Students to host Women’s Empowerment Panel

Camas High event to feature 6 speakers, including FBI agent, student activists

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Camas High School juniors Rachel Blair and Tsering Shola hold flyers for the upcoming Women Empowerment Panel, to be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Friday, June 1, in the North Commons of Camas High School. The pair have organized this panel on their own time to bring discussion and understanding to what feminism is in 2018. (Tori Benavente/Post-Record)

What are the core values of feminism and what role does it play in society in 2018?

This question is the driving force behind a Women’s Empowerment Panel, to be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Friday, June 1, in the North Commons of Camas High School.

Camas High School juniors Rachel Blair and Tsering Shola organized the panel, which will feature six women, including FBI agent and former United States Army military intelligence officer Samantha Baltzersen; Aaliyah Joseph, a senior at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, and local student activist from CENTER PDX, a Portland-based coalition of educational and nonprofit organizations committed to social justice issues; Camas High art teacher and tattoo artist Heidi Keith; Ameya Okamoto, a senior at Catlin Gabel School, additional member of CENTER PDX, local artist and activist; freelance marketing consultant and Sseko Company fellow Molly Walter, who uses an ethical fashion business model to help educate and empower women in east Africa; and Camas School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Charlene Williams.

“This panel will be well worth the time, because it will give people a different lens for looking at feminism and will empower them to manifest feminist ideals in (their) life and empower girls for future generations, too,” Shola said.

And you don’t need to consider yourself a feminist to attend, Blair added, saying the event is “an opportunity to see things differently.”

In selecting the panelists, the student organizers aimed to keep the group as diverse as possible.

“(Camas) has hosted an event like this before, but it was more career-based,” Blair said. “We wanted to gear this more toward women’s empowerment in general and really explain more in-depth what feminism is and what gender equality is, in the context of the lives of women.”

Blair and Shola said they became interested in hosting the panel after serving as delegates for Girls Learn International and the Feminist Majority Foundation at the United Nations (U.N.) Commission on the Status of Women, in New York City, earlier this year.

The pair participated in similar panel-style conversations about human rights issues affecting rural women, and decided to bring those topics and style of discussion home to Camas.

After returning from the U.N. conference, Blair and Shola said they were bothered by negative perceptions of “feminism” in their community and school.

“With this opposition, we want to give insight (into) what the core of feminism actually is in 2018, because maybe in the ’70s and ’80s it had more of a negative connotation, but now it is a positive empowerment movement for women everywhere,” Blair said.

Shola said many people who reject the word “feminist” likely believe in what feminism is all about.

“I feel like the modern feminist movement has been politicized in certain ways and people who advocate for gender equality — which is literally the definition of feminism — (say) ‘Oh yeah, I want gender equality, but I’m not a feminist,’ when those things are the exact same.”

A growing passion for equality

Blair said she has watched her mother, a teacher and an artist, and grandmothers — one is a yoga teacher and therapist, the other an actress — pursue their goals without worrying about what anyone else thinks.

“After hearing all their stories growing up, it just kind of came together for me my freshman year in high school — women are seriously overlooked,” she said. “We need to do our best to make sure that they have justice, have representation and can have their voices heard, because women have voices, it’s just a matter of empowering them to use them and helping the public to hear them.”

Shola, who is Tibetan, said she realized that the struggles she faces as a woman of color are much different than those facing white girls in our society.

“Being a women of color, I obviously face different conflicts than other women,” Shola said. “And in recent years I’ve been a huge advocate for immigration and how that affects women as well.”

Blair said she experienced a culture shock when she traveled to Nicaragua with the nonprofit Courts for Kids. In the midst of her construction project, a man took the bucket she was using.

Blair, who speaks fluent Spanish, said she had a conversation with him.

The man told her women should not lift buckets and shouldn’t be working. Blair said she also observed the women in the community taking care of everyone else by doing the cooking, cleaning, teaching, organizing church events and helping with agricultural practices.

“(The women) really lack a lot of recognition for everything that they do, and I was just in the thick of that down there,” she said. “I didn’t expect such a huge culture shock in terms of gender roles, but when you get off the bus there, it’s a totally different world.”

At Camas, Blair and Shola are a part of the Global Feminists Club, which will collaborate with the school’s new Girls Represent campaign — created by Camas High junior Monica Chang and Blair as part of their work with the Camas High DECA group — to help girls pursue male-dominated careers.

The June 1 Women’s Empowerment Panel also serves as a fundraiser to help pay for the organizers’ trip to New York. The girls hope to raise $1,200 through fundraising — the amount they spent on room and board.

Donations will be accepted at the panel event and Walter, the panel participant from Sseko, will bring a shoe booth and donate a portion of the proceeds from sold shoes to the help pay for the girls’ previous trip to the U.N.