Participants and speakers at the UN Women U.S. National Committee Los Angeles chapter’s General Assembly were asked one question when the event began: When was the first time you felt displaced?
“In 1992, when Robbie King was brutalized by the LAPD, and after not being indicted a riot broke out,” keynote speaker Kenia Alcocer, who spoke in English and Spanish about her work at the California Poor People’s Campaign, confided to the attendees. “This was for me the first time I felt displacement.”
Entertainment report and fellow keynote speaker Kiki Ayer also shared her experiences of displacement as a black woman and someone who has been homeless, but explained that any person can feel displaced.
“Everyone is displaced in something,” she said. “Whether you are the blackest girl in the room or the whitest girl in the room, you are displaced in some area.” She concluded by encouraging the creation of a world of people who do not displace themselves or others by not accepting them. “Every time you see a little girl, you see a little boy, you see a homeless person on the street, you see a single mom with kids,” Ayer urged, “don’t judge them. Tell them that they’re accepted and that they belong.”
The question was a strong start to the event in June at the Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club—”Belonging and Displacement: Uniting Heads, Hearts and Hands”—that connected the dots between local issues of homelessness and gentrification and global issues like immigration and the refugee crisis.
Syrian refugee, artist and women’s rights advocate Fadia Afashe encouraged the room to allow themselves to feel vulnerable, sharing her personal battle with negative emotions, and encouraged the audience to channel their anger over injustice into unity. “I know it is not easy to share your emotions with others,” she said, “because we want to feel a sense of belonging in our society a society that favors positivity all the time, but such societal conformity will lead us to isolation.”
Sessions throughout the afternoon empowered attendees to get involved locally and internationally, and provided them with the space to share their personal stories.
In one session, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) co-founder and Executive Director Chelina Odbert provided attendees with an overview of the ways public space can create gender-inclusive environments. She noted ways in which cities are built for cisgender men, from safety risks at night for women and non-binary folks to the challenges in bringing a stroller on public buses, and stressed the importance of finding long-term solutions to bake into the future of city planning.
“When you look to the community driven efforts for making our public realm better—the people who take time out of their day to better their community—those are all being led by women,” Odbert, whose non-profit firm works with landscape architects, community organizers and urban planners with the intention of building equity between neighborhoods, told the crowd. “When we saw that imbalance, we looked at the sense of belonging around gender in the public realm. The residents are the experts we work with to determine the priorities.”
Kenia Alcocer also focused on urban planning in her presentation on urban displacement—and urged attendees to understand gentrification not as a random consequence, but rather the intended outcome of an economic process of displacement. “Gentrification is a system of not investing in communities,” she asserted. “It is displacement that benefits the rich.”
She suggested political education as a pivotal solution. “Political education is not about teaching them something,” she clarified. “It’s about them coming to their own understanding of their material positions and understanding what they’re living and then putting it out as what they want.”
In a panel discussion to close the assembly, Alisa Orduna reminded the audience that people across identities and communities need to work together. “In mainstream America, [people of color’s] stories are never told,” she explained, “and how you learn to bridge that gap is listen to these stories and invite us into these spaces with your family and colleagues.”