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Women’s symposium explores social justice — and the struggle to achieve it

Plenary panel at the Women's History Month symposium, from left, Yaide Valdez; Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco; Dr. Anyango Kamina; and Karima Amin.

The plenary panel at the Women's History Month symposium (from left): Yaide Valdez, Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco, Anyango Kamina and Karima Amin. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published March 6, 2024

“Do you ever stop and think about your life’s journey? ”
Patrice Funderburg, executive director, Center for Community Transitions, and keynote speaker
UB Women's History Month symposium

A UB symposium opened Women’s History Month last Friday with a wide-ranging exploration of topics centered on social justice and the struggle to achieve it in today’s calamitous world. Even with tough things to talk about, a gentle vibe of kindness, empathy and mutual support prevailed throughout the presentations, panel discussion and keynote address. Speakers’ remarks, as well as audience responses, were often deeply personal, containing many thought-provoking observations about what it means to be privileged or not.

An estimated 90 participants gathered in the Center for Tomorrow for what was billed as the inaugural symposium of its kind. Titled “From the Roots to the Sky: Women, Organizing, and Social Justice,” the symposium was sponsored by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Cora P. Maloney Center and the Gender Institute. A key theme was how to “rejuvenate the mind, refresh the soul, nurture the body.” Indeed, the importance of self-care was a leitmotif throughout the day, as intense pursuit of social justice among women can take its toll on body and spirit, thus requiring replenishment that speakers often described.

Seval Yildirim, vice provost for inclusive excellence, welcomes atendees.  Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Following a welcome from Seval Yildirim, vice provost for inclusive excellence, a panel of four activists shared their experiences, struggles, joys and methods for self-care. With Christy Garrison-Harrison, distinguished visiting scholar in the Department of History, serving as moderator, the women described their pathways to activism and explained how they sustained and nurtured their passion for change.

Like other symposium speakers, Yaide Valdez, a UB senior and political science major, is an immigrant. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, she identifies as Black-Latina and now serves as executive director of the Student Voices Team for the SUNY Student Assembly. “When I moved to Rochester,” she said, “I wasn’t very aware of what race was, or the concept of race. It was something I never grew up around. … And I never understood it until I got older.”

Later, while attending a charter school, she “was surrounded by people that look like me … I became a little curious and started asking questions that people my age usually don’t ask, and I got an interest in why race is such an important thing when it comes to education.”

Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco, regional political organizer with New York State United Teachers, described her 24-year career as a professional advocate for unions and political groups. She recalled early experiences that had forged her activism. Among them: the memory of having to foreclose on the family home and move quickly with her single mom, grandmother and siblings on the eve of her college graduation.

“It’s pretty hard to study and graduate when you don’t know where you live,” she said. “But thankfully, I had professors who were also pouring into me. I had friends that cared about me, and they really helped me pull through this final stretch, and I graduated, the first in my family to do so.”

Despite this happy moment, Fletcher-Pacheco was angry, specifically at “the broken system” besetting her family. “I know it was broken because when I went to the grocery store with my mother, who had worked two jobs to make sure I was going to college, I could see the panic in her eyes when the bill came. … I knew it was personal and it was also class warfare. It was also nothing we did wrong.”

Anyango Kamina, a microbiologist and assistant dean for student development and academic enhancement in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, related how her upbringing in Kenya contrasted with social systems in the U.S., and how experiences here and there inspired her to eventually create a course on women’s health.

“I grew up in a very patriarchal, very polygamous, society, where gender roles are very prominent,” she said. “You can see how it actually leads to a lack of wellness for women — I lost family members due to these understandings of gender roles.”

Yet, after arriving in the U.S., Kamina encountered women “suffering in silence and secrecy” when it came to various aspects of female health. She was then determined to apply “a scientific lens” to these health issues and advocate for more research funds directed toward this goal.

Storyteller Karima Amin, a Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) teacher for 24 years, moved some audience members to near tears as she recounted her work on behalf of Prisoners Are People Too Inc., a Buffalo nonprofit she organized with her husband, who himself spent 36 years behind bars before meeting his wife after his release. Amin founded the nonprofit after seeing three of her former BPS students among prisoners who had gathered for her storytelling presentation during Kwanzaa. All three were there on drug charges related to the crack epidemic of the time.

“I felt like I needed to do something. … I had an idea that I could do something that would make life better for these young people and their families.” Her activism subsequently centered on her storytelling on radio station WBLK. “It started out one story every Monday during Black History Month 1992. I ended up being on the radio for 10 years.” Today, Amin continues her storytelling through Do Tell! Productions.

Following their opening remarks, the panelists fielded questions from Garrison-Harrison on their continuing motivation for social activism, how they practice self-care among their arduous work, and suggestions they might have for others who want to sustain or launch their own brand of activism.

Keynote speaker, Patrice Funderburg.

Patrice Funderburg, executive director of the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte, North Carolina, delivers the keynote address. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

After lunch, attendees heard a presentation from keynoter Patrice Funderburg, a Buffalo native and UB alumna who is now executive director of the Center for Community Transitions (CCT) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Funderburg displayed photos of her family’s home in North Buffalo, and spoke of themes of intersectionality while growing up in the only Black family on the block. Earlier, the family lived in the Allenhurst Apartments, then used as graduate student housing, while her dad attended UB Law. Funderburg described how she and her best friend, a white girl, navigated life in the neighborhood before her friend moved to the suburbs and the two grew apart.

“My family was not the same as my childhood best friend, though we lived two doors away from each other on the same street in the same ’hood,” she said. “But she was white with hippie parents, a lot of siblings and a Black adopted brother. I didn’t have language for it at the time, but looking back, I’m not sure if I truly knew where I fit in. I was Black, living in North Buffalo with both of my college-graduate parents who were active in the community, and we attended a bilingual Catholic Church.

“My life wasn’t exactly the picture of who the media was saying I was supposed to be as a Black person during the early stages of the war on drugs in the late ’80s and into the early ’90s,” she said. “At the same time, I was becoming more aware of how I was not the same as most of my friends and church family. Yet I felt a deeper connectedness to them than I did to my all-white ’hood. Do you ever stop and think about your life’s journey?”

Funderburg invited the audience to text brief expressions of their own forms of identity while growing up; these were almost instantly projected onto the screen. She also described her awakening to social activism, and her nonprofit work following a long corporate career as an HR executive. Aghast at the news of another police-involved shooting, that of Philando Castile, on July 6, 2016, outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, she went for a run on the greenway where she often trained for her marathons.

“When I got to my turnaround point, I started to go back and my body stopped me,” she said. “I could not breathe. It felt like an anxiety attack, but I really did not know what was happening. I just found myself weeping and crying so hard.”

And then came a moment of transformation that altered her life course. “I felt like the spirit of Trayvon Martin came to me and lifted my shoulders. It felt like he whispered to me, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ I caught my breath; I sat there and I suddenly noticed that everything got brighter. The beauty of nature got brighter. I recognized that there was life happening around me, despite all of the tragedy that was happening to people who look like me. … It was a metaphor. I told myself, this is your work and I never looked back.” There began her activist career that led to her current role with CCT, which helps individuals through employment and training, social emotional wellness and supporting alternatives to incarceration.

Also speaking was Rahwa Ghirmatzion, a native of Eritrea who is senior policy fellow, Just Solutions Collective, and the former director of PUSH Buffalo. A joint presentation by Amani Johnson and Frankie Kraft, psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, respectively, with the UB Counseling Services, centered on “The Myth of Perfectionism: Prioritizing Self-Compassion for Women.”

Closing the symposium, Victoria Wolcott, director of the Gender Institute, gave a short but detailed recounting of Women’s History Month, which has its roots in Women’s History Day, first observed in 1911.

As part of the symposium, participants were invited to take away one of four books displayed in the CFT lobby. These titles explore various aspects of symposium themes, and offered attendees a way to “share, swap and discuss the books with friends and colleagues.”

The inaugural Women’s History Month symposium was organized by co-chairs Jacqueline Hollins, associate vice provost for inclusion and student success, Academic Affairs, and Amber Melvin, assistant vice provost for inclusive excellence, Office of Inclusive Excellence. Other committee members are Christy Garrison-Harrison, distinguished visiting scholar, Department of History; Danielle Johnson, director of social justice initiatives, Cora P. Maloney Center; Kyla Tompkins, chair, Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Jodi Valenti-Protas, staff assistant, Office of Inclusive Excellence.