Adelle Kelly faced two doorways leading into Northwestern University’s Women's Empowerment Conference. Once was labeled ‘Average’; the other was marked “Beautiful.”
Kelly, a junior at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), weighed her options. Then she chose “Beautiful.”
“I’m trying to be more confident in high school, and it’s not easy,” Kelly said. “But the more people go through the ‘Beautiful’ door, the more we will see it as the norm.”
The exercise, borrowed from Dove’s viral “Choose Beautiful” campaign, kicked off Northwestern’s first Women’s Empowerment Conference, where ETHS students, staff and Northwestern volunteers discussed everything from dress coding and microaggressions to stereotypes and “intersectional feminism,” which describes how the feminist movement can be more diverse and inclusive.
Organized by Kristen Perkins, Northwestern/ETHS partnership coordinator in the Office of STEM Education Partnerships and ETHS teacher Darlene Gordon, the student-driven event was led by ETHS senior Shirine Marzouki and ETHS teacher Genae McAlpin.
Women from Northwestern and staff from the high school shared their personal perspectives and listened to students reflect on the meaning of “empowered,” the larger issues behind “dress coding” -- when a student’s clothing is deemed inappropriate because it will distract boys and men or invite assault or rape -- and the feeling of marginalization.
Some said they felt ignored by the white feminist movement and powerless to combat microaggressions.
- “As a black girl and a girl with curves, I have tried to stay out of the way of men and security guards who target me. I wear longer shorts and looser pants. I wear a shirt under my camisole. I’ve had to compromise a lot for my skin color and body type, and I don’t think that’s right.”
- “I can’t separate my blackness from womanhood, and it really pisses me off when I see black women who think they don’t belong in the feminist movement because it’s not spoken for them.”
- "I don’t feel represented in this movement, and I never have. It’s so white. It’s just so white.”
- “I have been sexually harassed since age 13. Where do I draw the line? How do I uphold my body integrity without compromising my goals and dreams?”
- “It makes me angry that white women are looked at like icons when they speak out about microaggressions; if I were to speak out about machismo, I’d be just another angry Latina with a sexual attitude.”
A diverse group of 120 students attended the conference, which featured four break-out sessions, including a wide-ranging panel discussion on women’s empowerment and a silent microaggression walk, where students used Post-it notes to comment on photos of microaggressions hanging on the walls.
A panel discussion featured Marzouki, Kelly Benkert, director of leadership and community engagement at Northwestern, Frances Aparicio, chair of Latina and Latino Studies at Northwestern; Adanna Ukah, a Northwestern Kellogg MBA student; and Njoki Kamau, Associate Director of Northwestern’s Women’s Center.
During the “Beautiful vs. Average” session, the students watched the video of Dove’s 2015 campaign, when Dove set up “Beautiful” and “Average” signs above side-by-side doors in five cities around the world. As a springboard to discussion, they described how they felt when they walked through the doors on anonymous notecards.
Some participants wrote that they didn’t notice the signs. Others said it felt weird to label themselves. McAlpin, who teaches history at ETHS, said the doors made her pause. “I went ‘Average’; I’m not quite there yet,” she said. “By empowering others as a teacher, I’m also trying to work on myself.”
Though some conference attendees wanted deeper discussions, they agreed that the event was an important starting point. ETHS principal Marcus Campbell, who initiated the conference, told the group during opening remarks that he wants to expand the program all the women who identify as female at ETHS.
“It feels like things are changing just in our school, and we’re already at the forefront of these types of issues,” said senior Anatolia Syed. “It’s empowering to know that’s possible.”
The Women’s Empowerment Conference was hosted by Northwestern’s Office of Stem Education Partnerships in the School of Education and Social Policy and the Northwestern/ETHS Partnership Office. Additional support came from Evanston Township High School and the Evanston Public Library.