Students tackle local women's issues

BRAWL — Baton Rouge Arm Wrestling Ladies — is a group on a mission: This dedicated group uses an entertaining blend of theatrics, athletics, and raunchy good humor to support organizations that are tackling women's issues in the greater Baton Rouge area. BRAWL is the local counterpart of CLAW, or Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, which is a national grassroots alliance originally established in 2008 at Charlottesville, Virginia, to raise money for charity through theatrical arm wrestling.

Several "arm wrestling ladies," surrounded by their supporters, participated in Schoolyard BRAWL on August 31.Beth Kleinpeter

Andi "One Dollar Baby" Aguilar, on the left in sleeveless sweat shirt, won her first two rounds easily.Erin Arledge

"Miss Rule," emcee for the August event, presided over the selection of "Most Studious" and "Prom Queen" from among the participants.Erin Arledge

Victory is sweet!Beth Kleinpeter

The Baton Rouge organization was founded by LSU undergraduate Rebecca Stewart, a film & media arts senior with a background in theatre and comedy.

"My favorite thing about BRAWL is the people," Stewart commented. "I am able to work with passionate, creative, and motivated individuals in Baton Rouge to create amazing shows. Together we are making a difference for our community by, most importantly, benefiting fantastic organizations, but also by providing a safe avenue for empowerment and personal expression. "

BRAWL's August event, "Schoolyard BRAWL," was part theatre, part athleticism, a whole lot of raunchy humor—and pure camp. Several "contestants" stepped onto the stage with their entourages in full costume and, even more, in deep character. Like playing a comic version of West Side Story, these groups taunted each other, danced at each other, and in general, built audience participation to a frenzied, partisan crescendo.  Screaming for their favorites, the audience tossed cash at the judges to "sway" their decisions after close contests.

All of this raucous fun had a more serious underlying purpose. Proceeds from the entry charge, raffle tickets, and "bribes" benefited the Baton Rouge-based Women's Community Rehabilitation Center (WCRC). This facility helps women with serious mental illnesses by providing in-patient treatment, vocational training, and support. Women in the center's program are in treatment for an average of a year, and the center helps them find work and housing once they leave. All donations received through the BRAWL event support direct care services for the residents of WCRC.

WCRC's program director, Kristi Bourgeois, was on hand for "Schoolyard BRAWL," managing a table of materials and a sign-up list for potential volunteers. A 1989 LSU psychology graduate, Bourgeois feels that she has a calling to work with the adult population at the center. During graduate school and after receiving her master's degree in counseling services at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she worked at a psychiatric hospital there in a variety of areas, including addictive disorders, mental illness in children and adolescents, and adult care. The area of adult care fit best for her. After she returned to Louisiana, the opportunity to return to her first love—adult care—at WCRC arose in 1992, and she has been there ever since.

"The job, the clients, and the staff stole my heart," she recalled, "and 21 years later, I'm still there. I get to see the women who go through this program achieve their goals…and move successfully to independent living with employment."

She is delighted that a new generation of students at LSU is finding ways to help others and contribute time, talents, and resources to the local community. Because the facility and its programs are only partially funded through the state, finding additional financial resources is a major challenge for the staff at WCRC, so help from outside sources like BRAWL is always welcome.

One of those students, Andria Aguilar, aka "One Dollar Baby," became involved with BRAWL after she met founder Rebecca Stewart through their mutual participation in Feminists in Action (FIA), a campus organization. She liked the idea of combining competition, creativity, empowerment, and community outreach, and she loved the concept of using all of those elements in such fun and entertaining ways.

"What I like best is that we are loudly and wildly inclusive and proactive in a countercultural way," Aguilar explained. "On BRAWL night, you can be anyone—but most importantly, you can be yourself, even if disguised as a kickboxing arm wrestler, while raising money and awareness for awesome organizations like STAR (Baton Rouge's Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response Center and a previous beneficiary of BRAWL's fundraising events) and WCRC."

Aguilar describes herself as a "mashup of identities," and the many activities in which she is involved are indicative of that. In addition to her involvement with FIA and BRAWL, she is an LSU student majoring in international studies with a concentration in Latin America, but she is also on LSU's cross-country team, which competes in the fall, and on the track team, which competes in the spring.

BRAWL's next event, "Monster BRAWL," will be held on Saturday, November 2, and will benefit IRIS: Domestic Violence Center of Baton Rouge.  For more information, visit BRAWL's Facebook page.

Along with the other members of the BRAWL team, Stewart and Aguilar are bringing LSU spirit and a new dimension to fundraising in Baton Rouge, BRAWLing for a cause and having a really good time.