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Local women prepare for racism conference

Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Wednesday August 22, 2001

As the United Nations World Conference Against Racism approaches, a group of Bay Area activists is getting ready to travel to the city that will host it: Durban, South Africa. 

The Berkeley-based Women of Color Resource Center, a non-profit organization working on social justice issues, brought together a delegation of 25 activists and community organizers, who will attend the U.N. conference Aug. 28 to Sept. 7. The delegation includes women of all ages and ethnicities involved in fighting against racism.  

“They are grassroots community organizers and scholar-activists working on a range of issues affecting women of color,” said Jung Hee Choi, the WCRC publications and communications coordinator and one of the delegates. To the delegates, who work on issues as varied as the crisis in the prison system, the defense of workers’ rights, or the protection of indigenous cultural rights, the conference is an excellent opportunity to interact with other organizations around the world working on similar issues. 

“It is another opportunity for us to gain a lot more experience and knowledge about how people are struggling against racism, how people are facing racism in different ways,” said Choi, who also works as an organizer for Asian and Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment. 

Such interaction, said Vanessa Agard-Jones who will also travel with the delegation, has the advantage of helping activists globalize their fight against racism. 

“The important thing is that we join together and that activists and organizers as a collective voice be clear that racism is not dead,” she said. “There are important strategic things that can be done to address the power imbalance in the world.” 

To optimize their participation in the event, the delegation has been preparing for weeks. There has been a number of retreats to allow delegates to get to know each other. Members of the delegation have also attended presentations on different issues on the conference agenda. 

In Durban, delegates will be active in both the Non-Governmental Organization Forum, which will rally thousands of anti-racist activists, and in the government-level development of the conference’s final texts. The texts will include a declaration and a plan of action. 

At the forum, Choi said, the delegation will hold two workshops. One of them will include some of the people who participated in writing a book called “Time to Rise,” recently published by the WCRC. The panelists will present some of the issues discussed in the publication, such as the impact of militarism on women, or the link between state welfare policy and the racial divide. The second workshop will bring together members of women’s organization around the world. 

Through these workshops and its participation in shaping the final texts, the WCRC seeks to underscore that racism is not an isolated issue. 

“Part of our continuing analysis is how racism, gender and economic issues come together and affect women, and how race is experienced in gendered ways,” said Choi. “One of our goals is to find ways to insert that in different parts of the conference.” Choi said, for instance, that WCRC representatives will try to make sure that the final documents include strong language about the gender component of racism.  

This may not be an easy task. The preparation of the preliminary documents for the conference has indeed been controversial. Earlier this month, the Bush administration went as far as threatening to boycott the conference unless Arab countries dropped their demands to condemn Israel’s Zionist movement in those documents. Although South African authorities announced such criticism towards Israel would not be on the agenda, it is still unclear whether the United States will participate.  

But to the WCRC delegates, the government participation is not critical. 

“Given the number of treaties that the United States has not fulfilled, I’m not all that interested nor concerned whether the United States is part of the conference or not,” said Agard-Jones. 

Politicians, however, do not necessarily agree. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Berkeley, strongly criticized the Bush administration’s position. 

“Reported threats by the United States to boycott the conference are destructive to both the World Conference process, and to the image of the United States as a nation committed to struggle against racial discrimination,” she said in a prepared statement. “It would be unconscionable for the United States to be on the sidelines at a point in history when the world community comes together to confront an issue that is so central to the identity and experience of our country.” Lee will fly to Durban to attend the conference.