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Kyleah Bell

UWL graduate student Kyleah Bell helped develop Saturday's Waiting to Exhale Retreat, a day long event for women with keynote speakers, panels, caucuses and workshops. 

They were four women of different backgrounds, races and ages, but the keynote speakers at the Waiting To Exhale Retreat shared a common message with the group of 60 students: Empower yourselves, and make your voices heard.

Hosted and funded by the UW-La Crosse Residence Life Social Justice and Inclusion Committee, Saturday’s all-day event for women — or the hosts’ preferred, more inclusive term, womxn — was comprised of speakers, panels, caucuses and workshops, put on by a committee of seven and attended by 60 students.

“What I really hope for people to take away is to advocate and empower each other, and to interact with each other and build relationships — we want women to feel heard and be able to develop a support system if they don’t have one,” said Kyleah Bell, a graduate student in student affairs administration who brought the idea for the retreat to UW-L. “Networking is a really big piece for me. ... As a first-generation college student, I’m really thankful for the women who helped me.”

During the “If you really knew me” workshop, attendees were invited to anonymously write down their vulnerabilities and truths, followed by discussion of common themes, offering of advice or simply taking a moment with their feelings, while UW-L senior counselor Crystal Champion led a lesson in self love and self care.

Faculty and staff and graduate students hosted panels on mentorship, feminism and microaggressions, and two caucuses were held, one for white students and the other for students of color. The division, says Bell, who led the women of color caucus with students Laura Abellera and Ka Vue, was intended to allow for more “open and raw” conversation in a safe space, without fear of saying the wrong thing or feeling judged.

Preceding an open-mic session in the afternoon, where students were invited to sing, share poetry or recite prose, keynote speakers touched on their individual challenges and accomplishments, as well as those facing the female population as a whole.

Adrian Lipscombe, owner of Uptowne Cafe, shared her experiences as a black woman in the male-dominated business field and predominantly white community, while Barbara Stewart, UW-L’s sole woman of color in a chancellor position, shared her journey through higher education.

Antoiwana Williams

Williams

Antiowana Williams, the university’s director of multicultural student services, walked students through her own path to earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and her frustrations with the continued lack of diversity on campus nearly three decades after she graduated from UW-L. At graduation, Williams says, she was referred to with a racial slur, recalling, “I’m walking in my cap and gown on and (they) still had the audacity to question my intelligence.”

After the encounter, Williams chose not to leave, vowing rather to help change the culture in La Crosse and accepting a position at the university. She has battled the assumptions of others and feels some resentment for the improved treatment she receives as a scholar.

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“Even after 19 years, I’m still judged by my degree — my living experience doesn’t even count,” Williams says.

Using the metaphor of “the mighty oak tree,” a symbol of strength, wisdom, courage and character, Williams advised the group to take control of their own destinies, own their truths, evolve without forgetting where they came from, surround themselves with good people and stand their ground.

“I’ve earned my respect,” Williams said. “I’m no longer a placeholder but a voice at the table. I refuse to not be heard.”

Laurie Cooper Stoll

Stoll

Sociology professor Laurie Cooper Stoll, whose article, “Fat Is a Social Justice Issue, Too” was published in the Humanity & Society journal, discussed the body image and the obesity paradox, calling fat both a feminist issue and a social justice issue.

“The war on obesity is fundamentally a war on fat people,” Cooper Stoll said.

Much of the research on obesity in the U.S., Cooper Stoll says, is funded by weight-loss and drug companies, noting that diets fail 90 to 95 percent of the time and citing research that states overweight individuals live longer than those who classify as underweight. Weight, she said, is a poor indicator of health, with fitness levels a more accurate measure.

Cooper Stoll told the group she has no regrets about throwing away her scale a few years ago. The number in pounds will no longer dictate her self worth.

“I don’t want to contribute to a culture climate that seeks to cut women down to size, a culture that seeks to punish women for taking up space,” Cooper Stoll said. “Let me say this loudly and over and over again: it is past time to change the policies and practices and laws that don’t ensure equity and inclusivity for all. It is past time to reject fat phobia and accept the reality of body size diversity. And it is most definitely past time to stop playing small. Own your space and use it to empower and validate others and to dismantle systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, transphobia and fat phobia because what we should be taught growing up is not to hate our bodies but to hate oppression.”


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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers health, human interest stories and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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