URI International Women’s Day Conference: Clarissa J. Walker Explores Activism Rhetoric of Afro-Cuban Women

In a presentation titled “The Rhetoric of Activism: Afro-Cuban Women Tweeting, Blogging, Tracking the Finish of the 59-year-old Castro Regime,” Writing & Rhetoric Ph.D. candidate Clarissa Walker joined American and international scholars to share work that explores the harrowing experiences and celebrated contributions of women from across the globe. On February 28th, the University of Rhode Island held its second annual International Women’s Day Conference, featuring Italian writer Dacia Maraini and a distinguished list of scholars from URI and other universities, including Fordham, Harvard, Texas at Austin, Vermont, and Mount Holyoke College.  Clarissa presented her work as part of a panel focused on women’s issues in the U.S., Cuba, North Africa, and Italy.

Clarissa’s presentation explored the kairos, or the opportune timing, of the activism and social justice work being done in Cuba as it has moved from the “the jungle-dense stage of the guerilla revolutionary . . . to the activism rhetoric posted on cyber platforms.”  She builds on Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s “soft power” model, which, unlike the coercive nature of “hard power,” is a means for activists to gradually gain support for their causes through the careful and deliberate use of shared political values and culture.  Clarissa proposes using the “soft power” model to construct “a theoretical framework for interpreting the rhetoric of digital activism” that uses the technology of cyberspace to uncover injustices and incite social change.

Noting the shift in Cuban activism from the “camouflaged draped rhetors, strapped with automatic weaponry” to the digital voices in the expansive cyber world, Clarissa explains that through developments in technology “people in marginalized communities may join many of the undetected tributaries of discourse . . . adding their counternarratives, and operating in new agency and voice as social media users and transmedia journalists.”  Beginning with black women bloggers, who are perhaps the most marginalized group in Cuba, Clarissa’s work demonstrates the impact of soft power through their participation in blogging communities.  She then moves on to the other online forums, including Twitter, Vimeo, and Blogger, as digital activists disseminate information about injustices occurring in Cuba. Interestingly, the content of these online activities has made its way to wider audiences through online versions of the New York Times, the Economist, and BBC, which has allowed the world access to information about life under Castro – information that was typically unavailable before the advent of the web.  Her work also stresses the measures that many of these women must take to overcome the constraints of censorship that bar them from freely accessing the Internet, even the sites where they post their work.  Nevertheless, there is a clear set of women’s voices documenting the end of the Castro regime, sharing their stories with the world, and demonstrating the power of digital activism.

The International Women’s Day event was organized by URI Associate Professor of Italian Michelangelo La Luna and sponsored by URI’s Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of the Dean of Arts & Sciences, Honors Program, Center for the Humanities, Film/Media Program, the departments of Modern & Classical Languages and Literatures, Gender & Women’s Studies, and Philosophy.  Clarissa Walker’s contributions demonstrate the power of language in its various forms and how the work of those in the field of Writing & Rhetoric can be applied to vital issues of social action.

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