I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Iwerks, a local activist in Harrisonburg and JMU, who you will learn more about below!
1. How would you explain your role at JMU?
I am the Assistant Director for SOGIE Education and Support. SOGIE is Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression. I oversee LGBTQ+ support and leadership programming, including running the Lavender Lounge, and campus educational programs on LGBTQ+ identities. I also serve as a survivor advocate on campus.
2. What is your book club and what inspired you to start it?
WAKE UP stands for White Accomplices Knowing Experiences Underlining Privilege. WAKE UP is a book club for faculty and staff with the intention of promoting racial justice at JMU through understanding the experiences that have shaped white people’s white identity and experiences with race. I was inspired to create this space after attending an event last spring called “Stories of Academic Bravery and Resilience” facilitated by Dr. Oris Griffin, Valarie Ghant, and Dr. Francesca Tripodi. This was a fishbowl conversation with the authors of Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability and Resistance – Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, Dr. Patricia Herrera, and Dr. Archana A. Pathak. During this conversation, one of the authors mentioned how important it is that white people have a space with other white people to process their whiteness and racial experiences, so that white people can learn without putting the burden on People of Color. I knew that didn’t currently exist at JMU, so I wanted to do something to create it.
3. What books have you read?
The current structure of the group is that all people read me + white Supremacy by Layla F. Saad and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo during their first semester with WAKE UP. Once people have read those books, we have a “returner” group. This semester, that group is reading White Like Me by Tim Wise and How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M. Fleming.
4. What have you learned throughout the process?
This experience has helped me to continue to identify white supremacy culture in my work and life, and given me more confidence in speaking out against these practices. It’s also helped me be able to respond when I have caused harm to someone. Part of what has helped me with this is processing through the concept that I will always cause harm to someone – because our society is founded on white supremacy, it’s hard to do something that is perfectly inclusive of all people. However, I don’t believe I can let that stop me from trying to be more inclusive with everything I do. WAKE UP has also given me a space to learn and process through things where I don’t have to burden my friends and colleagues of Color.
5. How have participants responded?
While I don’t want to speak for others, we have heard from others in the group that they have appreciated having a space to process with others as well. I think it is powerful to have accountability in learning about race, because there isn’t that accountability available in many places. It’s a big commitment for people between the biweekly meetings and reading two books outside those meetings, so we know that the people that show up truly care about this. I think WAKE UP feels like a safer place to ask questions, or admit you don’t know something, because people are not worried about offending someone in the group. We have the understanding that we are all there to learn, so if someone says something problematic, we have the environment to unpack that. I’ve also heard others in the group reflecting similar growth to what I’ve experienced – examining their own lives more critically, and feeling more confident about speaking out against white supremacy.
6. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why and how does having your identity/ privileges factor into that answer?
I do personally consider myself an intersectional feminist, but I’m also very aware of the problems within the feminist movement, and so it’s not a term that publicly use for myself very often. As a bisexual, white, cisgender woman, I know what it looks like to most people when I associate myself with feminism. While my privileged identities might be supported by the movements, I know that the problems that BIPOC women, transwomen, women from lower economic statuses, different ability women, and many other marginalized communities face are not heard and represented in feminist movements. I also see how, as a queer woman, I am not always heard and represented in the feminist movements. I feel like it’s become a common quote, but I still love the words:
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”.Audre Lorde
In every movement towards liberation, we have to thinking about intersectional experiences and raising the voices and needs of the most marginalized people. Feminism is not immune from that.
7. How do you think individuals within the LGBTQ+ community could be more inclusive?
The LGBTQ+ community is already such a diverse and intersectional community in its own right – there are people that belong to the queer community because of one marginalized identity they hold, and yet they are also privileged in another identity they hold. I am a bisexual woman, but I’m also cisgender. So I’m already balancing where I have space in the LGBTQ+ community with where I hold privilege, and therefore need to step back for others to have the space and voice to be. This isn’t always easy for the people to do, but it is also a sign, to me, that we have what it takes to make the queer community more inclusive for all kinds of intersectionality.
I think first steps towards being more inclusive include starting with yourself – unpacking your own biases, and educating yourself on others. Read, journal, and listen to people of identities different than your own. Look for books, articles, podcasts, social media pages, that are authored by people of other identities. Those people already want to educate you, so you don’t have to burden others! As a community, we need to make sure that we are changing the narrative of what it means to be queer – it doesn’t have a certain look or experience. We have to stop assuming that some can’t be Black and gay, or religious and trans, or differently abled and queer. And we need to show that our community is intersectionaly diverse, so that others not in the LGBTQ+ community also change their narratives of queer people. We need to feature and raise up the voices and work of LGBTQ+ people from a variety of different identities. We need a variety of identities in leadership roles within LGBTQ+ organizations and movements. We also need to care about the experiences, issues, and struggles of our intersectional community. LGBTQ+ movements should be speaking up for racial justice, anti-ableism, immigrant rights, economic justice, environmental justice, and other movements as well. These movements, and others, are about the liberation of queer people too, because our queer community can have all these identities and more.
If you’re interested in learning more about the book club, check out these articles! WAKE UP is facilitated by Jennifer Iwerks and JMU communications professor Jennifer PeeksMease