The Public Humanist

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Combats Cultural Mono-cropping with a Diversity of Women's Voices

In my classes this spring at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, I have been exploring the fruitful overlap between the humanities and environmental studies.

Specifically, in a class entitled “Women Write the World,” we are reading a series of literary approaches to environmental activism on a wide range of issues, from deforestation and climate change to biodiversity loss and the dangers of agricultural mono-cropping.

Many scientists believe we are in the middle of a bonafide “sixth great extinction event” now. From a humanities point of view, it’s not just birds, bees and flowers we’re in danger of losing. We’re also in a period of tremendous homogenization of human thought, and in some ways this could be the greatest danger of all.

As media conglomerates get ever bigger (the news of Time Warner Cable being swallowed up by Comcast is yet another example); as newspapers, radio stations and publishing houses shrink their payrolls and standardize their products; and as celebrity TV-based culture spreads all over the globe, even the World Wide Web is dominated by an increasingly limited number of voices.

A small slice of the English-language cultural elite, trained in a closely guarded cadre of prestigious institutions of higher learning, and reflecting a narrow range of points of view, dominate every media channel, from book publishing to TED Talks to academic conferences and beyond.

If you don’t fit the mold—if you aren’t media-pretty, articulate under pressure, and non-threatening to the political and cultural status quo—there are fewer and fewer opportunities for you to develop your ideas, raise your voice and share your words with others in live, face-to-face interactions.

In other words, what we’ve got going in today’s global media landscape, and particularly in the United States, is a form of cultural mono-cropping.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, celebrated in March 2014, is an attempt to diversify the voices in our local public sphere. It’s not a highbrow literary festival, aimed at giving lots of best-selling authors yet another spotlight.

Instead the Festival aims to provide platforms for those would not otherwise be heard—teenage women alongside older women, women who have never published before alongside seasoned published authors in a wide variety of genres.

Few of the 150 women presenting in the Festival have celebrity status or “name recognition,” but they have something even more special: they are women who write and present from their hearts, not for financial gain but for the pleasure and the power of sharing their perspectives and ideas with others.

That is the goal of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: to inspire and empower women in the Berkshire region to dare to take the stage and share their ideas and words with others.

Any woman is welcome to submit a proposal for a Festival event (though women with a connection to the Berkshire region are given preference). The proposals are judged by a dedicated committee of women who are looking to curate the most diverse, stimulating, creative Festival possible.

We operate under a gift economy model: there are no fees for proposal submissions; most presenters volunteer their time and talents; and most Festival events are free and open to the public. The Festival, which is under the fiscal sponsorship of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, takes place at 36 venues all across Berkshire County throughout the month of March, Women’s History Month.

The truth is, the Festival has an ambitious agenda. It’s not just about inspiring women and girls to put their ideas on paper, or about getting more voices of women and girls into the public sphere in our local region, although these are certainly important and worthy goals in their own right.

What the Festival really aims to do, quite simply, is to change the world one woman at a time by shifting from a celebrity-based mono-crop cultural landscape dominated by centralized media, to a diverse, vibrant, locally grown environment in which women are celebrated not for how they look but for what they think and write about the most important issues of our time.

Festival Highlights

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers features more than 58 events, at least one on every day of the month of March, Women’s History Month, and more on weekends.

All events are open to the public and most are free; full listings are available on the Festival website at Berkshirewomenwriters.org, as well as on the Festival Facebook page.

This year the Festival features sixteen sessions dedicated to the year’s special focus, “Writing to “Writing the Self, Righting the World: New Visions of Personal and Planetary Health and Healing.”

The special focus provided the inspiration for the annual Festival Writing Contest, open to all women from the Berkshire region. Curated by Michelle Gillett and Nina Ryan and judged this year by Orion magazine editor Jennifer Sahn, the writing contest asked contributors to explore the links between personal and planetary health through the metaphor of the weather. Winners will participate in a special panel discussion on March 29 at Miss Hall’s School, along with the organizers, judge and panelists Barbara Zheutlin of Berkshire Grown, Alice Maggio of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and poet Amy Dryansky.

Another annual Festival event is the celebration of International Women’s Day at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This year the event, entitled “On the Side of Justice,” will be held on March 9, and will feature three generations of a remarkably creative Argentinian Jewish family, Raquel Partnoy, Alicia Partnoy and Ruth Sanabria. The three will share their poetry, prose and visual art, and discuss the ways that their creative expression helped them to surmount the traumatic experiences they went through during the civil unrest in Argentina in the 1970s.

Returning Festival favorites include “Women of a Certain Age,” hosted by author Sonia Pilcer and featuring writers Jan Krause Greene, Maureen Howard, Cecile Kraus and Marilyn Oser, at The Mount on Sunday, March 16. Irrepressible octogenarian Sally-Jane Heit will also be performing at The Mount on Sunday, March 31, offering some scenes from her one-woman show, “Before I Forget” as a way of inspiring attendees to do some autobiographical writing of their own.

Teen writers will be given special opportunities to shine as well, with events at the Guthrie Center (March 5), at Shakespeare & Company (March 12), at Miss Hall’s School (March 25) and several events at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, including a performance of the play ENUF! developed by Yvette “Jamuna” Sirker and Nakeida Bethel-Smith in collaboration with twelve African American teen girls from the Pittsfield community (March 30).

Mothers are also featured at the Festival. On March 1, “Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others” will provide for a gala opening night at Dewey Hall, with readings by six mother-writers. At the other end of the month, Jayne Atkinson-Gill and Susan R. Rose will be co-producing the Berkshire premiere of the show “Motherhood Out Loud,” with three performances at The Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge on March 28 and 29.

Gloria Steinem will be making a special Festival appearance on March 4 at MCLA, courtesy of the MCLA Public Policy Lecture sponsored by the Ruth Proud Charitable Trust. Steinem’s lecture, free and open to the public, is entitled “The Progression of Feminism: Where are we going?” And Peggy Seeger, sister of Pete and an outstanding folksinger in her own right, will be giving a “lecture in song” about women in traditional and contemporary folk songs, at the Guthrie Center on March 18.

Check the Festival website for full listings. See you at the Festival!

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and media studies with a focus on social and environmental justice at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and is the founding director of the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. She blogs at Transition Times.

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