By: Brett Kaplan

The series that has become “Mad Creative” is the first in what I hope will become an HGMS annual tradition. It generated through a perhaps atypical origin story. I saw on Facebook a posting from one of the wonderful Comparative and World Literature and now HGMS graduate students, Meagan Smith. I’ve been a fan of Meagan’s writing ever since her exams some years ago and I read her post during a time when I felt bombarded, teary, and triggered by the enormity of sexual violence in the news. Here is part of what Meagan posted: I’ve listened to people assume…that women who do speak up are likely to be lying, and arguing that women should remove themselves from work places and social spaces that ‘make them uncomfortable’ while the men creating the atmosphere of discomfort should be given all the space they want for their toxic behavior. I've responded with logic, with questions, with outrage, with personal narratives, with frustrated pleas to simply acknowledge that the systemic roots of the problem should be addressed. So, before totally missing the point and frantically deploying the ‘not all men’ argument, please take a deep breath and listen to the women you care about. Be brave and try deferring to us on these issues. Leave your fear and your guilt and your own discomfort behind long enough to allow us a chance to catch our breath and change the damn world. We will do the rest of the work it takes to gain our share of the freedom you take for granted.”

As soon as I read this I emailed Meagan to suggest that we construct an HGMS event around these issues. A few days after her post, Meagan and I met to discuss how to do something about this sense of bombardment and the feeling of being silenced. Meagan suggested we reach out to various groups across campus and we did. Through a series of planning meetings with a range of people from The Women’s Resources Center, YWCA, APO, Women & Gender in Global Perspectives, as well independent artists and thinkers, we decided to orchestrate a three-part series: A Breathing Room (which happened last night), a rally to celebrate the almost 100 years since women gained the right to vote (Friday, November 2 at the Alma Mater), and Breaking the Silence: A Mosaic Project led by the artist Susan Parenti (YMCA, Monday November 12, 3-5:30). We felt that this range of events would speak to the range of feelings we had—we wanted to talk, to listen, to shout, to break something and also to make something. 

HGMS has focused until now on trauma and memory studies and has done incredible work to educate students, the community, and faculty about the Armenian genocide, about the interconnections between traumas across temporal and geographical divides. Some of our speakers have been experts in gender studies. But we had not until last night organized an event expressly around gender and trauma. We held our Breathing Room in the Lucy Ellis lounge and not only was every seat full, but people were standing at the back of the room and huge numbers of people thanked us for putting this together. It felt very needed and very, very appreciated. 

The organizing group turned out to be an intensely smart and creative crowd and I offer an enormous thanks to Meagan Smith, Naomi Taub, Sarah Colomé, Nidhi Singh, Alaina Pincus, Michelle Awad, Lesley Wexler, Anita Kaiser, Susan Parenti, Dilara Caliskan, Claire Baytas, and Ronnie Hemrich. An enormous thank you to the office manager for HGMS, Sarah Elder who made (and revised many times) the poster, booked the rooms, ordered the pizza, and will deal with all budgetary issues. I am indebted to her for all she does to keep HGMS and Jewish Studies running so smoothly! 

Enormous thanks to our sponsors: School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics; The Department of English; Gender and Women’s Studies, Center for Advanced Study, and College of Fine and Applied Arts. The feedback from the sponsors was so positive and makes all the difference to our ability to conduct events that really matter.

The first event in the series was the Breathing Room for people of all genders. We gathered to talk and to listen. And to find ways to end rape culture and begin consent culture or whatever else we can call a world without rampant sexual harassment of women, transpeople, men, boys, girls; everyone should be able to breathe! 

The first speaker was co-organizer Sarah Colomé, Director of the Women’s Resources Center. Sarah spoke about our collective responsibility to call rape culture when we see it. She made an apt analogy to what we might say if we hear someone making a racist joke… we would call them on it, right? In the same way sexist or troubling comments can and should be pointed out. Sarah also shared resources on campus for sexual assault survivors and demonstrated how much support is available. You can find out more here:

The second speaker was supposed to be co-organizer Lesley Wexler, Professor of Law at UIUC who was called to a meeting at the Law School about a Law Professor’s alleged repeated sexual misconduct. As you might imagine the irony was lost on no one that she was unable to be at our event in person for this very reason. Lesley sent me an essay co-written with Colleen Murphy, Professor of Law and Philosophy and Political Science and Director of the Women & Gender in Global perspectives program that has organized the related MeToo in Academia series (the next one will take place on February 13that noon at the Law School), and I relayed to our full to bursting audience part of this great article in their absence. The full text is here and definitely worth reading:

The third speaker, co-organizer Nidhi Singh, is a current undergraduate student studying Industrial and Organizational Psychology with a minor in Social Work and Leadership Studies; she is the Vice President of Leadership within Alpha Phi Omega. I would like to thank Nidhi especially for organizing ten APO volunteers who led the discussion groups. Nidhi spoke about MeToo from her cultural perspective as the child of immigrants from India. She described with both gravitas and humor a four-hour conversation with her father during which she educated him about sexual harassment and what it is like to be a woman in college in the U.S. At first, she said, he was reluctant to learn. But then he seemed to have gotten it and understood more deeply from her perspective. Nidhi spoke about reaching out to her uncles next and stressed that reaching out to someone who has a different perspective can be transformative. You can find out more about APO here:

The next speaker was Kadin Henningsen, a graduate student in the Department of English who is minoring in Queer Studies and has an MA in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Kadin spoke very movingly about the ways in which transpeople’s experience of violence and sexual violence is both pervasive and often and unfortunately invisible. He discussed how sometimes the insistence on gender binaries in academe is a form of violence and he challenged those of us who organize panels and construct syllabi to include more trans scholars and more scholarship on trans experience and history. He encouraged us to read this:

The final speaker was Suda Rao, Vice President of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA) and the Chair of the Illinois Student Government Sexual Assault Prevention Department. Suda spoke about how SASA is designed to be led and run by survivors and how this group orchestrates a variety of events including an open mic series where people can share anonymously, self-care events, creative events, and other ways of both supporting survivors and letting people know that sexual assault happens here. You can find out more about SASA here:

After everyone on the panel had spoken, we all broke into discussion groups and talked for about twenty minutes and then re-convened for a final conversation. In my group, we first talked about transitional justice and then branched out to tell stories and share ideas and feelings. The evening concluded with everyone screaming. That unexpected group expression was just right. 

Brett Ashley Kaplan
Director, Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies
Professor, Comparative and World Literatures,