What is Feminist Camp? My experience in NYC by Giorgia Cristiani
From June 17 to June 21st I had the immense privilege to participate to Feminist Camp in New York City. I had heard about it during a Feminist Theory class I have been taking last fall semester at my university. The first week of class we were asked to share our favorite feminist resources, from books to podcasts, Instagram profiles, magazines, anything that we would consider useful, informative, and interesting regarding Feminism. One of the students mentioned Feminist Camp, and it sounded interesting so I looked it up that night. To be honest, I did not understand exactly what it was, all I understood was that it was something happening a few times a year in different places (New York City, Seattle, and even Zambia) and its main focus was to provide an understanding of what feminism does and can do “in real life”, outside of Gender Studies classroom, theory, and academia. That was enough to spark my interest: being a PhD student, I hear plenty of people saying how hard it is to get an academic job nowadays, so exploring different careers definitely sounded like something that I could benefit from. Plus, it was all about Feminism, one of my main topics of interest, and the NYC session would happen in June, when I am usually on break from academic work, therefore I would have been able to attend. The only thing holding me back was the price, which is quite high ($1,000 tuitions + $500 for housing and meals) but consider three things: first, they offer quite generous grants (I managed to get the tuition fully covered by applying to their financial aid program – I also used a grant from the Department of Gender and Sexuality for my university to cover for housing, so if you are a college student perhaps you can find some similar options at your university). Second, they opened up two positions for program assistant, which allows you to attend the camp for free in exchange for some work such as facilitating transportation, updating social media, etc. And last, but not least, the $500 for accommodation (at a hostel, which was so much fun) is significantly lower than the average price you would spend for six nights in NYC, and it includes breakfast, lunch, and a weekly metro card, so your out-of-pocket expenses will be very limited. Also, staying with the other campers is not mandatory: if you are from NYC (or Seattle), or have family/friends in the area, you can opt out and you won’t have to pay the $500.
But let’s get to the core of the program: what do you do at Feminist Camp? The answer might vary, as they do not always work with the same organizations for every session, but mostly you will be attending some awesome meetings, talks, and workshops on many different topics. The camp is organized around the principles of intersectionality: you will be exposed to and learn about not just feminism “alone”, but also social justice, LGBTQI+ issues, reproductive rights, and much more. Here is the schedule of my week:
Day 1 – Monday
We had breakfast while introducing ourselves, sharing our goals, philosophy, reasons to be at Feminist Camp, and more. There were 11 of us participants, including the two program assistants. The age ranged from 17 to 34, and we came from all walks of life and many different countries. There were high school students, college students, graduate students, young professionals, and some who had just graduated and were trying to score their first job. Some of the countries of origin: USA, China, Canada, Italy (me!), Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, Pakistan, and more.
We met with Diana Duarte, the Policy and Communications Director of MADRE, who gave an informative presentation about the organization’s history, modus operandi, and goals. MADRE is an international women's human rights organization that partners with community-based women's groups worldwide facing war and disaster. MADRE puts marginalized women to the front, operating at a community level: this is a key aspect that differentiates MADRE from many other humanitarian associations which tend to “speak for” oppressed people. MADRE is involved with grantmaking, capacity building, and legal advocacy. It strives for the end of gender violence, especially in situations of war, for advancing climate justice, and strengthening women’s abilities. Their partners and projects are spread across the world: Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Colombia, Kenya, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.
We headed to the Wall Street area for our meeting with Women & Justice Project, an organization that advances the leadership and builds the power of women directly impacted by incarceration, with the goal of transforming the criminal justice system. Some of the main concerns include the practice of shackling and handcuffing women in labor, the impact of isolation on mental health, and the access to healthcare for incarcerated people.
This was perhaps one of the most powerful encounters we had during Feminist Camp. In fact, the two women who lead the meeting, Miyhosi Benton and Keila Pulinario, have both been incarcerated and shared their personal stories with us, which opened up a long and extremely engaging conversation about life in prison and how prisoners are constantly denied their humanity, both through physical and verbal abuse, and to the denial of the care they need. In particular, WJP believes we must stop using incarceration as a response to social and economic issues, which criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color and people from low-income communities and prioritizes punishment. Instead, we need to look at the root causes of incarceration, to value the dignity of all individuals and the right to reach our full potential, and we should address harm through a transformative approach that promotes healing, accountability and repair. Another important fact that Benton shared with us is the importance of language, which include abolishing terms such as “inmate” or “ex-con”, as they are dehumanizing and perpetrate the idea that a person in prison no longer has his/her/their own identity, but instead becomes a state property, and is thusly defined by his/her/their status as a prisoner. Food for thought!
Our first day at Feminist Camp was over, so we took a little tour of the 9/11 Memorial and Wall Street.
Day 2 – Tuesday
The theme of this day was “careers” and it started off at OutRight Action International, an organization that works at the international, regional and national levels to research, document, defend, and advance human rights for LGBTIQ people around the world. OutRight was founded in 1990 in San Francisco and originally called International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The name was later changed to be more inclusive, and to reflect their commitment to advancing the human rights concerns of all LGBTIQ people.
Maria Sjödin, OutRight Deputy Executive Director, explained the type of work they do, which includes supporting local groups with grants and training, and lead advocacy all over the world. In fact, OutRight supports organizations in Africa, Caribbean, Latin America, Middle East, Europe, and Asia, as well as working with the United Nations in the United States. Moreover, OutRight provides training which are always lead by people who have the expertise in the field (for instance, a journalist will train other journalists on LGBTIQ awareness, with the support of the organization).
OutRight operates with a feminist lens, believing that human rights are both a feminist and a LGBTIQ issue. Moreover, such alliance of LGBTQI and Feminism is strategic not only to reach a broader audience, but also because in some situations LGBTIQ people can access spaces that women cannot (for instance, when talking about abortion and pro-life movement).
We traveled to Brooklyn where we met with Francine Fabricant at NoVo Foundation. Francine is a Career Counselor, and she gave us some solid advice on how to look for jobs and build careers that are personally meaningful and rewarding. We also had the opportunity to confront job offers and good and bad resume samples, while learning how to translate advocacy, leadership, and volunteering activity in a way that fits the requirements of the job we intend to apply to.
Aditi Varshneya, the Community Organizer at WE ACT, gave a presentation on the work that her organization is concerned with. WE ACT mobilizes low-income communities of color to make environmental change. Their areas of work include climate justice, clean air, good jobs (defined as jobs that offer a living wage, don’t hurt the planet, and put priority on frontline communities who live in polluted or unsafe conditions due to climate change), healthy homes (defined as a home that supports physical, mental, social and environmental well-being), and sustainable and equitable land use.
Aditi explained how WE ACT’s vision is a shift to an economy that is sustainable and accessible, in contrast to the current model, focused on the accumulation of wealth, which caused colonialism, inequities, and environmental erosion. She also shared effective ways in which we can all contribute to such project: using our vote (voting for parties and politicians who incorporate environmental justice in their program), our skills and our time (volunteering, training) and our money (to financially support organizations like WE ACT).
We spoke to Chelsea Bodansky, a Clinical Social Worker at Mount Sinai Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program (SAVI). SAVI offers immediate crisis intervention in hospital emergency rooms for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. It also follows up with counseling and information for survivors and their families and friends, and is concerned with educating the public and professionals regarding services and issues of sexual and domestic violence.
The counselling they provide is free, does not require proof of insurance or legal status/citizenship, and is also offered in multiple languages. It is open to both past and current victims, meaning if you have experienced violence or assault many years ago you can still receive care. This is an important aspect in the recognition of the difficulties in coming to term with trauma, which often leads victims of violence to stay silent about their experience for a very long time. SAVI also helps human trafficking intervention cohorts: in fact, Chelsea was there when we visited Judge Toko Serita’s Courtroom on Friday.
Day 3 – Wednesday
We started the reproductive-justice-focused day early by meeting with Karina Garcia, the Education Manager for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH). NLIRH builds Latina power to guarantee the fundamental human right to reproductive health, dignity and justice. NLIRH believes in the principles of salud, dignidad, y justicia (health, dignity, and justice) and work that is community rooted, culturally responsive, and sex positive.
Karina shared how her experience as a teacher led to her current role, as she was organizing protests and inciting her students to taking action against oppression and all forms of social injustice.
We had a workshop with Renee Bracey Sherman, award winning reproductive justice activist and writer. Her project, called We Testify, is centered around public abortion storytelling and ending abortion stigma. In particular, We Testify wishes to eradicate the silence around abortion as well as the false information the surrounds it, and the judgement that women who had an abortion tend to receive. Storytelling is a powerful tool, as stories influence how we learn, think, and make decisions. Data alone does not work as well without stories, according to Renee, as stories also communicate values through emotions, and led to identification through familiarity and empathy.
Renee also clarified the difference between reproductive health and reproductive justice, explaining how the latter concerns not just the service delivery of reproductive health, but rather advocacy to protect right to access such services, right to choose, right to privacy, and is mainly focused on abortion and contraception, while reproductive health’s main focus is more broad and includes counseling, pre- and post-natal care, sexual education, and more. Reproductive justice is also about access to healthy food, safe community, and understanding of the human body; it is led by women of color, and it focuses on access, as without access there cannot be choice.
We went to Ms. Foundation for Women, where Reproductive Health Access Project hosted a hands-on workshop where we all performed a simulation of an abortion on papayas, using the same exact tools that are normally used during a surgical abortion.
I must admit, when I heard about what we would be doing I was quite puzzled. I am pro-choice and do not hold any bias against abortions; however, I guess I just did not immediately see the point in performing one myself, on a piece of fruit.
After doing it, however, the intent became clear to me. Mainstream representations of surgical abortions involve rather scary images of metal tools, forceps, and more pain-inducing objects. Now, RHAP is not trying to say that abortions are always physically and emotionally painless, of course, as this very much depends on the single individual. However, having the chance to see and use the instruments (which, by the way, are not metal, but plastic) was important because it makes you realize how the procedure is actually much less scary and less invasive than what you would normally believe.
To end the reproductive justice day, we had the pleasure to meet many of the women who work at Spence-Chapin, an adoption organization that offers services to both the expectant mothers who find themselves in an unwanted pregnancy, and the potential adoptive families.
Spence-Chapin adoptions are open to everyone: single parents, LGBTQI, transracial, etc. Spence-Chapin offers a neutral support to the expectant mothers, without pushing them to make a decision, but simply helping them sorting out the available options, including parenting and voluntary foster care.
Day 4 – Thursday
We started off the day dedicated to the media very early, in order to watch the daily news by Democracy Now directly as they were broadcasted. It was such an incredible experience getting to see journalist Amy Goodman in action, and connected directly with Ta-Nehisi Coates in DC on the theme of reparations for American descendants of slavery.
After the broadcasting, we were lucky enough to have a quick chat with Goodman, and to tour the studios of Democracy Now, which is an independent news program which reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.
We visited Feminist Press, an educational nonprofit organization that promotes voices on the margins of dominant culture and publishes feminist works from around the world, inspiring personal transformation and social justice.
We got to talk to their executive director and publisher, their external relations manager, their book designer, and other members of their themes, who explained to us some important process of the press, such as choosing which books to publish and which ones to reprint and/or translate, choosing the right cover and page layout, and more.
Last stop of the day was BUST, in Brooklyn. Bust is a women’s magazine published 6 times a year which addresses a refreshing variety of young women’s interests, including celebrity interviews, music, fashion, art, crafting, sex, and news. Some members of the team told us all about BUST’s story, mission, vision, and how to pitch an article.
After visiting Bust, most of us went to Bluestockings Bookstore, a volunteer-powered and collectively-owned radical bookstore, fair trade cafe, and activist center. If you enjoy literature on a variety of topics such as Feminism, politics, incarceration, race, queer, and gender studies, and would like to try some cheap delicious vegan donuts, you should definitely pay them a visit!
Day 5 – Friday
On our last day we went to Queens County Criminal Court. It was certainly an interesting experience to sit in court, something many of us including myself had never done before. We witnessed some cases and we talked to one of the officers and to the judge Toko Serita herself. She presides over three problem solving courts in Queens County Criminal Court - a drug court, a mental health recovery court, as well as the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC). The HTIC is concerned with alternative approaches for those who are victim of human trafficking and forced into prostitution, in order to address their trauma, abuse, and addictions, but also to offer them a safe escape.
After spending the morning in court, we finished the day (and the week) at the Brooklyn Museum, where we toured the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
After the tour, we all sat at a table outside of the museum, sharing our thoughts and comments about the whole Feminist Camp experience. Here is some of the most salient points we gathered:
We were still all very overwhelmed by the week we just had. Feminist Camp is tiring, both physically and mentally. We were out of the hostel between 6 and 7,30am every day, and we were getting back no earlier than 6,30pm every night. We were at the center of a constant stream of information, ideas, debates, and more. Every session was engaging and challenging. We all agreed we needed a few days of self-care to take it all in, before we could adequately process the whole experience.
Most of us came to Feminist Camp with hopes and expectations on what it would be about, and we were all satisfied with what we received. Those who came in with no expectations whatsoever were also satisfied. We all agreed that we would recommend it to anyone.
As for criticism, there were two main things that emerged. Number one, while we all understand that time is an issue, and one could not possibly fit everything in just five days, we could not help but noticed the absence of fat and disability in the discourse. Intersectionality is one of the main goals of Feminist Camp, and they did a great job with the meetings and the workshops (which included LGBTQI, people of color, black people, and more), but nevertheless no one addressed fat and disability issues directly, thusly perpetrating the invisibility of these two categories.
Additionally, while grabbing breakfast and lunch on the go was probably the only option available when having so many people and being moving from one place to the next, we all wished the choices would have been more environmentally friendly, as unfortunately most of the time, our meals came in a plastic container and we were given single-use plastic silverware.
To me, and to many other participants, one of the main positive aspects of feminist Camp was to see so many people who were able to turn their passion into a full-time job. Too often we are told that there is no place in the job market for personal morals and values, and especially for people who chose to study humanities, gender studies, and so on. Moreover, very often social justice concerns are dismissed in the light of the smallness of our individual impact. This week showed us, instead, that a different world is possible, that we are not alone in believing it, and that there are many people out there who are actively working to make a difference. It was truly a breath of fresh air.
Finally, Feminist Camp provides you with a sisterhood. Doing activism, or even just believing in certain principles, can be hard and it can feel lonely. Being surrounded by like-minded individual with whom you can be yourself and you can honestly share your thoughts makes you feel connected and fulfilled. We all need some of that.