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Listening to Louisiana Women Symposium Held in Baton Rouge, Featured Alumna Donna Brazile

06/17/2011 03:07 PM

ROUGE – LSU professor Alecia P. Long began the process of obtaining oral histories from Louisiana Women in 2009. The fruition of her efforts and those of her students resulted in the dynamic symposium held on Wednesday, May 25, at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

 

Long and her students interviewed nearly 50 women, ranging in age from 22 to 92, from around the state with regard to how they felt their gender affected them economically, civically, legally and socially. The diverse oral histories of their experiences will be housed at the LSU T. Harry Williams Oral History Center. Some of these oral histories and experiences were brought forth by the speakers in the symposium.

 

At the end of the day, Long said, “I am profoundly moved by the caliber of speakers who gave us their time today and the focus of their work that creates better opportunities for the women of Louisiana.”

 

Keynote speaker and Louisiana native Donna Brazile, the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and managing director of Brazile and Associates, was warmly received by the attendees.

 

Brazile got quite the laugh when she stated, “I never knew I could ask for $ 1 billion. But when Louisiana was down after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and (then) Gov. Blanco asked me to speak to the White House on behalf of Louisiana, I knew I had to do it. I never knew I could beg. But I could beg for my state – Louisiana.”

 

Brazile recounted how in those difficult days after the hurricanes, anyone and everyone with a connection to Louisiana and Washington, D.C., was asked to approach the political national powers  with requests to support financially the rejuvenation of Louisiana with federal dollars.

 

Brazile also reminded the audience, “Change doesn’t happen. You have to fight for it and woman have the potential power – unused and untapped – to create that change.”

 

Prior to Brazile’s speech, which closed the symposium, there were four panels. The first panel was titled “In Search of Equality for Women in Louisiana: What Are the Facts?” and was lead by Beth Willinger of Tulane University. She began with her insightful information as to how Louisiana women rank nationally in areas regarding economic status.  

 

Willinger stated, “In not one parish are women earning more than men, even those with a higher level of education.”  

 

She brought this information forth because she said, “There is still tremendous disparity in pay in Louisiana. Women have to know that they have the power to negotiate their salary and benefits.”

 

The second panel, “How Can Oral History Help Transform Communities?” was lead by oral history proponents, Jennifer Abraham Cramer, director of the T. Harry Williams Oral History Center, and Elaine Maccio of the LSU School of Social Work, who spoke to the importance of oral histories and how the preservation of oral histories teaches and helps maintain culture and traditions. Their examples were useful tools in showcasing how the memories of everyday people bring history to life and link it to the present. This association between past and present can inspire and help humanize history to today’s students.

 

“When young folks see and hear (through oral histories) how those who came before them, survived the hardship and thrived afterward, it shows the student that the hard things can be accomplished,” Maccio said.

 

The next speaker, environmental activist Peggy Frankland, informed the attendees that most of Louisiana’s environment efforts were led by women – against the odds and without financial or political support.

 

Frankland said, “These women activists became the voices of their communities. And in doing so, they embraced the health of the entire state of Louisiana. These women, who endured ridicule and scorn and were scoffed at by men who told them to go back to being housewives, were instrumental in creating awareness of environmental abuses by some chemical plants in Louisiana. The chemical plant runoff and discharge were ruining the earth and ground water of the surrounding towns. The organized peaceful persistence of these activist women forced these industries to alter their business operations and restore the affected areas.”      
Frankland noted that environmental activism blossomed in Louisiana in the early 1970s.

 

The third panel discussion of the day was titled “Educating Young People about Sexual Health and Healthy Sexuality: Priorities and Prospects.” The panelists were Julie Mickelberry, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast; Raegan Carter Jones, an education program consultant for the Louisiana Department of Education; Dr. Lisa Richardson of The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies; and Dr. Swati Shah, Obstetrician/Gynecologist and Women’s Public Health Specialist.

 

Mickelberry provided startling statistics about the general sexual health of Louisiana women. She stated that one in every four girls nationally has a sexually transmitted disease; Louisiana ranks fifth highest in the nation for AIDS cases; and Louisiana is 13th in the nation in teen births.

 

“Women’s health choices are often economic ones,” stated Richardson. She said that education is the cornerstone for wellness and that “sexual health is part of the larger picture of health in our communities.”

 

Shah addressed the issues of sexual development as part of the natural human development.

 

She said that research has shown men and women want to plan their families so they can emotionally and financially support their children. She emphasized the fact that the United States has a 50 percent non-intended pregnancy rate.

 

The day’s final panel was titled “Creating Change for Louisiana Women: Past, Present and Future.” The panelists were Janet Allured, a history professor at McNeese State University in Lake Charles; Pamela Tyler, an associate history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi; Mary Katherine Coyle, assistant vice president of R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, an archeology firm; and Kathleen Callaghan, a local attorney and well-known Baton Rouge community activist.

 

These panelists looked at longer term historical change led by Louisiana women who succeeded in generating reform in their communities. They countered the historical perspective with personal stories that spoke to the agency of individual women whose actions led to progressive social changes in the state.

 

During breaks between panels, a power point presentation showed quotes from Louisiana women pertaining to their experiences regarding gender issues. These quotations provoked many discussions among the attendees regarding their similar experiences.
In closing, Long expressed appreciation to the speakers and the attendees who were vocal in their comments and in describing situations they had encountered in their personal lives and professional capacities.

 

The Listening to Louisiana Women project was realized through the generosity of the Louisiana women who shared their stories and the LSU students who worked diligently to listen and co-create the oral histories that are the heart of this endeavor.

 

This benchmark study creates an oral history archive that honors the diverse experiences of Louisiana women. The interviews will be housed at the LSU T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History so others may access it for educational efforts.

 

The funding support for this project was provided though a Ford Foundation grant.  Additional support also came from the following entities: LSU, Louisiana State Museum, LSU College of Humanities & Social Sciences, LSU Department of History, The T. Harry Williams Oral History Center and Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.

 

The Listening to Louisiana Women Oral History Project is ongoing. To participate or recommend someone who would, please contact listentolouisianawomen@gmail.com.

 

For more information, contact Long at aplong@lsu.edu or PC Cary at 504-450-0616.

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