Joining the History of Feminist Activism

Kate Drabinski is a lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and director of the WILL Program at UMBC.

Kate Drabinski, UMBC (square)Most students who enroll in my course, Studies in Feminist Activism, expect to learn about the history of feminism and feminist movements. We do that, sure, but the course also encourages students to see themselves as activists, as part of the history of feminist activism. They do so by organizing activist projects addressing issues they are personally passionate about that affect their communities, from UMBC to their hometowns, Maryland to the globe. As a teacher, it is incredibly exciting to see what UMBCers can do when given the time and space to figure out what making a difference means to them. 

Students reflect on their projects–what worked, what didn’t, what they’d do differently should they do a similar project again–and post them to a course blog that serves as a permanent archive of what students imagine as “activism” and how they become activists themselves. Check out their final projects at

Contact the author, Kate Drabinski, at

In the Archives: Creating ‘Free Hour’

Lindsey Loeper ’04, American Studies, is an archivist at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.

Lindsey LoeperI believe understanding our shared history enables and empowers us to work together to build the UMBC of our hopes. “In the Archives” is my series highlighting the ways people have co-created this campus and its traditions.

In response to my very first “In the Archives” post, UMBC staff member Delana Gregg suggested that I write about the history of UMBC’s Free Hour, the hour without scheduled classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That struck me as a strange idea, because the free hour is, at face value, a gap in the schedule; the real story, it seemed to me, was what took place during free hour: the club meetings, rehearsals, brainstorming and creative work. But as it turns out, free hour has a fascinating story of its own.

TRW19700324_01.pdfIn 1970, a group of students formed a Student Union to address what it called the “power structure” of the university, and provide an alternative to SGA as a source of direct action and advocacy. “Participants in the ‘movement’, as many have called it, are free to work within or around the system, or to provoke the system’s leaders into a direct confrontation. Everyone is responsible to himself; no one claims responsibility to anyone else” (The Retriever, March 24, 1970: page 3).

The Student Union held widely-attended meetings, protested what they viewed as unfair restrictions on the student literary magazine, and submitted three requests to the Faculty Senate. The first: independent groups should have the right to solicit on campus (they did, and still do). The second and most controversial: abolish the student activity fee (the Faculty Senate initially approved the request, but the fee remains in place). The third: establish a free and unscheduled hour for student assembly, organization, and advising (request granted).

[Read more…]

Blood and Fire: Looking Forward from the Catonsville Nine

Theodore S. Gonzalves is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Theo GonzalvesForty-five years ago, a couple of miles from the UMBC campus, nine activists seeking to change a culture and end a war put their futures on the line and took a stand. As I described in a WYPR radio interview earlier this week, their action involved using blood and fire—symbols with deep cultural and historical resonance—to destroy Vietnam War draft records. By the late 1960s, the scope of politics was widening: activists who had learned hard lessons about nonviolent direct actions at home in the South wondered if their nation could act nonviolently abroad in places like Latin America and Southeast Asia. In 1967, the Baltimore Four “anointed” draft files from a downtown office by pouring blood directly onto them. In 1968, the Catonsville Nine broke into the local selective service office, and burned nearly 400 documents with home-made napalm in a parking lot. The protestors waited peacefully for police from the Wilkens precinct (at the edge of UMBC’s campus) to arrive and arrest them. Their action stirred passions, dialogue, and action across the U.S.

As we think about how to live BreakingGround values by applying our passions and creativity to shape our world together, let us reflect on these powerful local examples of culturally disruptive thinking and action. Throughout the semester, I’ve taught an American studies course (funded through a BreakingGround grant) where students focus on the local spaces and personal experiences involved in the civil disobedience and trial of the Catonsville Nine. Students, in collaboration with community activists, have explored the historical significance of those actions as well as how we think about social protest, civic duty, and citizenship today.

The project culminates this Friday, May 10th, with an exciting event open to UMBC and the greater Baltimore community. The UMBC Social Sciences Forum and Department of American Studies will present a panel of scholars, activists, and two members of the Catonsville Nine, speaking in the Proscenium Theater (Performing Arts and Humanities Building). The event will begin with a reception (2:30 p.m.), followed by a film screening with director Q&A (3:00 p.m.), and panel discussion (4:30 p.m.). I hope to see you there.

Contact the author, Theodore S. Gonzalves, at

Seeds of Change and Growth: My UMBC Years

Eric Anthony Grollman ’07, sociology and psychology, is a PhD candidate at Indiana University.  He will begin teaching at the University of Richmond in August.

Eric Anthony GrollmanRecently, I watched Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s TED talk on the key initiatives needed to help all students to be successful. As usual, I was inspired by his passion, creative vision, and ideas. To share his message, I wrote about his talk in my blog, and reflected a little on my time at UMBC. “Wow,” I thought, “I hadn’t realized just how much UMBC set the stage for my career as a researcher, teacher, and advocate.”

At the start of college, I was an outspoken, know-it-all 18-year-old, struggling as a Meyerhoff Scholar. I was a math major, frustrated by what felt like a disconnect between my passion to make a difference in the world and calculus. I had immediately taken on a leadership position in the Freedom Alliance, the university’s group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Thanks to some tough love from my parents and the Meyerhoff staff, I decided to “get it together,” which meant leaving the program to pursue a major in sociology. That was probably the hardest, yet best decision I have made in life thus far. [Read more…]

Biologist/Activist Steingraber Released from Jail, Will Speak at UMBC

Dawn Biehler is an assistant professor in UMBC’s Department of Geography and Environmental Systems.

Dawn Biehler squareAs a biology graduate student and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, who will deliver the Gender and Women’s Studies Program’s sixth annual Korenman lecture next Monday (April 29th, 4:00 p.m., AOK Library 7th floor), set out to understand the links between the landscape where she grew up and a suspected cluster of illness among family members and neighbors. Since then she has become a fierce advocate for environmental health and an eloquent translator of environmental sciences for non-experts.

Most recently, Dr. Steingraber has written about and protested the growth of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, particularly developments in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York where she lives. In March she and other activists were arrested during an act of civil disobedience in which they linked arms and stood in the way of a truck attempting to enter a gas compression facility. Steingraber calls her actions a “last resort” after authorities cut citizens out of the legal decision-making process about the expansion of fracking facilities. [Read more…]

Taking a Stand against Street Harassment: WILL Chalk Out

eMaureen Evans Arthurs 2013cMaureen Evans Arthurs ’13, Gender and Women’s Studies, serves on the National Student Advisory Council for the American Association of University Women.

“Why don’t you show us what’s underneath that towel, baby?”

I heard this shouted from a car of four young men, no older than 19, hanging out the window, being obnoxious. I had been walking home alone one summer afternoon after swim practice in my suburban neighborhood and immediately looked around to see if anyone else was walking near me when I realized I was alone, ashamed, and powerless. I’d like to think if I had been older, I would have been less afraid or maybe even shouted something back. But I was 13, relatively quiet, and awkwardly uncomfortable in most settings, let alone one I had just been harassed in. Back then, I never realized there was a term for what I had experienced (street harassment) nor that there was an impending movement to educate about it and eradicate it.

This was the start of a personal story I shared on the AAUW Community blog in recognition of Meet Us on the Street, an annual week of anti-street-harassment activism, held April 7–13 this year. The campaign serves as a platform for activism, discussions and demonstrations around the world, for women and men to advocate for safer spaces that are free of catcalling, groping and lewd gestures. At UMBC, the group WILL (Women Involved in Learning and Leadership) hosted Chalk Outs and conducted a survey to gauge students’ perceptions of safety and street harassment on campus.

Diane Nnaemeka writes, “Calling me sweet cheeks ain’t cute.” Photo by Maureen Evans Arthurs

Diane Nnaemeka writes, “Calling me sweet cheeks ain’t cute.” Photo by Maureen Evans Arthurs

[Read more…]

I Am an Activist

Trishia Domingo ’14, Information Systems, is secretary for UMBC’s Information Systems Council of Majors, vice president for the Information Systems Security Association, and practice manager for the club field hockey team.

Trishia DomingoI created this video for my Studies in Feminist Activism class (GWST 200). We were given the options to create a digital story that describes our relationship to activism, our identity as an activist, or the story of an activist that we find inspiring. Our instructor, Kate Drabinski, wants to have an archive of digital stories to showcase how UMBC students see themselves as activists. I wanted to share my story because I always saw the term “activist” as ambiguous and I knew that I was not the only one who felt this way.

Contact the author, Trishia Domingo, at

Our Own ‘Take Back the Night’

Jess Myers is Director of UMBC’s Women’s Center.

Jess MyersIt might have been getting stuck in traffic on I-695 for far too long. Or having no idea where our group was going once we got to Towson University. But, what I really think convinced us was the sense of empowerment and healing that filled the bus on our journey back to UMBC. Mickey Arora and I looked at each other with confidence and excitement, both agreeing that we could totally make Take Back the Night (TBTN) happen at UMBC the following year.

UMBC partners working together to bring Take Back the Night to campus. L to R: Mickey Arora, University Health Services Health Education Coordinator; Jess Myers, Women’s Center Director; Susan DuMont, Office of Student Life Coordinator for Fraternities & Sororities. All are members of the Women’s Center Advisory Board.

Mickey Arora, University Health Services Health Education Coordinator; Jess Myers, Women’s Center Director; and Susan DuMont, Office of Student Life Coordinator for Fraternities & Sororities. All are members of the Women’s Center Advisory Board.

When we got back to campus and shared the idea with the Women’s Center Advisory Board, member Susan DuMont jumped in, saying she had helped organize TBTN as an undergrad. Then Lexx Mills joined the Women’s Center staff as an Honors College intern who was fired up to write a BreakingGround grant proposal for TBTN. From that point on, there was no turning back.

Take Back the Night is an internationally recognized protest and rally to address sexual assault and abuse. Most often held during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, TBTN creates an atmosphere of empowerment while raising awareness about sexual violence and advocating for its end.

UMBC’s TBTN 2013 (cosponsored by the Women’s Center and University Health Services, with support from campus partners and a BreakingGround grant) will be both a part of this international movement and uniquely our own. With initiatives like Green Dot, Rebuilding Manhood, and BreakingGround, our campus is seeding efforts to challenge the status-quo and be social change leaders. With a Greek Life community engaging in bystander intervention, our WILL sisters bursting with activism, the Peer Health Educators poised to educate, and the Women’s Center community grounded in a feminist philosophy, we have co-created a community of diverse members ready to learn important lessons about each other and to stand up together to say enough is enough.

UMBC’s Take Back the Night program will take place Tuesday, April 30th on the Quad. Events will include a community resource fair and the Clothesline Project at 6:30 p.m.; Speak Out – an open forum for survivors of sexual assault and allies to share their stories or the stories of loved ones – at 7:00 p.m.; a march (around campus) against sexual violence at 8:00 p.m.; and a solidarity performance featuring student-musician Christina Animashaun and others at 8:30 p.m. All students, faculty, and staff of the UMBC community are invited to attend.

Leaving campus to participate in TBTN just doesn’t make sense anymore. It sends a message that sexual violence does not happen on our campus or that we do not care about our own survivors of sexual assault, which is absolutely not true. This is our chance to take back our own campus, give love to our community members impacted by sexual violence, and commit to being better bystanders and activists. Stay tuned for more details about how you can get involved and plan on joining us Tuesday, April 30th. For more information about TBTN and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month programs, contact the Women’s Center at 410-455-2714 or

Contact the author, Jess Myers, at

Sharing Stories of Feminist Activism

Kate Drabinski is a lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and director of the WILL Program at UMBC.

Kate Drabinski, UMBCOne of the core courses for majors in UMBC’s Gender and Women’s Studies program is our Studies in Feminist Activism class, and it makes sense that we would ask all students to take this one.

After all, our program is the result of steady and dedicated activists inside and outside the academy who insisted—and still do—that human knowledge demands that all voices, experiences, research questions, answers, and ideas be heard. Gender and women’s studies programs, teachers, and students have always been “breaking ground,” and this course makes that explicit, teaching students histories of feminist activism in many arenas, from 19th century labor politics to today’s struggles for public housing and community justice.

This semester, with a BreakingGround course grant, the class is using digital tools to tell the stories of UMBC’s newest feminist activists. Our students have started a blog exploring their own relationships to activism and telling the stories of activists who inspire them. Other students are producing short digital stories that also will be featured on the blog. Later in the semester, students will use these digital tools to share their experiences in organizing their own projects on and off campus, and to tell the histories of important activist movements that still resonate today.

The students’ blog will become a permanent home for Studies in Feminist Activism at UMBC, updated yearly with the tales of emerging activists. Follow along with us at!

Contact the author, Kate Drabinski, at