Feminism In/Action: Detroit report back

detroit discussion

Thank you, TrumbullPlex folks, for opening up your space for Sunday's discussion. Thank you, Adele, Clara, and Jess for making the event happen here, and for getting the word out (and special thanks to Clara for the tour and history of the TrumbullPlex [a radical housing collective in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit]). And a huge thank you to everyone who attended.  I think between 20 and 25 people came. I felt honored to be in the presence of so many people committed to honesty, sincerity, openness, and creating a safe space to share what are sometimes difficult and differing perspectives.  

I've been churning over the discussion in my head since then. People have asked me to write something here, but I've been reluctant for a few reasons. Everyone has their own impression, including of what they thought went well, what they thought didn't go well, what the stand-out points were, etc. It also feels awkward because I'm not part of that community.  So before I go any further, I want to say that out of this discussion will emerge a podcast/radio project, driven by folks in Detroit but as part of our work here at Bitch.  We recorded the discussion, and follow-up discussions and interviews will be done by Detroit folks to explore what came up in further depth, and also explore the work being done in their communities.  The project will be done in time for the Allied Media Conference, and we're hoping to have the listening launch as part of a Detroit/Prometheus Radio Project already being done.      

I feel extremely regretful and embarrassed for not having the foresight to get everyone's contact info. I apologize for that. I'm doing my best to get word of this post around to the folks who attended, in hopes that they'll offer their own feedback. 


So I'll just say a bit here, and add more as other discussions take place... People came with very different experiences with – and relationships to – the idea of feminism.  Someone shared that he didn't know much about feminism, and came to the discussion wanting to learn what it was all about. A number of others shared that they have scars from feminism because they don't feel it speaks to their lives or experiences (as, for instance, people of color, people coming from poor backgrounds, people not having gone to college).  A few others proudly self-identified as feminists.  A number of others were conflicted, and preferred to use language like "human rights" or "women's empowerment" rather than "feminism." It was incredible to have folks with so many different perspectives in the same room. But of course it also made it difficult to find a starting place, and a focal point. And the fact that we only had two hours (and it took us pretty much an hour to introduce ourselves and briefly share our stories) added to the challenge of finding the most meaningful way to use the time. 

People I spoke with afterwards or since then (and I want to point out that this number is only about 15 of the 25-or-so people who were there) have said they thought it was a useful, productive first step in opening up the dialogue here. A number of people told me that for a city that's so multiracial, the (organized) feminism here is still very white- and middle-class- centric.  As I mentioned, further discussions will be organized around the issues that came up, and a discussion may take place specifically around Jess Hoffman's open letter to white feminists that was mentioned on the discussion announcement/flyer.  People also gave me useful suggestions for future discussions, like keeping the introductions shorter, nailing down more concrete questions, and facilitating more tightly. 

Part of the purpose of these discussions is to inform our work and upcoming visioning/organizational refounding process here at Bitch, and that's where I feel most appropriate speaking – drawing connections to our work. I wanted to start these discussions in Detroit because when we talk about feminism and issues of marginalization, I think it's important to consider which geographic areas themselves, broadly-speaking, are marginalized. And Detroit is in many ways a city on the margins. Sunday's discussion very much reinforced my own increasing resistance to the term "feminism," and made me question more deeply the message we're sending when we call our work feminist. From women feeling excluded because they don't feel it speaks to their experiences, to men feeling excluded from the very word itself, to people feeling the word is too intellectual, too college-centric, too devoid of feeling, I definitely left the day focused on the question of whether it's time to evolve to new language to define the work we do, and if so, what language. 

Obviously this project is just getting off the ground. There are no answers (yet), and there's much more work to be done, more discussions to take place. But I felt it was important to say something of substance. 


critical moment banner

Later that night, I attended a fundraiser for Critical Moment, a volunteer-based, collectively-run free newspaper/magazine dedicated to social justice politics and organizing in Southeast Michigan. It was a night of music, spoken word, and donated art, clothing, and cards for sale at the Cass Cafe.  They used to have two collectives, one in Ann Arbor and one in Detroit, but the Ann Arbor collective recently dissolved, and with it, much of the funding for the paper (because they used to get student org funds and money from local advertisers), so they're in even more need of
support (so please, if you live in Southeast Michigan, support them – donate, get involved, spread the word). 

Anyway, thd day/night brought to my mind one of my own scars from "feminism." When I lived in Madison a number of years ago, I was involved with a similar collectively-run, community newspaper called the Madison Insurgent. One day I approached the feminist bookstore in town to ask them to support our work by buying an ad. The person behind the register told me they couldn't financially support our work because we weren't "a feminist publication."  At first, I couldn't believe it.  How did this person not see the work we were doing – which was covering issues like labor rights, immigration, gentrification, war protests (perspectives that other local papers ignored) – as feminist? But upon further thought, I realized that it really wasn't that surprising at all.


(To end on a brighter note, isn't it amazing what you can make with a bed sheet, stencils, and paint? That's Adele there on the left!)     



by Debbie Rasmussen
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

sounds like an awesome

sounds like an awesome gathering. was any of it in accessible space? if so, fabulous! more of that please! and if not, was there any discussion about it?

Language Matters

Sometimes I want to just bypass all the talk and just get to the real work, but then I am reminded again and again how much language matters and is part of the work.

I spent a while working in the carpenter's union encountering women who had fought for equal footing with men on a day to day basis, but who had no problem being a mere "sister" in the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and (still) excluded from the name of our own organization.

Now as an instructor for a non-profit that helps women get into the construction trades, I meet a lot of women that are actively pursuing what I would call feminist ideals, but very few of whom identify as "feminist" because of what that word means or doesn't mean to them and this is painful to me. I have seen strength in a union around this particular word because of the amazing women that have historically adopted it. But all personal attachments aside, I suspect it is more painful to have felt long excluded from a word that only pretends to represent you.

Thinking about attempts to address the issue in the past here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Womanism (and why they never took).

my thoughts

I was involved with the first discussion that took place at Trumbull (by the way, to Romhom and others, yes the Trumbull Plex [where the discussion took place] is a physically accessible space).

At first, I (and am sure others) felt nervous about how smoothly and productive the conversation would be when such emotionally charged and scarring topics would be a necessary part. I knew this would bring up internal struggles that many privileged and good intentioned people go through (am I an ally?, on my own quest for growth, am I conscious and aware enough of the experiences of others?). I realized how difficult it has been, in my experience, to acknowledge my own privilege (coming from an economically privileged background, often passing as someone who's "white"), without losing the aspects of my identities and experiences that are marginalized (being raised by a black womyn, being queer, genderqueer, Jewish, among other things).

I also felt that the discussion was a great first step. It felt like an intentional safe space for folks to open up and share experiences that separate them from others, and also recognize that some experiences are shared. It was interesting that much of the conversation focused on people's family histories, while more current experiences of discrimination and "feminist inaction" in the city were fairly untouched (except for occasional instances, such as someone expressing the desire to feel part of a feminist movement but feeling left out because many feminist discussions/organizing have been centered around women’s studies classes and texts) The conversation has already opened up more and more conversation, internally and externally, and has already sparked new projects. It's also creating bridges between different work that is being done (a podcast specific to this project, a wimmins writing group, blogging, etc.).

One of the challenges with the discussion was trying to create an environment and discussion that was intimate and productive while also acknowledging that people are coming from different places (and levels of knowledge/awareness of the issues involved), so first steps need to be taken -- for example, addressing other necessary identities/issues/experiences that are often left in the dark (e.g., class, physical mobility, immigration, idea of safety, language).

I am excited to see how the next conversation goes (it's tomorrow! oh my how time has flown by). I look forward to listening and supporting others' experiences. I intend to challenge the language being used -- for example, what does it mean when we say person of color (are we talking about skin color or are we talking about something that encompasses a broader picture?, what are we talking about when we use the word "diversity"?), because this seems like a necessary discussion in itself. I am interested and passionate about taking the first conversation and moving forward.

I very much appreciate the work that you are doing, and the direction that you are inspiring Bitch to move in. Debbie, you are a wonderful example how someone outside of a specific physical community (Detroit as an example) can inspire and encourage necessary dialogue from within a community, how it relates to other communities, and recognize how important it is to bridge the gaps that have dug such deep holes.

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