclusive and open to interpretation, but also current,” Jampel (graduate-geography and women’s studies) said. “[This theme] was broad enough, so people from a variety of disciplines will find a place here and come together to speak.”
The conference also hosted a spoken word performance — which combines storytelling and poetry to speak one’s mind — by Ryan Vinson from Philadelphia. Vinson told his audience that spoken word is all about your own voice, and engaged it in writing and sharing activities with before giving his own spoken word performance to the crowd.
In the morning, three sessions of concurrent panels were held in various rooms of the Career Services building. Three to four speakers at each session gave presentations on a specific topic within the realm of speaking up in various aspects of life, which was tied to the theme of the conference.
One of the panels dealt with speaking up in novels, plays and comics. Another session focused on speaking up with technology, while others addressed speaking up in higher education about identity, privilege and power across nations and borders.
Sarah Barcousky, who works at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, said she enjoyed the panels she attended and the diversity of its presenters.
“There have been a lot of really dynamic speakers with a range of backgrounds,” Barcousky said. “It really makes me want to do my own research on these topics and learn more about them.”
Guest speaker Latoya Peterson , owner and editor of Racialicious blog , gave the keynote address. Peterson was originally going to give her address on “A Rebellious Reading of History,” however changed the topic the night before to “Deconstructing Silence: Silence as Violence.”
“I saw the theme [of the conference] and thought the rebellious reading of history was a lot of fun, but [WSGO] wanted something more on topic,” Peterson said. “Folks who come here are on more of the activist side and know the concepts and terms already, so [they] don’t need the history.”
Peterson opened the address by explaining there is a power to raising one’s voice, but rhetorically asked the audience why people need to speak up and what environment people need to speak up in.
“Speaking up is asserting your rightful place in the world,” Peterson said after her address.
She shared an original essay she wrote online about her own personal experience with sexual assault, and said she was most surprised by the amount of comments readers submitted about their own experiences, and that most of them had self-silenced themselves and their stories for so long.
Peterson said silence can be resistance and people should think about the ways silence is employed, what kind of culture there is around silence and how to flip that culture when necessary.
Jampel said the whole conference went better than she could have anticipated.
“We were able to put together a space for a bunch of talented people to come together,” Jampel said.
“Speaking up is such an important practice,” Durmus said, “and it’s the best time to start speaking up.”