SPARKing Conversations on Protest

Part of our feature Breaking Norms

By Amanda Loudin

3D illustration of a white globe emitting many colored protest signs and 3 women holding up signs

The murder of George Floyd. The Chinese government’s zero-COVID lockdown policy. The Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s “moral police.” All have ignited widespread protest, and behind every protest is the desire to drive change.

With this in mind, the Athena Center for Leadership has selected “Protest” as the theme for its SPARK events and experiences this year. It’s a fitting choice for the series, now in its third year.

“We focus on changemakers and explore how change happens,” explains Umbreen Bhatti ’00, the center’s Constance Hess Williams ’66 Director. “We look at what people are working on and where students can find inspiration to help them understand what’s going on behind the scenes.”

SPARK achieves this through a series of lectures, films, field trips, panel discussions, and more. With  support from the Harnisch Foundation, the programs are open to students, staff, faculty, alumnae, and friends of the community.

Past years’ SPARK topics have included the racial wealth gap, women’s reproductive freedom, and journalism for a Black audience. Events are collaborative, multigenerational, and allow for many perspectives.

This year’s focus on the topic of protest involves deep dives into current and historic protest movements. Following a film screening about the 1969 Stonewall uprising, for instance, participants took a field trip to important LGBTQ-related sites, using these two formats to instruct on the topic. An Iranian activist spoke to participants about the current protests in her country, which have involved mass public hijab burnings. All the SPARK events showcase the many forms and contexts of protest.

“We want to highlight what makes a protest effective, who’s involved, and what role protests have taken in driving change in the world,” explains Bhatti. “We want students to think about expanding their ideas of protest.”

As SPARK participants look back, in the moment, and ahead, they have the opportunity to compare and contrast as well as consider what an effective protest can accomplish.

“When we look at Iran, for instance, what’s different this time?” asks Bhatti. “Or if we look at the protest of sexual misconduct in the workplace, what has changed as a result? There are many layers of complexity and nuance to consider.”

Bhatti says that Barnard serves as the perfect space for these conversations and approach. “We could do this at a library, but it wouldn’t feel the same,” she says. “This is a co-created, co-shaped series of events with a wide variety of players. I can’t think of another place with all these feminist minds where this could happen.”

Check out our slideshow below for the other parts of our “Breaking Norms” feature story.

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