Advancing justice for women and girls and promoting their spiritual growth

Shaya French

Shaya FrenchI don’t remember an age when I wasn’t engaging in feminism. From when I was a young child listening to my mom read aloud children’s books with strong female protagonists, to when I rejected wearing make-up in middle and high school, to reading Arlie Hochschild and Patricia Collins in my Sociology of Gender class in college.

Much of my understanding of oppression starts with my understanding of gender roles. For instance, when I think about institutional oppression, Joan Acker’s article, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” first comes to mind. She describes how jobs are constructed as gender-neutral when in reality hiring managers frequently have a white male candidate in mind when they’re creating the list of requirements. There are “gender-neutral” requirements that show up in the description like how much a worker should be able to lift or what caretaking responsibilities they have outside of work. The end result is hiring managers subconsciously seeing men as better candidates because they better fit the job description that was created with them in mind.

I’ve used this framework to think about how disabled people or people of color face institutional oppression—and I like the creative challenge in seeing the connections between kinds of oppression.  At the same time, I want to ensure that my understanding of feminism doesn’t construct the default “woman” as a white, middle class woman in the same way many job descriptions construct the default “job applicant” as a white man. I believe that our women’s movement and messaging need to be broad enough to include black women, transwomen, Latina women, lesbian women, immigrant women, disabled women, and people whose gender falls outside of the male/female binary.

I grew up in Middleboro, a predominantly white, middle and working class town in southeastern Massachusetts. Following my parent’s faith traditions, I was involved in both the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro and the Reconstructionist synogague, Agudas Achim. Being involved in Unitarian Universalist programs—Coming of Age, OWL, and district youth conferences—ignited and shaped my interest in social justice.
One social justice lesson I’ve learned from Unitarian Universalist youth spaces is how we can create the world we dream about in intentional community.

When people talk about rape on college campuses they often talk about how colleges (and the broader society) are part of “rape culture”– a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. It then follows that we should strive to create consent culture within our organizations and schools as a way to combat sexual violence. But what is consent culture? I’ve definitely found it hard to imagine what that looks like, particularly when so much of the dominant culture doesn’t include a respect for people’s bodily autonomy—whether that’s women getting catcalled or a young child being forced to accept their aunt’s cheek pinching. However, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing consent culture within the Youth Empowerment and Spirituality (YES) conference on Star Island.  I have been deeply involved in YES from 2011-2015, first as a participant and then as a workshop leader, chaplain, and outreach coordinator.  At YES events, we create a culture of consent by asking people to respect each other by asking before giving someone a hug or taking a picture and having conversations about why consent is critical. That is just one small example of how YES has shaped me. The conference also provided me with a welcoming audience to lead my first social justice workshops on feminism, colonialism, and ableism. My experiences at the conference have greatly informed my vision of the ways in which I want to transform the culture, world, and organizations I’m part of.

Although I wish I could live in YES community all the time (can we have UU schools, please?), back in mainstream culture I still needed to figure out where I fit. For high school, I chose to go to Norfolk County Agricultural High School to study dog training—my passion at the time (and still a strong interest of mine!). I ended up being disgusted by the punishment based training program and majored in natural resources instead. At Bard College, I continued to learn more about the environment—majoring in biology and writing my senior thesis on urban environmental pollution. I also took on a project interviewing transgender people and people who have chronic illnesses. I wrote a sociology paper about how gender identity is being treated as a medical condition and how that experience is similar and different from the experiences of people being treated for more traditional medical conditions. While in college, I interned with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and created an economic justice curriculum for youth groups under the guidance of Ariel Jacobson.

More recently, I’ve been working with Black and Pink, a grassroots LGBTQ prison abolition organization. Black and Pink runs a penpal program, offers court support, and publishes a monthly newspaper that reaches 9,000 incarcerated people. We call ourself a family, which speaks to how we believe in the transformative power of love and that all of our members—both incarcerated and “free world”—are equal partners in fighting the prison system. One of my Black and Pink projects was researching transformative justice, which is a community-based approach to violence and was created by sexual assault survivors. It’s similar to restorative justice but includes more analysis about how oppression in communities needs to be addressed at the same time we are holding individuals accountable for their actions. I’ve appreciated witnessing how Black and Pink includes the voices of its incarcerated members in major decisions, despite the degree to which the prison system limits the ways prisoners can communicate with people on the outside.

Around the same time as I was working at Black and Pink, in my feminist reading I kept reading about how men needed to create more space for women in conversations and take more of a stand in combating sexism. I started to wonder what ways, I, as a white woman, might make people feel marginalized and what my responsibility is to address racial oppression.

For the last year and a half, inspired partly by Black and Pink’s director and the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve been attending anti-racism discussions and workshops around Boston. My senior year at Bard, I founded the Anti-racism collective as a way to get more white students to engage in racial justice. Our group of students, faculty and staff raised $5,000 and brought the talented AORTA collective to facilitate workshops on racial justice last spring. The anti-racism collective continues today with new leadership and is working closely with student of color groups.

As you can see, the projects I’ve worked on have varied widely—environmental work, prison justice, anti-racism, economic justice, disability justice, LGBTQ issues, and feminism. I believe that all of these struggles are necessary for collective liberation and strive to bring the lessons I’ve learned about creating transformative intentional community, accountability, framing, and allyship into my work and life.

Shaya began work as the UUWF’s Clara Barton Intern at the UUA in Fall of 2015.

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