On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
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In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”

The Conversation About Hopkins Tuition Is Long Overdue

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 24th, 2014.
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Johns Hopkins undergraduate tuition has risen from $37,700 in the 2008-2009 academic year to $45,470 in 2013-2014. This steep increase is one that continues to grow, virtually unquestioned by the student body, and with no end in sight.

Hopkins has defended the rising price, saying that tuition increased each year at only an average annual rate of 3.8%, compared to an average annual rate of 5.6% in the five years prior. But still, it’s well worth asking, what is this money for?

This past month, the Delta Costa Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan social-science organization came out with a new report on costs in higher education. The report, “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, concluded that between 2000-2012, expansion in wages and salaries in higher education came not from instruction or academic support but from student services, including athletics, admissions, psychological counseling and career services.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, “just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.”

Hopkins and other universities have rationalized their expansion of student services by pointing to external regulations as well as pressure from students, parents and policymakers. Indeed issues like sexual assault and campus mental health have received substantial news coverage recently. And there are some new positions, like the Director of LGBTQ life on campus, which were enthusiastically met with widespread approval.

However, there is more to the story.

JHU Political Science professor, Ben Ginsberg, has written a book entitled “The Fall of the Faculty” which delves into what he observes as severe bureaucratic bloat in higher education. He sees our nation’s burgeoning administrative sector driving up the cost of education with little verifiable value in return. He contends that the growth of the administration has resulted in a shift of power away from the faculty.

“In the old days, if the President of the University lost the faith of the faculty he couldn’t do his job,” said Ginsberg in an interview. “Now he circumvents that and the president has become relatively autonomous. It’s presidential imperialism.”

As Ginsberg argues in The Washington Monthly, “Universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”

We go to a private research university, so the rising costs of our education carry different political significance than that of state institutions, which are also seeing increases in price. And yet, it’s a mistake to think that somehow negates the difficult impact of these costs.

Notably, the financial aid budget has increased under President Daniels’ administration, with grant aid for Homewood undergraduates increasing from $50 million in 2008-09 to just under $75 million in 2013-14. According to Director of Media Relations, Tracey Reeves, more than 40% of Homewood undergraduates receive assistance to offset the cost of attending Johns Hopkins.

Nevertheless, while expanding the amount of assistance is surely good, with an ever-increasing cost of attendance, at some point it just becomes impossible for many students who might have otherwise been able to attend. Then at that point, our students, faculty and administrators have to ask themselves if the administrative growth and the expansion of student services is worth it at the expense of making the cost of attendance too expensive for many otherwise qualified students to afford.

Perhaps there could be alternative models for degree seeking students, for those who want to come and get a Johns Hopkins education but do not want or cannot afford to pay for the sectors of the University that they will never plan to utilize, like student activities, Greek life and athletics.

Or perhaps the status quo, with hopes that financial aid can adequately meliorate the burden, is the best solution given the difficulties of implementing any alternative system. There aren’t easy answers to these questions.

The point is, however, that our school has never really had the opportunity to openly discuss and debate these issues and explore the larger consequences of these growing economic trends.

 This must change; none of these choices are, or should be mistaken as, inevitable.

Pass the Violence Against Women Act

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on 2/13/13.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act has done tremendous good in stepping up prosecution of domestic violence, aiding victims and increasing awareness of a too-often silent threat to our society. But the act was allowed to lapse in 2011 amid partisan bickering. On Tuesday, the Senate sent a strong signal by voting to reauthorize the law by an overwhelming 78-22 vote, but its survival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is, sadly, far from certain.

VAWA, as the law is called, aids in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and allows for civil redress in cases that prosecutors choose to leave unprosecuted. The act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The reauthorization approved by the Senate would provide $659 million over the next five years for VAWA programs.

This legislation has been important for women since the time of its enactment. After a large push in the late 1980s and early 1990s from advocates concerned with domestic and sexual violence, VAWA has been instrumental in helping to make crimes against women a priority for prosecutors. Over the years, VAWA has expanded its focus from solely domestic violence to also include dating violence and stalking. The bill includes funding for services to protect adult and teen victims, to support training on these issues, and to ensure official responses to violence across the country.

Additionally, VAWA has been vitally important to Native American women — one in three of them is a sexual violence survivor, and the murder rate for Native American women is a stunning 10 times higher than the national average.

But it is a provision dealing with the prosecution of abuse on Indian reservations that has proved one of the biggest obstacles to reauthorization. The Senate bill says that non-Native Americans accused of abusing Native American women on reservations can be tried in tribal courts; under current law, such cases are rarely prosecuted at all. But some Republicans have complained that those courts offer insufficient protections for the defendants’ constitutional rights. If that is the true complaint, the answer is to provide more resources for those courts, not to allow non-Native Americans to abuse Native American women with impunity.

The other objections to the bill are similarly hollow. Some Republicans are opposed to a provision that allows immigrant victims of abuse to gain permanent residency, on the assumption that some could manipulate the law to find a way to stay in this country. But the opposite risk — that an immigrant woman would stay in an abusive relationship to avoid the chance that she could be deported — is much greater. Some also oppose the bill’s nondiscrimination clause for gay, lesbian and transgender victims of abuse, but why should they be any less worthy of protection?

The bipartisan support for reauthorization in the Senate should give the bill momentum in the House, but we have been down this road before. In April, the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA, and the House subsequently passed its own version that omitted provisions to protect gays and lesbians, Native Americans on reservations and immigrants. The White House threatened to veto the House bill, and both the House and Senate decided to restart when the 113th Congress convened.

The lead sponsor of the 2011 House legislation is no longer in office, and now Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is working on a new version of the bill. There are some signs that Republicans are at least concerned with the politics of opposing this legislation. All 22 no votes in the Senate were cast by Republican men, which surely doesn’t help a party that was damaged last year by two Senate candidates’ retrograde views about rape and pregnancy — and which lost the women’s vote to President Barack Obama by 11 points in November. Indeed, a bloc of House Republicans has urged their leaders to bring the legislation to a vote.

But this should not be a partisan issue. As Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in arguing for the bill on the Senate floor, the Violence Against Women Act works. It protects the least powerful in society from crimes that, as Ms. Mikulski points out, often involve not just physical harm but also “deep emotional pain and fear.” The House needs to overcome its divisions and send this bill to the president to sign into law.