Focus on the Faculty: Susan Castagnetto on the Power of Collaboration

By Emily Glory Peters


Susan Castagnetto, director of the Intercollegiate Feminist Center (IFC) at The Claremont Colleges and teacher of feminist philosophy at Scripps, is a woman of many interests. At the time of this interview, she was awaiting the results from her first election as a delegate for the California Democratic Party in Assembly District 41. Ultimately, she tied with another member of Scripps’ faculty, Ellen Finkelpearl, who had encouraged Castagnetto to run with her.


“Professor Finkelpearl and I decided that she would have the delegate position, and I would remain as an alternate,” Castagnetto explains. “I may also see if there are any remaining delegate appointments left, which is another way to become a delegate—but I will stay involved. There are lots of ways to do that.”


This recent civic involvement is just one aspect of her work to advance social change—work centered on collaboration and relationship building. As director of the IFC, Castagnetto has spent the last two decades connecting the 5Cs with the community to explore social issues, beginning with the IFC’s “Women, Prisons, and Criminal Justice” conference in 2000, which gathered activists, scholars, and formerly incarcerated women for what she describes as the “eye-opening” event that catapulted her into advocacy.


A student collage art installation that explores women’s empowerment at the Intercollegiate Feminist Center of The Claremont Colleges.

For Castagnetto, supporting criminal justice reform isn’t tangential to her interests as a feminist. Instead, the two work hand-in-glove to create a community that prioritizes justice not only for women but for all of its members.


“Mass incarceration thrives on ‘us and them’ thinking, something that feminist values can address by encouraging us to listen to other people’s perspectives and build connections across difference,” she says. “I like author bell hooks’s definition of feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This means ending oppression in all its forms, so that people are empowered to lead self-determining lives. That power comes from working with others to make change.”


Mass incarceration thrives on ‘us and them’ thinking, something that feminist values can address by encouraging us to listen to other people’s perspectives and build connections across difference.


The importance of collaboration became clear to Castagnetto in 2008 during her tenure as a fellow with the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI), which offered training on how “ordinary people” can influence policy at state and local levels. With the WPI, Castagnetto helped introduce a bill to the California legislature that aimed to give incarcerated parents more time to reunify with their children in foster care before permanently losing their parental rights. But some stakeholders argued that the proposed extension could be detrimental to children’s development if they ended up staying in foster care for too long.


“In the end, we were able to compromise on the time frame of the extension period, and the bill passed. Although it was different from what we’d hoped for, it still could have a significant impact on family preservation,” she says.


Castagnetto is not alone in her determination that collaboration is essential for social change. She points to social activist Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. In an opinion piece published by the Resource Center for Nonviolence, “Collaborate to Build a Movement,” Garza reflects on her decision to participate in the 2017 Women’s March alongside those whom she felt had left Black women out of their prescribed version of feminism. Ultimately, she was glad she attended, knowing the act modeled much-needed unity for others.


“Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you,” Garza writes. “We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion, and disability. Simply said, we need each other.”


Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you.


Garza’s goal of being “serious about building power” for women demands interdependency, and Castagnetto works to implement that mindset at Scripps. The complex business of collaboration has enabled her to connect the IFC with the Women’s Policy Institute to create new ways for 5C students and faculty to make a difference in their communities.


Two students in the Intercollegiate Feminist Center reading room.

“I’m planning to bring WPI alums working in criminal justice advocacy to Scripps for an event next year. The aim will be to discuss the ways current issues can be addressed through policy and how students and faculty can collaborate on these projects,” says Castagnetto. Slated for next spring, the event will be co-sponsored by the IFC, WPI, and The Claremont Colleges’ Mellon-funded Justice Education Initiative and directed by a committee consisting of WPI members and 5C students and faculty.


“Such campus-community collaborations are a win-win for all,” Castagnetto continues. “We gain so much from the rich multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, knowledge bases, tools, and resources we bring to this work. That is truly feminist.”


Real power comes from collective action.


These efforts mirror what Castagnetto hopes will be a new wave of feminism that centers on listening, empathy, and relationship building to transform our society into one that prioritizes racial, gender, and economic justice. That’s the perspective she brings to her work as a teacher, criminal justice advocate, feminist philosopher, and civil servant. As she notes: “We like to celebrate heroes—lone individuals—as changemakers. But real power comes from collective action.”