On Thursday, November 1, the Illinois Tech Coalition on Inclusion hosted its second Social Inclusion Teach-In from 1 to 5 p.m. in the MTCC Auditorium. Through her introduction of the event, Dean of the Lewis College of Human Sciences Christine Himes stressed that in a political climate where many find themselves uncomfortable due to “direct and indirect threats,” it is vital that educational institutions take the initiative to be “more supportive of those facing a variety of struggles in their lives.” In her words, these institutions “exist because we value knowledge and science” and should strive to “enable and empower people to explore different ideas and thoughts.”
The Illinois Tech Coalition on Inclusion exists to promote collective actions and spread awareness of issues related to Illinois Tech individuals that find themselves facing discrimination due to their marginalized identities. This coalition is just one initiative created as part of the university’s official Statement on Community, Inclusion, and Diversity, which can be read further at web.iit.edu/diversity, affirmed by President Alan Cramb in November 2015. By bringing together a forum of speakers to address various topics related to marginalized identities, the Coalition on Inclusion hoped that this forum would encourage those in attendance to conceptualize their own actions that would allow them to “make differences in the way we treat people” on an everyday basis.
Photo by Estlin Mendez (They/them)
Kim Hunt, from the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Foundation of Chicago, gave the first presentation of the afternoon on LGBTQ+ rights and equality. She relayed the personal story of how her enthusiasm was replaced with uncertainty and fear as she watched the results of the 2016 U.S. national election unfold. On a trip to Israel shortly after, Hunt was told a piece of advice that stuck with her ever since: “we do the right thing and continue to do the right thing.” Now, as Hunt and others in the LGBTQ+ community continue to watch their “rights continue to dissipate and recognitions slipping away in government documentation,” she sees that “revolution is not a one-time act.”
Hunt then turned her discussion to interesting statistical dynamics she has noted in the LGBTQ+ community, including that people of color are more likely to identify as such, that these folk of color are overly-represented in lower income brackets, that LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, and that older LGBTQ+ individuals feel large deals of insecurity and social isolation in senior facilities.
To conclude her presentation, Hunt gave a number of strategies that she believes will help the fight for equality continue. These strategies are united by a mantra that she follows: “focus on what you are fighting for, rather than what you are fighting against.” Hunt’s four strategies included voting (and holding elected officials accountable to their constituencies), joining intersectional coalitions, donating to grassroots organizations, and having courageous conversations in everyday life.
Pastor David Swanson, from the New Community Covenant Church, then gave the next presentation, titled “Protesting White Supremacy: The Activist Faith of Ida B. Wells.” Keeping with this theme, Swanson’s presentation dived deep into the activist history of the eponymous African-American investigative journalist, alongside abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass in protesting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This world’s fair, held in Chicago, notably lacked the inclusion of any African Americans either in planning or in prominent exhibitions.
Swanson went into great detail the history of how Wells and Douglass went about opposing this exposition, including the creation of a pamphlet informatively titled “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition” as a means of helping the audience of the teach-in “see with greater clarity, what I call, the spiritual resources in this specific community” and how marginalized racial groups in the Chicago area have long sought to oppose perceived inequalities and discrimination on this very ground.
The next speaker at the teach-in was Sylvia Wolak, a representative from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). In her presentation, titled “Immigration Updates & Knowing Your Rights,” Wolak first explained the work that her organization does in providing legal services, litigation, and advocacy, specifically focusing on lower-income immigrants to the U.S., a group she noted is oftentimes faced with prohibitively expensive fees when seeking legal help.
Photo by Estlin Mendez (They/them)
Wolak then described a number of legal developments in the field of immigration, including the formal termination of what is known as prosecutorial discretion, a system wherein immigration judges could choose to close a case and effectively allow an individual to temporarily remain in-country, oftentimes used in cases of personal tragedy. She also described the recent trend of greater attacks on local sanctuary policies, threats of stripped federal funds, and heightened enforcement by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of these trends have the overall effect of increasing general senses of fear and anxiety among immigrant communities, while also making legal services such as those provided by her organization, “more important than ever.”
She dedicated the rest of her presentation to going into great detail about the various legal statuses, statutes, and rights that pertain to immigrants in the U.S. For example, Wolak defined the process of family-based immigration and how U.S. citizens can petition for family members to enter the U.S., the Violence Against Women Act and how it can provide legal protections to abused spouses whose immigrant status is being used against them, and how everyone in the U.S. has the right to remain silent and deny ICE access to a home or workplace without a judicial warrant. For further legal assistance and to set up a legal consultation, the NIJC can be contacted at [email protected].
Radhika Sharma, from Apna Ghar Inc., gave the next presentation, “Gender Inclusivity: Promoting Healthy, Equitable Relationships.” Much of Sharma’s presentation went into citing various statistics related to violence against women, including the World Health Organization (WHO)’s November 2014 statistics that 35% of women have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence and that 30% of all women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Sharma then applied a university context to her presentation, citing how 43% of dating college women report some form of violent or abusive dating behaviors, and these behaviors can take many forms, including controlling behaviors, physical abuse, sexual abuse, forced substance abuse, and abuse via technology.
Shifting away from these disconcerting statistics, Sharma also gave the reassuring message that, worldwide, movements are being undertaken to challenge and break these gender norms, such as the Chinese White Ribbon Campaign and mass walkouts among Google employees. Still, it comes down to the individual level to being willing to listen and believe survivors of abuse and to being willing to not leave such survivors alone in their most vulnerable moments, while also holding their abusers accountable.
Arwa Abdulrahman, a master’s student for rehabilitation and mental health counseling, gave the penultimate presentation on disabilities. Abdulrahman began by relaying her personal story of how a spinal cord injury earlier in her life “made me a wheelchair user since I was 13” and ensuring difficulties (both physical and mentally) that resulted from her condition. Still, Abdulrahman now finds within her a conviction to “be whatever you want…This disability cannot stop your ambitions.”
Although her status as an international student has led to her facing additional layers of difficulty, Abdulrahman still finds herself increasingly motivated. “There are three things that guide me to pursue my goals. First of all is my family. I just want to make them proud and to make them happy…The second thing is the people with disabilities in my home Saudi Arabia, where they push people with disabilities to pursue their life goals. I want to become a leader in rehabilitation field in my home country and work to improve that field in my country. The third thing is my own desire to be successful and to prove that yes I can do whatever I want to do and can be successful in my dreams.”
The final presentation was titled “Transgender Inclusion: Creating a Gender-Inclusive Campus,” hosted by Art Zarko and Devon Erika Price. The two began their presentation with a number of definitions relevant to the topic, including sex (the anatomical, physiological, genetic, or physical attributes that define if a person is male, female, or intersex), gender (social, psychological, and emotional traits that classify individuals as man, woman, a mixture, both, or neither), cisgender (when one’s gender correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth), and transgender (when one’s gender differs from the sex assigned at birth).
The presentation then covered the topic of names, with the point that some transgender individuals will choose to use a different name than they were born with. This name is their real name and should be honored as such, even when referring to that individual in the past. Although some names can be associated with a gender, it is wrong to assume an individual’s gender based off name alone; it should never be considered impolite to ask someone their pronouns. More importantly, people can be understandably upset when seeing the name they may have been born with. Taking measures to avoid ever using these names (known by many as “deadnames”), such as avoiding ever calling it out or projecting it upon learning the individual’s correct name, can go a long way in terms of social inclusion.
On the subject of pronouns, it can oftentimes come down to the faculty and staff members to create an environment in which sharing pronouns is natural and comfortable. Taking measures such as immediately offering one’s pronouns instead of asking first, including them in an email signature, and incorporating gender neutral language in the everyday vernacular (avoiding phrases such as “ladies and gentlemen”) are examples of easy ways one can create an inclusive environment without singling out transgender individuals.
In general, avoiding ever singling out an individual on the basis of sexuality or gender is a good tip to practice in everyday life, alongside avoiding making assumptions about the same topics. Never pressuring transgender individuals into sharing life experiences, avoiding asking them questions about gendered spaces (such as bathrooms), and apologizing for mistakes (as well as quickly moving on from them) are other examples of gender-inclusive actions one can undertake.
Commonly overlooked issues in the field of gender inclusion include the difficult and inconsistent nature of changing one’s name in a given institutional system (costing $500 to legally change one’s name in the state of Illinois, with Illinois Tech requiring legal documentation to update one’s name in the MyIIT system), the possibility of speakers who hold transphobic or homophobic views being invited to campus, the lack of enforcement of gender-inclusive policies, and concerns over medical services specifically related to the transgender experience.
This final presentation concluded with a number of “Things We Still Need at IIT,” including the lack of a preferred name policy allowing students to officially identify by a different name without a legal name change (avoiding having their deadname appear on MyIIT or Blackboard, for instance), gender-neutral bathrooms in every campus building, policies on gendered spaces allowing transgender persons to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identities, and gender-neutral housing.
The Illinois Tech Coalition on Inclusion will continue to operate as a living embodiment of the university’s Commitment to Diversity. While many (including myself) will likely argue that this university has much work to be done in terms of being an actually inclusive environment, the existence of this committee and its efforts such as this teach-in provide at least some indication that the right conversations are happening on campus to better represent and accommodate all marginalized groups. Whether policies can be created (as well as enforced) to actually create this inclusive environment remains to be seen, but it will no doubt require the coordination of all identities on the Illinois Tech campus with continuous activism and recognition.
Photo by Estlin Mendez (They/them)