Feminists at Brown: Lessons of Hope and Resilience

By: Ivy Bernstein ‘21, Executive Board of Feminists at Brown

Because most college students sleep in on the weekends, Brown’s campus tends to be empty at 7:30 AM on a Saturday. Such was the case on March 7th, the Saturday before Brown switched to remote learning, the day of the Feminist Leadership and Mentorship for Equality Conference (FLAME). The cold air whipped my hands that were exposed to the open air from carrying boxes of bagels, tote bags, and folders to the student center. My heart raced as if to say, “Today’s the day we’ve worked towards for months! Get ready!” 

My campus organization, Feminists at Brown, meets every Monday from 8:30-9:30 PM in the Sarah Doyle Center. Curling up on the cozy couches and sipping cups of tea provided by the center, we check in with each other by sharing “Ka-Chings” and “Grievances,” or one good and bad thing that happened to us that week. For the three years I have participated in this ritual with Feminists at Brown, it has been a source of comfort for me. The group is a place to vent about something difficult you’re dealing with, but also a community that celebrates your successes with you. Throughout the year, we engage in feminist discussions and plan the annual FLAME Conference for high school students in Rhode Island. With the goal of making feminist discourse and Brown’s resources accessible to young people, we invite high school students from across Rhode Island for a day of workshops, lectures, and activities. We provide a broad range of workshop topics, including climate justice, queer feminisms, womxn in politics, transnational feminism and racism, the commodification of feminism, consent, and sex education programming. 

The satisfaction of spending months organizing for one conference and then seeing first-hand how your work impacts students is an indescribable feeling. However, on the morning of the conference, all I could feel was anxiety. At this point, Brown had announced that events larger than 100 people must be postponed because of COVID-19. FLAME usually hosts about 40-50 students, so the conference was still happening. However, students were canceling the morning of, likely because of last-minute concerns about the virus. In the end, only 16 students attended. Disappointment hung in the air. However, as the day went on, and I was able to talk to the students about their lives and experiences with the conference, my disappointment faded. Some students articulated that because their high school offered abstinence-only sex education, they really appreciated getting sex education programming at FLAME. Others explained that they did not have spaces to talk about feminist issues at their high schools, and so FLAME offered them a unique experience.

The most powerful moment of the day was the “Open Mic” portion of the closing ceremony. At first, the air was still. Who will participate? There was nervous chatter. The Feminists at Brown leaders started to worry if we should do a different activity. Then, suddenly, a brave girl stood up. “I’ll go,” she said. She shared a poem about experiences with sexual objectification and opened up about her struggles. The students supported her, cheering, whooping, and clapping. Now that she broke the ice, students poured on to the stage, talking about what feminism means to them, or personal experiences with gender-related issues. They were so wise beyond their years, so eloquent and poised, that I began to tear up. One girl stood up and said, “I want to thank the Feminists at Brown club for putting this together,” and explained why the day impacted her. I could feel the hot tears running down my face, and I didn’t even try to hide it.

Thinking back to that day, it feels like a miracle that this conference even happened. Everyone’s events were getting canceled, and the University itself ended classes just days later. That day was one of the last days where life felt normal, and while the conference’s impact may have reached fewer people than we expected, the depth of our reach felt profound. In the month since then, we have all (the high school students and Brown students) dealt with new and unexpected things. The sense of community and support that I felt that day stays with me, as well as the support I feel on our cozy Monday nights in Sarah Doyle. While Feminists at Brown Zoom calls may not offer free tea and comfy couches, they do offer me the chance to reflect each week about something good in my life. This ritual of gratitude has been a true gift through these times of uncertainty. 

Image credit: Photo of the tote bag Feminists at Brown gifted to the attendees and volunteers at the FLAME Conference. Graphic design by Jane Freiman ’22.

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