Cody Embelton’s NWSA Annual Conference Experience

Cody Embelton with Angela Davis
Cody Embelton with Angela Davis at the NWSA Annual Meeting Nov 2019.

NWSA Annual Conference 2019 – an Experience!
by Cody Embelton

Attending the NWSA conference in San Francisco constituted perhaps the most impactful and challenging experience of my undergraduate career. Apart from the engaging and enlightening programming, the setting of the conference served to be particularly poignant for my personal growth, having solidified my resolve for social justice and opened my (previously naive) eyes to the realities of the extreme inequality and the extent of erasure of the marginalized within contemporary society. I had the pleasure of attending a session titled “Marginality as a Source of Radicalism: The WGS Classroom at Community Colleges” which concentrated on a groundbreaking literary work titled Theory and Praxis: Women’s and Gender Studies at Community Colleges. This session in particular stood out to me as it called out the ironic dissociation between feminist scholarship and the lived experiences of the economically and socially disadvantaged who typically seek higher education not in the university setting, but in a (much more accessible) community college setting, scholarship which is often viewed as less important or less impactful than research coming from universities despite the self-proclaimed inclusivity of the field; all while essentially ignoring both the ongoing necessity of WGS scholarship from those settings (as loci of diversity not typically occurring in the university) and the historical impact of community colleges in the founding of grassroots and bottom-up movements for social justice.

This discussion was occurring in the context of a scholarly retreat in the center of a massively gentrified and astonishingly unequal city, which had the effect of making me personally hyper-aware of the extremes of class within the US. Never before had I been forced to reckon with the absolute and unignorable extremes of poverty juxtaposed by inexorable displays of wealth and privilege. Perhaps the most personally impactful, infuriating, and inspiring experience I had while attending the conference was an afternoon walk I took with Taylor [Cray]. We explored the city not far from the hotel, discovering just a few blocks over from the gleaming palace at which we were staying a homeless encampment taking up an entire back alley, filled with small tents. I witnessed their survival sex work; mental illness; and, above all, the deafening silence of the local professional class who passed by on either end of the alley without glancing at the mirror of their privilege, the extreme disenfranchisement, poverty, desperation, and precarity all around them. This all two blocks away from the fashion institute and the people sleeping in boxes in the doorway of the Gucci outlet. This walk shook me to my core, the glimmering metropolis all around us seemingly emerging from the bodies of these masses deprived of their basic needs, punished endlessly for their only real crime: poverty (that is, the inability to participate in the market). Instantly, I realized how inexcusable the entire situation is, stores decked in gold leaf inches away from the most vulnerable and least cared-for people. It convinced me of the failure of capitalism, a system I had long questioned but not necessarily found to be utterly evil (having been naively optimistic about the system into which I was born and in which I have no choice but to participate); if I wasn’t Marxist going in to this conference, I definitely was coming out. Beyond this, it convinced me of the shortcomings of my own scholarship. If we ignore the narratives of those coming out of accessible academia, how will we ever be able to address the issues and document the insights of those whose narratives we never hear because they exist entirely outside of academic circles?

In short, this trip ended up being an experience in empathy. No other academic trip has sent me into an absolute existential crisis like this one did; I left convinced that transnational change must begin with honestly addressing the shortcomings of all existing political and economic systems. We need to queer the way we go about research, question how we discuss the applications of theory, and strive to include allies in broad circumstances in our discussions.

Cody Embelton is a 4th year Biology major and WGS double major with minors in Labor Studies and Marxist and Socialist Studies. Cody attended the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference in San Francisco, California, November 14-17, 2019.