The College’s second annual Crossing Borders Conference took place this past weekend. The event was founded by the Davis Center and was co-sponsored this year by the Center for Environmental Studies; this year’s theme was “space, place and environment.” The conference’s opening reception was held Friday night at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and featured a number of student dance and spoken word performances. On Saturday and Sunday, a number of professor and student-led panels were held in Griffin hall on topics of the politics of food and agriculture, orientalism, displacement, urban revitalization, gender and work and the literature of the Global South.
“As the name implies, we are working to enact the traversal of boundaries of various sorts … and in various ways,” Gail Newman, professor of German and faculty fellow at the Davis Center said. “These boundaries,” she added, “may be racial, ethnic or national; they may be borders imposed by gender, sexuality or even academic disciplines. The conference’s aim is to deconstruct and overcome these various obstacles in unique ways.
The assemblage of the panels is representative of such an objective, as their organization promotes the collaboration between students and faculty, who are invited by the conference to submit papers that have emerged from classes, independent study or the publication process. The result, Newman said, is “intergenerational panels addressing richly interdisciplinary issues.”
Julie Sze, associate professor and director of American studies at UC Davis and the founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for UC Davis’ John Muir Institute for the Environment, gave the Keynote Address. Her talk, “Environmental Justice and Environmental Humanities in the Anthropocene,” focused on the necessity for art and humanities not only in the study of environmental issues and environmental justice, but also in the development of solutions to the many problems studied by these areas.
A purely scientific or technocratic viewpoint, Sze noted, often fails to adequately recognize group differences. In contrast, stories and art can provide “different ways of knowing and being in the world.” Such an empathetic understanding is imperative in discussing the environmental disasters and difficulties that have befallen communities like California’s Central Valley, which is disproportionately poor and polluted compared to the rest of the state, and New Orleans, which is still reeling from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina.
“In the United States,” Sze said, “it’s easy to imagine upwards.” However, according to Sze, it is much more difficult to imagine the constraints of those people who often have little or no choice in confronting social ills or environmental disasters. She recounted a story she read in the New York Times in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that described a planning committee that took place before the storm, in which someone raised the question of what the people who could not get out of the city would do in the event of such a disaster. According to Sze, the committee did not address the problem and moved on. Those “middle class technocrats,” Sze said, “could not imagine a world where they could not get up and leave.” And that, in her words, betrays “all sorts of assumptions about physical mobility, class, race and so on.”
The faculty and student-led panels that took place both before and after Sze’s presentation also emphasized the need to challenge prior assumptions about existing environmental and community structures. In the Saturday afternoon panel on the topic of urban revitalization, Helen Song ’14 along with Oscar Hurtado ’17, Katherine Nunez ’16, Laurel O’Connor ’15 and Cinnamon Williams ’16, presented the final paper she had written for Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies and American Studies Merida Rua’s “Introduction to Urban Studies” class last fall, said that community development, as an idealistic concept, is nearly universally supported. But as all five students noted, in reality, the urban growth machine is much more responsive to the needs of the privileged—the white middle-class urban elite—thus reinforcing, in
the words of Williams, “classist, racist and gender ideologies embedded in our larger American narrative.”
In combatting such skewed and seemingly insurmountable power structures, there is a real need for active engagement and indeed, empathy. As Sze said in her concluding remarks, an attempt must be made to understand the struggles of others. “We have an extra ethical responsibility to make that epistemological leap,” she said, and then “to do something about it.”