Health and Empowerment Symposium Centers on Marginalized Voices

A student raises her hand to ask Marj Plumb a question.
Marj Plumb of the Women’s Policy Institute answers questions during a Women’s Health and Empowerment Symposium workshop on Feb. 25. (Alyssa Alfonso • The Student Life)

The Intercollegiate Feminist Center for Teaching, Research, and Engagement hosted the Women’s Health and Empowerment Symposium at Scripps College on Friday, Feb. 24, and Saturday, Feb. 25. The weekend conference brought together scholars, activists, students, and community members to address various issues of environmental and reproductive health and justice, gender-based violence, and women’s empowerment in politics.

Foregrounding the work of women of color, the conference focused on various issues of intersecting identities in health and public policy.

The conference began Friday with a focus on women’s health, specifically as it relates to environmental and reproductive justice. The day featured panel discussions with local educators, organizations, and activists whose work and research pertains largely to communities of women of color and marginalized communities locally and globally.

Among the panelists were Pitzer College sociology professor Alicia Bonaparte and Claremont Graduate University applied women’s studies professor Dionne Bensonsmith.

Katrina Rapp PZ ’17 works at the intercollegiate Health Education Outreach Center, where she and other Peer Health Educators design programs that educate the community on issues of mental, sexual, and reproductive health. She attended the symposium to learn about the various ways in which health practices are gendered and racialized and to hear about the work of local activists in addressing these prejudices in the health system.

“As a white, middle-class woman, there is so much I cannot know about how different communities relate to the health system and are targeted by prejudices within it,” she said. “Being able to be a more inclusive educator is something I’m continually working toward.”

Saturday featured Marj Plumb, co-creator of the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI), which is part of the Women’s Foundation of California. The institute is a nine-month fellowship program aimed at arming those often excluded from politics with knowledge of how the system works at the local level. Graduates have gone on to advocate for causes they are passionate about at the state capital.

Plumb gave the audience a three-hour, abbreviated version of the program, demonstrating the process of getting a bill passed into law. The audience ranged from public policy students and scholars to novices eager to learn how they can make changes in their communities.

Zakiya Luna, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, participated in both days of the conference, first as a moderator of the Reproductive Justice panel Friday morning and then as an audience participant on Saturday. In the classroom, she aims to connect her material with real-world applications.

“In many people’s minds, academic settings are separate from the real world,” Luna said in an interview, “but even the classroom we’re standing in has been affected by policy. Women and people of color used to not be allowed in schools. We used to not have disability ramps. That all changed due to policy.”

According to their website, 76 percent of WPI fellows are people of color, 28 percent are queer or identify as something other than heterosexual, 24 percent are transgender people or identify as gender non-conforming, and 16 percent are people with disabilities.   

“I think for many people, policy seems like something that doesn’t feel accessible, and when you add in the reality of people’s lives, many people feel like their legislators don’t really represent them,” Luna said. “For a lot of people, it can also just seem really scary, and sometimes when we’re scared about something we don’t try to pursue it. I think it’s important to demystify the policy process and make it more accessible to people across the board.”

Audrey Dow, a WPI alum, advocate for higher education legislation, and mother of four, brought her fifteen-year-old daughter to the conference, where Dow spoke about her positive experience as a WPI Fellow and the success of her work in public policy.

Dow joined the WPI in its second year, when her daughter, Isabelle, was just three years old. Though she had a degree in public policy from the University of Southern California, she embarked on the training program in order to learn exactly how to get a bill passed through the legislature.

“When you go to Sacramento, and you see the folks that are there, it’s still a traditionally white, male-dominated space,” she said in an interview. “Legislators don’t get the benefit of hearing from women or women of color about the things they’re seeing on the ground. [The Women’s Foundation] is bringing a whole different group to Sacramento.”

After graduating from WPI, Dow went on to graduate school where she earned a master’s degree in public policy. When she is not pushing bills in Sacramento, she is raising her children with a keen awareness of local politics. Her daughter Isabelle is proud to grow up with a politically active mother.

“It gave me a sense of confidence to see that she could do something so powerful and to have someone as a role model to have such strong opinions … that could be me,” Isabelle said. “I felt like it was empowering.”

The weekend provided a diverse audience with perspectives on local issues and information about how to get involved in advocacy alongside a network of allies. 

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