WE Con Unites Through Stories
WE Con offers a space for women to tell their stories
For women's rights activists, there's a mountain of justice work to be done, but this weekend's Women's Empowerment Conference (WE Con 2015) aims to create an inclusive, safe, and supportive platform to heal and progress as a community – a particularly essential concept for women who have experienced incarceration.
The Women's Community Center of Central Texas' second annual event is billed as a conversation and resource fair, with panels, workshops, job training, and discussions specifically geared toward adult and teen women (and anyone else interested). WE Con is free, open to the public, bilingual, and registration includes free childcare and food – to facilitate attendance by those facing such situational obstacles. A noted objective is to "work toward creating a genuinely inclusive space free of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, ageism, transphobia, cis normativity, and all other forms of oppression."
Such stigmas often impede successful rehabilitation and societal re-entry for formerly incarcerated women by blockading housing and job opportunities. One of the groups tackling these issues for WE Con 2015 is Conspire Theatre, whose members will lead a discussion called "Performing Possibilities: Stories of Texas Women During & After Prison." "The heart of our work is using theatre to put a spotlight on oppression and inequalities that exist, especially as they relate to women's incarceration and re-entry," Conspire's Artistic Director Michelle Dahlenburg told the Chronicle in an email interview.
Performing Possibilities, an ensemble of women who have been through the correction system, is one aspect of Conspire Theatre, which bills itself as "Theatre with incarcerated women and their allies." Since the Chronicle first covered Performing Possibilities in 2013 ("Conspire Theatre," July 12, 2013), Conspire has been working steadily: revise, perform, grow community, repeat. They're also connecting with organizations like the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Grassroots Leadership. "We're working to align our artistic work more with the goals of organizations who work to make change for women at the Lege. We want to use stories to help pass laws that support re-entry," says Dahlenburg. Last fall began a monthly workshop series that uses theatre, digital storytelling, and improvised singing, and in May the group will open a new play. They also still host weekly classes for incarcerated women at the Travis County Correctional Complex.
Dahlenburg says, "Conspire performer/board member Lauren Johnson often quotes the [Orange Is the New Black's] tagline 'Every sentence tells a story' as it relates to the importance of putting a spotlight on formerly incarcerated women's stories. My sense is that OITNB telling women's stories has raised awareness and humanized the experience of women re-entering society to an extent, but from what I hear from the women we work with, it hasn't translated into a reduction of stigma for them." Dismantling internalized and external stigmas is exactly where community conversations come in.
The weekend is packed full of other topics to explore, including "Dismantling the Womb to Prison Pipeline," featuring Shela Williams and other members of Mama Sana (see "Right to Birth," Feb. 13); "Wheel Magnolias: Empowered Women With Disabilities"; a workshop by Black Women Get Rooted and Naya Jones (see "We Need to Talk," Dec. 19, 2014) called "Collective Nourishment: Honoring Everyday Activism, Black Feminist Style"; plus sessions on racial equity, reproductive justice, gender messages in the media, women in the military, immigrant detention, and more. On Saturday, Conspire Theatre will workshop their newest performance piece and follow up with an interactive audience discussion.
"It humanizes incarceration. The audience is able to recognize the performers as women who have made mistakes, rather than as irredeemable criminals," explains Dahlenburg. "Both the audience and the performers realize that a woman's criminal record and past mistakes do not have to determine her worth. In one post-show talkback, a performer asked the audience, 'Now that you've heard my story, would you give me a job?' Several audience members called back, 'Yes!' The performers become advocates for themselves, and a voice for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Through their performance, they contribute to their communities in a new way."
The Women's Empowerment Conference takes place this Sat. & Sun., March 7 & 8, at ACC Eastview Campus, 3401 Webberville Rd. Register at www.weconaustin.org, or get updates on Twitter by following @WomenCTX and #WeCon2015.