‘Building that internal confidence’: A look into the Womxn of Color Initiative

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The Womxn of Color Initiative, or WOCI, is a group that organizes events for and helps support academic and professional women of color.

WOCI is also a project funded by the Graduate Assembly, a representative body for graduate and professional students on campus that aims to support those students. Additionally, the group helps coordinate the annual Empowering Womxn of Color Conference, or EWOCC, which aims to strengthen connections among those who identify as women of color.

Project director Henna Kaushal said WOCI held a town hall in fall 2019 as a way for women of color to voice issues that they have faced. It also hosted a body-positive series and a three-part workshop featuring yoga, dance and self-defense.

Each project director in WOCI has a different focus, and Kaushal said her focus is creating programming and events that bring together graduate students from different schools and departments.

“(I had) a realization that women of color that are grad students at Berkeley can be isolated in their own departments,” Kaushal said.

WOCI reaches out through campus organizations focused on women of color, through social media and through women-of-color collectives at various schools, according to Kaushal. Kaushal hopes to see more programs and events from WOCI in the future focused on allyship between white women and women of color.

Kaushal added that one of the achievements of WOCI is the EWOCC, and she noted how people come from “very far” to attend the conference.

“You see this mixture of community members from grad students to local community members,” Kaushal said.

This year’s EWOCC was canceled due to concerns regarding COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus. As a result, WOCI decided to utilize a digital alternative.

The conference was livestreamed on Crowdcast and was also professionally recorded. The group is currently working on making recordings available to those who purchased a ticket. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the EWOCC after its inception in 1985, when it was created in a DeCal as a project named “Women of Color in the United States.”

Leading up to the conference, there are a series of open mic nights at the La Peña Cultural Center. The events were started last year by the previous WOCI project director as a way to draw in both the graduate and local communities.

EWOCC co-coordinator Angélica Marie Pagán said one of the highlights of the conference is the workshops. Past workshops covered topics such as healing and grounding, financial literacy and navigating the world as a queer woman of color.

“Being in spaces where I felt like I was being heard and my ideas and contributions were valued was a major draw for me,” Pagán said.

This year’s conference featured a theme of metamorphosis. Some of the speakers included youth speaker Wakan Wiya and Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. There were also workshops and panels such as “Surviving To Thriving: Reclaiming Our Bodies, Lands, and Collective Consciousness.”

According to Pagán, the group chose the theme because of its idea of change.

“This (is an) idea of change, and not just an external transformation but an internal transformation as well, and it’s important to kind of realize and actualize the world we want to live in,” Pagán said.

Preparation for the conference included a larger planning committee, as well as subcommittees dedicated to design, entertainment, food and workshops. According to Pagán, the EWOCC tries to commission performers and artists of color in the Bay Area and make “an intentional investment in the work, ideas and creativity that stem from women of color.”

Pagán said the EWOCC continues to do “groundbreaking” work through its workshops, which help give women of color tools they can use in their everyday lives. She added that the EWOCC creates a welcoming space for people across the spectrum, including cisgender women and those who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming.

“At the end of the day (the EWOCC is) just cultivating a space where women of color feel like they can be their whole selves not just in that space but in every space,” Pagán said. “Really building that internal confidence to show up as who they are, because I think when one person shows up as who they are unapologetically, others will feel able to do the same, and I feel like that really makes a large difference when it comes to our society as a whole and collectively being able to bring people together to address issues of injustice and inequity.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.