Students and Staff Host Forum for Women of Color
Issue   |   Wed, 04/16/2014 - 01:01

Women of color from the Amherst College community gathered April 13 in the Lord Jeffery Inn to share, reflect and consider questions of success, career and work-life balance. Sunday’s event was the College’s second annual dialogue centered around women of color in the workplace.

Rachael Abernethy ’16 worked with staff members Christina Ramos of the Career Center, Mariana Cruz of the Multicultural Resource Center, Danielle Hussey of the Women’s and Gender Center and Class of 2015 Dean Charri Boykin-East to plan the event.

The purpose of the event was to facilitate a dialogue for empowerment and critical reflection between alumni, staff and students centered on the theme of defining success in one’s career, family life and personal life grounded in the context of being a woman of color.

“Defining success, in particular, is important to me because a lot of times we don’t talk about success in the way we were able to talk about it today,” Abernethy said. “We say success, and we assume everyone knows what that means and what that looks like, but in reality, there are a lot of different definitions of success.”

This event also aimed to foster dialogue around the experience of race and gender across generations of Amherst women. Keynote speaker Maria-Judith Rodriguez, Director of Human Resources at Amherst College, brought her perspective as a Puerto Rican woman and leader in her field to speak to the particular challenges and identity of being labeled a “woman of color.”

Rohini Harvey ’98, a physician at Baystate Health, said that Rodriguez’s speech led her to recall some of the challenges that she had experienced in being labeled a woman of color.

“Maria-Judith Rodriguez talked about how on moving to the United States, she was suddenly put in a group and even asked how she felt about things ‘as a black woman,’” Harvey said. “It reminded me of all the times people — patients, acquaintances, strangers — ask me where I am from. I always answer, ‘Buffalo, NY’ because that is, in fact, where I am from, but I know that is not what they are getting at.”

Additionally, the event featured facilitated dialogue and activities designed to encourage participants to take risks in a supportive environment and open themselves to vulnerability.

“The first part was about encouraging all of us to set an intention for the program by intention I mean a goal — and then to push ourselves a little further and think about positive risk-taking in empowering ways,” Cruz said. “As a woman of color, I sometimes feel vulnerable in the face of risk-taking, but I also know that I have to take risks in order to be truly innovative in the workplace.”

Cruz also led the group in creating a collective definition of success for women in the workplace. Alumni shared their experience of trying to assert themselves in their respective fields while students added to those ideas with questions and beliefs of their own.

The final activity asked participants to represent their group definition of success through the images, words and ideas used in women’s magazines.

“Magazines are artifacts that reproduce the dominant discourses that circulate in popular culture, and my intention was to have a conversation about what these dominant discourses are and reflect on ways in which the experiences and perspectives of women of color challenge or offer a counter-discourse,” Cruz said.

This dialogue led to an exchange of ideas relating to what it means to maintain and promote one’s culture and heritage in the workplace. Maryam Khan ’10, originally from Pakistan and now working in finance in New York City, spoke on how maintaining a sense of one’s culture is not simply asserting oneself at every turn, but learning to work within the rules of one’s industry to make the most effective change.

Khan said that she realized that as a junior level associate, wearing a nose-ring to client meetings simply would not help her or the company, so she took it off even though it had been a part of her identity for years. Now, Khan says, she could flaunt for heritage and “wear a gypsy skirt to work” if she wanted to because she has proven herself in the company and gained some leverage to push back against the rules a little.

Furthermore, Harvey shared her path to her dream job one she decided upon from a young age but one she couldn’t achieve before first taking time off to learn about herself and what she wanted and needed out of life.

“As the child of immigrant parents I was encouraged to map out my future while I was very young, well before I entered college,” Harvey said. “To my parents it didn’t matter what path I chose, as long as I had a path. My journey ended up being more of a zig-zag than a straight line.”

Several presenters spoke about how success is often unpredictable, and definitions of success can vary based on personal choices.

“I think knowing that there are many different definitions of success and I don’t have to conform to one allows me to breathe and take my time as a sophomore and be like, everything is going to be OK, and I’m going to figure it out,” Abernethy said.