Q&A: Kaliyah Keïta PO ’24 on advocacy, community and history at the Women’s Union

Three Women's Union staffers pose for a photo
The Women’s Union hosts many events in a semester including their Take Back the Night event which is a march against sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence. (Courtesy: Kaliyah Keïta)

Following Women’s History Month in March, TSL sat down with Kaliyah Keïta PO ’24, a staff member at the Women’s Union (WU) at Pomona College to get an insider’s perspective on what equality, advocacy and the future of intersectional feminism means to the WU.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TSL: What is your position at the Women’s Union and why did you join the team? 

Kaliyah Keïta PO ’24: I am a staffer at the Women’s Union, although I am not in a coordinating position. I wanted to join the WU after I heard about it through my friend Aarushi last year. She was very excited about working there and spoke highly of the WU. I know a lot of people that are involved with the WU, and it’s a really cool, comforting community to be a part of. I look forward to our gatherings and lunches, and I think that I wanted to join because I could see myself kind of fitting into that community and finding a kind of home there.

TSL: What is the WU’s mission?

KK: The mission of the WU is essentially to advocate on behalf of the women in this community and also just globally. We often have guest speakers and people visit to share their stories and experiences. It’s a gender-inclusive space, even though it is named the WU. We are committed to providing a space for all genders and the diverse needs of different people on this campus and beyond. As much as it is about women and having that feminist perspective, we also advocate on behalf of equality in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, religion and ability. I think that’s why the WU is such a wonderful space — as much as we focus on one aspect of advocacy and equality, there actually is no way to do that without being intersectional.

TSL: What does a semester look like at the WU? What kind of events do you hold?

KK: Most of our programming is through lunches, which are typically held during the week. This semester, we had two women visit from Strippers United, which is a labor union for strippers in Los Angeles and other parts of the United States. They advocate on behalf of women and people in that industry to have better benefits, safer working conditions, health insurance and other resources that they are often deprived of because of their line of work. Bringing perspectives like this to campus that we may not necessarily be familiar with, having the opportunity to hear from people who are doing this work, exposing our community to these important issues and talking about how we can be involved is essentially what most of our programming is aimed towards. 

We also hosted a lunch on March 8, which was International Women’s Day. We focused on gathering, recognizing and honoring the women in our lives who we wanted to celebrate for this month and on that specific day.

Two Women's Union staffers pose for a photo
The Women’s Union is a gender-inclusive safe space at Pomona College, aimed at advocating for women in the Claremont community. (Courtesy: Kaliyah Keïta)

TSL: What did Women’s History Month mean to you as a Women’s Union team member?

KK: As a Black woman and as an African woman, I have realized that what I was taught wasn’t always accurate. Most times when we think about historical figures and people that have held important positions and done all of these incredible things, we think about men, completely omitting the women in their lives that have been able to contribute massively to said accomplishments. And while that is not all that Women’s History Month is about, it always fascinates me.

For example, I didn’t know that Winnie Mandela was carrying the entire anti-apartheid movement in South Africa for the 27 years that Nelson Mandela was in prison. That is just not something that you hear about. She’s never acknowledged in the same light that Nelson Mandela is. And it’s not that he shouldn’t be, but it’s fascinating to think that for almost 30 years there was a woman that was occupying the position that we credit Nelson Mandela with.

That’s just one example of so many where women’s contributions simply aren’t being acknowledged or honored. I think that Women’s History Month is such a crucial thing to celebrate and acknowledge because, without doing that, we just continue to support the male-centric narratives.

TSL: The WU originated from the group called FAR or Feminists Against Repression. How do you think their ideas influence how the Women’s Union functions today?

KK: I would say that it absolutely does influence the WU. Championing for intersectional feminism is, again, the only way to champion for feminism. But, we should acknowledge that we are in a different position from the women who were on campus back then. I am sure that the struggles that women were experiencing when this group was created were probably a lot different than what we might be experiencing today. But, I also think that sometimes our concept of progress when it comes to oppressive systems is skewed. We may think that these issues don’t necessarily exist anymore when in reality they absolutely do. Gender oppression is a prevalent issue everywhere in the world. 

Us being college students in and of itself represents some level of progress toward the rights of women but, at the same time, it’s difficult to celebrate that and be comfortable with that. Billions of women all over the world don’t have the rights that they deserve in any capacity, aren’t afforded access to education and are experiencing period poverty. We need to acknowledge that so much progress is still ahead of us. We, as the WU, are just playing a minute role in this movement. We are just a blip on the timeline of people who have been dedicating their lives to this for centuries at this point.

TSL: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

KK: The WU is meant to be a welcoming and inclusive space for people on this campus of marginalized identities, so I urge people to join or attend our events. We also have a pretty strong relationship with some of the other leftist organizations on campus. The 5C Prison Abolition Collective, which I’m also a part of, will often have meetings in the WU. It’s wonderful to see so many people be able to utilize the space to gather to do such positive things.

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