Sarah Kay Keynotes Women’s Summit

“Who run the world? Girls.” Walking into Robsham’s main stage theater, attendees of the 2019 Boston College Women’s Summit were greeted with Beyoncé’s iconic feminist track “Run the World” shortly before F.I.S.T.S. took the stage to kick off the fifth annual event. The fiery, high-energy female step group brought passion to the theater before announcing this year’s keynote speaker: spoken-word poet Sarah Kay.

The self-proclaimed musical theatre geek and smoothie expert came into public view for her spoken word poem “If I should have a daughter…,” which received millions of views when she performed it as a TED Talk in 2011. Now, almost a decade later, Kay said she recognizes that being thrust into the public eye and feeling as though she was representing all poetry and poets made her massively uncomfortable. Kay related this feeling to one she said she believes many college students experience: that they’re undeserving of being at the school they’ve landed at.

But she told the audience—which, perhaps surprisingly, consisted of a number of male attendees—to “earn it backwards.” Even if she didn’t deserve to suddenly represent all spoken word poets, or if a student felt they didn’t deserve to be at BC—and Kay assured everyone that they in fact do—Kay dealt with her newfound notoriety by doing whatever she could to feel as though she did deserve it.

Kay’s entire speech was filled with anecdotes from her time as an undergraduate. She described her constant existence while studying film at Brown University as one long FOMO-filled existential crisis. When inside writing, she said she feels she should be outside living. When outside living, she notices all of the things she could be writing about.

“I spend most of my time wondering if I should be somewhere else,” Kay said.

Yet somehow, she assured the crowd, everything falls into place.

“Where I’m supposed to be this morning is at the 2019 Boston College Women’s Summit,” Kay said.

Still, Kay continued, sometimes the answers to our FOMO-inducing questions—“Should I go out or stay in?” “Should I spend time with friends or do homework?”—don’t have to be so black and white. In fact, Kay said, a lot of the time “the question is ‘or’ but the answer is ‘and.’”

Kay illustrated her advice with some examples. When your best friend asks if you should eat homemade cookies or go out to ice cream after dinner, the answer isn’t one or the other—it’s both. In a game or ‘Would You Rather,’ Kay said, the answer isn’t Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans, it’s Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans.

The moral of the story wasn’t to promote sugary after-dinner snacks or encounter multiple Avengers, but rather, she said, to embrace messier truths: Decisions don’t always have a one-or the-other answer. Tying her message back into the women’s issues the summit centered around, Kay said that for many women, there is a societal pressure to fit into a binding box—women can either have a career or a family, they can be either gay or straight, and they are often defined solely by their relationships to other people. But this doesn’t have to be the case, according to Kay.

“In my case, the answer is ‘and,’” she said.

Following Kay’s speech, attendees had the opportunity to choose two of a variety of workshops offered. Rachel DiBella, a part-time faculty member in the School of Social Work who specializes in trauma, gender equity and gender justice issues, and Claire Geruson, BC ’13, led one by the name of “From Rights to Liberation: Queering the History of Social Movements.”

They began with a simple question, “What does ‘Women’s Summit’ mean to you?” Attendees’ answers included “motivation,” “solidarity,” and “empowerment.” The word that captured the focus of DiBella and Geruson’s workshop most was “intersectional.” The two pointed out imperfections in feminist social movements throughout history and urged attendees to ask themselves what they can do to allow everyone’s voice to be heard.

Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah, an organization that operates a safe home for women who are victims of sex trafficking, led “Living in Hope, Walking through Darkness: Working in the Anti-trafficking Movement.” She discussed sex trafficking in Boston, the role her organization plays in combating it, and how women can get involved in the fight against the crime. Amirah offers the victims physical, vocational, and spiritual recovery through an individualized approach, Clark said, which is the key to the organization’s success.

The theme of the workshop was finding hope amid darkness. After sharing stories about women who had graduated from the organization and the challenges of working in her field, Clark asked the audience to write down what brings them hope and to let that drive their lives.

“You’re not alone if you are in this,” she said.  “We’re a part of this huge history of changing lives, and hopefully that will ignite in you the spirit of hope for you to do this work.”

Following the workshops, participants attended the main stage conversation: “Is there such a thing as work-life balance…or is it just life?” Katie Dalton, the director of the Women’s Center, served as the session’s moderator.

The main stage speakers included Tiziana Dearing, a professor in the School of Social Work; Jocelyn Gates, senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator; Helen Ha, the associate director of undergraduate programs at the Center for Student Formation; and Régine Jean-Charles, associate professor of romance languages and literature and African and African Diaspora Studies.

Beginning with a discussion about the demands of being a working woman in the 21st century, the speakers focused on how they balance their work life with the reality of being a mother.

“In life, especially strong women [act as] stewards of lots of people’s needs, interests, wants, desires,” Dearing said.

The speakers then discussed the difficulties racism adds to these challenges and the pressures women of color feel in their everyday lives.

“[I] was always the only black girl in the class—always very loud,  … always very outgoing,” Jean-Charles said. “I was branded as ‘too much.’ … Whenever people say my daughter is too much, I’m like, no, that God made her exactly who she is and who she needs to be.”

The speakers also shared their personal “bad mom” and “real mom” stories, and talked about how sharing these comedic or difficult moments helped create supportive spaces. It’s important for working mothers to find people they can freely be themselves around without worrying about meeting societal expectations, according to Ha.

The speakers also discussed the role of faith in their marriages and the ways in which they’ve balanced their own success with supporting their spouses. Dearing advocated for couples to set goals together, and Dalton talked about how full support for one another is crucial to the success of both partners in a marriage.

Following closing remarks that highlighted the focus of the event—empowering women and celebrating their strength and resilience—the event organizers introduced the spoken-word club BC Slam!. Three of the group’s members recited poetry, including Miya Coleman, the organization’s president and MCAS ’19, who recited her poem “Is a Black Woman.”

Featured Image by Jonathon Ye / Heights Editor