International Women's Day Dinner: Building from the Ground Up

Hi, I’m Leslee, and I’m a cisgender, queer, white, twenty-something, Jewish, American woman.

I use these labels to identify who I am in the space of our society. I belong to each of these communities – I find solidarity with other Americans, speak the cultural language of my religion with other Jews. I recognize the privilege being one of the majority as a white person in this country; I stand with my fellow LGBTQ folk as members of a vibrant minority. I flow in and among these communities every day.

Until recently I never thought about the fact that I’m a part of another community – that of women. I was assigned female at birth, and have identified as female all my life, so I took this status, this community, as a given. I’ve only realized in coming of age as an adult that my identity as a woman is hugely important to who I am, and I embrace this.

That said, I’m still figuring out what it means to me to be one of the community of women. My identity as a woman was largely formed through interactions along the lines of society’s gender binary – meaning, I’ve been a woman because I’m not a man. My gender identity was crafted through seeing what I’m not, or what I’m not supposed to do or say or act like. If man is the ‘self’, I have been the ‘other’. I was someone who used to say, “I’m not like most girls,” and “being friends with guys is so much better,” because I didn’t want to be ‘other.’

My journey toward the rabbinate (I’m studying to be a Jewish clergy person) has led me to reflect deeply upon the many layers of my identity and upon the many communities of which I am a part. I want to learn more about what it means for me to part of the community of women, just as I continue to explore what it means to me to an American, a Reform Jew, a queer person, and more.

Recently I attended the International Women’s Day Dinner at Xavier. This is the second women-focused event (the first was Why We Stay - check out the article that my colleague Judie Kuhlman and I wrote here) I’ve had the privilege of attending through my job at the Brueggeman Center for Interfaith Dialogue. I got to learn so much about crafting a community of women, as a woman, from the amazing panelists who spoke.

From left to right:  Jessica Donohue-Dioh, Adjunct Faculty, Social Work. Quanita Roberson, Executive Director, Nzuzu. Ligia Gomez, Assistant Professor and Educator at University of Cincinnati & Director of the Certificate of Spanish of Service Learning in Social Work and Health Care Services. Sylvia Jepchirir Chemweno, Xavier University Class of 2018, Major:  Biology, Pre-Med; Minor:  Political Science.

From left to right:  Jessica Donohue-Dioh, Adjunct Faculty, Social Work. Quanita Roberson, Executive Director, Nzuzu. Ligia Gomez, Assistant Professor and Educator at University of Cincinnati & Director of the Certificate of Spanish of Service Learning in Social Work and Health Care Services. Sylvia Jepchirir Chemweno, Xavier University Class of 2018, Major:  Biology, Pre-Med; Minor:  Political Science.

Quanita Roberson specializes in trauma healing, leadership development, equity education, and African American Spirit Coaching in her work around the globe. She spoke of women’s power as coming from a place of softness, which runs contrary to our usual associations of power with hardness. Softness, I learned from hearing Roberson speak of her experiences, is powerful because its vehicle is compassion. Compassion drives us to accomplish and to connect, and this is how we foster community.

Ligia Gomez is a full time faculty member in the Romance Languages and Literature Department at the University of Cincinnati, and works in the Cincinnati community in roles that include chair of Apoyo Latino:  Greater Cincinnati Latino Coalition, and founding member of the Latino Health Collaborative. Gomez spoke about her experiences as one of many local Latina women who crafted their own community, built through individual connections and collaborations, wherein these women find friendship and support. I learned from her that strong communities may be formed organically, and that small acts of reaching out can have a major impact. Gomez told the crowd the story of when she wanted to create a new program within the University to meet the growing need she saw, but was met with resistance. By crafting a demand for the program through passing word around, Gomez inspired me to see creative ways of working within a system to accomplish goals.

Sylvia Jepchirir Chemweno is a student at Xavier with plans for medical school, and also serves as a board member of Community Action Day, Student Government Association Senator, Interlink peer mentor, member of interfaith cabinet leadership, African Students Association Secretary, and the Women’s Retreat Team Leader. She spoke about her experiences growing up in Elgeyo-Marakwet County in Kenya and the systemic inequality present for women in education. I saw from Chemweno a thorough integration of her faith, her feminism, and her goals. She portrayed herself in an absolutely authentic way that we may all aspire to reach.

Each of the tables in the audience had a pile of blocks on it. We were invited to build with the blocks as we were inspired to do so.  Each of the 7 women around my table contributed to the structure we ended the session with. We collaborated, without judgment or pretense or pressure, and built something together. At the end of the session we were invited to take a block with us. I treasure the blue bridge-shaped piece I chose. This block reminds me of the importance of my identity as a woman to who I am, and to engage with and connect to the communities of women around me. I am blessed with opportunities to grow and cultivate communities through my work, and I shall take what I have learned from this dinner with me as I move forward into the rabbinate.

 

Written by Leslee Estrada