Alumni, Parents, & Donors
Alumni Spotlight: Briana Kerstein Bergeron
This year's alumni spotlight features Briana Kerstein Bergeron ('98), who graduated in the inaugural class of Feminist & Gender Studies (then Women's Studies) majors in 1998. Briana joined the Western Organization of Resource Councils as the Development Associate in February 2020. She assists with grant writing, compiling grant reports, and general external fundraising support. Until 2016, she was the Campaign Director for the Western Coalfield Alliance, a coalition focused on reforming the federal coal program, which included WORC and other regional and national partners. Prior to returning to her hometown of Billings, Montana in 2010, Briana spent 7 years in New Orleans working with the Gulf Restoration Network. Briana has also worked as an organizer for Montana People’s Action, Planned Parenthood St. Louis, and briefly for the St. Louis chapter of ACORN.
Why did you decide to become a Women’s Studies major?
At the time, my personal philosophy about choosing a major was that my actual degree would most likely have little impact on my future work. So, I wanted to choose a course of study I found most interesting and inspiring. For me, Women’s Studies was the clear winner. These were the classes that excited me and never seemed like a struggle. In the years since graduation, pursuing a career that was not just a job, but part of the larger movement for justice, was important to me and a Women’s Studies degree was actually very important for that work. Understanding the roots of injustice, the long history of women’s fight for equality and the ways in which feminism has failed to raise up all women in our country were critical to my work in community organizing.
You were a member of the inaugural class of majors in 1998. What was that like? Did you and the others [Blake Hedinger and Christina Pierson] have a sense you were part of a historic moment in the college’s history?
When I first started at the college, you could only minor in Women’s Studies. You had to create your own course requirements and get them approved to receive a Women’s Studies degree. This was the path I took during my junior year and so having the college agree to elevate Women’s Studies to a programmatic level with a major affirmed what I had already known—there wasn’t a need for the extra bureaucracy, and I was pursuing a degree of the same value as any other. I don’t think I felt I was part of a historic moment as much as I felt like the college was doing something they should have done long before!
Your advisor Margaret Duncombe, who retired in 2010 and achieved Emeriti status in 2014, is what I would call a foremother of the program, as she was instrumental in its creation and committed to its health and growth during her entire 36 years at the college. What was it like working with her?
I was fortunate to take a few courses from Margie, and she was the one who helped me and other students work through the process to obtain a degree in Women’s Studies before an official major was created. I adored all my classes with her. She was also a great inspiration for activism outside the classroom, from supporting the revival of the Feminist Collective to encouraging a Colorado College cohort to travel to Washington, D.C. to join 200,000 other activists for Rally for Women’s Lives in 1995. While I was unable to join her and other students when they attended the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in the fall of 1995, I was deeply inspired by her commitment to women’s equality throughout the world, not just here in the U.S. She was on sabbatical during my senior year, so I missed a chance to work with her one-on-one when I interned in the Women’s Studies office and completed my thesis. She did return by graduation, but I was only able to briefly thank her for all her support and inspiration.
What are some of your favorite memories of Women’s Studies?
During my senior year, Liz Feder-Johnson was my advisor and the head of the Women’s Studies office. I worked in the office with her throughout the year with other interns, producing the monthly newsletter, Womenspeak, organizing a speaker tour, and serving as a resource for other students interested in Women’s Studies. My favorite times were the hours spent in the office with Liz, even though we were relegated to the windowless basement of Armstrong Hall! It was a badge of honor to be able to thrive under these cold, stark conditions, but it was also a very clear example of the limited support the administration had for our pursuits.
I was never able to take any of her women’s history courses due to scheduling conflicts with other course requirements. And, after a year of working with her every week, I realized I had missed a great opportunity! She constantly challenged us to make Women’s Studies more than a side project, and her high standards ensured our work could easily compete with any other department on campus.
Currently, you are the Development Associate at the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), which has, since 1979, functioned as a network of grassroots organizations consisting of over 18,000 members and nearly 40 local chapters in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Montana’s seven Native American reservations, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming. What does your work as a Development Associate entail and in what ways does your Women’s Studies degree manifest in your work?
My current position supports our foundation fundraising. I assist with writing grant reports and proposals, researching new potential funders, and helping with event organizing or research as needed. All the economic justice and environmental groups I have worked with over the past 20+ years have had a commitment to reclaiming power for people so that all in our society have access to fair wages, affordable healthcare, a clean environment, and the ability to make a direct impact in their own lives and communities. This commitment to justice was at the core of my Women’s Studies courses and the reason I choose it for a major. It helps motivate me every day to know that my work is part of this larger fight.
The WORC Board of Directors adopted a statement on equity last year, and a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, with shout outs to organizations like Color of Change, Black Youth Project 100, and the United Negro College Fund also featured on its website. How have these positions impacted your work? How have you experienced and navigated both support and resistance to these statements?
In 2019, the Board of Directors adopted a statement on equity that articulates a clear commitment to building a network that is welcoming and inclusive to all. To build a just society, we know we must look within and take clear action to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression within our network.
Most of this work was started before I took my current job, but I think the staff and leaders within WORC have a true commitment to see this through and bring real change. We recently completed an organizational equity assessment that has highlighted where we are failing our goals and what we need to do to meet our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) vision. It’s going to require our network to do the difficult and often uncomfortable work to change our practices and culture to meet the vision outlined in our equity statement.
From the fundraising perspective, this year has brought a very swift and dramatic shift in priorities among many foundations to support BIPOC led organizations and to dedicate a greater portion of their funding towards efforts to bring real DEI change within the environmental movement. Time will tell if this commitment is strongly held and followed. But it’s encouraging to see such a widespread and immediate change in priorities. Organizations like WORC are going to need additional support to expand our capacity to change our internal processes, training practices, and decision-making procedures that is needed.
What advice would you give students majoring or minoring in Feminist & Gender Studies? What advice would you give to students considering a major or minor?
The “Me, Too!” movement and the nationwide protests for racial justice this summer are bringing the core principles of Feminist and Gender Studies into the forefront of our society. If you can come out of Colorado College with a better understanding of the ways people are marginalized and ways to build their power, you are positioning yourself to be a leader for the change we need. I think by grounding your studies in a true examination and analysis of the realities facing women, you have the best chance of being part of the solution. In the 20+ years since I left the college, our society has made critical advancements in the fight for justice, but we are nowhere near true equality for all women and gender identities, most critically for BIPOC communities.
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