It was the Monday night after the Oscars and I can remember browsing through my Twitter feed to see what interesting information about the world I could learn about on this particular night.  I can vividly remember coming across a tweet of a video of Giuliana Rancic, a reporter from the television channel E! on the infamous style show Fashion Police. Now I love everything about fashion and try to keep as up to date as possible on the latest styles and trends. I used to be a loyal fan of the show Fashion Police as well, but the comments that Giuliana Rancic made about Zendaya Coleman, an 18-year-old actress who is known for her strong fashion sense, boiled my blood to say the least. In the tweeted out video, Rancic is seen making a comment about Zendaya’s outfit of choice and hair for the Oscars. Rancic makes the joke that Zendaya’s hair (which were faux locs) probably “smells like patchouli oil or weed.”  Dreadlocks is a hairstyle that can be worn as an expression of deep religious or spiritual conviction, ethnic pride or fashion preference. mica blog post photo 2The first example of dreadlocks has been dated back to North Africa and the North Africa. In America, this is one of the many hairstyles of the African American community and is normally not an acceptable style in a professional setting. So when I heard the comments uttered by Giuliana Rancic, I would be lying if I said I was shocked and surprised. However, I was still deeply offended, as was Zendaya. Oftentimes, Black people are told that our hair isn’t good enough and that in order for it to be good enough, we have to chemically modify it. It is rare that you see a Black celebrity wearing her natural hair. She often has some type of extensions in and her hair is always straight even though Black people’s hair is naturally curly.  Rancic’s comments were also completely ignorant. She made reference to weed and patchouli oil when critiquing Zendaya’s hair.  These two references are common stereotypes of Black people. The patchouli oil reference refers to the common notion that all Black people carry some type of odor. The weed reference refers to the stereotype that young Black people often smoke weed, particularly those with dreadlocks. I think the lesson from this incident that is to be learned is not only the importance of intent vs. impact but also on how uneducated public figures are about different cultures. Rancic had no idea how offensive and ignorant her statement was and even tried to defend it initially after it blew up on social media. I think this example shows just a small part of the struggle Black women have to go through in a public space.  There are so many things about a Black woman that are not seen as good enough. This is just one example of that. I think the best part of this whole incident is Zendaya’s response. She perfectly sums up the feelings of most Black women and the ridicule we face just for displaying our hair in all of its natural glory. And of course, this still isn’t good enough. Here is her statement:

Mica blog post photo 3There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful. Someone said something about my hair at the Oscars that left me in awe. Not because I was relishing in rave outfit reviews, but because I was hit with ignorant slurs and pure disrespect. To say that an 18 year old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or “weed” is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive. I don’t usually feel the need to respond to negative things but certain remarks cannot go unchecked.  I’ll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend and little cousins all have have locs. Do you want to know what Ava DuVernay (direct of the Oscar nominated film Selma), Ledisi (9t time Grammy nominated singer/songwriter and actress), Terry McMillan (author), Vincent Brown (Professor of African American studies at Harvard University), Heather Andrea Williams (Historian who also possesses a  JD from Harvard University, and an MA and PhD from Yale University) as well as many other men, women and children of all races have in common? Locs. None of which smell of marijuana. There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair.  My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.  To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane. I suggest some people should listen to India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” and contemplate a little before opening your mouth so quickly to judge.” If I was faced with the same criticism as Zendaya about my hair, I honestly couldn’t have said it more eloquently. She perfectly responds respectfully and graciously to such offensive comments. 

This post encouraged me to keep being proud of my hair and make no apologies of how different it is from society’s standard of beauty.  It definitely reminded me that “I Am Not My Hair.” This incident serves as an example as to the importance of intent vs. impact. Black Hair is beautiful.   mica blog post pgoto   Mica Cunningham is a 3rd year Chemistry/Pre major and a Medical Sciences Minor and a 2nd year WILL participant.


Truth and Dare

Last week, Jalisa, a member of WILL, shared a powerful blog post on how she was attempting to “navigate race through gender” in her WILL experience.  She wrote,

“…my experiences of racism are being invalidated… The fact that you identify with being a woman takes precedence over my identity as a person of color, and that gender biased is somehow worse than any other form of oppression.   The intersectionality of race and gender are messy, but this act of completely ignoring race as a factor of oppression reinforces the cycle of oppression.  In a group that I look to for liberation in having that shared experience of fighting a system of oppression, it is very disheartening.”

This was both difficult and inspirational to hear.

Not surprisingly, reading Jalisa’s post was tough. First, I heard this criticism on a personal level, as someone who cares.  I care about Jalisa, WILL, and the feminist movement.  To know that despite our best intentions in the group (and in feminism!) we continue to perpetuate racism and oppression was, as Jalisa expressed, “disheartening”. I also heard this criticism as the staff person who coordinates this program and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our work aligns with our mission and purpose.  It was challenging to hear this because it meant I/we failed.  It meant I/we let one of us down.  It meant I/we were oppressive and silencing and marginalizing, even as we were working actively not to be.    Even still.

Jalisa’s sharing her personal experience and telling her truth holds us all accountable to confront that which is so difficult to acknowledge: my/our privilege.

bell hooks breaks it down: “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”  (hooks, 2000; p.23)

In order to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression, we must tell our truths.   The work of feminism, of social change, is to continuously tell our individual and collective truths.  It is an everlasting story, a perpetual narrative.

And it ain’t easy.

According to the Social Change Model of Leadership (SCM), which grounds our work in WILL, there are seven principles that enable social change, that facilitate truth-telling. These principles are based in three different, interrelated, and dynamic systems: individual, group, and community.  To tell our own individual truth requires consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment.  Truth-telling in a group calls for collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility.  On a community level, citizenship is necessary to practice truth-telling.  WILL intentionally and strategically fosters these principles—this is the work of WILL.

Here’s where the “inspirational” comes in:

Jalisa’s brave act of truth-telling demonstrates that we have created a culture in WILL where we do hold ourselves accountable to this truth-telling and to the principles that foster this practice.  It is inspiring because it means that we are doing something right, even as we’re not.  Even still.

Racism is ugly.  Revealing it is a beautiful and revolutionary thing.  Only then might we overcome it.

WILL is not alone in confronting these truths.  Just yesterday, in response to recent expressions of racism on campus and a subsequent newspaper Staff Editorial calling for truth-telling, the campus paper ran an article in which campus leaders  challenge the campus community to “Engage More, Not Less” .   Although WILL (nor any other feminist leadership program, for that matter) was not among those cited as examples of how to “engage”, WILL does stand as a model of “engaging more”.   This is precisely what WILL does–intentionally, deliberately, and with care.

Our development as feminist leaders challenges us to call out oppression and to always be looking and listening for ways in which we operate out of privilege.  We are compelled to confront this privilege so that we can dismantle it, and in doing so, challenge systems of oppression and create social change.

Always both difficult and inspirational work.   This is the work of WILL.  This is the work of feminism.

Amy Howton is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center and Program Coordinator of WILL. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

So, what does WILL “do”, anyway?

Ultimately, WILL is a feminist leadership program aimed at creating social change.  All year, I’ve wondered about this goal.  What does it mean?  How is it “measurable” (yes, I’m that person)?  What will look like?  Last weekend, during a presentation at the UC Student Leadership Conference, a student  attending our session posed this question in very straightforward terms, “So, what does WILL do, anyway”?  We had been talking about the theoretical framework of WILL and sharing WILL values.  The question was a good one.

Honestly,  I wasn’t completely prepared to answer it.  I stumbled.  I had been struggling to clarify for myself the impact WILL was making in terms of social change.  I too was wrestling with this question.  I shared this doubt.

Being the inaugural year of WILL, we have been very intentional in focusing energies on developing the program itself—establishing our values, laying the theoretical groundwork.   The plan was to get our business in order before focusing energies on the “real world”, the world outside of WILL.  For a program explicitly aimed at creating social change, this decision might seem counter-productive.  It certainly feels counter-cultural.    Leadership and activism is after all about the business of making a difference for others, right?

At  last night’s WILL meeting, I was reminded that sometimes it’s enough (maybe necessary) to start with ourselves.  That if we do, and do a good job at it, then we are creating social change.   Our self-growth leaks out into the world, into interpersonal relationships, into our organizations, into our communities.  The change ripples out well beyond our own selves.

As WILL discussed the citizenship component of the Social Change Model of Leadership, it became clear that personal growth and development are key to being active citizens of the world.  Members began by sharing diverse perspectives on meanings of citizenship.  The role of power and privilege became a theme as members contemplated these ideas: strategies of citizenship are determined largely by one’s power and privilege.   Therefore, recognizing one’s own power and privilege are fundamental in being effective change agents.

While WILL members shared different opinions on what constitutes citizenship, when posed the question, “How has your WILL experience impacted your citizenship?”,  responses became more common.  WILL has fostered citizenship through fostering: “self-confidence”, “mindfulness”, “self-awareness”, “self-consciousness”,  “selfishness”.   Members shared examples of ways in which personal behavior has directly impacted others, whether colleagues, friends, fellow activists, classmates, other WILL participants.

While focusing on our personal selves and the WILL “self”, we were doing a lot.  We were changing our world.

I am learning so much from my own WILL experience—a true testament to the fact that as a community, we are co-constructing knowledge.  I was reminded last night, by these amazing WILL women, that the “business” of activism can be distracting.  We should not worry about busy-ing ourselves.  There is a need to quiet ourselves, make time for reflection, be with ourselves.

So, what does WILL do, anyway? WILL does WILL.

Amy Howton is the Assistant Director for the University of Cincinnati Women’s Center. She is also advisor to the WILL program. Amy can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

Girls Can’t Do That…

Girls can’t climb trees, make it to college, know anything about a car other than what color it is, do anything but stand in the kitchen… every single time I hear a guy say “girls can’t do that”—and I only remember men saying it to me—the first thought in my head is “WATCH ME!!” Usually followed by explicative words or how those boys are dumb and don’t know anything, and how they just proved the planet is doomed because they think women are incompetent and unable to do anything. Well I’m sorry sir, but your sorry ass wouldn’t be here without us. That is a totally different conversation though.

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Girls can’t do that. Every time I hear that phrase I cringe. Why? Because it is the farthest thing from the truth. I know that I and the over seven billion people on the planet are capable of any task we set our minds too. When I first decided I wanted to be pre-med several people asked me, “Are you sure???” Like women shouldn’t be going to medical school, that only men are supposed to be doctors, that I should be a teacher or consider nursing instead because they are better jobs for women. All I have to say to that is: watch me. I am a woman on a mission, and people that know me know better than to get in my way. Sure, teaching or nursing might be “easier” but I don’t want the easy way. I do things my way. Will it be challenging? Yes. Will there be others trying to knock me down, say I’m not good enough, smart enough… sure. But what makes them smarter or better than me?

Even when I have moments when my life is completely hectic and crazy and I just want to give up, I know my support system is always there for me, cheering me on, each step of the way. My amazing family believes in me and wants nothing more than for me to be happy and smiling. They are always there to tell me I CAN. My best friend is always more than willing to let me vent about my day, make me laugh, or remind me of my goal that at times seems extremely far away. My friends are there for me, who I can do totally ridiculous things with, and talk about anything, making life more enjoyable. Several of us are even going through the exact same thing which is nice to have people who understand exactly what it feels like.

So to all the men out there who have told me I couldn’t do it: when I make it to med school and you don’t… thank you. For pushing me harder and motivating me to succeed. For the time when I can look back at all the struggles and heartache and tears and know that I did it—with lots of help from my family and friends believing in me of course!!

And hopefully somewhere along the way I inspire someone else. The cards may not be in her favor because “girls can’t do that,” but she isn’t going to let that stop her. She wants to keep pushing and dreaming and reaching her goals one step at a time. But until then, I will be thanking all of the ladies (and men!!) who came before me… giving me the opportunity to do what I WANT, not what society thinks I should be doing. Individuals who rocked the boat, who know women have the ability and drive to do THAT… whatever we set our minds to.

So when your sister or daughter or niece says something like “I want to be the president, an astronaut, a doctor, join the military, or single handedly take over the world” are you going to stand there and say… Girls can’t do that?

“I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.” –Madonna

Katie Britt is a second-year Biomedical Studies Pre-Medicine major, with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.