MORAGA -- Sexism and racism, two of the oldest stories in the book of life, took a hit at Saint Mary's College during its recent Wo/men's Conference 2014.
Presented March 8 by the Women's Resource Center, along with campus and community partners, the "We Can Do It" theme sought enlistments. Calling for an end to human trafficking and violence aimed at women, people of color and other vulnerable populations, the all-day conference featured breakout sessions covering a range of social justice issues.
Among the keynote speakers was 92-year-old National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, who asked to be referred to as "vintage" rather than "oldest active" in the world. Soskin works six-hour days five days a week at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical National Park in Richmond. She began the conference by dancing, joining a get-moving kickoff before sharing a 15-minute DVD about Henry Kaiser's shipbuilding empire.
"I was a consultant to the filmmakers and had no idea how you would tell a complex story in 15 minutes," Soskin said. "You go for the 'We all got together when the country needed us' version," she said.
But the film's story ends at a time when there were still 120,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps, and Soskin -- an African American -- was a file clerk in a segregated union hall.
"Graduating from high school as a young woman of color in 1938, I had two fields open to me -- agriculture or domestic servant. Working in a Jim Crow hall was a step up."
When the war ended, 60,000 workers were abandoned overnight, she said, about the (mostly minority) workers who had been imported from the deep south because they had few opportunities where they lived. "That image -- "I can do it!' -- that's a white woman's story," she warned.
Soskin is devoted to ensuring that African American women who were part of Rosie the Riveter are recognized.
Scrolling through civil rights history to six years ago, when she sat in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and witnessed the inauguration of the United States' first African American president, Soskin said, "I felt like I was fluorescent; like everyone knew who I was."
And speaking of her work as a field representative for the California Assembly, she said, "You might wonder if I became a genius: it's an indication of how much social change this nation has gone through."
Acknowledging progress, she mentioned her great-grandmother -- born a slave, she parented 13 children and lived to 102.
"My great grandmother is my motivator. I know how my generation confronted the threat of its day. But the nature of Democracy is it's never going to stay fixed; part of its energy comes from the dynamism of change. You have to recreate democracy in your time, under a still-flawed social system."
Also speaking were Wanda Johnson and Cephus Johnson. They are the mother and uncle, respectively, of the late Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old Hayward resident who was shot by BART officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Day 2009. They spoke at a lunchtime presentation. Speaking about how violence against men of color impacts women of color, their personal stories of pain, dignity, honor among families and communities, sent a potent message. Single voices can't solve the problems, Oscar Grant's mother suggested. "We need each other to improve society and for laws to be changed. One person can have an idea, but it takes all of us to make change."
WRC Director Sharon Sobotta said it was important to have men at the conference because statistics show 90 percent of violence against women is perpetrated by men. "We know we can't tackle (gender) issues without men at the table," she said.
Justher Gutierrez, 21, an SMC senior majoring in communications, said, "Violence against women on campuses, including this one, is something we should definitely talk about. We can't pretend it doesn't happen. It happens, even at places like Saint Mary's." Active in theater, she said art can open the dialogue.
Victoria Albaracin, earning her Masters in Education at Oakland's Holy Names University, said education about social justice issues should begin early.
"It's important for us to know how to create advocates, even in kindergarten. By having multi cultural resources and having women as coaches, we'll empower girls in the classroom."