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Unionizing against Sexual Violence

By Kay T. Xia

I am a junior in the Chemistry department and a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate organization dedicated to combating sexual violence on campus. I have also been campaigning for our union among eligible undergraduate voters and in the Chemistry department.

I decided to support and organize for the union in the aftermath of the revelation of sexual harassment allegations against Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez. I have witnessed and experienced sexual harassment and assault in my time at Harvard and within the Chemistry department, where I have done research for the past two years.

In my own experience and those of others who have spoken to me, the University has repeatedly demonstrated its inadequacy in preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors. After my sexual assault, I went to OSAPR, a University-wide resource for crisis counseling, for an intake appointment, and was told that I would receive an email in a week about assigning me to a counselor and scheduling future meetings. I never heard back. Even this most basic support was denied to me.

Later, in conversations with undergraduate and graduate students, I learned that my experience was far from unique. Existing University structures have repeatedly failed our students. The University has repeatedly shown that it cares more about maintaining its prestige and reputation than the wellbeing of its members. The Dominguez case is horrifying and disgusting, but tragically not surprising to anyone.

As one progresses in academia, the power dynamics only become more imbalanced, along with the gender ratio. Fear of retaliation and reciprocity prohibits graduate students from speaking out about experiences of sexual harassment, academic bullying, and mental health issues. Their entire academic careers are dependent upon their departments and advisors. In deciding whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school, I made myself answer the question: Would I stay in graduate school and academia if it meant I was going to be sexually harassed and possibly raped (again)? And ultimately I answered yes, partly because I want a future in which no one else has to answer this question. I want to help build that future in the academic field that I love.

Students opposed to the union have valid concerns about the process going forward, mostly regarding the specificities of a contract governing vastly different departments. I, too, had concerns, but ultimately I saw that the benefits of the union outweighed the potential disadvantages. What unites us is more powerful than what divides us. I can only encourage students with such worries to get more involved with the bargaining process. Make your voices heard. Represent your interests. This is how democracy works.

Some may argue that they do not want to expend their energy campaigning for issues when the status quo is satisfactory, that these union politics are distracting from their learning or research. Well, I too would love to focus on my learning and research, without having to worry about sexual harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, I do not have that privilege. The issue of sexual violence, and many other issues our union addresses, is one that severely affects and distracts many members of this institution.

This election can be seen as a referendum on sexual violence at Harvard. The Crimson exit polling data shows that students who voted for unionization were more than twice as likely to disapprove of the University’s handling of sexual misconduct. Existing University structures routinely prove unreliable and inadequate. We must take this responsibility into our own hands. Our union will give us a platform to take action rather than suffer in silence.

Our union is made up of our students. We have the power to shape it, and to address the issues we care about. I am excited to participate in the newly-formed Time’s Up Committee within Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers dedicated to addressing issues of sexual harassment and discrimination across Harvard. We will work to ensure that our first contract includes substantive protections and accommodations for survivors and a serious commitment from the administration to address this crisis, whether in the form of regular campus climate surveys or expanded Title IX trainings. Structural problems need structural solutions, and our union gives us a new way to demand safety and justice—crucially, a venue that will not be controlled by Harvard but by us.

Silence and inaction not only get us nowhere, but protect and thereby encourage perpetrators and the culture that produces them. Any reluctance to improve current structures is an act of neglect of the crisis of sexual violence on campus. I am thrilled that the university has agreed to bargain with students, to hear our voices and respect our rights. I encourage all who care about issues of sexual misconduct on campus to get involved so we can shape a better Harvard together.

Kay T. Xia is a junior in Adams House studying Chemistry and Visual and Environmental Studies. She is a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better and an organizer with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.

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