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Young feminists tackle obstacles to change at Chicago conference

Jen Sabella, Meredith Montgomery, Ashley Tribble, Laura Washington and Erika Wozniak talk to young feminists at a Saturday conference in Chicago. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times.

As a young, black woman, Kat West said she often feels hesitant when venturing into feminist space — conversations that historically haven’t included black women.  Even now, speaking up and speaking out can be difficult in non-inclusive spaces, she said.

But that trepidation was kept at bay during a conference held Saturday at the Merchandise Mart.

“We have to come to the table with new things to do, and we have to include everyone,” said West, a freshman studying social justice at Roosevelt University. “The conversations I’ve had here are different in a good way from conversations I’ve had in the past.”

Nearly 300 women gathered at “Cause the Effect,” the second annual young feminist conference, to talk about what stops change and how to beat those obstacles.

“We had a conversation around two years ago that it’s only the boys who get their voices heard or put in the paper,” Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, said. “I told them that if they think this is the last time that will happen it’s not, but they can do something about it.”

Gainer started the conference with help from young women to talk about what was happening around them during a 2016 summer that included a contentious presidential election and discussions about campus sexual assault.

When President Donald Trump was elected, it “exploded” those conversations, Gainer said.

This year, the commissioner said the point was for people to ask themselves “What are we doing?” and to answer that question, since there’s “too much going on for people to sleepwalk through their life,” Gainer said.

Representatives from Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters and Women Employed were present to emphasize that “the future is local.”

Maxine Aguilar and Sarah Horvitz lead the “I’m too young to vote. How can I make an impact?” workshop, while Iris Haastrup, front right, participates. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

Iris Hasstrup, a junior at Kenwood Academy, said the conference was a nice way to have girls from all over the city engage with social activism and feminism.

“In school, feminism is often from the same old perspective, so this is a nice space for girls to engage with their own opinions as well as with those around them,” Hasstrup said.

Maxine Aguilar, a senior at Jones College Prep, said the event was an improvement over last year’s conference because high school students like her were able to put on workshops on topics like “owning your voice” and “activism 101.” She said she learned about leading petition drives, organizing marches and volunteering with campaigns — action that’s possible even for people too young to vote.

“Students are able to contribute their ideas and interests, which creates more avenues for participants to get involved,” Aguilar said.

Going forward Aguilar, Hasstrup and West said the event, and feminism itself, could be more intersectional and inclusive. Queer and trans people could be included and more done to talk about, and educate others on, queer feminism.

“As a young person, I often think about and work toward having an intersectional framework,” West said. “I would say to others it’s never too late or too early to get involved in something you’re interested in and to be inclusive.”