PCL Reads: Feminist City with Author Leslie Kern

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Author Leslie Kern standing in a construction site. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom featuring an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Lee Smith: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.


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Lee: Hi, everyone, I am Lee Smith, the Adult Services Librarian at Mount Pleasant Library which is one of the nine neighborhood libraries of the Providence Community Library System. What we have for you today is a PCL Reads author talk featuring Dr. Leslie Kern, the author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. If you're not already familiar with PCL Reads, it is a virtual series of monthly community events centered around reading that I launched with Amy Rosa, the Library Manager at Washington Park Library.

Each month, we typically travel to one of the nine Providence Community Library locations where that library co-hosts the event, chooses our next reading selection, and sometimes invites the author to visit.

This event is extra special because we invited Amelia Rose, the Director of Groundwork Rhode Island to the co-host, so with the goal to broaden the conversation beyond the library, beyond librarians, and to encompass more voices in Providence and Rhode Island. I warmly welcome her as the first of what I hope to be many special guests that will recommend our monthly reading selections and author visits.

Groundwork Rhode Island is a local nonprofit organization that's dedicated to creating healthier and more resilient urban communities. You may be familiar with one of their countless programs like the Green Team Youth Employment, Harvest Cycle Composting Service, the Prairie Avenue Greenhouse, not to mention the West End Compost Hub. I'm very thankful that Amelia agreed to take the reins of [00:02:00] PCL Reads for this event and I couldn't be happier with the results. Let's hear from Amelia.

Amelia Rose: Great, thank you. Thanks so much to Lee and to Amy for inviting Groundwork Rhode Island to be part of PCL Reads. I'm really excited about tonight's author talk and I'm so glad Dr. Kern is here with us in person virtually and also to see so many folks participating. When Lee first asked me to help select a book for PCL Reads, I really wanted to think about a book that encapsulates the mission of Groundwork Rhode Island but quickly realized that is impossible and no single book could do that but I knew that whatever book we chose would say something about our organization so I ended up looking for books focused on urban planning.

Sometimes Groundwork Rhode Island is known as an environmental organization which it definitely is, but beyond that, we're really all about making cities that are for the people who live there through environmental improvement as well as creating economic opportunities. Luckily, I found a list of the best urban planning books of 2019, and there on the list was Feminist City.

For me what really interested me in this book and what I've been enjoying while reading it in preparation for tonight are the personal stories and real-world examples that Dr. Kern shares that make the policy decisions that we associate with urban planning really come to life and the gender equity lens that she helps us see-through. Importantly, not by itself, but also in combination with seeing through the lens of racial and economic equity as well, I found really interesting and compelling and have just been learning a lot already and thinking about ways to apply it to our work.

Thank you all for being here I'm excited about the conversation. I hope folks have been able to read at least part of the book and have some questions prepared. I get to introduce Dr. Leslie Kern. She is an Associate Professor of Geography and Environment and Director of Women's and Gender [00:04:00] Studies at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. That's in Canada. She is the author of the book that is the focus of tonight, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World as well as Sex and the Revitalized City: Gender, Condominium Development, and Urban Citizenship.

Her research focuses on gentrification in North American cities, exploring issues such as embodiment, gendered labor conditions, and environmental and human health using feminist urban theory. Thank you, Dr. Kern, for being with us and I'll hand it over to you.

Dr. Leslie Kern: Thank you, Amelia, and thank you to Lee and Amy and the Providence Community Library for inviting me here tonight. Thank you to all of you for being here with me. I'd like to acknowledge that tonight I'm visiting you from the traditional and unceded territory of the Miꞌkmaq and Maliseet people, on whose lands we are governed by ongoing treaties of peace and friendship. My pronouns are she/her and if you want to follow me on Twitter, my social media is @lellyk which I can put in the chat a little bit later. I thought I would start it with starting from the personal, as Amelia noted, is a theme in the book, and then try to share some principles and ideas and values that I think are central to the Feminist City and then segue a little bit into a conversation with Amelia and with all of you.

I grew up in Mississauga which is a huge suburb of Toronto, and I moved downtown to the city to go to the University of Toronto for my undergraduate education. As a young woman I loved being in the city. I felt free and independent and confident on the not really all that mean streets of downtown Toronto. I felt very [00:06:00] urban, very at home most of the time. Underneath all of that fun and freedom was this other consciousness, the voice of years of socialization telling me to be afraid. Sometimes the voices of men who whistled or hurled vulgar insults when I didn't respond and these voices told me that I was supposed to behave in certain ways, to avoid certain spaces, and to make special and sometimes complicated plans to stay safe.

One example of those is that in my first year of university, my three closest friends, my roommate, and the woman who lived in the dorm room next door to us, we had this system which was pretty annoying at the time but also felt essential. I do also describe this in the book. If one of the three of us was coming home alone on the subway, we would call the others when we got off at the nearest station. Of course, this was from a payphone because we didn't have cell phones in the mid-1990s at university. Have your quarter, call your friends, hope somebody actually answered their landline, and then the other two would walk the 10 minutes up the street to collect me, or whichever one of us was there alone at the subway so that the three of us would walk back down to our residence.

It was like no woman left behind scenario that now that I look back upon this from the hindsight of 25 years, it's both a little bit endearing and also exasperating because of course, none of the men that we knew who lived in the same place and were the same age as us, none of them felt that they had to take these over the top precautions just to move in very simple ways through their city.

I was well aware that that was a sexist double standard and that we were trapped in the sexist bind even before we had the more commonplace now language of rape culture to describe [00:08:00] this overwhelming sense of the way in which women are positioned as always vulnerable to attack and so on. Aside from that, the city was largely accessible to me. I felt connected, I loved hopping on a streetcar, I loved striding confidently along the crowded sidewalks.

All of that changed, however, when I became a mom. Suddenly the city, in this case, London, where I was living when I had my daughter, the city was out to get me, or so it seemed. From the inaccessible buses to angry pedestrians elbowing my stroller out of the way, to the dirty looks that you get when you're in a public space and you're trying to nurse a baby or calm them down or change them. I'm sure maybe some of you in the audience tonight have had these experiences. I found that the city was now giving me a very different message like you don't belong here anymore.

Of course, my previous feelings of mobility and freedom were predicated on privileges such as whiteness and able-bodiedness, but it hadn't occurred to me that all of the sites of oppression and discrimination that my Women's Studies degree had taught me to identify were also built right into the spaces around me, right into the city itself. I was starting to understand that the built environment and the city, in particular, was part of the wider infrastructure of power relations that feminism had to work to dismantle. I was on my way to becoming a feminist geographer.

Now, at that point when I was a new mom living in the city of London, I had never yet heard of feminist geography. That came a couple of years later when I was back in school doing my master's degree and then my PhD. One of the most common [00:10:00] questions that I get asked when I do talks is, can you explain what a feminist geographer is? It doesn't necessarily seem intuitive to people. I think we maybe remember our middle school geography lessons where you had to color in maps, or maybe memorize state capitals or figure out the watershed system of the Great Lakes and all of these kinds of topics. Think what on earth does that have to do with feminism or gender, sexism?

Well, from a human geography standpoint, which is one that is not only concerned with the physical or the natural environment, but with the human relationship to those environments, we try to understand not only the ways that human beings impact the spaces around us, whether again, those are natural spaces or the human-made spaces that we create, but also how those spaces can affect us and not just affect us as individuals, but affect us, socially, politically, culturally, economically. Essentially, we're trying to understand how power works in different places.

To me, being a feminist geographer is about trying to understand how ideas about gender like gender norms and gender roles are part of the fabric of the built environment, how they get expressed through the sorts of places that we build, and the environments that we create. Also thinking about how those environments then shape us, how they shape gender, how they continue to shape gender relations. In this feedback cycle, society shapes space, space shapes society.

A feminist geographer's point of view is one that is particularly [00:12:00] interested in gender, but not only gender, we're also interested in thinking about how different forms of power relations intersect with one another. Trying to understand how sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, all of these systems of power, how they might come together to shape the experiences, life chances, and so on, of different groups of people in society.

That's a quick explanation of what I've come to understand feminist geography, as and I found it to be a very productive home for me as a feminist scholar. It's not obviously the only way to do feminist research. For me, when I discovered that this was a way that we could understand power and sexism, it was like adding that third dimension to see how power was working, not just in our interpersonal relationships or through a legal regime for example, but literally through the spaces all around us. To me, that has remained a fascinating subject of inquiry, and I guess it also leads me to maybe share a little bit about why I wrote this book at this particular time, or I guess now, a couple of years ago when I actually sat down and wrote it.

I was interested in contributing to broader feminist conversations about sexism, about gender relations, about power, and inequality in society. I feel like these have been having a good moment over the last five or 10 years when I think about the work of people like Roxane Gay or Rebecca Traister, Rebecca Solnit, Tressie McMillan Cottom, people who are writing both from their [00:14:00] own experiences, but also about the broader context that they're in. I was thinking what could I contribute to this conversation? What's my angle? What's my little piece that could also help expand our understanding of these issues.

For me, it was like, well, the city, that's what I study, and often, even though people will, space and place are always present in these other sorts of books that I've talked about, they're not necessarily problematized or really looked into in terms of how the spaces themselves are active participants in whatever it is that's going on. I thought, oh, that's something that I could write about. This is what I do in my day job. I talk about this with my students all the time, I talk about it with my fellow colleagues and my fellow feminist geographers. I also realize that for most everyday people moving around your city, you're not necessarily looking around going, "Oh, this street is so sexist," or, "What's with this patriarchal crosswalk?" This is not probably the way that you're thinking about space on a day-to-day basis.

It seemed like, okay, this is maybe a moment where I could share some of both my own experience and all of this knowledge, everything that I've been studying for so many years, to encourage people to look around their cities in a little bit of a different way. To not take the spaces around them for granted, to not assume that these spaces have just always been this way, they always will be this way, or that they've been truly designed with some lofty principle of perfect efficiency, or whatever [00:16:00] we might imagine is the rationale behind space and just expose the way in which a lot of different norms, values, ideas, and biases get incorporated into the built environment.

That was my mission, from the book, and based on the reception that it has been getting over the past couple of years, I think people have certainly related, both through their own experiences and just what they've started to notice in different ways around the city. I remember my brother, who I talked about a little bit in the book, him saying to me after he wrote it, that when he's on the subway, he really notices now how people take up space, how people with young children in strollers are able to access the public transit system, what seems safe or unsafe to different groups of people. That was really what I was aiming for, that people could look around and see with a slightly different set of eyes.

Now, over the past year, obviously, we've been living in I could not have predicted that we'd be spending a lot of time talking about the idea of the feminist city during a global pandemic. It has been really interesting to see the kinds of ideas and principles and questions that people are really picking up on in this time period. Even for myself things that I look back and think, oh, I didn't really emphasize that in the book and in the way that maybe if I was writing it now I would. It's been like a new lens to look back on what I wrote. It has certainly crystallized for me, I think, some of the core values that I would associate with a concept of the feminist city. [00:18:00]

I say this very much, not as though these ideas just came to me, and they're my unique ideas but they are-- it's been a process of thinking that has really developed through many conversations, just like this event tonight, that I've been lucky enough to have with people all over the world over the last year, in order to get a deeper understanding of what is really at stake when we talk about the city and when we talk about gendered and other forms of inequalities. I thought I would just share a few of those principles, those things that have really, as I say, crystallized for me over the last year.

One of those I labeled the idea of margin to center. What I mean by this is that when thinking about how urban space is designed and planned and built, that instead of designing or imagining this universal, male subject, usually a white middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, economically productive man as the majority for whom cities are designed, what if we started from the groups that are seen as at the margins, whether those are women, caregivers, seniors, disabled people, homeless people, recent immigrants, people of color, Indigenous people.

What if we started from those groups and recognize that taken together, we are the majority, that almost mythical standard man, he is at best in minority, and in reality, even that figure probably doesn't represent the experience of the majority of men today and how their lives are [00:20:00] organized. I think sometimes there's this concern maybe in design and planning circles, that if you were to design, say, for example, with disabled people at the center of your concept of design, that you're designing for a niche. You're designing for a special interest group in society, but in actuality, as I say, when you take all of those so-called niche groups, all of those so-called minority groups, and put us together, we are the majority.

This is not to say that that standard man, that he is left out of the picture, in fact, things will be just fine for him. He does not suddenly get marginalized in this picture. He doesn't lose his access to spaces because there are more ramps or more space for strollers and children on public transportation. In fact, it's a way of doing things that would imagine lifting the inclusivity of the city up for absolutely everybody. How can we move those who are seen as at the margins of planning and design into the center of how we conceptualize the city?

The second principle that has really risen to the top of my consciousness and for so many people around the world is the way in which care work has been at best an afterthought in so many cities and urban planning, and by care work, I mean all of that work, both paid and unpaid labor that goes into looking after children, looking after the home, looking after elderly people, caring for sick people, feeding your community, volunteer, work, all of this labor that is so undervalued and done disproportionately by women and people of color in at least in Canada and the US. During the pandemic, the absolutely ragged social safety nets that [00:22:00] we've been clinging to for dear life have just been completely shredded. We've noticed many people seemingly for the first time, that there are profound gender inequalities in terms of this care work crisis.

What does this have to do with cities? Well, we could think about how can we design cities to put care work at the center, or at least not this afterthought that we don't really care about? How could we reimagine our public spaces as places where some of this care work could be shared and collectivized so it's not constantly placed on the shoulders of individual women in the invisible, private space of the home. What kind of infrastructure could we develop that would support care work? There are answers to these questions. It's not completely pie in the sky. There are ways of organizing transportation systems that would facilitate care work.

There are the kinds of spaces that we would incorporate, whether those are accessible spaces like incorporating ramps and, and elevators, also bathroom or restroom spaces where care work either of children, of elderly people, disabled people, anyone who needs a bit of extra care can happen, spaces where we can collectively rest and socialize and have shelter and shade and water and food, spaces where we could collectively feed one another, spaces where children could be outdoors for learning. All of these things are options.

We've seen in some cases that the pandemic has opened a little bit of space to push some of those options forward but I do worry that maybe we are not going to see as great a transformation in that as we could. For my care work, I certainly [00:24:00] talk about it in the book, but if I was writing it now, during, or after the pandemic, I think it would be like a much more central part of what I talk about.

Connected to care work are issues of housing as well. I talk a little bit about housing in the book, but early on, someone pointed out to me, you don't really talk about the home that much. I thought, "Oh that's true. I gloss over the home," but again, the pandemic has maybe sharpened for many of us the limits of what this single-family home can be. What it can do, what it can support in terms of family and work and children, and caring for sick people, fulfilling all of our social and economic needs.

Again, this is a bit of an urban question. What other forms of housing could we be building? How could we imagine other ways of living with one another that don't, again, privatize care work into the home or isolate people into the single-family home, which we take for granted that this is the normal way that people live, but really historically speaking, the single-family home is a pretty new way of living.

The last principle that I'll mention before we maybe start to move towards discussion is the idea of the importance of designing cities and urban spaces with human bodies in mind.

This might seem a weird thing to say, but often, and I think maybe many people would intuitively know this, that sometimes when you're moving through an urban space, it doesn't feel like it was planned for people that are actual, organic, living human beings. People that need to use the restroom, people that need to sit down, people that need water or shade.

It sometimes feels as though [00:26:00] urban space has been designed for cars. We've got lots of space for cars. We've got lots of space for economic activities or consumption activities, but all of these many spaces that would really be human-centered and that would address just the basic human needs that we have as organic beings have often been designed out of cities in part of a fear of homeless people using spaces, so we've decided nobody can sit down anywhere. What if we started from the principle that people have bodies and we all have bodily needs, and how could our cities better reflect and support those needs?

As I was getting ready for tonight, I was looking online a little bit about the work of the Groundwork organization. Of course, I've only had the chance to learn about it through the website since I can't be physically with you in Providence, but some of the things that I thought were interesting and that for me, connected to ideas that I think about in terms of the feminist city, was the way in which it's literally a ground-up approach, which I think is reflected in the name as well. That it's community-led and it's grassroots essentially, like coming from the ground up.

One of the things that I talk about in Feminist City is the way that we don't have to wait and we probably shouldn't wait for the city or for the state to offer us opportunities to do things differently. It's probably not going to happen, or it's going to be very slow and very limited and very entrenched in existing systems. Sometimes we have to make our own, we have to create our own spaces and programs and ways of doing things. When people ask me, "Oh, where is there a feminist city?" I think, well, it doesn't exist really yet [00:28:00] as a city, but it exists in the things that people do, as communities, as organizations.

I also like the way that Groundwork doesn't put objectives like sustainability and equity and economic growth in competition with each other, which again, I think mainstream systems often do like, "Oh, you can't have jobs if you want a clean environment," or, "Oh, you want to tackle climate change, then why are we talking about social inequalities," as if these things aren't all connected, so I appreciate that.

I was also really intrigued by their work to understand and try to mitigate, or at least respond to the connections between things like climate change vulnerability and histories of racism and segregation because I think a feminist intersectional way of thinking is really about understanding that these things are all interlinked and that we can't, for example, tackle climate change without tackling social and economic inequality. I thought I would just segue with those remarks because I thought there were some interesting parallels there, but I'm happy to quiet my remarks for a little bit and see what conversation and question arises. Thank you for listening.

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Lee: Thank you for listening. I hope you'll join us live at the next PCL Reads event. The best way to stay up to date is to head on over to our website provcomlib.org and sign up for our E-news. It's at the bottom right-hand corner of the main page. Also, if your organization would like to co-host a PCL Reads event in 2022, please reach out to me @lsmith@provcomlib.org. Till next time, keep reading. Rhody Radio is a project of the office of library and information services and is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. [00:30:10]

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