Authors: Esther Bier, MPH(c) Community Health Sciences, Maternal and Child Health & Nadezh Mulholland, MPH(c) Community Health Sciences, Maternal and Child Health
On a rainy Saturday morning at the beginning of October, four hundred (mostly) young people gathered at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters in Fulton Market for the Young Feminist Conference, hosted by the organization Cause the Effect. By 9AM, the hall was filled with youth, eager to discuss the day’s topics. This particular Saturday also happened to be the same day Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Emotions were raw as participants discussed the inescapable swirl of news surrounding sexual violence from recent weeks. To be gathered in a room with so many hopeful young people felt particularly poignant on such a grim day.
This sentiment was shared by Bridget Gainer, Cause the Effect founder and Cook County Commissioner of the 10th district, who gave opening remarks and a review of her organization’s mission. Cause the Effect seeks to increase political engagement among women, with a focus on empowering high school and college-aged youth. Cause the Effect hosts an annual Young Feminist Conference, a free space for feminists of all ages to learn about and discuss current issues relevant to women’s and LGBTQ+ liberation. To further strengthen feminist political involvement, the organization founded a political action committee to support and endorse local women candidates.
The first panel, moderated by Sarah Karp (a WBEZ contributor), discussed sexual violence and harassment and the recent Chicago Tribune exposé about sexual abuse in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The panel was composed of survivor advocates, an anti-violence social worker, an educator, and CPS parent. They did not parse words when demanding CPS transparency and accountability, and offered the audience support and suggestions for how to manage sexual violence. The second panel, ironically dubbed “Everyday Feminism from Four Bad Feminists,” featured some of the most creative, successful, well-spoken, and driven people imaginable. All women of color, panelists included a previously homeless engineering company CEO, a WNBA champion, a Harvard-enrolled tech CEO, and an eighteen-year-old running for DuPage County Board. The women spoke about their successes in male-dominated fields, motivation during trying times, and support systems.
The last panel addressed Chicago gun violence with a southside attorney, a youth-home worker, an assistant state’s attorney, and an anti-gun violence advocate. This panel gave way to a heated discussion about the source of violence in poor, primarily black neighborhoods on Chicago’s southside. While one member believed violence is partially the result of families failing to teach children how to peacefully resolve conflict, another member pushed back stating violence is primarily caused by systemic racism, over-policing, and disinvestment. In spite of this rift, panelists were united by the belief that the name “Chiraq,”used to highlight southside violence reminiscent of the Iraq war, creates an inaccurate representation of daily life in southside neighborhoods, demonizes black people, and erases vibrant community life.
Tonika Johnson, a photographer from Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, served as a meaningful example of southside pride. Members of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), of which Johnson was a founder, felt frustrated by the monolithic representation of their Englewood as a violent and despondent community. RAGE collaborated with Englewood Rising to display billboards around Englewood of fathers kissing their children, people playing, worshiping and working – an Englewood story many Chicagoans had not heard. RAGE also hosts So Fresh Saturdays featuring food, music and celebration, reminding community members that parks and green spaces are theirs to use. In doing so residents proved that Englewood is not merely a site of violence and poverty but one of hope and pride.
Reclaiming your own narrative was a salient theme throughout the panelists and speakers. Participants were encouraged to speak their minds even when their opinions might be unpopular. Whether about sexual violence, neighborhood violence, or policing, everyone has the right to truthfully define their own lives and communities and reject the narrative of outsiders. This message seamlessly blends with concepts discussed in our public health courses about intentionally creating space for communities to set their own priorities and dictate their needs. Considering the history of health officials using communities of color and erasing their voices, this conference served as a helpful reminder about how to examine our own biases and operate as an ethical public health practitioner.