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GWIS holds town hall on sexual assualt

(Collegian file photo)

Graduate Women in STEM (GWIS), a student organization at the University of Massachusetts, hosted an inaugural town hall on Thursday, Oct. 12 in the Integrated Sciences Building, about the prevalence of and solutions to sexual harassment and assault within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Led by Joelle Labastide, a physics postdoctoral research associate, Christie Ellis, chemistry doctoral student and Raquel Bryant, a geosciences graduate student, the town hall was sectioned into three parts: an introduction to GWIS’ work and their #SafeAtWork campaign, a workshop and a “Q&A” session with a panel of UMass administrators, including Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic addressed, counselors from both the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) and the Center for Women and Community (CWC) were also in attendance.

In the introduction section, Bryant, Labastide and Ellis shared statistics about sexual assault and harassment, as well as their mission and history as an organization.

“[GWIS] started as a few people upset, and now we’re [GWIS] having seats with the chancellor,” Bryant said.

They also passed out a special edition of the GWIS Quarterly Magazine, titled “Broken Silence: Student Accounts of Sexual Violence in STEM,” that recounted UMass graduate students’ experiences. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that, after reading the magazine, his first reaction was one of “deep embarrassment.”

“Twenty-five years after Anita Hill, how come we’re still here in this position in the most progressive state in the U.S.?” Subbaswamy asked.

The GWIS facilitators emphasised that they wanted everyone of all identities to feel welcome. Bryant said that the title “women” “was not an accurate representation of everyone affected,” and stressed that they didn’t want to make anyone impacted feel excluded by this label.

There were three workshops to choose from: “peer defense,” “male allyship” and “know your rights.”

At the peer defense workshop, attendees learned how to recognize a negative situation, and to act accordingly so as not to be complicit in the event of assault or harassment.

During the male allyship workshop, Edwin Murenzi, a molecular and cell biology Ph.D. student, as well as the workshop facilitator, stated that “workplaces are not the safest place for women.” The purpose of the workshop, according to Murenzi, was to discuss “what we can do as men in a position of privilege to make a safer workplace.”

John Ellis, an engineer in the Amherst area, added that it is important for men to call out and condemn sexism because “so much sexism is so insidious and so hard to notice.”

Devika Dutt, an economics Ph.D. student, attended the male allyship workshop. She shared her experiences struggling to bring to attention sexism in the workplace.

“Why am I the only person saying something?” Dutt asked. “Am I imagining it?”

Peter McGinn, a neuroscience and behavior graduate student, asked how men can “help as allies and not make it our [men’s] cause?”

“Go speak to the individual you want to speak up for and see how you can help,” Golden replied.

During the “know your rights” workshop, two scenarios of sexual harassment and assault were discussed. The discussion was facilitated by Siddheshwari Advani, a molecular cell and biology Ph.D student. Many resources were provided by CWC and the UMass Police Department, because according to Advani, most people do not know their rights, and those who do might not know how to use them.

“Identify the differences between different types of sexual misconduct,” Advani said. “If you’re ever in these kinds of situations, you always have resources and [are able] to advocate for yourself.”

Raquel Manzanares, a staff attorney from Student Legal Services, provided legal advice. Her advice ranged from laws—Titles VII and XI—to creating credible evidence, like texting yourself a recounting of your assault/harassment.

Advani’s hope for this workshop was to “empower [attendees] to report.”

After the workshops the attendees reconvened for the question and answer session. On the panel was Tim Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering, Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, John McCarthy, acting vice provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, Barbara Krauthamer, dean of the graduate school and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

One of the first questions was addressing recent attempts by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos to change the “preponderance of the evidence standard.”

Subbaswamy replied that UMass has “ fought long and hard to get here, and unless forced will not be changing that.

“It is the University’s responsibility to protect all students,” Subbaswamy stated.

Anderson stated that awareness is the solution to sexual misconduct on campus.

“Once we start to have awareness, then we can have change,” he said.

As a woman who spent years in professional scientific work settings, this topic was personal for Serio. She said that creating social change in regards to sexual misconduct “requires hard work.”

Nigel Golden, an environmental conservation Ph. D. student and volunteer at the event, hoped that the event will “empower people to speak out when they do come across an event where someone is being marginalized in their [academic] department.”

After the town hall meeting dispersed, Bryant felt that the meeting was successful.

“It was a spectrum,” Bryant said. “The crowd ranged from people who left feeling hopeful, to people who came not knowing this was a problem and were shocked. Either way, today we added something.”

Moving forward she said that she does not “know where I want this to go yet, I still can’t believe it happened.”

Bryant described future GWIS initiatives.

“We’re working with administrators on a retreat centered on bringing faculty and graduate students together,” Bryant said. “We want to make our focus broader too, blossoming into different spheres, not just folks vulnerable to sexual violence, but mental health and gender identity.

“We want all identities uplifted and made to feel safe,” said Bryant.

Rebecca Duke Wiesenburg can be reached at rdukewiesenb@umass.edu. Claire Healy can be reached at clairehealy@umass.edu.

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