1) Tell us a little about yourself and GAU.
Graduate Assistants United, the graduate union that represents all Grad Assistants (both Teaching and Research) at URI, has been a remarkable organization to be involved with. I was once a member of GAU while I was in graduate school, and had the opportunity to be hired from within our ranks to be the first Executive Director of the organization. This is my 4th year as ED, and it’s been a hell of a ride! We have roughly 575 Grad Assistants in our union, and our membership is constantly changing from one semester to the next as our members graduate, new members come into the union, etc. While that may sound like a challenge (and it certainly is) it’s also our greatest strength. We aren’t the sort of union that gets the chance to get comfortable and settle in. We must be engaged with each other and focused on building community at all times, which makes us a rowdy bunch!
2) Do you see student activism on this issue? If so, how?
With the right catalyst, reproductive rights could be a strong point to rally around. So far this year, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort addressing sexual assault on campus, and while I hesitate to directly connect assault with sexual health, there is something to be said about our membership’s willingness to dive in and take on intimate, urgently important issues. Back in September a brave undergraduate woman wrote an article in the Good 5 Cent Cigar about her experience with sexual assault in Greek life here on campus. Her words and her experience deeply touched a number of our members and drove us to immediately organize a “Speak Up, Speak Out” forum where members of our community could speak up about their experience in a safe, respectful space. Three days later, we had over 100 attendees at the highly successful event. While I haven’t seen activism related specifically to reproductive rights, I believe our members are ready to get involved if they felt their rights were being undermined.
3) How do you see reproductive rights intersect with other issues that grad assistants care about?
Graduate Assistants are both workers and students, simultaneously, at a time in their life where starting a family can be a central theme. Our members have had a wide range of experiences with their supervisors/departments in terms of when is the “right time” for them to start their family and to what degree a department should be supportive of pregnant and/or parenting grads. Some advisors are highly supportive and welcoming, while others actively dissuade grads from getting pregnant for fear it will “interfere with their degree progress”. Indeed, we’ve had members in the past be advised to take a leave of absence due to pregnancy so the department could hire someone else (and no longer be obligated to provide an assistantship to the pregnant grad assistant). I’m happy to report that once this came to the attention of the university, a number of steps have been taken to prevent such a situation from arising again. However, one cannot help but stop and wonder how many times a grad assistant has been advised to give up their assistantship without it ever coming to our attention. Reproductive rights– specifically the right to choose on your own terms when and if you would like to become a parent– should not ever be seen as a barrier to academic or professional success. The protection of reproductive rights is an essential component of a successful, supportive start to your family AND your career.