The Gender Council: Grassroots Policy Change*

by Viveka Ray-Mazumder, Joey Radu, Elizabeth King, and Lark Mulligan

In November 2009, a group of students and college employees asked a simple question: What if campus activists and experts interested in gender, sexuality, race, disability, ethnicity, class, and nationality could have a permanent voice in Middlebury’s policymaking process—much like environmental activists and experts have a permanent voice through the Environmental Council? Over a year later, these same folk have developed a proposal to create a Gender Council (GC)—a permanent body comprised of students, staff, and faculty that would advise Administrators on gendered policy issues—that would be a resource to help the College resolve issues related to gender before crises occur. Although difficult to explain in so few words, here are some answers to frequently asked questions:

Why is this called the “Gender Council” if it deals with more than just gender?

GC is neither exclusively about women’s issues nor about gender alone, but about entanglements—how it is impossible to discuss “gendered” issues in isolation from other categories of identity. Many colleges have an LGBTQ Council; however, GC would recognize that gendered experiences often extend far beyond the range of sexuality. For example, we cannot address the experiences of Muslim women on campus without bringing together race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and religion (at the least). Likewise, GC would work cooperatively with ongoing Diversity efforts to examine issues of race, gender, and socioeconomic status that may play into the challenges of recruiting and retaining students, staff, and faculty of color at Middlebury.  GC would be attentive to these nuances, and would incorporate the specificity of these unique gendered experiences in college policy. We do not just want to make Middlebury more diverse, or more “tolerant” of diversity. We want to help restructure power relations at the College so as to foster a community where all students, staff, and faculty can feel like they belong, and flourish.

Why can’t existing organizations do the tasks that GC is proposing?

There is currently no organization on campus dedicated to addressing the needs and experiences of students, staff, and faculty based on gender. Additionally, GC would act as a sounding board for existing organizations and would centralize their efforts, rather than adding new tasks to already busy councils. Currently, there are three councils tasked with the responsibility to create or propose policy based on their expert knowledge: Community Council, Environmental Council, and Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC). The people on Community Council and Environmental Council do not necessarily have the background to deal effectively with sensitive issues of gender/sexuality/etc., and have enough on their plates as it is. The members of the SAOC may have that background, but many of the tasks GC proposes are beyond the scope of sexual assault. And other campus organizations that do have sufficient background and interest in gender issues aren’t recognized as policymakers, and again have enough work as it is (e.g., Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, Chellis House/Women’s Resource Center, and MOQA). Additionally, the College will always be making and enforcing policies related to gender, so the work of GC would not be done once it completes its initial stated tasks.

But Community Council passed All-Gender Housing with no problems; why can’t it just deal with all gendered policies?

According to the College Handbook, Community Council only has authority in nonacademic areas. While it can address the issue of housing, it cannot address the issue of, say, gender-in-the-classroom. Furthermore, the students who organized around All-Gender Housing and brought a proposal before the Student Government Association and Community Council are exceptional activists who devoted hundreds of hours to this project. They also worked collaboratively with and are active proponents of GC (in addition to being co-authors of this piece). Students like this don’t come along often, and we cannot afford to deal with pressing issues like housing only once every few years. In the absence of a standing body comprised of students, staff, and faculty, there is likely to be little institutional memory of such activism, and when a new gender-related concern arises, students will need to start afresh in mobilizing support for their plans. Being a permanent body, GC will not rely on individual activists, but would institutionalize a commitment to gender diversity, reducing periodic lulls in activism by providing a constant push to pass more progressive policy related to gender.

Would GC take work away from or challenge the legitimacy of other social justice or diversity organizations?

No. GC would help make Middlebury radically democratic and thus support the work of Diversity initiatives on campus, but would do so through a gendered lens. GC would cooperate with other organizations by offering seats to their members every year, by gathering institutional memory (reports, etc.) from other organizations before beginning a project, and by drawing on other organizations’ experience and networking potentials when organizing an event or project. In turn, GC would be an intellectual resource to other organizations by providing expertise when requested on their projects, and would be a political resource to them by providing an avenue for proposing policies.

Why couldn’t the Gender Council be a task force serving under the Chief Diversity Officer or similar Administrative position?

A task force would make the experts accountable to Administrators; GC would encourage Administrators to be accountable to the experts—and to the campus community. While it is important that we cooperate with policymakers on our initiatives, it is necessary that GC stand separate from the Administration so as to best be able to push Administrators to pass more progressive policy that better serves the communities they are supposed to be helping. Oftentimes, staff, faculty, and students serving under an authority—even if it is in an advisory capacity—do not feel comfortable speaking their true opinions, due to the power dynamic. GC will institutionalize an equal, open, and trusting working relationship between Administrators and their advisers. Further, it would not be sustainable for long-term change if GC were to serve under a single administrator. If that Administrator leaves, or if their position is eliminated, then GC would risk dissolution. As its own entity, etched into the College Handbook, GC would be much more difficult to dissolve.

Would GC increase administrative “red tape,” or unnecessarily proliferate bureaucracy?

No. As a uniquely grassroots policy council, GC will give students, staff, and faculty with an interest in gender a direct avenue to policymakers, which is the opposite of red tape. GC will be accessible to all community members by way of regular open meetings, this blog, and other structures that will make it relatively easier for anyone to raise concerns or propose policy ideas. Further, for many students, staff, and faculty on campus who have concerns that they would like to raise regarding gender, it is not always clear to whom they should turn. GC will be clearly visible and accessible for such people. In this case, adding another structure to the college landscape would not result in more red tape.

Gender is something that affects all of us. This is an opportunity for Middlebury to demonstrate its stated commitments to diversity, inclusivity, and progressive change by creating a uniquely grassroots policy council that gives passionate students, staff, and faculty a direct avenue to policymakers. To read our formal proposal and executive summary, head to go/gendercouncil!

This article is submitted with support from: Lark Nierenberg, Kevin Moss, Kevin Broussard, Anna Mysliwiec, Cat Campbell, Rebecca Harper, Tony Huynh, Nate Kerr, Rebecca Wear, Shawna Shapiro, Natasha Chang, Linda White, Michelle McCauley, Heidi Grasswick, Mary Hurlie, Ximena Mejia, Ellen Oxfeld, Gary Margolis, Jodi Litchfield, Matt Longman, Sujata Moorti, Laurie Essig, Roman Graf, Michael Sheridan, and Karin Hanta.

*you can read the original op-ed piece as published in the Middlebury Campus here.

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