By Allyson Noenickx
On Monday, Nov. 14, students gathered in the Hogan Ballroom for the 16th annual Unity Week keynote speaker event: A Conversation with Janet Mock. K.J. Rawson, assistant professor of English and director of the Digital Transgender Archive, moderated the discussion with Mock. The event was sponsored by the Student Government Association (SGA).
Mock is a writer, TV host, and advocate whose memoir, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list in 2014. She is an advocate for trans women’s rights, host of MSNBC’s “So POPular,” and the founder of #GirlsLikeUs, a social media project that empowers trans women. Mock has become one of the most influential trans women and millennial leaders in media. TIME called her one of “12 new faces of black leadership” and one of “the most influential people on the Internet,” while Fast Company named her one of 2015’s “most creative people in business.”
Ameer Phillips ’17, SGA Director of Diversity, organized the event and introduced Mock. He opened by reflecting on this year’s Unity Week theme––Intersections of Identity. “The concept behind this theme is recognizing the diversity within ourselves and understanding how complex and interconnected an identity is,” said Phillips. Rawson opened the discussion by asking Mock a series of rapid-fire questions that were written by students. Rawson then launched into questions concerning “Redefining Realness” and Mock’s experience with intersectionality of identity as a trans woman of color in the media.
Mock reflected on the process of writing her first book. “I was able to just write for me in a way that was a lot more freeing,” said Mock. “The process started with journals. It started with just writing the truth for myself before I could open up to people in my life about being trans.”
Mock explained how she tackled the book as a journalist, interviewing family members and friends about shared experiences that they all had different perspectives on. “I wanted to show that trans folk are not these sole people in isolation––that they belong to whole communities,” said Mock.
Mock also reflected on her various identities and her experience growing up trans in Hawaii. She discussed her own intersecting identities and how she is more than just a trans advocate or a black woman. “Talking about my identities I often simplify them so that they’re more digestible. But none of us live digestible lives. Sitting in that complicatedness is a struggle for all of us––to be able to show up in every space as all of who we are,” said Mock.
During the last half hour of the event, Mock answered questions from members of the audience. Many asked Mock about her reaction to the recent presidential election and her thoughts on President-elect Donald Trump. “I wasn’t surprised, but I was still shocked,” said Mock about the election results. “I think that there is fear for my communities for sure. I’m fearful of the stripping away of certain policies.”
Mock also addressed what students can do now after the election. “We can’t erase the fact that the president-elect came to prominence because he de-legitimized the current black president and he rallied people around that,” said Mock. “It’s time for us to organize, its time for us to do the unglamourous work of thinking about midterm elections and school boards and all of these things that happen before the four years when it’s the presidential campaign again. So how are we going to ensure that we are taking care of our communities? How are we going to make sure that we are taking care of the people who won’t be taken care of in this presidential administration?” asked Mock.
Dean Jacqueline D. Peterson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, reflected on the importance of Unity Week’s timing this year. “Unity Week comes at a well-timed moment as our country seeks to come together following what was perhaps one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in recent history,” said Dean Peterson.
Mithra Salmassi ’19, co-chair of Women’s Forum, praised Mock and her take on the election. “I thought it was amazing; she was so well spoken. I really liked how she came at it from a writer’s perspective and a journalistic perspective,” said Salmassi. “I was right there with her. Not surprised by the results––but shocked. She was as optimistic as she could be, but at the same time she was being realistic as well. I really appreciated how much she empathized with everyone,” said Salmassi.
This year’s Unity Week featured 19 different events that took place from Nov. 9 to Nov. 18. Activities and events focused on topics that addressed the many aspects of diversity that include and go beyond race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Highlights from the week included a “Partners in Action” workshop, which addressed the successes and challenges in advocating for racial justice; a discussion called “Breaking Down Political Identities”; and the official opening of “The Hub” in Crossroads, a newly designated space where conversations surrounding the intersectionality of different identities and social justice can continue.