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Simone de Beauvoir Institute harnesses 40 years of innovation and growth

New faculty, programs reflect shift for the home of one of the first university Women’s Studies programs in Canada
October 1, 2018
By Taylor Tower

Kimberley Manning and Concordia University president Alan Shepard at the institute’s 40th anniversary celebration at Concordia on May 10, 2018. Photo by Concordia University.

The 40th anniversary of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, home of one of the first university women’s studies programs in Canada, is a year of change, growth and a shift in focus. Institute principal Kimberley Manning, who took on the role in 2016, says the institute is directing its energy towards Indigenous issues, race, migration and la francophonie.

“This important milestone is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves, ‘Where does feminism need to go next?’ We want to celebrate what’s ahead by highlighting new voices and confronting our shortcomings,” she explains.

The anniversary kicked off in May 2018 with the Unsettling Feminisms conference, examining subjects like Indigenous knowledge, art and activism.

In her keynote presentation, award-winning filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, spoke about race, colonialism and loss through personal stories and excerpts from two of her 50 documentary films.

As a conclusion to the week's conference, Obomsawin's performance resonated strongly with art history and studio art student Sophie Wonfor, who was attending the conference for credit as a summer seminar. This was the second year that a summer seminar was integrated into a conference, offering undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to attend in the context of an intensive week-long, three-credit course.

“As Kimberly Manning noted following Obomsawin’s final song, none of us left that room unchanged and I would add, without being in some way unsettled and unequivocally inspired to contribute towards the changes we want to see,” Wonfor says.

The conference also left a lasting impression on presenters, including Natalie Kouri-Towe, who recently arrived as an assistant professor in the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

Integrating a summer seminar into the conference led Kouri-Towe to think about her presentation differently. “I had prepared a normal conference presentation and then decided to just have a conversation about the research questions I was posing with the audience instead,” she says. “It brought about one of the richest and most engaged discussions I’ve ever had at a conference.”

Growing faculty

Among the changes taking place at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute is the addition of new faculty. Manning describes the new hires as “leaders in their fields who will open up new vistas for the community and our students.”

Kouri-Towe says she chose Concordia and the Simone de Beauvoir Institute because both have long histories of supporting socially and community-engaged research and involvement. “Valuing the role of faculty in helping to bring about social change sets the Simone de Beauvoir Institute apart from other schools across North America,” she says.

Maïr Verthuy (left), first principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, with Kimberley Manning, current principal, at the 40th anniversary event on May 10, 2018.

Kouri-Towe’s research probes how we can better respond to inequality and violence through social engagement. She is looking forward to interacting with students in a meaningful way.

“I hope that students walk away from my courses with a greater sense of interest and curiosity in some of the topics we’ve examined, rather than a laundry list of facts about a specific subject matter,” she says. “I want the theories and ideas we discuss to help us all think differently about the world around us.”

Additions to the Simone de Beauvoir faculty also include assistant professor Genevieve Renard Painter, whose research examines law’s role in shaping the struggle for justice at local and global levels. Painter appreciated the Simone de Beauvoir’s reputation of connecting with the community. “The institute’s long track-record in women’s studies and feminist activism demonstrate a valuable effort to build bridges between the academy and activist, community and policy circles,” she says.

Painter says she finds her Concordia students to be motivated and hardworking. “They ask smart questions, and they come to the classroom with an open mind.”

Manning points out that the new hires are bilingual or trilingual and that this is an important element of the new vision of the institute.

“Language is world-making,” says Painter. “Being bilingual has opened up worlds for me — and not just the worlds I can access in my second language, but in the insights I gain into worlds in which I am reputed to be a native speaker.”

Kouri-Towe echoed these sentiments. “I’m inspired by the work of Debbie Lunny, who teaches at John Abbot College [in Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.] “She recently presented her research at the Unsettling Feminisms conference, calling for the incorporation of more languages into transnational feminist curriculum and the classroom,” Kouri-Towe says.

“I’m hoping that by fostering connections to local, national and transnational groups and organizers, we can develop languages of commonalities across our differences to better respond to the challenges facing the world today.”

New and evolving programs

The Simone de Beauvoir Institute, MU building, 2170 Bishop Street.

The institute’s direction is also reflected in advanced and evolving programs and courses, including the second installment of the year-long Feminist University Seminar: A Transformative Course in Equity and Inclusion. This six-credit course challenges students to confront inequity within the university by developing a social action research project. Among the many initiatives involved is continued work with Rock Camp for Girls and Gender Nonconforming Youth to increase gender diversity in the Department of Electroacoustic Studies and in the Montreal music scene more generally.

This is among the initiatives supported by C-FAR (Critical Feminist Activism in Research), a Concordia research project that explores the gaps in equity and inclusion and the ways in which institutional and social transformation is possible.

In addition, a new major in Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality has been approved and will be launched in the coming months. Building on the minor of the same name established in 1998, the major offers an opportunity to dig more deeply into the role of human sexuality in society and behaviour through an interdisciplinary approach that includes the humanities, social sciences and fine arts.

An 'exciting moment in feminism'

The anniversary comes at a time when feminism has been thrust into the spotlight.

“I think we’re in an exciting moment in feminism, where so much energy and resistance is emerging through #SayHerName, #MeToo, the global Women’s March, the growth of trans feminist movements and so many other responses to gendered violence that have persisted into the 21st century,” says Kouri-Towe.

In this context of building awareness, Kouri-Towe says the Simone de Beauvoir Institute is positioned to play a formative role in dialogue with feminist movements, as it has over its four decade-long history.

“There are exciting things happening at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute,” she says. “And I am thrilled to be part of it.”

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