The new Gender and Social Justice program is one for our time

Monday, March 4, 2019

#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #IdleNoMore, Occupy, personal pronouns, dis/ability rights — the last decade has seen a wave of social justice movements bring issues of identity to the fore.

Here at Waterloo, students don’t just want to learn about social issues, they want to take action; enter the 2019 launch of a new interdisciplinary program for our time.

Responding to calls from students and alumni – and reflecting the zeitgeist – the Women’s Studies undergraduate program will become Gender and Social Justice this fall term. The refocus speaks to the growing understanding that multiple personal and social markers make up our identities. The Gender and Social Justice program will cultivate awareness and practices to address marginalization because of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability and class.

Shannon DeaProfessor Shannon Dea

“But we can’t stop talking about women,” says Shannon Dea, a professor and former director of Women’s Studies who led the development the Gender and Social Justice curriculum. Certainly, the new program’s expanded perspective does not preclude women’s issues; rather it calls for examining many woman-identified experiences, including those outside traditional binary identities.

“Part of the program shift is a recognition that gender is not the only or the most important social location, and that some people’s experiences are diverse,” says Katy Fulfer, a professor and undergraduate advisor for Women’s Studies and soon for the new program.

Students will learn to use the theoretical framework of intersectional feminism to critically analyse systems and representations, locally and globally.

“Most women’s and gender studies programs today are looking at intersectional feminism,” says Fulfer, “but we include social justice in our new program because, if you want to study gender equality, you have to also understand and address inequality more broadly.”

Katy FulferProfessor Katy Fulfer

Intersectional feminism is an approach first developed by black feminists who recognized that gender varies according to a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual identity, class, dis/ability and more. This line of thinking replaces an earlier trend in feminist thought, explains Fulfer, that assumed a broad set of universal experiences, “but really those experiences were based on a white middle class heterosexual cis-gender woman.” 

For over four decades, Waterloo students could major, minor or take electives in Women’s Studies. In fact, the program was established shortly after Canada’s oldest queer and trans student organization, now GLOW, was launched on this campus. Over the years, 13 women scholars and administrators ran Women’s Studies, and countless professors and instructors ¬— not all of them women — taught its courses. Dea was the last director of Women’s Studies in 2016 when she facilitated its move to become a distinct program within the Department of Philosophy.

The program’s evolution to its forthcoming new name and curriculum began well before it took up residency in Philosophy. For nearly a decade, explains Dea, the Women’s Studies’ board and administrators had been hearing from students and community members that it was time to expand the program beyond women. Students were interested in gender studies but also wanted to study social justice.

“They are aware of the connection,” says Dea. Young people interested in social justice want to look beyond women and even gender to understand the multiple factors of power and oppression. Furthermore, students including men or non-binary people want to see themselves reflected in what they study.

“Our students come from really diverse places and they know that there’s a lot more going on beside gender issues,” says Fulfer.

Moreover, they want to take their knowledge and ideas and put them into action. In a word, the program facilitates praxis. Students will use the theoretical framework of intersectional feminism and put it into practice in diverse ways by learning to build inclusive, just, sustainable communities.

“The number one thing Women’s Studies alumni tell us is that their background in the program gives them a language to talk about diversity, about cross-cultural communication in their work, community advocacy or personal lives,” says Fulfer. “The new program will do that and more.”

Like Women’s Studies, which has been taught by faculty from multiple arts departments with various disciplinary approaches, Gender and Social Justice will offer diverse and flexible interdisciplinary learning, with courses taught by faculty members from at least six different departments in the Faculty of Arts.

The Women’s CentreGLOWRAISE, and the Collective Movement Award are some of the initiatives led by Waterloo students and alumni that directly address intersectional identity concerns and social justice. Now, the Gender and Social Justice program follows their lead and helps to strengthen the curricular side of the university’s equity mission: to ensure inclusion, diversity, substantive equality and accessibility.

symbols for three or more genders on sticker on glass door

Feature image shows Sex Symbol sticker, designed by Madeline Samms (BA'16) and distributed around campus for #16daysUW in 2015

This story was originally published on Waterloo Stories.

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