June 28, 2017

Minority Students in Action Co-sponsor Women of Color Seminar “Recognizing our Experiences, Celebrating our Voices”

Bina Ahmad speaking at the MSiA Women of Color Seminar.
Bina Ahmad speaking at the Minority Students in Action Women of Color Seminar. Photo/Layla Abdullah-Poulos '10, '16

Sponsored by Minority Students in Action (MSiA), and SUNY Empire State College, the Women of Color Seminar, “Recognizing our Experiences, Celebrating our Voices,” featured a keynote address by Vivian Nixon, a roundtable discussion on intellectual solidarity, a workshop on legal rights, breakout sessions and a discussion on diversity and inclusion.

Founded in 2014, MSiA now has more than 100 members throughout the college community and state.

In a message to seminar participants, President Merodie A. Hancock said, “As you listen to today’s speakers and engage with other women of color, please let this be an ongoing relationship that provides dialogue, encouragement and strength. Women are strong, you are strong. Let’s build each other up and be stronger together.”

The seminar took place June 3 at the college's 325 Hudson Street location, in lower Manhattan.

MSiA President Melinda Wills-Stallings ‘16 opened the seminar by asking participants to consider personal journeys and outlooks from their “rearview mirrors,” experiences that they feel have hindered them from pursing and achieving their goals, and their “windshields,” the vision and motivation they will utilize as they move forward in life’s journey.

Keynote speaker Reverend Vivian Nixon, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and executive director of the College and Community Fellowship (CCF), set the tone for the conference and infused the day with her experience as a formerly incarcerated person.

Women in general are caretakers, often at their own expense, Nixon said to seminar participants.  Where systemic values are concerned, she encouraged participants to be courageous in speaking out as advocates for themselves and to recognize that women of color are worthy of equality of respect, expectations and opportunities.

Nixon exhorted participants seeking to change the oppressive situations they are facing in their lives to “count the cost, then draw the line.”

As an organization, CCF is committed to removing structural barriers to higher education for women with criminal records and their families.

Other highlights included the intellectual solidarity roundtable discussion led by Donna Auston, an anthropologist, writer and public intellectual, whose work focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, protest and social movements, media representation and Islam in America.

“What are my own biases that I need to check at the door and how does that affect how I show up for other oppressed groups?” queried Auston. “We need to understand how we impact the people perceived as above and below us.”

Bina Ahmad, a social justice attorney and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, led a workshop, "Know Your Rights."

Ahmad cited solidarity and inspiration for women of color as her motives for presenting at the seminar.

She said, “I believe in sisterhood and lifting up sisters of color and building true solidarity. As part of my work as a social justice attorney, I give ‘Know Your Rights’ trainings to give legal knowledge and power back to the community, particularly those communities most heavily targeted by the state.”

The workshop provided valuable information for participants, in the context of the increasing concerns of minorities about having positive interactions with law enforcement and securing themselves.

Other guest speakers included Azza Altiraifi, events coordinator at American University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, in Washington D.C., who led an afternoon concurrent session on disability justice, as well as SUNY Empire faculty, MSiA members and notable college alumni.

Altiraifi told participants that in today’s society, “value is attached to the ability to produce (wealth). Information is not provided for impacted communities – it has to be asked for.”

Michele King-Elder presented on women of color and entrepreneurship.

Elder discussed her experience as a customer service representative and, later, an account executive who traveled the world for a Fortune 500 company.

Against the advice of some family members, she left the corporate world, followed her passion for teaching and opened her own nursery school. Today, she is president of Elders Care, Inc., a child, elder and senior resource and referral service.

Among other topics, Elder explored difficult work environments brought about by oppressive and/or abusive supervisors and co-workers.

In managing difficult situations such as these, she spoke about the power of self and believing in who you are, saying, “When someone attacks the essence of who you are, you have to have, and know, your own self-worth.”

Elder shared that she grew up poor and, “I didn’t have a lot but I always had self-worth.”

Author and alumna, Emma Gomez ’79, ’81, read from her book, “Emma Gomez: A Courageous Woman Displays True Grit.”

Gomez explained her reasons for attending the seminar, saying, “Being a minority woman myself and being aware of some of the struggles we face, I found it interesting to share my wisdom with other minority women, making it easy for them to improve their quality of life.”

In addition to Willis-Stallings, the seminar team included Layla Abdullah-Poulos ‘10, ’16, Tanya Rice-Thompson ‘14, ’17, who completed her Master of Arts in Adult Learning at this year’s Long Island commencement event, Associate Professor Nadine V. Wedderburn and Assistant Professor Erin Young.

Abdullah-Poulos, who also serves as an adjunct member of the college’s faculty and is MSiA’s founding president, reported on the event for a story, “Muslim Women Talk Solidarity During Ramadan,” in the online publication About Islam.

“Women of color at SUNY Empire and in society need opportunities to come together and interact for positive social change,” said Abdullah-Poulos. “When we listen and support each other, we become a positive force for progress.”

Student volunteers and MSiA members included Shurlene Aberdeen, Cassie Barns, Katthya Holsgrove, Hiroko Miyashita and Tamein Haynes.

Associate Professor Audeliz Matias, who presented on environmental awareness at an afternoon concurrent session, joined faculty and seminar team members Wedderburn and Young for the seminar.

In her closing remarks, Wills-Stallings said, “In providing a space for women of color to appreciate, support and encourage each other, we achieved the primary objective for the seminar. We surpassed that objective through a very strong program, with a great deal of engagement, teaching and learning. I am extremely grateful to our outside experts, college faculty, alumni and fellow students for their excellent work in organizing, managing and participating in such a successful seminar.”

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