Remember when the term “Y2K” evoked images of panic and mayhem in the event of a doomsday glitch in the systems keeping the world afloat?

To gender studies graduate student Lynette Dixon, thinking about the collapse of systems and empires is necessary. It can lead to new ideas around the future — and it led to her idea for this year’s Thinking Gender conference theme.

Hosted by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women | Barbra Streisand Center, the 2024 graduate student conference is titled “Dystopian Realities, Feminist Utopias.” The theme speaks to what Dixon calls the “twin existence” of crisis and possibility, using dystopia to examine social and political issues, and utopia to imagine a better present and future.

The event, with more than 250 people registered to attend, will feature keynote speaker Kara Keeling, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California, as well as three graduate student research panels.

Dixon, who grew up in Atlanta, said it was important for this year’s programming to be dynamic but intimate, so that everyone can “be in it together” and engage in one conversation as they imagine the futures they wish to create.

She hopes that people will come to the conference, thinking about the world-making and healing practices from their own cultures and how people can collectively imagine life outside systems of power and violence.

After a day of graduate student workshops, the public, in-person portion of the Thinking Gender Conference will take place on Friday, March 1, at the James West Alumni Center. Registration is free, and attendees will have the chance to win conference-related books, such as “The Witches Flight: the Cinematic, the Black Femme and the Image of Common Sense” and “Queer Times and Black Futures,” both by Keeling, as well as swag from conference organizers.

Ahead of the event, Dixon shared with Newsroom more about what inspired the theme she chose, the role of music and sound in the event and how to get into the right mindset for the conference.

Why were you drawn to the Thinking Gender conference? What prompted you to play a major role in this year’s convening?

I was drawn to this year’s conference because of the unique opportunity to propose a topic shaped by my research. In the past, the Thinking Gender conference themes have been predetermined, and I was excited by the opportunity to create one that reflects the questions I have been thinking through in my research and teaching. Additionally, my interest in gender studies has always been informed by planning and participating in community-facing, praxis-informed events. As an undergraduate, my introduction to gender studies as a discipline was through my work-study job as a programming assistant at the Center for Women at Emory University. In that role, I planned events and conversations for students based on my interests around culture, race and gender. When I saw the CSW (Center for the Study of Women) call for theme proposals, I jumped at the opportunity to mix my research interests and passion for programming.

What inspired your choice of this year’s theme?

I feel like we are currently living in a dystopian novel. In the wake of policies and events in the U.S., including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, increasing barriers to health care access, immigration policies that harm communities of color, voter suppression, environmental injustice, and the ongoing criminalization of Black and Brown bodies, the state of our nation and world are not far from the crumbling societies described in dystopian fiction. A prime example that solidified this theme for me are the videos of the “zombie drug” that were circulating in the news last spring and summer. Those videos looked like a scene straight out of a horror movie. Seeing the embodied effects not just of this dangerous opiate, but of the intersecting structures of power (capitalism, ableism, racism, etc.) that compound and shape the response to the opiate crisis, is just one of the many examples that amplified the urgency of the conference theme for me. I found myself wondering how we got here and how we might move forward. The theme this year invites us to consider both questions at the same time.

How do you see this conference and its theme connecting with the work of the Center for the Study of Women | Barbra Streisand Center?

Thinking Gender and this year’s theme connect to CSW | Streisand Center’s commitment to intersectional research and community events that center activism/activists. Our similar commitments created synergy, not only around the theme, but also in planning decisions. For example, I was very invested in making sure we had a conference that was intentional about creating a communal experience and that we could support graduate students who were joining us from out of town. We decided to have only one panel at a time so we could curate an intimate experience that would allow all attendees to participate in and contribute to the conversations (rather than fragmenting the audience in multiple sessions). Additionally, while CSW | Streisand Center already allocated funds to support students’ travel, they also supported my desire to further prioritize travel funds for participants in the budget. Not only did we align on content of the theme, but this conference demonstrates CSW | Streisand Center’s commitment to and legacy of feminist organizing.

You’ve shared playlists in the lead-up to Thinking Gender. There seem to be a lot of sonic elements woven into this. What role do music and sound play in your work, your teaching and in the conference?

Music plays a big part. My research explores how Black artists, such as Missy Elliott, Outkast and Janelle Monae, use sound to comment on and critique discourses about Black embodiment, representation and identification, citizenship, and criminalization. I use music to understand and teach concepts that may be hard to understand/articulate in writing but that we can feel through music. For me, music triggers embodied and affective knowledge that is key to my work and pedagogy. In my teaching, I always pair assigned readings with music, film or other art. Additionally, I start every class with a vibe session, playing musical selections to set the tone for lecture or discussion. Students love this aspect of class because it breaks the ice and engages them as soon as they walk into the room. I invite students to come to class with suggestions for what to add to our playlist, and I create a soundtrack at the end of each class to keep a sonic record of our inquiries through the quarter.

Why should people attend the conference? What do you hope they come away with?

I hope people come away feeling inspired and empowered to imagine life/society/systems beyond the limited scope of our reality. I think a sense of despair is strong right now, given the ongoing genocides, conflicts and crises (such as the famine in Sudan), around the world. I want folks to remember the quotidian and communal practices we can employ to resist violence. We are also going to invite participants to contribute to a collaborative playlist in hopes that people can have a utopic soundscape to refer to after the conference. I want participants to contribute songs that make them think of utopia through the lyrics and/or music. I want the songs to remind us of joy, hope, love and more ethical future(s). I hope we come away with a playlist that is also transnational and incorporates the various cultures and traditions that our participants represent.

Is there a book, movie, song or other creative work that interested attendees should check out to get into the mindset of the conference?

One of the primary inspirations for this theme is Octavia Butler’s novel “Parable of the Sower.” Prophesying the state of society and politics in the 2020s in her novel, Butler describes a world that is eerily familiar to our current reality: society is crumbling under the weight of environmental disasters, rampant capitalism and social inequality. However desolate, the dystopia in “Parable of the Sower” is also filled with change and transformation and demonstrates the urgent need for us to imagine and create new possibilities for our future. Therefore, I read this text as both a dystopian and world-building or utopic novel and felt that the conference theme should consider the two concepts alongside each other. Other creative inspirations include Liberian-British artist, Lina Iris Viktor, a mixed media artist who imagines Black futures through sculpture and painting, often painting with 24-carat gold. One of my favorite series of hers is titled “In the Black Fantastic,” where she maps diasporic African futures using constellations and reimagining the borders of the colonial map of Africa. Folks should definitely check out her work in preparation. You can also read W.E.B DuBois’ short story, “The Comet” (1920), which is considered a foundation of Afrofuturism. And of course, attendees can listen to the playlist, which has all the sonic inspirations.