Posted 8 a.m. Friday, Oct. 7, 2022

Dr. Shuma Iwai teaches in the Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. The program takes an intersectional approach – combining the insights of scholars in different fields regarding inequalities related to race, gender and sexuality, and class.

New Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department courses reflect on society’s ‘hidden histories’ and how students can bring about change

The youngest generations are advocating for change. They want to see action to address issues that have plagued society for centuries from racial inequality to the oppression of women. A new UWL department provides foundational knowledge for social justice work like this. 

The new Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department (RGSS) is a merger of two UWL departments: Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Ethnic & Racial Studies. Course offerings have been blended and updated to give students an interdisciplinary view of social justice issues. Students will begin to understand the enormous diversity of the U.S. and a globalizing world, and the structures of inequality on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and social class that shape it.  

For instance, students will learn about: 

  • Unequal power distributions in society 
  • The struggle of women, people of color, and sexual and gender minorities to attain equal rights
  • Racial and gender stereotypes in the media
  • The role of institutions in shaping inequality

"We are focused on empowering students to think critically about the systems that shape their lives and providing them with tools to address inequalities,” says Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, chair of the Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. 

Sometimes just a few classes can inspire students to join an ongoing movement for justice. UWL senior Olivia Paulson, a psychology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies major, learned about gender-based human rights violations that occurred in 20th century Ireland in her History of Motherhood class. She later received an Undergraduate Research and Creativity grant to study reproductive justice issues in the country. She conducted interviews, visited former institutions and burial grounds, and even attended a protest. She saw how reproductive trauma is an ongoing experience for survivors and relatives of institutionalized women and girls. She wanted to know how justice could be achieved for survivors of institutional abuses.  

“People I spoke with encouraged me in my research process to continue to bring light to the truth, uplift survivor testimonies, and fight for justice,” she says. “I learned research is essential to social transformation as it has the potential to uncover information, reach new conclusions, and inform future activist efforts.”  

The program sheds light on hidden histories all over the world. 

“History provides that broader perspective of how structures have evolved or continued and how people have struggled to make change and build coalitions,” says Vandenberg-Daves. “Others throughout history have tried to find answers, and we can learn from other generations.” 

UWL senior Olivia Paulson, a psychology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies major, pictured with Professor Jodi Vandenberg-Daves. Paulson conducted research on gender-based human rights violations in Ireland while studying abroad there. “I am most grateful to Dr. Vandenberg-Daves as in my introductory WGSS class, she recognized my passion for the subject and encouraged me to consider taking more WGSS classes,” says Paulson. Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies is now combining with Ethnic & Racial Studies to become the Race, Gender & Sexuality Studies program.

Students will understand how social transformation is possible by finding opportunities to join the process such as: 

  • Conducting local research projects that assess issues such as immigration services, reproductive justice movements, or perceived stigmas regarding sexual assault.  
  • Participating in internships working for social justice causes at various locations such as at New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Centers, the Greater La Crosse Diversity Council or the UWL Self Sufficiency Program.
  • Curating the Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies Resource Center and Library through book purchases or preparation for events such as Black History Month.
  • Participating in field trips such as an annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage that exposes students to 10 historic southern cities and more than 15 museums and historic sites over 10 days.
  • Working on class projects where students develop their own violence prevention model programs, which are peer reviewed by professionals in the community.   
  • Learning through UWL campus-wide social justice related events such as UWL’s Social Justice Week. 

The program is committed to helping students understand how skills transfer to career opportunities, and it builds on the work of generations of UWL people dating back to when the Ethnic and Racial Studies Department and Women’s Studies Department, founded in the 1960s and 70s, says Vandenberg-Daves. 

The program includes:  

  • Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies major and minor 
  • Social Justice minor  
  • Hmong American Studies Certificate Program 
  • The Self Sufficiency Program a free, pre-college program to explore college 

Learn more about UWL’s Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. 

Led by Dr. Richard Breaux of the RGSS Dept., students annually attend a Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a living history of trying to make change for racial justice. Here a previous group poses for a photo in Selma, Alabama during the trip.