DSLC workshops address intersectionality, diversity
Rebecca O'Neil | Thursday, March 27, 2014
The ninth annual Diverse Students’ Leadership Conference (DSLC), “Rethinking Leadership and Diversity,” took place on the Saint Mary’s campus Tuesday and Wednesday. The 16 workshops spread out over two days made it the largest event of the year hosted by the Student Diversity Board (SDB) and the largest student-led conference at Saint Mary’s.
“After months of planning, our hard work is finally on display, and our hope is that [students] find everything to be insightful, challenging but most of all enjoyable,” senior Lucy Macfarlane, DSLC chair and SDB vice president, said at the beginning of the conference. “We hope [students] are inspired to make change where [they] see change is necessary ⎯ even if that’s within [themselves].”
The two keynote speakers, activists Faisal Alam and Kevin Powell, were chosen to help students realize their own potential as leaders and rethink their previous understanding of what diversity means, Macfarlane said.
“I think the keynotes actually had a lot in common,” she said. “[The speakers’] breadth and variety of life experiences demonstrated to them the necessity of self-actualization. When you know yourself and accept all facets of your identity you are more capable of accepting and including others in positive change.
“Leadership is not categorized into one thing ⎯ like a man in a dark suit ⎯ but rather the creation of a safe space that allows others to voice their opinions and experiences. Diversity encompasses us all and must be a positive force for good.”
Alam and Powell, the opening and closing lecturers, respectively, emulated this by sharing the stories that led them to the forefront of intersectional activism.
“When people ask me where I’m from, I have to ask, ‘Well how far do you want to go back?’ The partition in Pakistan, to my birth in Germany…” Alam said.
Alam founded Al-Fatiha, an organization that supports Muslims struggling to reconcile their faith, sexual orientation or gender identity. The queer-identified Muslim activist of Pakistani descent referred to himself as an “accidental activist,” as his experience grew out of inconsistent religious and societal expectations.
“Today, there are second and even third generation Muslims born in the United States,” Alam said. “I am a one-point-five generation immigrant. What that meant for me was that I was straddling two different cultures: my Pakistani culture and Muslim faith, as well as my American identity.”
Living in the context of the convergence of diametrically-opposed norms from the American public and from the traditions practiced in the privacy of a Muslim home comes more easily to Alam now than it did in the past, he said.
“If I am an American Muslim teenage girl, I may want to go to the Britney Spears concert in Indianapolis, or in Chicago, on Friday night, and I will wear my headscarf because I am adherent to my faith and there is no conflict between the two in my mind,” Alam said. “Whereas in generations past, or even immigrant parents sometimes, American culture is often viewed as a threat to their own identity so there’s a stronger inclination to latch onto it.”
Alam said modern-minded Muslim immigrants and children of Muslim immigrants aspire to enact progress rather than reform in the Islamic faith.
“Progressive Muslims want a revival, a progressive form of Islam that is rooted in social justice and equality,” he said.
This move towards equality is evident in the increased amount not only of tolerance but also of active incorporation, Alam said.
“Just in the past five years there are communities that are growing and places of worship that are not only inclusive to the LGBT people but are also not gender segregated, particularly in times of prayer when generally women and men are separated,” he said.
Women in the mosque are usually found praying behind men or on a balcony, Alam said. He said this segregation is nonexistent in these new progressive communities.
“Men and women are praying side by side,” Alam said. “Women are allowed to lead prayer, which is a notion many people view to be outside the fold of Islam.”
As this movement gains momentum in smaller communities, activism is occurring in the public sphere as well, Alam said. He said Keith Ellison is the first Muslim representative elected to Congress and one of two Muslims in the United States House of Representatives who recently announced their support of LGBT community.
“There is diversity in the Muslim world,” Alam said. “There is a reality and a side of Islam that people haven’t seen before. American Islam is a unique blend of the Muslim faith and the American identity as well.”
The keynote speakers also spoke about the degrees to which minorities belonging to multiple distinct demographics face marginalization.
“When we talk about diversity and leadership, there is not only so much history that needs to be looked at as how those notions of diversity were first defined in the United States, but also what different leadership looks like,” Alam said. “On top of that, if you add different layers of marginalization, what works within certain communities and what will not work within other communities.”
Saint Mary’s students, faculty and staff discussed various other layers of social complexity throughout the DSLC. Marc Belanger, associate professor of political science, spoke about immigration and globalization. Graci Martsching, assistant director of Student Involvement and Multicultural Services, promoted inclusive leadership in her lecture.
Other professors discussed diversity within the workforce and economy, specifically with regard to disabilities. Adrienne Lyles-Chockley, the head of the justice education program at Saint Mary’s, spoke about the intersection of race, gender, poverty and imprisonment, while both students and professors explored the true meaning of masculinity and tried to debunk immigration stereotypes.
“My favorite part of the week was grabbing lunch with Kevin Powell, the closing keynote, at Whole Foods,” Macfarlane said. “He’s vegan and we just spent time in the hot-food line soaking in our conversation and the expectation of delicious vegan pizza. His emphatically encouraging demeanor and humility is profound, and I am lucky to have spent time with him.”
Macfarlane said the DSLC event exceeded her board’s attendance goals for both keynotes and all the workshops.
“It was the best it has been in recent years, with over 200 people registered,” she said. “The best takeaway I can have from this conference is that every person who came to me only had feelings of empowerment and knowledge was gained.
“I wanted the conference participants to look within themselves and discover their own potential as leaders and advocates for inclusive change. I think we accomplished that this year.”