By: Deliah Schreiber
Well after 7 p.m., people of all ages, races and genders are still arriving. Every table in the room is taken and, by the time the first speaker takes the stage, the crowd has filled nearly every available square inch. On January 26, the Women and Gender Studies department at the University of Southern Maine aimed to share the power of healing in an event entitled “Resistance, Resilience and Renewal: Storytelling,” which was led by Wendy Chapkis, a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at USM. Speakers told different stories of resistance, resilience and renewal to raise the USM community’s spirits, which recent anti-minority animus had lowered.
Chapkis, who has been a part of USM’s Women and Gender Studies Program for over 20 years, has personally witnessed the growth of the community, but firmly believes recent political events are what sparked a large turnout at the event. “We’ve been building this community for 20 years,” she said, “but to get maybe 150 or 200 people crammed in a room on a Thursday night. Clearly there is community that needs to come together.”
Samaa Abdurraqib uses this platform to speak of her struggle to cope with the cancer diagnosis she was given during the summer of 2014. At first the diagnosis unsettled Abdurraqib but she found support and love through her friends and partner.
During her speech, she said, “I’m here to be with my people, to love my people and have that reflected back on me.” Immediately, the room erupted in a loud clap and warm cheers, and indeed that love was reflected back onto her.
Abdurraqib not only used storytelling as a method of personal healing, but as a way of bringing together a community. “The process of generating empathy for the storyteller or recognizing some similarity between your life and what the storyteller is telling,” she said. “I think that creates community. We’re experiencing it all together.”
Another speaker and political activist at the program, Sylvia Stormwalker, spoke a little about her emotional journey of “walking out into a grey unknown” that was her gender. Stormwalker described that, in 2011, upon the realization that she was not a boy, she gave away her possessions, quit her job and hiked down Route 1 to find herself.
Stormwalker found that a supporting community is what helped her stay afloat during such a challenging time of her life, and, like Chapkis, she believes uniting the community during a pivotal time for all minorities can help everyone overcome the social impediments that can hamper one’s enjoyment of life and success. She used a metaphor to describe what will result from the present political climate: “A seed has a hard coat, and right as it’s about to germinate, the coat starts to disintegrate and everything seems to be falling apart, and then life comes out.”
A political science major at USM, Nyawal Lia, was also given the opportunity to speak at this event. She emotionally outlined some of the events which unfolded in her life regarding being an immigrant. A few years after moving to Portland from Sudan in the third grade, a legal issue pertaining to her father arose. Lia claims that the lack of support given to a foreign defendant, such as not being provided a translator, contributed to her father falsely pleading guilty because he was not made aware of what this actually meant. As a result, Lia’s father spent years in jail and escaped deportation only due to the fact that Sudan was at war. She emphasized how, in a time when the deportation of immigrants is in the spotlight, we need to remember that despite our backgrounds, “We’re all human.”
Nancy Foss, an attendee and alumni of USM’s Women and Gender Studies Program, who graduated thirty years ago, has been to many events over the years and is often involved in programming. A testament to the growth of the community, at the time of her matriculation USM’s Women and Gender Studies Program was simply known as “Women’s Studies.” However, over the last 30 years, it has grown to be a much more active and respected department. As Foss put it, “I am always interested in other people’s activism.”
Chapkis indicated that though this was the first time the wWomen and gGender sStudies pProgram had put on this event, it was merely the first of many gatherings in which stories of resistance, resilience and renewal would be share. Despite the political divide occurring across the country, the community will continue to unite.