Young Women Speaking the Economy: Dialogue in Denmark

[Editor's Note: IMOW's newest online exhibition Young Women Speaking the Economy brings 44 young women from four countries together to discuss their thoughts and ideas about entering the workforce at a time of economic uncertainty.

As part of the exhibition, four events were held in each of the participating countries--the U.S., Denmark, Sudan and the Philippines--with some of the exhibition creators traveling all over the world to meet and discuss their ideas in person. For the next few months, we'll be publishing some of the reflections from student participants who traveled to foreign countries as part of this project. This post was written by Jessica Glennon-Zukoff, a student at Mills College in Oakland, California, who traveled to Aarhus, Denmark for the exhibition. Check out Jessica's project here, and explore the entire Young Women Speaking the Economy exhibition.]

The Young Women Speaking the Economy participants in Denmark
After a ten-hour flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam in which I watched two ill-advised (American-made) movies and three episodes of 30 Rock, consumed absolutely everything the flight attendants offered, journaled sporadically, and slept not at all, I boarded on a flight from Amsterdam to Billund, seriously lagging but so excited by the simple fact of being in a European nation.

Nina Koefoed (professor of History at Aarhus University and advisor to the Danish chapter of the Young Women Speaking the Economy project), Bayan El-Bashier (the traveling student representative from the Sudanese chapter of YWSE), Leonora Lottrup (a student participant from Aarhus University and host to Bayan), and my host for the week, Anne-Mette Bak (a student participant from Aarhus University and best friends with Leonora, incidentally), met me at the Billund airport. Nina drove us two hours northeast to the city of Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark. (Chantal Claravall from the Philippines arrived the next day.) The five of us talked college, politics, and the politics of college before host-visitor sets were dropped off at apartments when we reached the city.

Jessica in Aarhus
Anne-Mette’s apartment is in a formerly-working-class neighborhood, a fifth floor walk-up built in the 1930s. She graciously let me nap for a few hours (I’m not sure I ever quite got over the jet lag created by a nine-hour time difference), before we went out to meet Leonora and Bayan for drinks, at a café-bar called Café Smagløs (kitsch-themed, to my delight, whose name translates to “Café Tasteless”). We discussed the custom of European teenagers traveling internationally for months during their gap year (I spoke to why that’s an impossibility for most of us who are lower-class in the United States), the differing political spectrums of Denmark and the United States (we agreed that the United States really has more of a political binary), and differing manifestations of racism in Denmark and the US, running parallel, however, when it comes to immigration politics.

Bayan and I discussed what we understand to be the industry of humanitarianism, and what we see as a dependency of white upper-class Westerners on the idea that those in African nations are themselves dependent on their charity. We wondered aloud whether this dependency of white upper-class Westerners is perpetuated because that’s how those who are highly privileged are able to feel like good people, like real philanthropists.

The five of us went on a short walk around slightly-rainy, cobblestoned Aarhus before parting ways for the night. Anne-Mette and I chatted in her kitchen while I satisfied an ice cream craving, about different educational tracks in Denmark, and about how we in the United States sign up for decades of debt to obtain a degree, whereas in Denmark, collegiate studies are government-funded. The reality of a Bachelor’s degree as a commodity in the fundamentally profit-driven United States really struck me.

We went to sleep in her room with an array of windows, granting a wide-angle view of the cityscape, which, because of the season and of how far north Denmark is on the globe, had only just turned into a nightscape before 11:00pm.

This first day of café discussions and comfort set the tone for the week I spent in Aarhus: settings with incredible food and ever-available wine nourishing conversations of social politics and economic realities, all layered over the history of our surroundings. Every so often during a brunch or dinner with fellow participants, museum directors, project consultants, and advisors, I would pause to look around a long table at this truly marvelous group of people, all engaged in animated conversation, all sharing pieces of their lives, often with someone they’ve only known virtually until recently, and I would think, “This, right now, what I’m in the midst of, is invaluable.” That immediate connection I had to so many distinct lives, all brought together to share experiences in the wake of an economic crisis that changed so many of our realities – that moment of connection was priceless, and I cherish it.

Some Young Women Speaking the Economy
Exhibition creators, with IMOW Executive Director
Clare Winterton, in Denmark
Over lunch in the middle of a day of sightseeing, I was able to witness Bayan speak to the reality of what is happening, and of what has happened, in Darfur, a conflict that has been packaged and marketed as a trendy and conveniently-homogenous “Third World” cause in the United States. To hear a Sudanese woman share the logistics of this conflict in her homeland, to express how painful and frustrating it is to have the world patronizingly pity her nation, her continent, and her as a Sudanese woman (while of course ignoring colonization as a root cause of the status quo), changed me in a way I honestly don’t have the words to convey quite yet. There she was, across the table from me, telling me what I didn’t realize I needed to hear the most as a white American antiracist feminist: “You don’t know.”

Conversations with Anne-Mette as well as with Joe and Anette Larner (a couple – two PhD candidates at Aarhus University who I’d first met when they traveled to Mills for our YWSE program week) were staggeringly rich in elements of politics, especially in regard to seemingly-revived neoconservatism, fueling further racism in both the United States and Denmark. (Apparently, they have their own version of the Tea Party.)

At a dinner hosted by Nina Koefoed, I was able to share with the Danish students how exhausting the individualist capitalist culture in the US really is, how we’re stressed all the time because almost everything is based on competition for resources – jobs, funding, a place in a program. Even though many of us understand capitalism as a vertically-functioning system that operates based on a reserve of have-nots, we still must exist (often as those have-nots) and survive within it. It was difficult, I felt, to adequately convey how it feels when your family is thrown under the proverbial socioeconomic bus, to have no real societal safety net while being told by political leaders that you live in the greatest nation on earth, to find any and every way you can to fund your education, to cross your fingers for healthcare even when you have insurance coverage, all under incredible pressure to make yourself a desirable candidate for opportunities you can only hope will ensure some future security. All of this was shocking to Danish students, who of course not only have government-funded higher education but national healthcare.

It was my impression that Danish culture is able to be so much more collaborative, laid-back, peaceful – there is a sense among the students with whom I spent time that there is enough, that everything will ultimately be okay. I was in a precarious emotional balance between feeling positively giddy that I was able to spend a week in this wonderful place, and wanting to cry because those I love most in the world will likely never know the kind of peace and security the Danish students seemed to. I began to consider the distinct resulting psychologies of socialism versus capitalism.

Our public program, during which we had a panel discussion and each presented our multimedia projects, was hosted by the Women’s Museum in Aarhus, housed in the former city hall, built in the 19th century. Curator Bodil Olesen informed us that the museum staff relishes the fact that women were expressly banned from the premises when the building served as the city hall, and now the space is a sanctuary for women’s experiences across centuries to be expressed and honored. It is indeed a beautiful coincidence, and I felt the echoing weight of the still-gendered division of public and private spheres as I rose to speak during the program, in the main meeting hall on the second floor where, years ago, no female voices rang out.

As I contributed to the dialogue of the afternoon program in that second-floor hall and listened to my fellow participants as they shared their inspiration and their work, I felt I was witnessing what Young Women Speaking the Economy catalyses it itself – creating space (within formerly and presently male-dominated spaces) to share your story, whether in a Facebook post or live, as women from four nations listened with open minds and hearts, windows to their own lives ajar.