Women's mural

Women’s & Gender Studies Symposium Focuses on Democracy and Disenfranchisement

The Women’s & Gender Studies Program presented its annual Symposium recently to a packed house in the Ackerson Hall Dean’s Lounge. The event, titled “Democracy for Whom?”  was held in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Women’s suffrage in the U.S.

The symposium consisted of two hour-and-a-half-long panels. The first, which focused on democracy and disenfranchisement in Newark and New Jersey, featured three speakers: Henal Patel, Director of the Justice & Democracy Project at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Ayesha Mughal, co-chair of the Central New Jersey chapter of Democratic Socialists of America; and RU-N senior and student activist Esder Chong. Each spoke for 15–20 minutes before taking questions from the audience of about 75 people, most of them students.

“The panelists were great, and we had an amazing turnout,” said Cat Fitzpatrick, Director of Rutgers University–Newark’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program and coordinator of the event. “I was impressed by not only the number of students but their engagement during the discussions after each panel.”

The panelists consistently offered a high degree of accessibility and relevance, talking about important political questions in subtle and interesting ways.

Patel spoke about mass incarceration and targeted disenfranchisement of ex-inmates, and made a larger argument about democratic participation in local races in New Jersey. Mughal discussed immigrant justice, local democracy, electoral politics and immigrant disenfranchisement. Chong, a Dreamer who has garnered headlines for her activism on behalf of undocumented students and who was recently named a Schwarzman Scholar, talked about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the ways in which students organizing can exert political power on both the university and state level with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

The symposium attendees broke for lunch before settling in for the second panel, which presented a discussion on democracy and U.S. empire. That panel featured Randy Abreu, Policy Director of AOC for Congress, the official re-election entity of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Violeta Múnera, Deputy Director of Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation; and Kyla Schuller, Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Abreu offered a roadmap to creating change within electoral politics, discussing his involvement with AOC, arguing for faith in politics proper, and noting the important of energizing new voters while engaging current ones who may disagree with your positions. Múnera talked about her history of activism in Puerto Rico and the role of U.S.-sponsored disenfranchisement in P.R. and the Caribbean, and how to organize for immigrant justice in the U.S. And Schuller spoke about the role racism played in the early U.S. women’s suffrage movement.

“The panelists consistently offered a high degree of accessibility and relevance, talking about important political questions in subtle and interesting ways and making the activism accessible to students who want to be politically engaged and get stuff done,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m grateful they shared their time and expertise with the students. They did an excellent job, and the event was a great success.”