Here We Are

At the close of the academic year, we are collectively feeling tiredness, anticipation, relief, joy, a tinge of sadness, but also wanting the structure of it to give way so that we can take a breath before beginning the next thing. Whether that’s a new job, a summer class, an internship, a coveted summer research program, a writing project, even a report that we postponed until “we have more time to focus,” it will take shape under a somewhat different set of circumstances. If exhaling at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year is supposed to feel easier and less fraught than a year ago due to the availability of multiple vaccines that reduce possibility of infection and death, we still have a long way to go. From the many possibilities for mutations, to the penchant for rightwing and conservative governments to ignore epidemiological science and encourage a hands-off approach to dealing with public health and wellbeing, the shapeshifting of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact our daily lives for months to come. When we hear the news stories of India, Nepal, and England, we should recall December 2019, and recognize that our world is interconnected. We should ask ourselves: what do we stand to lose if we wear a mask? What do we risk if we do not?

Over the past year, the scope of human suffering around us has been deep and wide: too much to bear, and not enough opportunities to mourn, grieve, or to celebrate. Our students suffered tremendously; some got COVID-19 and so did their family members. They lost income but also worked throughout the pandemic, sometimes having their economic survival take precedence over their academic responsibilities. Many—not all—faculty did adjust how they taught, and sought to be more empathetic and responsive to students so that everyone could make it through the semesters. Several universities have been doing studies about the effect of the pandemic on “productivity” of women faculty. I hope they are looking at mental health and wellbeing as well. I imagine that both our faculty and administrative staff are experiencing a kind of mental exhaustion that is unprecedented: they have had to work far more, harder, and longer because the pace of the institution never slowed down during the pandemic. Not once.

I imagine that there are UIC staff who have not taken a day off since March 2020 and who felt guilt for taking a vacation. Rather, they have spent their time balancing the many demands—the mundaneness of childcare, cooking, cleaning, caring for elderly parents, checking in on relatives and community members, education of their children, keeping themselves safe from the virus while also trying to ensure that they fulfill work-related expectations—without much institutional support or recognition of all that they do to keep going. I hope that when researchers do a full accounting of what it has meant to “work from home” during the COVID-19 pandemic, they will pay particular attention to how universities were able to remain open and running while claiming financial loss, and the social and emotional costs absorbed by the many women whose labor was necessary for such.

This is also a moment of the year when we are particularly attuned to the dreams and aspirations of families, children, and the next generation. Graduation season has begun. Here at UIC, among our graduating students are those who are the first in their entire families to attend and finish college. It is still a sobering thought—and a marker of the profound injustices that haunt this society—that a college education is still out of the reach of too many people. And so, we are lucky that these students chose UIC to shift the trajectory of their family histories. For those whose relatives did not survive the COVID-19 pandemic to see them complete this leg of their education journey, we hope that this latest cohort of alums know that their ancestors are always bearing witness to their struggles and joys, albeit from afar.

At the same time, I am reminded about the many children whose chances of being the first, or one of many, to graduate from college, have been eclipsed by state violence and the unhealthy relationship between masculinities and guns in this society. We wish that Ma’Khia Bryant, Jaslyn Adams, Ny’Andra Dyer, Adam Toledo, and, Katricia “Tree” Africa had been allowed to live long enough to become college students. Who knows, maybe a public university like UIC would have been part of their family’s education journey.

WLRC has been a part of many UIC students’ intellectual, political, and professional journeys over its 30 years of existence. For sure, this is a story that needs to be told better, louder, and more consistently. As part of WLRC’s 30th anniversary programs, we organized a panel featuring students who have worked with the center as interns, graduate assistants, volunteers, and part-time staff over the years (video coming soon). Each panelist offered unique and beautiful insights into what the center meant to their lives as students and long after they left the center. At a moment when we find ourselves still having to explain that WLRC exists, and why a women’s and gender equity center still matters on this campus, the student panel provided excellent insight into such. Taken together, the panelists’ thoughtful responses encourage faculty and university administrators alike to consider how teaching, learning, and community life might be enhanced by recognizing the contributions that centers like ours make, and to consider what UIC’s women students—at the graduate, undergraduate, and professional levels, and by extension the entire campus—stand to lose by not doing so.

This is an especially poignant issue because non-recognition of the importance of WLRC’s work on the campus takes many forms, not least of which is in where it is located physically, its proximity to campus life, and its capacity to fully serve the university community. And so, for the third time in a 10-year period, WLRC (including CAN, which provides survivor services and education about gender-based violence to the entire campus of many thousands of students and hundreds of faculty and staff) is being asked to pack up, change locations, and expend energies building out a new identity and relationships in relation to where we are located next. Why? For reasons that are about money and value and many other things need to be discussed at another time. We do not have a new location or timeline confirmed for the move yet, so watch this space for more announcements. For the 2021-2022 academic year, most or all of our programming will take place virtually.

In the meantime, this is also a moment to consider how you would explain the “value” of WLRC on this campus. Why does a women’s and gender equity center matter on a campus where the majority of students are women, and the majority of undergraduate students are women of color, often pursuing majors and areas of study that do not always welcome them, often coming from historically unrepresented, economically and socially marginalized communities, and are among the first of their families to complete college and graduate education? How do we move beyond representation and re-center the dominant perspectives on “diversity” at UIC to focus on intersectional rather than single-vision ways of thinking, teaching, planning, supporting our students so they can become the scholar-, activist- and intellectual leaders of today and tomorrow? We look forward to these conversations in the months to come.

In the meantime, just a few shout-outs to UIC women whose creative, academic, and activist work constantly push UIC to be a better, more inclusive, and more just campus:

  • Hana Rafee – an undergraduate Visual Artist-in-Residence for the Global Asian Studies program, senior, majoring in Graphic Design and who designs AARCC’s flyers and booklets. See Hana’s latest work, “Faces of GLAS.”
  • Winners of this year’s Grace Holt Awards: Prevail Bonga (undergraduate), Sekordri Ojo (graduate, History) and Sangi Ravichandran (graduate, Sociology).
  • SEIU Local 73 workers received the “Bolder Worker Justice Award” from the Grassroots Collaborative.
  • Last but not least: WLRC’s student staff who are graduating this spring: Tiffany Hamling and Jazmin Vega. The campus community has benefited from their contributions to programming in ways that will outlast them. Tiffany is the steward of the Sounds of Feminism Among her many contributions to the campus and to the center, including making sure that the weekly newsletter is chockful of goodness, Jazmin organized the recent panel on Black and Latinx women leaders at UIC. We will miss both of them!

And there are many more folks to celebrate: let us know who else we should mention in our next newsletter!

Until then, take care of yourselves and each other,

Natalie Bennett