A large group of women and a few men gathered at Barnard College on Saturday for Women, Action, and the Media’s fifth annual WAM!NYC conference. WAM! is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting equal and fair representations of women in the media. While the highlight of the conference for most was having the opportunity to see writer Janet Mock and political strategist Zerlina Maxwell engage in a one-hour question and answer session, the entire day was filled with informative panels.
In a session called “Making It As a Woman of Color in the Media,” panelists discussed their online publishing efforts. Janine Jackson, program director of FAIR and producer and co-host of its radio show, CounterSpin, addressed news networks’ failures to find sources who are women of color. She advised editors and reporters to do a little extra work and reach outside of the circles they typically look to for comments.
Charla Harlow, a camera operator for ABC, said that she started Harlow Project, a site that interviews and celebrates women of color, out of frustrations with the shows she was working on. “I always talk about race,” Harlow said. “Sometimes, I say something to the director and I don’t get called back. . .You don’t just have to create shows; you have to get women of color into those board rooms and executive spaces.”
Kat Lazo, a video editor who started her own YouTube Channel, “TheeKatsMeoww,” encouraged women to be persistent in networking and calling on members of one’s community for help. “Don’t feel bad about that,” she said. “Have a sisterhood to fall back on.”
Another panel discussed hashtag activism in a room filled with women of all ages. Nisha Chittal, a manager of social media and community for MSNBC, mentioned that she had a sense that the #YesAllWomen campaign had caught on when she overheard two white “bro-y dudes” talking about it while waiting in line for a burrito. Charlotte Cooper, director of marketing and communications at Women’s eNews, said that the public aspects of social media force larger companies to take customer dissatisfaction more seriously. A viral Tweet that a company fails to respond to can become a public relations nightmare overnight, she said.
Chevon Drew, a brand strategist at Percolate, told the crowd about funding a rescue trip to the Rockaways during Hurricane Sandy using her Twitter account. “I had to gain people’s trust over time,” she said. “My followers didn’t hesitate to donate. . .My goal wasn’t to make it in the press.” Accountability to those followers was also important. Drew said that she posted stories of the actions she had taken with those funds.
After hours of spirited discussions about feminism and the media, the conference’s attendees showed few signs of slowing down, until the conversations halted upon Janet Mock’s arrival, that is. Mock recently published a memoir about growing up as a trans girl, called Redefining Realness. Mock worked for many years as an editor and writer at People before launching into the spotlight in 2011 after she published a piece in Marie Clare about her journey as a trans woman. Zerlina Maxwell, who is a lawyer and commentator on all-things-feminism, led an insightful and very funny discussion.
Mock said that the best thing a feminist consumer of the media can do is amplify and support the smaller media outlets, like Bitch, Autostraddle, Rookie, and Feministing. Those outlets produce content in a way “that isn’t just gazing, it’s engaging,” Mock said.
Maxwell asked Mock about the process of writing Redefining Realness and how Mock looked back at some of the darker times of her life while taking care of herself in the present.
“I’m a writer through and through, so writing is the way I take care of myself,” Mock said. “I sit and write to myself every morning.”
Writing the memoir was a three-year process that came from writing before she went to work. “I had to carve out a space for writing. I had to wake up early and commit myself to my art,” she said.
Authenticity in both writing and living, Mock said, is of the utmost importance to her. She interviewed family members as well to make sure that her memoir was as accurate as possible.
“When memoir is written well, it’s honest, unflinching truth. If I was to write my memoir while holding back, then I should just not write it,” Mock said.
Mock mentioned reaching out to other prominent trans women, like Laverne Cox, to make sure that the message they are sending is as honest and effective as possible. “I think it’s telling that right now we’re having this national conversation about trans issues and the two people leading it are trans women of color,” Mock said.
Most recently, WAM! directed a successful campaign against the Chicago Sun-Times for publishing an inflammatory commentary deriding Laverne Cox. The newspaper’s editor issued an apology and the commentary was removed.
Bryce Covert, board member of WAM!NYC said, “For us, [WAM!NYC is] a way to get our large New York City community together in person as well as to bring in new folks, help people build skills, start important discussions, and bring people together so we can collaborate and support each other in our work to forward our goals of making a more inclusive, feminist, anti-racist media world.”
Covert said that WAM! was thrilled to have Mock as the day’s keynote speaker. “We honestly wrote up a list of dream keynote speakers and Janet was at the top. She is such a dedicated advocate and important media voice that we thought she would be amazing. And then she said yes, which totally blew us away!”
Who better to highlight a conference about women in the media than a figure who has been made to endure numerous interrogations about her womanhood? And leaving WAM!NYC felt like going back into a hostile terrain with elbows linked (through hashtags, video blogs, and so on) with countless other feminists.