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Report back from the (En)gendering Resistance conference

by Alison Thomson

Demonstration at Grand Valley Institution for Women. PHOTO: A. Thomson
Demonstration at Grand Valley Institution for Women. PHOTO: A. Thomson
Workshop "Exploring contradictions within feminist currents". PHOTO: A. Thomson
Workshop "Exploring contradictions within feminist currents". PHOTO: A. Thomson
(En)Gendering Resistance. PHOTO: q_e_d
(En)Gendering Resistance. PHOTO: q_e_d

Community accountability was the buzzword of this year's School of Public Interest, titled '(En)gendering Resistance: Exploring the possibilities of gender, resistance and militancy.' The weekend long conference, organized by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group at the University of Waterloo, was an engaging, though sometimes disjointed, community affair which played host to a diversity of feminists from across southern Ontario and beyond, converging around the question of gender liberation.

Feminisms of all varieties were well represented at the conference, with workshops hosted from anarchist, communist, genderqueer and femme perspectives, amongst others. The workshops themselves covered a broad range of topics, from plant-based healing to childcare, but the most frequently occurring theme was that of accountability in cases of sexual assault within activist communities. This often deeply personal and sometimes divisive issue was the subject of no less than four of the eighteen scheduled workshops for the weekend – speaking to its salience for activist movements in our current context, but also a potentially emotionally exhausting conference experience. Given this, great attention to detail was demonstrated by the conference organizers, who provided active listeners, acupuncture and a quiet room for those experiencing emotional overload.

The weekend opened by diving straight into the deep waters of community support and accountability with the workshop "Towards a Technique of Collective Responsibility for Interpersonal Violence.” Conversations begun in this session were sustained throughout the weekend in sessions such as “Accounting For Ourselves: Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Radical Scenes,” a workshop based on a controversial zine of the same name, and “Scarcity is a Lie!  Building Capacity for Transformative Justice in activist communities,” facilitated by anti-violence-against-women organizers from the USA.

Saturday evening gave conference goers the opportunity to demonstrate their support for those on the receiving end of one of the most brutal forms of state repression – incarceration. A demonstration was held outside the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison in Kitchener, which was unfortunately only modestly attended. The demonstration was hosted by the We Remember Ashley Smith Campaign, which formed in response to the death of Ashley Smith, a 19 year-old woman who had been incarcerated and tortured inside the institution in 2007, eventually leading her to take her own life as guards idly looked on. A small troupe of about a dozen people played music and banged on pots behind a barbed wire fence while incarcerated women waved with enthusiasm and prison guards stood by to record the spectacle on camera. Spirits were high despite almost freezing weather, and the energy was sustained into the night, when the eagerly anticipated performance of the Mangos with Chilli cabaret troupe was set to take place at the Pavilion in downtown Kitchener.

The cabaret showcased a variety of performances by the USA-based group, which is composed exclusively of queer people of colour. The supportive crowd was treated to an entertaining medley of stand up, dance, spoken word and burlesque in a programme which emphasized the relationship between the cultural and the political, with the experiences of marginalized identities placed at the forefront of an attempt to increase visibility of queer and trans people of colour in mainstream arts communities. The show, which was able to boast a much higher turnout than the rally earlier in the evening, was a welcomed interlude between two long days of workshops.

Sunday morning provided an interesting contrast to Saturday night's festivities, when an organizer from the Revolutionary Students Movement in Toronto and I presented a workshop attempting to demonstrate the limitations of identity based and cultural activism such as that which was presented the night before. The session was well attended given the early morning time slot and largely well received, despite our ideological dissimilarities with much of the weekends other presented material.

The logistics of the conference as a whole were impeccably organized, with an overabundance of nutritious food as well as intra-city transportation provided for free by WPIRG. The large internal diversity of feminists from a multitude of political affiliations provided ample opportunity for constructive dialogue between those with different political positions. However, this also led to a lack of clear focus or basis of unity amongst those attempting to unite under a broad banner of gender liberation, and collectively move forward towards that goal. This absence of cohesion was reflective more of the reality of workshop based conferences than any fault of organizers and participants. However, given the immediate importance of the most prominent topic of the weekend, community accountability, an attempt to debate through differences and move forward towards a translation of theory into practise seemed imperative. Instead, the conference was concluded by the somewhat disheartening keynote presentation by Jackie Wang, who spoke on the concept of 'revolutionary loneliness,' - referring to the seemingly inevitably traumatizing and isolating effects of participating in revolutionary struggle. The keynote echoed a theme of the weekend, demonstrating that many folks, including myself, could speak passionately about the inadequacies of the North American Left, but that concrete conversations about moving forward may have to be saved for a later gathering.

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alison_t (Alison Thomson)
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