The Blue and White
The NSOP Issue
Illustration by Hart Hallos
Claire Shang, CC ’24, Editor-in-Chief
Sylvie Epstein, CC ’23, Managing Editor
Kat Chen, CC ’24, Digital Editor
Tarini Krishna, BC ’23, Publisher
Hart Hallos, CC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Madeleine Hermann, BC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Annie Poole, BC ’24, Layout Editor
Benjamine Mo, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Eliza Rudalevige, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Grace Adee, CC ’22.5
Cole Cahill CC ’23
Dominy Gallo, CC ’23
Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Kelsey Kitzke BC ’23
Becky Miller, BC ’24
Victor Omojola CC ’24
Sona Wink BC ’25
Alexander Aibel, CC ’23
Zibia Caldwell, BC ’25
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Margaret Connor, BC ’23
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Cat Flores, BC ’25
Sadia Haque, BC ’23
Miska Lewis, BC ’24
Justin Liang, GS ’24
Justin Liang, GS ’24
Will Lyman, CC ’23
Becky Miller, BC ’24
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Ellida Parker, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Michaela Sawyer, CC ’25
Claire Schweitzer, CC ’24
Dariya Subkhanberdina, BC ’23
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Hazel Lu, CC ’24
Vanessa Mendoza, CC ’23
Samia Menon, SEAS ’23
Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Taylor Yingshi, CC ’25
Table of Contents
A campus magazine back on campus ...
by Claire Shang
by The Blue & White Staff
Together in Tranquility by Anna Patchefsky
How to Disappear by Will Lyman
Delaney Wellington by Becky Miller
by Madeleine Hermann
The Magnolia by Sylvie Epstein
Premilla Nadasen by Kelsey Kitzke
“Is it Cake?” a Comic by Hart Hallos and Phoebe Wagoner
by Betel Tadesse
by Kat Chen
Excerpted from Postcard by Betel Tadesse
Letter from the Editor
Of this summer’s happenings, the closing of Max Caffè was far from the most important. But eulogizing a place has endless appeal. The personal implications are potent and ambiguous: The cafe is gone, and so too is the iteration of myself that frequented it.
It sat on 122nd and Amsterdam for 19 years. Before the pandemic, it closed at midnight. It served paninis and crostini and even empanadas, which I ordered once and received stale. The coffee was reliably good. One of my first line edits as editor-in-chief was correcting “Max Café” to the substantially different “Max Caffè.” In the bathroom sat a Buddha, and outside, on its massive couches, sat every Columbia humanities grad student. It was the type of place that made you feel like a person who has places of their own.
In freshman year, I was poll working down the block. On lunch break I drifted inside and, in a lapse of literacy, ordered a sandwich with prosciutto. Earlier in the year I had gone vegetarian. When people asked why, it was hard to articulate—the environment was part of it, as was a need to make a decision and be able to stick by it. Now, presented with the sandwich, I felt a tremor of horror. Looking around helplessly, I realized that the zero other customers and the waitress who had not looked up when I entered simply did not care what I did. So, I extricated the meat, folding it onto itself at the edge of my plate. The sandwich had lost its most important ingredient, which nobody had stopped me from enjoying except for myself, and because of this, it was delicious—even if it was soggy and a bit empty.
Some small mystery felt resolved. I understood that college would be a process of making decisions, defending the defensible ones and dealing with the others, until an identity coalesced. And I understood better my own inexplicable vegetarianism. Arbitrary constraints—when chosen voluntarily, not structurally imposed—force you to pay attention. When it manifests as picking flecks of meat from a pasta dish, this attention can seem irrational. Sometimes it’s more productive, the way an arbitrary attachment to Max Caffè can lead to more clearly seeing the invasion of chain businesses in this neighborhood.
A campus magazine is predicated on arbitrary constraints: word counts, page counts, deadlines. It is the product of paying close attention and an invitation to do so, too. Our front cover, by Hart Hallos, leads us into a dorm room, and our back cover, by Kat Chen, closes the door on it. Come and sit with us in the room that is the magazine.
This fall, we are considering the possibility of representation and visibility—and the ubiquity of invisibilities, misrepresentations—against the omnipresent backdrop of the institution. Our Blue Notes navigate the early days of college: Anna Patchefsky looks for ways to commune while Will Lyman reflects on a past attempt to disappear. In our Features, Grace Adee and Muni Suleiman speak to organizers across academia to make visible the impacts of last year’s strike. Victor Omojola finds that the Pulitzer Prize in Music, especially after Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 win, is a battleground for debates about inclusion and intellectual recognition. Andrea Contreras, on the other hand, turns her gaze forward: How might Columbia change in recognition of the Dobbs ruling and student demands for abortion services?
Our Essays confront the highly visible. Margaret Connor dives into the pervasive ads for online gambling. On our website, Kat Chen describes how Google Search shapes the reality we see, and Iris Chen writes of the limited possibilities YA shows offer their captive audiences. Even our humor piece deals in the problematic of representation: Hart Hallos and Phoebe Wagoner wonder “is it cake?” There, the stakes are life or death.
Word count urges me to conclude. Max Caffè taught me that sensemaking emerges from unlikely sources: a soggy sandwich; an arbitrary attachment to a defunct cafe; an article in a campus magazine you pick up only by chance. You never know what will be important to you until it happens.
Claire Shang, Editor-in-Chief: Adania Shibli, Minor Detail. Olive oil cake. The pursuit of happiness …
Sylvie Epstein, Managing Editor: Brooklyn (2015). Brooklyn (borough). Raw corn salad. All songs Van Morrison.
Kat Chen, Digital Editor: Orville Peck, Bronco. Harley Quinn (HBO Max).
Tarini Krishna, Publisher: Llama Inn. Neggy Gemmy, “Daydream.” Jazz in the gardens at the National Gallery.
Hart Hallos, Illustrations Editor: Ohhh god. Oh god oh god oh god oh god. Oh gee. Hold on I’m thinking. I had a really good one a second ago!
Madeleine Hermann, Illustrations Editor: Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others. Finding cool rocks.
Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency.
Eliza Rudalevige, Literary Editor: Eileen Myles, Inferno. Tommy Lefroy, “The Cause.” Collecting shiny things.
Grace Adee, Senior Editor: Remi Wolf, Live at Electric Lady. Pillsbury Grands! Original Biscuits.
Dominy Gallo, Senior Editor: Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Almond butter.
Anouk Jouffret, Senior Editor: “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars” at NYPL. A Separation (2011).
Kelsey Kitzke, Senior Editor: Florence + the Machine, Dance Fever. Arlo Parks. Trying to stay in one place.
Becky Miller, Senior Editor: Listening to Doechii. Going to a psychic.
Victor Omojola, Senior Editor: Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji. Official Competition (2022).
Sona Wink, Senior Editor: Heart, “Barracuda.” McVitie’s Digestive Wheat Biscuits. (Best enjoyed simultaneously.)
Margaret Connor, Staff Writer: Yellow Magic Orchestra, “Taiso.” Guy Davidson, “Hipsters and Homosexuals.” People watching in unfamiliar places.
Sadia Haque, Staff Writer: Only Murders in the Building Season 2 (Hulu). Corinne Bailey Rae, “Put Your Records On.”
Will Lyman, Staff Writer: Brontez Purnell, 100 Boyfriends. Rewatching How To Get Away with Murder (Netflix). Belvedere club sodas with three lemons, carcass out.
Anna Patchefsky, Staff Writer: Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers. The license plate game.
Muni Suleiman, Staff Writer: Mornings at Joyce Kilmer Park. Beyoncé, Renaissance. Long night drives home.
Phoebe Wagoner, Staff Illustrator: Witnessing local high schooler having graduation photoshoot, apparently?
Together in Tranquility
Finding idyllic idleness in Quaker meeting.
By Anna Patchefsky
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler and Hart Hallos
In a 2019 Facebook post, @BritishQuakers promoted their next meeting with a screenshot from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. The accompanying caption included a quote from Olivia Colman’s stepmother: “It’s very intense. It’s very quiet. It’s very … very … erotic.” Below the post, one commenter facetiously cautioned against the danger of becoming “the Religious Society of Friends With Bonuses.”
A veteran of 13 years of Quaker school, I would not immediately call a single hour of the 520 I spent in meeting “erotic.” Meeting was always before lunch. My grumbling stomach and sporadic coughs contributed to an orchestra of other kids who couldn’t quite shut up, even with daily practice at silence. As I tried to count the light fixtures and lines on the ceilings, I grew increasingly anxious that everyone was watching me: from my hair-tie fidgeting to the very thoughts I would never share aloud.
The palpable eroticism referenced in Fleabag is a result of these tensions—between speaking and silence, between a slouched spine and the straight backs of the pews, between your thigh and the one next to you. And these tensions arise, perhaps, from the unusual stillness induced by meeting.
Last fall, I shared my experience of Quaker meeting with my Lit Hum class after my professor asked if anyone ever takes time to be still, sit in silence, or worship. We had just finished a session on Montaigne’s Essays. “The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere,” the Frenchman once noted.
Montaigne wrote in a secluded tower, his stone walls lined with etchings of his favorite quotes. He chose, then, the construction of his thoughts as respite from the surrounding world of political and religious tumult. For him, writing was a “complete idleness” that facilitated rest.
So I, too, went searching for idleness. But I did not find it on 15-minute breaks between classes—those were devoted to hurried lunches in the form of vending machine Cheez-It. Nor did idleness hide in Joseph Defraine Greenwell’s wellness tips (neither a daily glass of water nor a plant adoption). Even on the toilet, my mind was not still—that time reserved for a 15-minute TikTok scroll.
Unsuccessful and uncertain I would ever find a vacant turret to write in, I sought out more familiar territory.
When I enter the Zoom for Morningside Quaker Meeting in August, a message in the chat pops up, asking if this is my first time in attendance. I pen a reply: “Yes! Thank you for having me.” The friendly, albeit anonymous messenger wonders if I have any questions and then requests that I introduce myself when the meeting concludes.
As we settle into silence, I am unsure that I will be able to focus. Resolved to sit in silence for an hour, I cannot Zoom chat with friends to distract myself and pass the time. Like everyone else, I will simply wait—until someone, and I know it will not be me, feels moved to speak.
Only one person does. A girl, around my age, unmutes herself and raises her head. Bravely discussing her recovery process, she shares an unattributed quote that she has written at the top of her journal: “I am grateful for having raised myself to find the person I am proud to be.” People slowly nod in agreement as she mutes herself again, reintroducing that familiar, erotic silence for the rest of meeting.
Later, during a brief extended worship for sharing joys and sorrows, a gray-haired man channels the religious pacifism of Quakers. “There is a war going on,” he says, “and it is impossible for me not to read about it and also not to be appalled and saddened, frightened, and amazed that people can behave in such a way against each other needlessly.”
For an hour, I have sat in front of my laptop doing absolutely nothing more than thinking. But, somewhat impossibly, I have been surrounded by other people, scattered across generations and all corners of Morningside Heights. Grateful for the silence we have shared, I finally introduce myself.
I explain that I will be back in person in the fall to be idle, silent, and alone with my thoughts. But most importantly to do so with them—to be together. There was a time when I used to think that sitting in silence for an hour—let alone for 520—would have been better spent sleeping, studying, or eating a cheesesteak. But older now, having experienced a pandemic’s worth of intense physical isolation, returning to Quaker meeting has convinced me that everyone deserves time to be communally idle.
How to Disappear
Reflections on an NSOP made of solitude and cookie dough.
By Will Lyman
Friends of mine recall their first few weeks at Columbia in a series of crime-drama clichés: Where were you the night of August 27? Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone? Was it Miss Peacock in the billiard room with the candlestick? Or they recount as an amnesiac would describe a traumatic car crash: All I remember is that “Good As Hell” was playing and everything was red.
Memories of orientation exist in these half-statements, in these mysteries of where was I? or why was I wearing that? My younger self feels foreign and confused, and when I think of NSOP, I am convinced that the twink in short shorts and Air Force 1s was not and could not have been me. This sort of retrospective NSOP cringing feels pretty universal, as we are all different people than we were even a few years ago. I, for one, feel that I’m in a constant state of reinvention—where I can completely grow and transform after an eventful trip to the grocery store. Yet, my NSOP amnesia is not a result of the week’s fun moments—chugging mystery vodka in a Carman suite or a moment of love-at-first-sight reaching for the same chicken burger at the JJ’s hot bar—but is a symptom of the plain truth that NSOP wasn’t for me.
I spent the majority of the week locked in my John Jay single, watching the world from the window. I felt it was just too dangerous to go into the hall, to the lounge, or to the dining hall—for fear I would run into people who would make me feel seen. I’m terrible at hiding my distaste for certain people, and so I often chose my own company over that of people I simply didn’t like. I felt that every connection I had either needed to bake a few years or be erased from my memory completely. When I tired of this isolation, I would walk two blocks to Morton Williams to steal cookie dough and eat it on the steps with a friend from my OL group. This, of course, was a valid activity—but it was also entirely unproductive.
My NSOP experience was significantly tainted by the fact that my closest friend from high school arrived at and dropped out of UC Boulder within 24 hours. She definitively dipped and left her roommate to pick through her closet. Part of me admired the America’s-Next-Top-Model-esque “I don’t think this is, like, right for me … I don’t want to do it” sentiment, but it was also terrifying to see that everyone I knew either landed gracefully in their new lives or collapsed under the pressure. It was even more concerning to arrive on campus in August suddenly aware of the fact that my decision not to post in the Facebook group had left me without the months of networking, coordinating, and friendship building that everyone else had done. I knew people who unpacked their bags with a pre-established friend group and designated going-out schedules. The singular conversation I had with anyone from Columbia before arriving was a three-selfie long Snapchat exchange where we both gave “weird vibes,” and the other person—who would eventually become a good friend—vowed that when they saw me on campus, “it was on sight.”
When orientation came, everyone seemed like they were miles ahead of me. I spent the first night in a Furnald lounge with COOP people who spent the time reminiscing about their recent wilderness adventure. I could not keep up. A number of my other days were spent with a boy who thought every time I wanted to hang out, I was asking him on a date. None of the people I met had a fake ID yet, so I was left to do liquor runs on my own or travel in small groups to bars, where I would sit, stir a gin and tonic, and think of home.
I would do strange, sad things like searching “how to combat loneliness” on YouTube—finding only patronizing animated self-help videos and Emma Chamberlain vlogs—or sitting in public trying to look interesting and approachable. The only relief I found was taking the train to unfamiliar parts of New York and aimlessly walking around, alone and drunk on the beauty of the new landscape.
There was no easy solution to my melodrama, as my first year segued directly into the pandemic and I didn’t get the chance to feel belonging until last year. Even now, with a community I’m deeply tied to, I still feel a distance from campus life, like I’m observing everything from another planet.
I look back with a resolute sense of annoyance on my younger self. I don’t want to offer him the cliché “put yourself out there” that is probably best suited for the situation, but I do wish to make him understand that the fear I felt in public—on the lawns, going to campus bars—was a product of my own mind. Perhaps it came from growing up in the Midwest, feeling like everyone was always watching and evaluating me, but it was a projection. When I think of that first year, and the two others since, I’m confronted by the fact that we are responsible for our own interaction with campus, with our classmates, and with New York. I only gained a sense of belonging once I recognized that I was getting in my own way.
One of the most common phrases I heard once I emerged from my self-imposed isolation was “why didn’t we know each other sooner?” All I have to offer in response is that during NSOP, I disappeared, but I’m here now.
Illustration by Betel Tadesse
By Becky Miller
Picture a 20-year-old Delaney Wellington, BC ’23, sitting at a side-of-the-highway bar in Nashville, waiting for her turn to knock the seasoned, jaded country open-mic comics on their asses.
Illustration by Mac Jackson
She had never done stand-up comedy before and she was ripping off the Band-Aid; she made her friends wait in the car. After two hours of watching cowboys defensively bomb their sets, her turn came around. Delaney calmly got onstage, cracked a few jokes about her brain tumor, and scored a couple of laughs. She did well compared to the bombing cowboys, but she told me with a warm humility that she remembers her first time doing stand-up going only “okay.”
In high school, Delaney didn’t have many opportunities to explore stand-up or comedy, but she knew she could make people laugh and was vaguely drawn to performing. When she started at Barnard, she didn’t know she was into any of it, and she didn’t know she was good at any of it. “It just slowly morphed into this part of my life,” she told me. Early in her freshman fall, Delaney sat in on some improv rehearsals and joined Memento Mori, Columbia’s stand-up show, and the student sketch comedy group CHOWDAH.
After the initial Nashville push, she began independently doing stand-up in New York over the summer. She would pay $5 to try her material out at open mics and comedy clubs mostly filled with other comics, regulars whose recycled material became familiar as she returned week after week. This open mic scene was composed of bombers and occasional unexpected gems. Sometimes people would suck one week and then kill it the next. Delaney took comfort in seeing that progress, noticing how subtle inflections in tone and rearranged timing could spark a minefield of laughter from an energetic crowd.
At the Hungarian Pastry Shop one summer afternoon, Delaney confided to me that she inevitably found out for herself what it was like to bomb. As she was performing to an audience made up of mostly distracted comics who were just waiting for their turn with the mic, she experienced the bleak rite of passage that is speaking for five minutes and getting zero laughs. Delaney described this experience as “really funny in retrospect.” She’d get on stage, wait for the first laugh, and if it never came, she “short circuited” and just prayed the five-minute light would arrive soon. Sometimes she’d even get a few “aw”s—one of the worst and most hilarious sounds to hear as a stand-up comic, as she understands it.
Delaney’s material is unabashedly personal—that’s where she finds catharsis in her stand-up. In “The Worst News I Got That Day Was Not That I Have a Brain Tumor,” a YouTube video of Delaney’s five-minute set at the Broadway Comedy Club, she dramatizes the story of a traumatic medical event with masterful timing and ample pauses, a cadence she worked out at the open mics. That particular night, the audience roars and contributes, and Delaney feeds off of their input and assistance, letting her story ride alongside their reactions. The brain tumor story can be a crowd killer, she said, but Delaney’s ordinary delivery creates an ironic relief, both for the audience and for herself. She justifies her choice to use this material with ease: “I appreciate a crazy story. So when that happens to me, I’m not like, ‘oh, this craziness sucks.’ I’m like, ‘wow, I can perform this now.’”
Delaney has had two paid gigs, which is a feat for a college student doing stand-up comedy. But her gall and balls do not come without a substantial level of nerves—Delaney told me between laughs that at her last show in January, her Fitbit reported 119 minutes where her heart rate was over 140, meaning she was having a mini panic attack for two hours before going onstage. Unlike the solo shows, CHOWDAH comes as a relaxing alternative. The first CHOWDAH show of the year came a couple of weeks after that gig, a welcome relief after the stressful solitude of a stand-up stage.
In CHOWDAH, Delaney has found a campus community that’s as phenomenally funny as it is wholesome. Coming from a primary interest in stand-up, CHOWDAH expanded the field of comedy for Delaney, and she called writing sketch comedy her “new favorite thing.” She has found her groove with the medium, penning and acting out the characters and scenes that kill at live shows. Delaney dreamt and executed Bear Hug Barbara, an overly handsy seamstress who treats her clerk like a horse, and had the top floor of Lerner shaking with laughter. That same night in February, she was the butt of the Grand Canyon Elmo sketch, an idea CHOWDAH member Daniela Miranda conceived of. She played a Times Square Elmo who hijacks a tour of the Grand Canyon by being a douchebag. At the April show, she couldn’t help breaking during a Last Supper sketch in which she played a moody, sinister Judas.
Delaney can be described, like most Barnard students, as a loving critic, though her judgments usually take the form of humor. She and a friend created the Instagram account @whatisweecha, an examination of the origin and weirdness of the glass double helix statue called “Weecha” that stands outside of Diana. When I asked her if she thought that Barnard College had a funny personality, she confessed that our humor is not obvious—there’s definitely no Barstool Barnard. “No one’s doing flips. I wish …” Delaney admitted. Even so, she remains optimistic about Barnard’s ethos: She maintains that we are funny in a “collected, smart” way.
Delaney notices some hilarity even in her ultra-serious major, Environment and Sustainability. She told me the story of when a professor suggested that a real solution to climate change would be to launch a mirror the size of Greenland into space. All she could imagine was an apocalyptic scenario in which we launch said mirror and it falls back down into the ocean, creating an enormous tsunami and even more waste and pollution.
When she had a moment to spare during her summer researching heat waves, Delaney took to interacting with the environment in a hysterically eclectic way: On the weekends, she went kayaking for free on the Hudson and spent a lot of time birding, which she defines as “going intentionally to look at birds.” She was interviewed by NPR earlier this summer as a witness to the running of the goats in Riverside Park. She spends a lot of time thinking about small dogs who live in New York apartments, and why they look the way they do (“a little dead”). That afternoon at Hungarian, I was lucky to hear her theory: The air conditioning in their small apartments sucks all the moisture out of the small dogs, leaving them to shrivel up.
Delaney’s musings, onstage and off, bring levity to the Barnard sphere. Her style’s signature is in its generosity: She wants to let you in, to share her hustles, to help you get the sketch, to relieve some of her tension and everyone else’s. I left our conversation at Hungarian fulfilled: I had a birdwatching class on my Plan & Schedule and the comforting feeling that even without backflips, Barnard might be a little funnier than I thought.
*Correction (9/3/2022): The Grand Canyon Elmo sketch has been attributed to Daniela Miranda.
Student Workers of Columbia made labor history with its 10-week strike last fall. 10 months later, organizers across academia speak to its lasting impact.
By Grace Adee and Muni Suleiman
In March 2022, Columbia College Student Council was preparing a letter on behalf of Columbia’s first-generation, low-income students to bring to the Board of Trustees. Included was a list of demands, one of which was equitable pay for resident advisors who are on financial aid. While RAs who pay full tuition receive free housing (the equivalent of $10,000–$11,000) and a $1,000 stipend, RAs who have their housing already covered by Columbia grants receive only the stipend.
When one RA, CC ’23, saw a draft of the demands shared in the resident advisor GroupMe, it only added to her growing frustration with the RA work environment. In addition to experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination while performing RA duties, she has regularly found herself running up against the limitations of strained crisis care services like Emergency Medical Services, Sexual Violence Response, and Columbia Psychological Services. Seeking to reimagine the fraught role, she worked with fellow RAs to form Columbia University Resident Advisor (CURA) Collective, a student group dedicated to improving work conditions for RAs through pay equity, mental health support, additional recourse for harassment and discrimination, and protection from housing loss.
Soon after CURA’s formation, they turned to Student Workers of Columbia, fresh from their strike and subsequent contract negotiation, for advice. CURA sent SWC information about the RA position—its pay structure, training, and responsibilities. SWC responded emphatically, the CURA organizer said, “egging us on and being like, ‘you guys should organize, this isn’t right—you need just workplace policies.’” Another CURA member, SEAS ’25, decided to join in part because of her experiences supporting her striking University Writing instructor on the picket line last fall. She sees expanding undergraduate worker rights as the next frontier in campus organizing: “We’re absolutely building off of the work they did.”
The long-term ramifications of the negotiations between Columbia’s graduate student worker union and the University are only beginning to make themselves known. SWC’s strike, which lasted for 10 weeks, was the longest strike in higher education in over a decade. The standoff between the University and its instructors, teaching assistants, and research assistants garnered national attention, becoming a flashpoint amid intensifying debates over graduate student unionization across the country. The contract that was eventually ratified included a 6% raise for workers with annual contracts, an increase in hourly wages from $15 to $21, a $300,000 emergency fund for out-of-pocket medical expenses, and the ability to seek third-party arbitration in cases involving discrimination or harassment, among other stipulations.
In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students at Columbia University were statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act and allowed to organize a union, overturning their 2004 ruling that graduate students at private universities could not engage in collective bargaining. The decision precipitated a surge in graduate worker organizing at private universities including Harvard, Brown, Georgetown, the University of Chicago, and New York University.
These unions watched the strike at Columbia very closely, knowing that it would have wide-reaching implications for their activism. “I think leadership in our union really admires what they did,” said Michael Ziegler, the political director for the Graduate Labor Organization at Brown. “As far as I’m concerned, they won. They won big.”
Laura Colaneri, the former communications secretary for Graduate Students United at UChicago, described the cross-institutional solidarity the strike fostered, as many GSU organizers had friends or partners at Columbia or had studied there themselves. “The academic world is actually quite tight,” she said. “We’re in conversation with these people. They are our colleagues.”
These same connections catalyze the creation of new unions, as students transfer knowledge between undergraduate and graduate institutions, as well as postdoctoral programs and adjunct positions. “There’s people who go to grad school and they came from a different university for undergrad where there was a grad union there,” Jewel Tomasula, the former president of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, added. “They come to a new institution for grad school, and they have some of that knowledge and fire with their friendships from their old institutions.”
During recent Columbia strikes, many NYU students took the train uptown and joined the picket line themselves. The proximity of the campuses, as well as a shared national affiliation under UAW, heightened this sense of connection. Colin Vanderburg, a union representative for NYU’s graduate student union, said, “It takes a lot of energy, dedication, courage to go out on strike and to stay on strike. And you need all the support and all the solidarity you can get … we tried to be there supporting graduate workers at Columbia.”
NYU’s rich history of graduate student labor organizing makes clear that Columbia students have both inspired and learned from movements at other schools. In 2001, NYU’s union became the first graduate employee union at a private university and negotiated a contract with their university’s administration. Dominic Walker, a Ph.D. student in Columbia’s sociology department, former bargaining committee member, and a prominent SWC organizer, remarked that NYU’s trailblazing efforts provided important lessons for SWC’s development and motivation during the strike.
Many graduate labor organizations felt galvanized by the policy changes that resulted from the contract between SWC and Columbia, ratified last January after 97% of 2150 members voted in favor. The contract negotiations were notable not only for the lengthy strike and looming threat of retaliation, but also because Columbia conceded to demands which unions at peer institutions had never yet won, such as the option for third-party arbitration in Title IX cases. (Harvard’s union, Harvard Graduate Students Union, won the right to neutral arbitration in their contract negotiations last fall, but only for cases which do not allege gender-based discrimination under federal law.)
Colaneri observed that Columbia’s strike encouraged her and others in GSU to pursue more radical goals as they reconfigured the union in the wake of the pandemic. She’s been a part of the organization since she came to UChicago in 2016; in the past, she said, “dialectical” tendencies in academia led her to settle for “good enough” when formulating demands and to make compromises even before proposals were brought to the University. But Colaneri has noticed a growing movement at UChicago and other campuses “to become more comfortable with having to go to what might seem like extremes—like a strike.”
Colaneri attributes the growing acceptance of “radicalism” in part to the example of student workers at Columbia and Harvard, who have proved “willing to go out and be striking in the frickin’ snow for that long.” While acknowledging the many similarities in the platforms and strategies at Columbia and Harvard, Koby Ljunggren, president of HGSU, characterized SWC as unique in its politics and its impact. “I’ve never seen a more militant graduate union, at least rhetorically,” said Ljunggren. “In that 10-week strike, I feel like the message was like, ‘burn it all down,’ which I feel like they did.”
HGSU went on strike for three days in late October 2021, just a week before SWC did. “That wasn’t an accident,” said Ljunggren, who was part of the bargaining committee. The unions hoped to coordinate the timing of their strikes in a way that would mount pressure on both universities. But Harvard’s bargaining committee ultimately took a different path than Columbia’s: By the end of November, they had ratified their contract with 70.6% approval. Though many, including Ljunggren, were ultimately satisfied with the stipulations of the new contract, the ratification process created tensions within HGSU and with collaborators at SWC. “I think a lot of folks at Columbia were also blindsided by what happened here at Harvard,” they said.
Leading up to the ratification vote, some of the core members of HGSU ran a forceful campaign urging graduate students to vote “no” on the contract, arguing that its clauses didn’t go far enough on issues such as ensuring union security or recourse for discrimination and harassment. “[HGSU] diverged in that we ratified that first contract we proposed. Because that happened, a lot of our militant folks have dropped off,” Ljunggren said. Columbia seemed to have “the opposite problem,” ultimately losing members who, like Ljunggren, were put off by more polarizing rhetoric and tactics.
Shortly after Harvard’s acceptance of the contract, representatives for Columbia weaponized the decision against SWC organizers in bargaining sessions. In discussions between Harvard and Columbia organizers, Columbia organizers were told to consider Harvard’s route but ultimately decided to continue with their strike. “It was certainly challenging to feel like we were supposed to be giving each other power and then they kind of decided to go a more concessionary route,” noted Katy Habr, an SWC organizer and sociology Ph.D. candidate. She feels that though the time-coordinated striking “didn’t work out exactly,” it is a strategy full of potential that should be employed in the future.
Harvard and Columbia’s diverging paths have not undermined a shared understanding of the importance of unity across graduate unions. Shortly after the strike, Walker recalls speaking with an HGSU member and agreeing that the unions should ask each other about strategies, information, resources—whether or not it’s strike or bargaining time. Because university administrations coordinate with one another, Walker explained, unions must also collaborate. As Habr put it, it is crucial to “fight back against that and build power together.”
At Brown, GLO’s three-year contract with the University expires in June 2023, and Ziegler described how they plan to study campaigns at Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere as they survey their members and generate their proposals. Ziegler acknowledged that the 10-week Columbia strike was “very difficult” and that there are “almost certainly going to be members who do not want to do that,” while emphasizing that GLO has been inspired by Columbia’s success and that they are likewise prepared to go on strike if necessary. Ziegler also affirmed the old union adage that “the best strike is the one that you don’t have to have.”
Since SWC’s strike last winter, the union has fielded requests for advice from universities and graduate students nationwide. Walker observed various students from across campuses that were on the picket line, physically or virtually, felt inspired to start advocating for themselves. This includes individuals from schools such as Indiana University and Rutgers, where the administration “is trying to bar them from receiving an additional year of funding that they promised to them from Covid.”
These conversations, cross-campus and cross-coastal in some cases, create a strong sense of communal learning in a high-stakes environment where constantly refining skills and strategies is essential for success. “We build off of each other,” Walker said, reflecting on his experience on SWC’s bargaining committee. He explained that SWC was able to examine other union contracts, see what they had, and ask themselves, “should we be demanding more?”
That question is especially on the minds of new or developing graduate student unions. In its short four years at Georgetown, GAGE has not held a strike, but their recent efforts are to achieve a contract with higher wages. Current president Dominick Cooper has been inspired by the uptick in actions from other university unions: “We see other grad locals with contracts that are starting to resemble what we’re fighting for.”
In January, just as Columbia arrived at a tentative agreement with its student workers, Princeton announced an average increase of 25% to about $40,000 in fellowship and stipend rates for its graduate students, the largest one-year increase ever at the school. Princeton’s graduate student union, Princeton Graduate Students United, has not been legally recognized.
Attributing this raise to the collective power of the unions, Walker is very convinced that Princeton’s stipend hike was directly correlated with the severity of the Columbia strike. He felt that with the raise, the administration was really saying “please don’t do any of that crazy shit that they’re doing down there … Just take this money and go.” Walker affirmed that “we’re not just fighting for ourselves, but we’re fighting for graduates in similar universities.”
Professor Adam Reich, who studies labor issues in Columbia’s sociology department, argued that this pay increase is a “classic” form of union busting. Many organizers at other schools also interpreted the pay increase at Princeton as an attempt to preempt an upswell in union organizing inspired by strikes and protests at peer institutions.
Ziegler said he noticed a similar but subtler reaction to Columbia’s strike by Brown’s administration. Under their current contract, Brown’s graduate worker union renegotiates their wages for the upcoming school year every spring. In 2021, when their agreement included a 2.5% raise, negotiations extended almost until the end of the school year; this year, they settled on a 13% raise by early March. “There are a lot of factors that you can maybe attribute to this, but honestly I think that they were just really afraid that we were going to strike,” Ziegler said.
In contrast, Colaneri argued that UChicago’s administration hasn’t become much more amenable to graduate student demands over the last few years of nationwide union activity. However, she has observed the University quietly preempting union demands and shifting unpopular policies. She pointed to a $50 referral fee for students seeking off-campus medical care. When the University eventually waived this fee, Colaneri felt that it was part of a strategy “to mollify us so that we will quiet down or that some of our support will diminish.” But for Colaneri, changes like these aren’t evidence of turning tides within administration; rather, she said, “that’s just evidence that we’re winning.” Ljunggren has noticed a similar pattern: While Harvard has “ramped down their messaging” with regards to the union, this has meant that their communications often downplay or erase HGSU’s role in policy change.
Ljunggren characterized the union’s relationship with Harvard’s administration as having reached a tentative detente for the time being. Since their strike and second contract, Ljunggren said, Harvard has “sort of accepted the fact that we exist and that we will continue to exist.”
Of course, the most profound effects of SWC’s strike are felt on Columbia’s own lawns. When CURA sought their guidance, SWC organizers encouraged them to collect testimonials from as many RAs as possible, emphasizing the importance of creating solidarity when many students feel “very siloed in their buildings,” the CURA representative said. CURA ultimately chose to circulate a petition with their demands—first among RAs, and then, once they had collected 50 or 60 signatures, across campus and beyond. They delivered this petition to the Columbia Board of Trustees on June 30. On July 26, the University responded with the updated payment policy, in which all RAs are compensated with a $13,000 honorarium irrespective of their financial aid package, securing equal compensation for all resident advisors. (This policy is advantageous for RAs, but not equally so—for instance, international students can be subject to a 30% tax on this income because of its classification as an honorarium.) For the 2022–23 school year, RAs retain the option to be compensated under the old policy. They were given until Aug. 2 to make that decision, a tight timeline that frustrated CURA organizers. “We appreciate that [the University] made a policy change, but we also ask for clear communication, and this is not adhering to that,” said the organizer.
The University agreed to extend that deadline on a case-by-case basis and to hold individual meetings with RAs to discuss their choices. However, the University has not yet taken steps to address CURA’s other demands, including mental health resources and harassment recourse. CURA Collective plans to continue organizing around these issues. As they move forward, they hope to focus on the unique position of RAs, whose needs may deviate significantly from those of instructors and researchers. “It motivates me to think outside of the traditional labor demands that people have,” a CURA representative said. “What is our work like? And what do we need that might not be very clear to us or that Columbia might be completely ignoring?”
Even as they forge their own path forward, CURA Collective representatives said that SWC set the stage for CURA to generate momentum. In particular, SWC’s insistence on including undergraduate teaching assistants and research assistants in their campaign energized Collective members to see themselves as workers in their own right. With so many undergraduates spending their very first semesters at Columbia on the picket line, many couldn’t help but turn to each other and ask, “what’s next?”
“All of these workers have organized for very honestly radical demands on Columbia’s campus, considering what contracts usually look like,” a CURA member said. “So if they can organize, you know, why can’t we?”
Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza
To Bag a Pulitzer
Four years later, did Kendrick’s win actually mean ... anything?
By Victor Omojola
“See, a lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence.”
Illustration by Taylor Yingshi
That’s a line from “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” the penultimate track on Kendrick Lamar’s first studio album, Section.80. Since the 2011 project, the Compton native has released four more albums. The first three, good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN., touch upon adolescent self-discovery, institutional racism in the United States, and Christian theology, respectively. By thoughtfully utilizing Black aesthetics, maintaining cultural specificity even as a world-renowned recording artist, and producing anthems of Black affirmation like “Alright,” Lamar has cemented himself as a sort of sage regarding Black culture—managing to remain both revered and beloved by the Black community. And through his genre-bending, rapper’s rapping, and meticulously crafted sonic language, Lamar has established himself among critics, artists, and fans alike as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, his most recent and most controversial album, refuses the designation as cultural arbiter, but could never do too much to complicate his reputation as a rap icon. The album still boasts the impossible complexity of any of his prior releases. It reminds one that Lamar’s music is too comprehensive to be pigeonholed by generic descriptors. In reality, all of his work simultaneously occupies and polarizes the internal, the societal, and the divine. And if one recalls Lamar’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize win for DAMN., one might be compelled to add “the academic” as well.
In late July, Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter wrote a New York Times newsletter titled “Duke Ellington Deserves the 1965 Pulitzer Prize.” In the piece, he scoffs at the organization’s decision to give Ellington a special citation in 1999, arguing that denying the jazz pioneer his due in the first place was a decision too egregious to be rectified by a posthumous recognition. “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius. There can be no doubt that Ellington’s corpus fits that definition,” he writes.
Hardly a week later, Marjorie Miller, the administrator for the Prizes, responded to the article, with a tone that does well to personify the institution of the Pulitzer itself, exhausted from decades of discourse surrounding the 1965 controversy: “We believe citations are as consequential as our other awards.” She quoted an Ellington biographer, who wrote, “In 1999, he got his Pulitzer.”
In the months that followed Kendrick Lamar’s history-making Pulitzer win in 2018 for DAMN., the amount of hot take–laced think pieces and Twitter dissertations that filled the ether might have been enough to make Miller wish for a return to the Ellington conversation. Indeed, major news outlets raced to pump out articles prophesying and proselytizing on what K.Dot’s triumph as the first non-classical or jazz winner of the Pulitzer in Music meant for the Prizes, hip-hop, noncommercial music, academia, and so much more. But Miller wasn’t in charge of the Pulitzers then. It was only this past April that she replaced Dana Canedy, who, in 2020, left the role behind to become Simon & Schuster’s senior vice president and publisher.
Indeed, it was Canedy who was tasked with representing the Prizes in the midst of the PR fusillade of criticism and praise in 2018. She repeatedly explained that the Board was “very proud of this selection,” a unanimous decision that “means that the jury and the board judging system worked as it’s supposed to—the best work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.”
This, of course, begs the question of how exactly the Pulitzer’s judging system is “supposed to work.” Each year, juries for different categories gather in New York to review submissions and nominate three finalists. Jurors for the prize in music are critics, composers, professors, and past winners, who review submissions from anyone willing to pay a $75 entry fee. For Ted Hearne, doing so, in 2018, was a no-brainer. “I wrote a big work,” he told me. “It took several years to really write it and get it right and then make a recording. And then it sounded the way that I wanted, it sounded right. … So I thought that I should submit it for the prize.”
The “big work” in question is Sounds From the Bench, a 40-minute-long cantata for chamber choir, electric guitar, and percussion. Jurors selected Hearne’s piece as a finalist for the 2018 prize. “I was totally shocked to get that recognition,” he remarked.
I also spoke to Raven Chacon, who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Voiceless Mass, an ensemble piece commissioned specifically for the Nichols & Simpson pipe organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. This being his first time submitting a composition for consideration for the prize, he’s an impressive one for one. He laughed as he detailed his newly packed schedule since the May 9 announcement: “It’s added a lot more hours to the day.”
Chacon chose to submit a written score with his entry, but, since 2004, this has not actually been a requirement. Along with widening the range of experts from which its jurors are drawn, the adjustment was made with the goal of increasing the diversity of music and composers considered for the prize.
Fourteen years later, Lamar’s 2018 win perhaps indicated that these changes were a success. But such a conclusion is arguably marred by the fact that his victory was especially irregular. DAMN. was never formally submitted to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize, but added to the set of three finalists, along with Hearne’s cantata and a quartet by Michael Gilbertson, after the jurors noticed a few works with hip-hop influence, but no actual hip-hop entries. The Pulitzer Prize Board, the body of mostly journalists and professors that chooses winners for all categories, subsequently decided that DAMN. was the most worthy. Lamar’s win fueled disapproval from those who interpreted the decision as another unjust nail in the coffin of noncommercial music.
But such a theory lies on the tamer end of those espoused by parties who objected to the Board’s decision. Others not only disagreed with the idea that DAMN. was worthy of the prize, but contested that the album—and rap music as a whole—is not worthy of any sort of intellectual recognition. One such individual is Wynton Marsalis, who, interestingly enough, was the first composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for a work with significant jazz elements. The purportedly trailblazing jazz maestro failed to see anything trailblazing about Lamar’s achievement, telling The Washington Post that rap music presents “much more of a racial issue than taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down.”
On the other hand were those who heralded the Board’s decision as a long-overdue step forward for hip-hop and/or the Pulitzer Prize institution. Such arguments, unsurprisingly, have dominated pop culture spheres. For Complex, A.T. McWilliams opined that the event “writes into history hip-hop’s undeniable influence on—and innovation within—American music.” For The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber explained the cruciality of the decision for an institution embarrassingly on an island in its lack of respect for hip-hop. “The Pulitzers got it right,” Doreen St. Félix of The New Yorker wrote simply.
In a New York Times piece that detailed a conversation between a classical music editor and a pop culture critic, the former of the two, Zachary Woolfe, claimed that the Pulitzer Prize in Music was “now officially one fewer guaranteed platform … for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards.”
It would make quite the understatement to suggest that Kendrick Lamar did not need the $15,000 cash prize that accompanies the Prize in Music. According to an AfroTech article, touring for DAMN. alone grossed more than 2,600 times that amount. Indeed, $15,000 can go a much longer way for a composer creating music that could never dream of blasting through radio airwaves or trending on TikTok. Still, it is not necessarily the financial component that makes clinching a Pulitzer life-changing.
For Hearne, the publicity that a young composer can sometimes garner through the prize is just as vital. “The recognition of it helps them coalesce some attention around their career.”
Chacon provided a firsthand account of just this. “The monetary award is nice, but what’s been more valuable to me is just people understanding a little bit better what I do and recognizing some of the other work that I do—even the non–chamber music work.”
Indeed, much of Chacon’s catalog can be categorized as noise music, an experimental genre that emphasizes improvisation and “uses electronics and electric instruments to just make what it sounds like: noise.” Music like this, that can’t be traditionally classified as “classical” or “jazz” or “rock”—that is not traditionally anything—can easily be forgotten when one attempts to analyze 2018 through the narrow lens of hip-hop versus classical, commercial versus noncommercial.
This is largely why Hearne remains unconvinced that Lamar’s win was some kind of armageddon for the noncommercial cosmos. In fact, he contests that, like Marsalis’ line of reasoning, this one is problematic, as well. It erases artists whose music straddles the public market and the academic one. “If a musician is a producer and a rapper, for instance … trying to make something really great, really cutting edge, and would love to sell a million records, but also doesn’t want to only be guided by the idea that to be successful they must sell, should they be excluded from getting those research funds or for having that opportunity open to them?” he asked.
Hearne’s question, more broadly, alludes to the institution’s tendency—and, in many cases, its design—towards exclusion. Rather than dwell on the fact that the Pulitzer went to Lamar, the commercially successful musician, perhaps it is better to celebrate that it went to Lamar, the non-classical artist—against all institutional odds. This also suggests that looking at a work not in a vacuum, but as rich matter shaped by and capable of shaping many sociocultural forces—including the Pulitzer Prizes themselves—is key.
As Chacon formulates it, “the music is more than its sound.” A Diné composer, whose winning work considers how colonial institutions have historically worked to remove and silence Indigenous Peoples, Chacon believes that subject matter should be a crucial part of how Pulitzer jurors assess a given year’s applicants. “It is in what it’s saying, where it’s being made from, who it’s being made by,” he continued. “And sometimes, it’s who it’s being made for.”
The group of individuals nominated for and, occasionally, awarded the Pulitzer Prizes is an extremely exclusive one. Hearne told me that 2008 winner David Lang is a former teacher of his, that 2017 winner Du Yun is a friend, and that the only Pulitzer winner of the last ten years that he doesn’t have a personal relationship with or at least “some sort of small community knowledge of” is Kendrick Lamar. This isn’t exactly surprising, but it indicates that the Pulitzer in Music tends to circulate within a small coterie of artists. And as Hearne put it, “it’s not like that’s the only music that’s happening in the world. That’s actually just a very, very, very small fraction of the music.”
The fact that operas by Ellen Reid and Anthony Davis, an orchestral work by Tania León, and Raven Chacon’s piece have received the last four awards since 2018 supports the argument that Lamar’s win was not as transformative as many speculated it might have been. However, it would not be much more than speculation to suggest that bias or a desire to draw renewed attention to the awards fueled their selection. Individuals that served as jurors in 2018 and others who served in administrative roles for the Prizes either declined or failed to respond for comment.
Still, even if one were to ascertain evidence that implied the reasoning behind awarding Lamar the prize had to do with anything other than a belief that his work was that year’s best, would it really matter? Ironically, since it is what leads to the speculation in the first place, the configuration of winners since 2018 suggests that, for now, the answer is “no.”
Indeed, for the moment, the barriers that stand between certain musicians and a Pulitzer Prize remain robust—yet to be shattered by the aftereffects of Lamar’s triumph. Specifically, most of these boundaries are those that define exactly what classical music is and, more crucially, who it keeps out.
Chacon is particularly interested in rectifying this. His work with the Native American Composer Apprentice Project helps Native American students compose concert music. “The hope is that these barriers get eliminated and there’s more access to new communities, new people who have been excluded before from having access to these instruments and education, seeing what they will do with the genre next,” he said.
Composers who come from backgrounds that are less white and less wealthy will, since they once lacked proximity to classical music (and maintain closeness to others), likely approach the genre’s conventions with a greater skepticism. Exposing young people from underrepresented communities to the arena of classical music has the potential to eventually disrupt notions of what the genre looks and sounds like.
Another way to critique the classical music space is by simply asking, as Hearne does, “does it say anything positive, more positive, about the music if it’s considered classical music?” From the viewpoint of academia, at least, it certainly seems to.
It is commonly held that institutions of higher education are all about messy scholarly problems, challenging knowns, and a lack of resolution in pursuit of resolution. Well, if this is the case, then Kendrick Lamar, in all his aforementioned complexity, certainly fits the bill. And so do many other rap and hip-hop musicians. And so do experimental artists of all genres who push boundaries and create tension. We might more fiercely indict academia for what it deems worthy of study and how it makes such determinations. More often than not, a history of race and class discrimination is central.
It is important that establishment sympathizers understand the implications of their cries against the introduction of popular musical styles into an institutional space. Whether intentional or not, such appeals suggest a contentment with, or even endorsement of, a discriminatory conceptualization of music.
Four years is not long enough to know truly and fully any theoretical reverberations of the Pulitzer Prize’s most controversial decision to date. What’s worthy of more general concern is the fact that without a commercial platform or academic endorsement working to amplify their art, experimental musicians composing in any genre remain largely unaffected by the decision—even in theory. There are about a million Kendrick lines that one might use to effectively poetize this, but it is Chacon’s wordless Pulitzer Prize–winning work, which considers how best to empower those who struggle to be heard, that is most applicable.
More Than Medication
Barnard says they’re ready for the post-Dobbs world.
But their reluctance to provide medication abortion has left many doubting the level of their commitment.
By Andrea Contreras
Lorena was the only person in the waiting room at the Columbia University Fertility Clinic on 5 Columbus Circle. It was spring 2021—her first spring in the city as a Barnard first-year—but from the clinic window she couldn’t see the Callery pear trees blooming. Her boyfriend loitered outside, unable to enter the building to wait with her: Covid protocol, the nurse explained as Lorena took a seat. (Lorena is a pseudonym.)
Lorena’s first appointment was on Barnard’s campus the week prior with nurse practitioner Anne Herlick. She had known she was pregnant for a few days beforehand. After the initial emotional whirlwind, she researched her options and decided that the medication abortion pill was the right choice for her. For Lorena, who grew up in a low-income household with inconsistent access to health care, the thought of any medical procedure was enough to send her reeling. A surgical abortion seemed like the worst possible iteration. The pills would be easy and discrete.
Barnard Primary Care wasn’t Lorena’s first stop for reproductive care. She tried Planned Parenthood, but the months-long wait time meant she would be unable to get a medicated abortion by the time she got an appointment. So she turned to campus services, hoping they could provide her with pills and the support she needed.
Herlick tried to comfort Lorena:
A lot of students go through this, don’t worry. Not usually first-years, though.
Herlick made her dislike for medicated abortion clear. She told Lorena the surgical route is better; medicated abortion would be extremely painful. With the surgery, at least Lorena could get an IUD installed at the same time. But Lorena didn’t want an IUD—she hadn’t said a thing about contraception.
You know, so that it won’t happen again, Herlick said.
Offhand comments like these replaced in-depth explanations of the advantages and disadvantages of Lorena’s choices. After being told to think about it, Lorena was finally referred to the Columbia University Fertility Center in Midtown, where she would see an OB-GYN the following week. If nothing else, the Columbia doctor in Midtown was kinder than Herlick; her tone made Lorena feel “a little bit more like a person.” But when it came to asking Lorena what she wanted to do about her pregnancy, the doctor discouraged medicated abortion. She echoed Herlick’s warning that medicated abortion would be painful, probably the worst pain Lorena would feel in her life, and added that it wouldn’t be covered by her school insurance. “She didn’t really describe what the symptoms will be like with the pill,” Lorena said. “She just kind of brushed it off. She’s like, ‘don’t consider that, just go with this route.’”
Despite the warnings, Lorena requested the pills and paid the $80 bill. Both appointments left her with stark feelings of shame and alienation. Lorena felt her proudest accomplishments had been soured by her experience at the clinic. She left feeling like she had become a stereotype—a scared pregnant teenager. “Going into [the] Barnard Health office was—I want to say humbling, but it was kind of degrading,” Lorena said.
Nurse Herlick and the Columbia Fertility doctor’s views on the MA pill may not reflect those of the Columbia health care community as a whole. (When asked for comment, a Barnard spokesperson did not address inquiries about campus medication abortion provision or collaboration with student activists, instead sharing links to two existing public statements.) According to a former staff member, though, Lorena’s experience indicates the biases and misinformation held by many individuals at Barnard Primary Care. “I think Barnard students maybe felt a little bit of, maybe, paternalism, or like they weren’t actually being heard because providers felt like they knew best in that scenario,” said Dr. Payal Patel, a former primary care physician at Barnard. Patel said that fear of pregnancy, not a desire to help pregnant people, was at the forefront of reproductive care at Barnard. “The way that we think about pregnancy, I think that it clearly doesn’t come from a reproductive justice lens. Pregnancy is not a bad outcome. I think the bad outcome is the patient not receiving the care that they wanted.”
Before receiving her prescription, the doctor warned Lorena not to take the pills alone. But Covid rules on campus meant that complying with this order might take some maneuvering. She decided to borrow her roommate’s ID card and building key to swipe in her home friend from Fordham, the only person she trusted enough to tell about her pregnancy. But Lorena and her friend were caught by the security guard at the front desk and her friend was sent home, leaving Lorena to take her pills alone in the bathroom of her dorm.
A few weeks later, Lorena was no longer pregnant. She wasn’t asked to come in for a follow-up appointment at the fertility center, nor did she receive any further communication from them. She doesn’t know her doctor’s name. What she did receive was a surprise bill on her Barnard Health portal: $130 for the ultrasound, in addition to the charge for the pill.
A few days later, another surprise arrived in her inbox—a request for a meeting with her RA and hall director regarding the guest policy. She met with them, apologized for breaking the rules, and assumed the situation was resolved. Then, at the beginning of the summer semester, Lorena was kicked out of her housing. Her appeal, which cited a medical emergency for the rule violation, was rejected.
One year later, Lorena’s inbox was flooded again. This time, it was with communications from Barnard condemning the outcome of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court decision which overturned federal protections for abortion. Barnard organized informational panels with Terry McGovern from the Mailman School of Public Health and Janet Jakobsen from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department; they set up Zoom calls where students could offer feedback on steps the University could take. Their official emails responding to the decision cite Barnard’s mission statement, which “calls on us, individually and collectively, to help lead and inform this national conversation.” It solicited proposals from students for new initiatives that the College could lead. President Beilock even co-signed a New York Times op-ed with the presidents of the six other sister colleges, stating that “we will continue to provide reproductive health care on our campuses, which are situated in states where it is possible to do so.”
Now, some students are wondering what reproductive health care Barnard was referring to. Barnard offers contraceptive services through Primary Care (which they offer appointments for one half-day a week) and has a Plan B vending machine; however, these resources are not what has come under threat with the Dobbs decision. The decision backtracked on abortion and abortion services, of which Barnard has none. The college’s statements were particularly frustrating to the Reproductive Justice Collective, who have encountered numerous administrative roadblocks in advocating for abortion justice on campus for the past few years.
Founded by Barnard students Niharika (Nix) Rao, BC ’23, and Maya Corral, BC ’22, in 2020, RJC began as a way to address the need for intersectional health care on campus, including birth justice, doula programs, queer, trans and gender-expansive inclusive care, and medication abortion at Barnard. Rao, who is nonbinary, said that RJC’s diverse membership of people of color, queer, trans, and low-income individuals informs their fight for medication abortion. “Abortion care in New York is a very two-tiered system, if you are low income and a person of color versus white and high income, because the care options are just so different,” Rao said. “And one of the biggest benefits, I think, of providing this on campus, is just that it helps with so many of those barriers that low-income students of color, queer, and trans students face.”
RJC’s first year of action before their official club recognition in 2021 involved surveying the current reproductive justice landscape on campus, fundraising for abortion clinics, and compiling resources for awareness campaigns. When it came to medication abortion, RJC thought it would be a relatively smooth process to make pills available on campus.
“We genuinely thought that if we garnered enough [support] and explained that students wanted this, that they would work with us. Same for Columbia—we thought that they maybe just needed students to do some level of groundwork around it,” said Rao. But initial conversations with Barnard Health in February 2020 did not go as expected.
Barnard Primary Care makes a point to employ some administrators who boast lengthy backgrounds in justice-oriented care. Executive Director of Student Health and Wellness M.J. Murphy touts experience in “providing health services to underserved, at-risk populations, from various backgrounds” on her CV. One of Dr. Marina Catallozzi’s positions prior to being hired as the first vice president of health and wellness at Barnard and Columbia University Irving Medical Center was as the co-director of Mailman’s Sexual and Reproductive Health certificate. Despite this expertise, RJC claims that much of the institutional reasoning against providing abortion pills has been rooted in “not knowing” crucial information about the medication. In meetings, along with concerns about the pills’ safety, student organizers have been told about the score of logistical uncertainties providers face: whether the University could be held liable for malpractice concerns, questions as to what training staff on ectopic pregnancies would look like. These non-answers have at times been coupled with misinformation: concerns that students might bleed out in their dorms, speculations that private physicians’ offices would be less crowded and offer more privacy, and generalizations that there wasn’t sufficient need among the student population.
A quick look at RJC’s website provides the answers to many of these common questions—answers which RJC organizers have repeated to administration in countless emails and Zoom calls. Barnard and Columbia student health insurance does cover abortion with a copay of $0. If a student doesn’t use student health insurance, there are funds that help them cover costs. New York City Council also recently passed laws making medication abortion pills free for in-state and out-of-state users. Training is not required to prescribe medication abortion, as New York State law allows all nurse practioners, physician assistants, and nurse midwives to provide the pills in-clinic. Medication abortion is considered to be safer than Tylenol and has been FDA-approved for 20 years. Despite bleeding being a side effect of Misoprostol, a recently approved abortion pill, it is considered to be similar to a heavy period. At private physicians’ offices and Planned Parenthoods, patients often experience extremely long wait times and anti-choice harassment. They would also be seen by a new doctor rather than their primary care provider, with whom they might already be comfortable. And, as demonstrated by Lorena and other Barnard students with similar stories, there is considerable and urgent need.
December 2021 marked the first proceedings for the Dobbs hearing in front of the Supreme Court. The threat presented by outlawing abortion in half the country meant that New York City’s clinics and abortion providers would imminently be overwhelmed. The first days of 2022 brought new organizing initiatives, including mobilization and direct action. RJC started spring semester by collaborating with Patel to draft a medication abortion protocol right before her resignation. The protocol includes information on how the University could order medication and how to instruct the patient to take the medication. Patel noted that in her half-year of employment at Barnard Health, the office had no standardized practice for referring students to abortion or reproductive care, apart from providing a handout. Patel, who is now an abortion provider, views the ability to provide abortion pills in-clinic when her patients ask as an important part of her philosophy for everyday care. For her, fulfilling on-demand requests for the pill is important for depoliticizing, normalizing, and destigmatizing abortion care, and for showing students what equitable and just reproductive medicine looks like.
During her brief period at Barnard, Patel never received any bias training. It was not because the staff at Primary Care didn’t need it. Assuming gender pronouns was common, she said, as was the ubiquity of non-affirming white bodies in the clinic’s medical imagery—flowery white vaginas on the wall and in office models. Patel expressed concerns that the demographics of the Primary Care staff weren’t reflective of the student body and tried to implement training to start conversations with staff about affirming reproductive justice health care. When it came to the medication abortion protocol she helped to draft, she expressed uncertainty about whether anybody in her office took the time to consider the materials. “When I was told to assemble this, there seemed to be some interest in medication abortion care, but I think it’s hard,” Patel said.
For Abortion Advocacy Week in mid-April, RJC turned to direct action, releasing their petition demanding pills to the student body, and collaborated with political art collective The Illuminator to project their demand for abortion pills across Low Library’s exterior. Both actions spotlighted RJC’s social media and their mailing list grew from 25 to around 300. Increased attention facilitated RJC’s collaborations with the broader New York City abortion advocacy community, including NYC for Abortion Rights, the New Women Space, and NYC Democratic Socialists of America. When the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, RJC organized protests and rallies across the city. Conversations with highly experienced organizers were enlightening for RJC as they developed their strategic toolkit. “We were approaching this as, like, Barnard being our ally, Columbia is an ally, they want to do this, and they told us to model this as a government or a state you’re demanding rights from,” Rao said. “And once you do it with that lens, which is the lens that they’re used to, we’ve actually had so much more success.” Now, RJC’s petition has garnered almost 1,300 signatures, including support from the WGSS Department, the Barnard Zine Library, and multiple tenured faculty members.
For the collective, however, “more success” is relative and far from perfect. At one point, it referred to Murphy and Catallozzi finally responding to RJC’s requests for a post-Dobbs meeting. Catallozzi and Vice President of Inclusion and Engaged Learning Jennifer Rosales had mentioned—and included a website hyperlink for—RJC in a June 27 “community message” in response to the Supreme Court ruling, encouraging students “to learn from Barnard and Columbia students leading the Reproductive Justice Collective, which advocates for and shares resources for reproductive equity and justice.” This led RJC to believe that the administration was ready to come to the table. The meeting was meant to be the culmination of their efforts: a public forum at which any Barnard student could speak openly about the state of reproductive justice on campus. Initially, Catallozzi was cordial, thanking RJC for their work. She agreed: Abortion is great. She then referred attendees to existing Alice resources and reverted back to old talking points. “It sort of felt like Dr. Catallozzi was at a press conference fielding questions from us and got very defensive at times; it felt like a deferral time after time. And it got a little comical,” said RJC member Alyssa Curcio, CLS ’23. “Non-conversations that keep happening again and again, which they like; [they] are able to say something over doing something because they’re having this conversation.”
Barnard may not identify an urgency in providing medication abortion on campus due to its availability in the city. They may think it is enough to say the right things and take meetings with students and collective members to consider offering the reproductive health care that they claim to support. Yet, many students understand this inaction as a familiar failure. Low-income students such as Lorena see it as Barnard further marginalizing their underrepresented students. “This school is just so painfully performative,” she said. “The administration is just not as supportive or liberal really as they like to advertise.”
Performative is not an uncommon word to describe Barnard’s (re)actions. Roxane Gay, invited to speak at Barnard in 2020, famously challenged Barnard during her address, claiming that “public intellectuals, writers, and other interesting thinkers are brought to college campuses as part of splashy initiatives that administrations hope will absolve them of any long-term responsibility for creating a genuinely inclusive institution.” The longstanding critique about Barnard’s performative rhetoric exists uncomfortably but simultaneously with evidence of actual change: Barnard’s 2022 admissions cycle demonstrates a diversity it has previously lacked, with two-thirds of admitted students being people of color, 21% being first in family, and 41 being QuestBridge scholars. For students like Lorena, coming to Barnard Health might be the first time they have consistent access to a medical provider; it might also be the first time they step into a city or state which supports reproductive autonomy or are confronted with a choice to make about their reproductive health.
“A lot of students are coming here with a lot of fear,” said Claire Burke, BC ’25, an RJC member. “There is a need to meet this fear with a solution. And not just a number like, ‘oh, we only get two students a month.’ Well, those students need your help. Why are you not helping them?”
Illustration by Madeleine Hermann
Following the M60
What happens when a bus, a gun, and an algorithm walk into a search bar.
By Kat Chen
Illustration by Kat Chen
Like many of Columbia’s New Yorkers who flew here (as opposed to those who grew here), I take the M60 bus from LaGuardia to our campus. Arriving at the city and leaving it at the bookends of each semester, I often find myself out on the airport sidewalk in the winter, when New York morphs into the concrete tundra. Just as the chill seemingly multiplies any given distance, it too converts the minutes spent outside into hours and so my regular homecoming ritual with the city plays as follows: With numbed frozen hands, zip down the chest pocket of puffer. Dig past loose bills and receipts to find phone. Huff a visible fog of breath over fingertips so the phone recognizes my hand as human. Open Safari and Google the M60. Scroll past the machine gun until you find the bus schedule. Wait until it feels like you’re part of an immersively staged Beckett play.
My bus-stalking routine upon touching down in New York has become integrated in me like a constant algorithm, one of those mundane, unchanging parts of life that can be placed on autopilot.
Usually, after finding my spot on the bus, I look out the windows until teal patinated rooftops dominate the skyline. I know it’s Columbia long before the operator can crackle out “116th and Broadway.” On my last arrival in the city at the beginning of the spring 2022 semester, however, I was inspired by an antsy whim while returning back to campus. Seeking proof that we were moving, I decided to track the M60 all the way down. The smart approach would have been to continually refresh the same web app tracker, but instead, I opted for the nervous approach: to close and reopen new trackers at every stop. Though this fidget was inefficient, it was unexpectedly insightful; as the bus ran down, its place in Google’s search results went up. The M60-SBS bus line serves, on average, 14,778 riders on any given week, and as one of the main options for ground transport from LaGuardia into the city, the M60 is one of the first—and likely one of the most uncelebrated—introductions its straphangers have to New York City.
The bus shares its place at the top of Google’s search results with the M60 machine gun, also known as “The Pig,” a Cold War darling whose claims to fame are bulk and force. According to the Google Trends data for the term “M60,” New York City claims a score of 100 out of 100 on the regional popularity scale that ranks search interest. I wondered whether my initial experience of online exposure to the Pig and the bus was universal among the ridership of New York City natives, incoming college students, vacationing families, and daytrippers on business. By the time I arrived back at school, I wanted to know: What were we all finding when we searched for the M60?
The plan was supposed to be simple. Dedicate a day to riding the bus as many times as I could, log the search results at each stop, corroborate with information about Google searches I was sure existed somewhere on the internet, to deduce the formula that could explain this dance between the two M60s on my search page.
Admittedly, this was an imperfect experiment. I quickly learned that I was not playing in a virtual sandbox, but rather, a blackbox. Google’s 24-year-old search algorithm is undoubtedly the canal through which the world’s online traffic flows. There’s hardly a choice. In the search engine market as of June 2021, Google owns 92.47% of all shares; Bing, the runner-up in the search engine marketplace, holds only 7.2%. When it comes to Search, Google has no competitors in the playing field sown by its very hand. What we do know about the search mechanism is what Google itself has published, material which is hardly more detailed than the recipe to create the Powerpuff Girls.
On the process of delivering search results, Google offers: “When a user enters a query, our machines search the index for matching pages and return the results we believe are the highest quality and most relevant to the user. Relevancy is determined by hundreds of factors, which could include information such as the user’s location, language, and device (desktop or phone). For example, searching for ‘bicycle repair shops’ would show different results to a user in Paris than it would to a user in Hong Kong.”
In essence, I was provisionally feeling around the edges of just one out of an infinity of virtual faces provincially available to me on my phone with as many round trip rides up and down the M60 line as my sandwich bag of quarter rolls would afford me—which would turn out to be three.
During my three trips, I realized some link between my search results and my location. I was thankful for the moments of air I could collect at the ends of each journey as I stopped to slot my coins, nine at a time, for my receipt. I typically ducked my head as I flashed my ticket to board, but around my fourth embarkment, the driver started to shoot a too-tired-to-ask look at me. I must have seemed like a NPC spending her afternoon taking hour-long rides to nowhere. Suddenly self-conscious of the private oddness I shared with the driver, I remained determined to follow through. As consistently as I was able to determine, four stops of the 18 that the M60 takes bump the bus schedule to the top of my page: Amsterdam/West 120th Street, Broadway/West 120th Street, Broadway/West 116th Street, and Broadway/West 106th Street. These neighboring stops comprise the most inwardly Manhattan leg of the bus’s journey and generally represent the corners dotting our community of Morningside Heights.
Just one stop prior to entering the MoHi internet bubble at Amsterdam and La Salle—a five-block, three-minute walk, to be precise—the Wikipedia entry for the M60 machine gun reoccupies the prime real estate of the first search result. The furthest the bus and the gun ever sat from each other was at Hoyt and 31st Street, the last stop the M60 takes in Queens; there, to arrive at the bus schedule, I needed to scroll past the gun, a tank, several tactical video demonstrations of both gun and tank, and a firearm enthusiast’s blogpost. In our online climate, with its endless capacity to adopt and repurpose real-world mis/dis/information, isolating any singular group of components that could be responsible for the variations returned at each stop is an impossible errand. Instead of trying to put a flashlight to the face of this mystical dragon in the machine, I discovered the value in catching its smoke, the consequence of its machinations that conclude, for one reason or another thousand, that the difference of five blocks and three minutes is the difference between a harmless commute and engines of war.
In actuality, the bus and the gun were never too far from one another. On my phone, at least, they more often than not sit adjacent, separated by no more than half an inch. The natural impulse is to question my motivation to investigate a seemingly trivial difference: Why take this half-inch and stretch it into literal miles of bus riding? The impetus lies in our psychological tendency towards convenience. According to 2020 data collected by Sistrix, an internet analysis company, the average click-through rate for the first result shown on Google is 28.5%. Following that, the second result plummets to a 15.7% CTR, or roughly half the amount of attention attracted by the first. The exponentially increasing dearth of interaction through progressing search results is perhaps best exemplified by Google’s second page: The same Sistrix study demonstrates that every result on the second page generates a CTR of less than 1%. The difference between a single keystroke or click is measured not in inches but in magnitudes of viewership, and a position several results away from the top is the search algorithm’s analogue to a death sentence: invisibility.
Yelp CEO and President Jeremy Stoppelman said as much when faced with the hammer of Google’s omniscience. With the rise of Google Reviews in 2011, Stoppelman had mistaken Google’s tone of voice when they informed him of their strategy to build the back of their review system from data trawled from Yelp: Google was not requesting permission from Stoppelman, but declaring their intentions before doing as they pleased. In essence, Stoppelman faced the bitter choice between obedience and obsolescence: to comply with Google’s self-determined “fair use” of information publicly accessible on Yelp’s platform, or to remove said information from the grasp of its search engine. Stoppelman remarked that the ultimatum constituted a threat: Offer up your platform’s data or “take yourself off the internet. That would have destroyed the company, so it was a false choice.”
In the conflict that ensued, much of Yelp’s energy has naturally gone toward accruing the necessary endurance against Google Reviews’ parasitic practices. The untouchable industry giant, in the early stages of its feud with Yelp, had poached enough from Yelp to make the reviewing platform its subordinate—but not so much so as to eliminate the database as a resource from which it could draw. In an egalitarian vision of the internet, Yelp and Google Reviews would stand on relatively equal footing in attracting consumer attention, not unlike how we scrutinize products in the same aisle at the grocery store. The discrepancy between that ideal and our current online reality is the outright lack of objectivity in the production of search results.
If one could trust the process of exchange to guarantee desirable and accurate results, such a lack of transparency might be acceptable. But with how the consumer-corporation relationship stands now—with Google exempt from the same level of skepticism currently lobbed against an Amazon or a Facebook—Google benefits from consumer trust conditioned almost to the point of instinct, triangulated perfectly with its status as a vertically integrated monopoly immune to the challenges for accountability, from competitors or regulators alike. So while Yelp would pay for a place as the second result—and even for its exile to the second page—chance glimpses remained better than nothing. Time and time again, our collective internet habits illustrate the rule that what first comes is what we overwhelmingly choose.
“Don’t be evil.”
Three words that compose a philosophy so simple it feels as if it were born from some book of ancient truth, not some Y2K draft of Google’s code of conduct. To Google’s credit, the precise origin of this cheeky mission phrase is mired in legend, a song in which the suspected heroes have swapped their spears for software engineering. Irrespective of the semantic details of who said what—long lost to Google’s early history—one of the proposed coiners of “don’t be evil,” Gmail founder Paul Buchheit, explained that it was “a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.” At some point, Google believed in this commandment enough to codify it, and it continues to reside in the final line of the company’s code of conduct.
The presently challenged milieu surrounding Google and “don’t be evil” was a conversation I found myself returning to throughout my endeavor to reconcile the Pig with the bus. To be clear, I don’t believe that obfuscating the mystery of how Google Search works is, in and of itself, “being evil.” I do, however, understand the mechanism as it is publicized as a fig leaf, one that Google won’t tear off any time soon. While the majority of the elements directing my experiment lay outside of my observation, I could still maintain control over my interpretation of the results: I knew exactly what I was trying to find (the M60), and my target was obviously distinct from the rest of the results populating its page (the bus from the myriad artillery). But how does this complete opacity over search results bode for those going in completely blind?
On Feb. 15, Google tweeted a fun fact: 15% of its received queries are novel. That is, from the estimated billions of searches Google processes every day, never-before-asked questions come in daily by the hundreds of millions. Genuine curiosity backed by our trust in first-page convenience functions as an open invitation for bad actors seeking to warp the lines of a search engine’s design.
For a while, Google tacitly welcomed this species of malicious interference, for the profit successful runaway disinformation schemes generated for the host platform. Some of the most recent high-profile examples of such online campaigns deal with hoaxes about climate change and the 2016 presidential election. While Google has more recently paired some safeguards with results concerning these topics—such as third-party fact checker pop-ups and source verifications—there of course remain critical dark spots on the site without such protections, including life-or-death matters like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Even meme culture has exploited the flimsiness of assigning relevance to webpages: A 2018 tweet that Sir Thomas Running invented the eponymous exercise in 1612, when he attempted to “walk twice at the same time,” trended on Reddit and Quora forums so vigorously that screencaps of Google returning the lie as its first search result when asked “when was running invented” became an entire meme genre of its own.
As coveted a position as the first is, it’s fragile up top. When falsified sources and red herrings can so easily hack page indexing, I’ve come to understand that one of the only effective measures we have against a product crafted for minds on autopilot is to deliberately view more than just the first and second sources on our screens. Every time we perform a search, Google essentially hands us a dossier of up to billions of sources in under a second. Maybe we should rifle through more of it.
I’ve since found a new way to kill my time in the cold. When I’m standing by for the bus, I pull out my phone and look for whatever crosses my mind. From the generated results, I scroll and flip through the internet’s unseen pages. Sometimes, I think of the bus. That search generates the usual suspects of more gun profiling. Other times, I find myself surrounded by minor league baseball teams, “Visit Our City!” advertisements, and local Missouri newspapers on the page-six equivalent on “Columbia.” “Bacon, egg, and cheese” floods my screen with the anticipated mountain of recipes and greasy spoons, but travel past it and find a sea populated by bread boats and waffle melts and other more exotic breakfast eats. Instead of falling into the dull noise conducted by a biased automaton, through this new ritual, I find my own chord of autonomy on the internet. Now, anytime I sift among these buried headlines and links, I get the small, satisfying sense that I’m making the process of waiting feel like finding something human.
Beyond the Bet
What lies beneath the omnipresence of sports betting and crypto trading.
By Margaret Connor
As I stepped out of 116th Street Station, trying not to slip and brain myself on the staircase, I saw a surprising face waiting for me at the mouth of the staircase. Jamie Foxx, star of the iconic Collateral, was plastered on an advertisement for BetMGM, “the king of sportsbooks.” Open-mouthed in a gaudy green jacket, he fist-pumped in victory next to the enormous “RISK-FREE FIRST BET UP TO $1,000” and the much smaller “Gambling problem?” I rolled my eyes, but it was far from the first sports betting ad I’d encountered. I knew they could be pervasive, but it wasn’t until I passed by the display and saw what was on its other side that I ran out of patience: There, just behind it, was a competing ad for Caesars Sportsbook. Legalized betting has a complicated history in New York City. When my parents lived in Brooklyn in the 1990s, the options were to go down to the track and watch thoroughbreds race, or to visit a local OTB—an off-track betting parlor run by a public benefit corporation. Though OTBs still operate in other state counties, the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation folded in 2010, following waning interest in racing and the growth of more private, more convenient options for legal gambling. The two major changes that have brought about our current state of oversaturation are the statewide legalization of sports betting in 2019 and the ensuing legalization of online sportsbooks in January 2022.
On Jan. 8, four online sportsbooks—Caesars Sportsbook, FanDuel, DraftKings, and Rush Street Interactive—launched. Within two weeks, they had handled over $600 million. (That comes out to around $31 per New York State resident, or three times the budget of Hudson Yards’ suicide-magnet, the Vessel.) It makes sense, then, why these advertising campaigns are going all-out. As I looked at the ads on the bus stops and subway entrances every morning on my way to class, and then on the LinkNYC boards every night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were going particularly all-out around the Columbia campus. They’d have good reason to. Young men are particularly susceptible to problem gambling, and it’s safe to wager there are some deep-pocketed marks at an Ivy.
Recently, the widely publicized death of Jack Ritchie, a 24-year-old teacher who died in February by suicide following years of struggling with a gambling addiction, has highlighted the difficulty that problem gamblers and their loved ones face when trying to find adequate, meaningful support. The scarcity of accessible therapeutic services, combined with the current ubiquity of sportsbook ads, means it is now disturbingly easy to develop a gambling problem yet frustratingly hard to find a means out of it. And don’t let the glossy advertisements and celebrity endorsements fool you—there’s a lot to lose. In addition to monetary loss, the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s webpage states, “Individuals with a gambling disorder are more likely to struggle with substance misuse and are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, medical and legal problems, and are more likely to risk their jobs and personal relationships.”
As governed by 9 NYCRR § 5325.6(b-c), sports betting ads must display the numbers of New York State’s HOPEline, a 24/7 confidential hotline. (While the HOPEline’s website proclaims itself “New York State’s 24/7 problem gambling and chemical dependency hotline,” typing “HOPENY” followed by a space into Google will automatically suggest “hopeny gambling,” and nothing else. Also, the ny.gov page on the New York State HOPEline has a two-sentence explanation of the service followed by a “Learn more here” link that serves you a “page not found” notice.)
To find out what resources are available to problem gamblers in New York, I texted the little number on the bottom of the posters. I posed as the Concerned Loved One of a hypothetical 22-year-old with a sports betting problem living in the 10027 zip code—a Promising Young Man whose studies were suffering as a result of his sports betting. Soon, I was put in touch with a counselor who asked a few basic questions (What type of gambling? Is there any substance use or alcoholism as well? Is he a current member of the Armed Services?) and gave me the number of the Manhattan Problem Gambling Resource Center.
While I was impressed with the hotline’s response time, the counselor’s odd phrasing and word choice led me to wonder whether they were not a native English speaker or they were using a very awkward script: “He would benefit from some counseling to look into why it is that he gambles, what purpose it serves in his life at this point and how he can find ways to cope. I am glad you reached out on your friend’s behalf. He is very young and has the opportunity to serve a healthy life at this point without risking putting himself in an early financial straining situation that could take him years to recover from. The earlier he gets help, the better.”
Counseling can be a valuable resource, but it only goes so far. Even “early help” can’t protect you from seeing BetMGM ads on LinkNYC screens or keep you from hearing FanDuel ads that play over the radio in John Jay Dining Hall. The danger of online sportsbooks and constant betting ads is that they cannot be avoided.
With traditional gambling, if you recognize you have a gambling problem, you can contact casinos and request that they ban you from the premises, which they will do. The face-to-face involvement with other parties and the physical limits of these gambling spaces offer protections that simply aren’t possible with online betting. (While the New York Constitution explicitly limits sports betting to approved brick-and-mortar casinos, legislators allowed mobile betting to subvert this by housing their servers on these properties.) Before Ritchie’s death, his father took him to local betting shops and had his son sign a form excluding him from betting at those locations. Ritchie then began gambling online. You can’t opt out of ads on the subway.
You can’t even avoid gambling ads when trying to get help for your gambling problem. Some posters, including those from BetMGM, include the curiously trade-restricted phrase “know when to stop before you start.” As I attempted to find the owner of the trademark, I found the slogan listed on several sportsbook and casino websites that simultaneously served me popups or overlays that advertised slots and sports betting. Go figure.
This new landscape of sports betting—where anyone can place bets anytime, anywhere, with no background knowledge—is uniquely dangerous. By making gambling intensely private and extremely convenient, potential problem gamblers have few protections. On top of that, available “support” is insufficient, practically an afterthought. If sports betting is to become a part of our lives, there needs to be more support for problem gamblers, and our understanding of addiction must expand to recognize how pervasive it can be. Normalizing risky behavior is dangerous for current and potential gambling addicts.
The Columbia Gambling Disorder Clinic’s description of pathological gambling emphasizes that gambling problems aren’t confined to casinos, or even what we traditionally consider gambling: “A gambling disorder […] is not limited to casino gambling. Frequent playing of lotteries, sports betting including fantasy sports, […] whether online, on phone apps, or in person, may signal a gambling problem. Daily personal involvement in stock markets including cryptocurrencies, and difficulty in being able to reduce or stop trading activity, can also signal problem gambling behavior.”
It’s telling that this model of addiction and recovery emphasizes the abuse potential of technology, whether in your hand or on the blockchain. While cryptocurrencies can function speculatively not unlike the stock market, the world of decentralized finance, or DeFi, comes with few of the legal protections that regulate the Dow Jones’ offerings. This is perhaps the blockchain’s biggest draw: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Sports betting and cryptocurrency have experienced a parallel rise over the last few years. Both have enjoyed an explosion in accessibility and visibility—and with them, profitability. The pandemic shuttered major forms of in-person entertainment like concerts, theaters, sports, and brick-and-mortar shopping. If you were fortunate enough to have a chunk of disposable income during the initial period of lockdowns, you had limited options for physical places to spend it. Crypto and online gambling became an appealing place to gamble, invest, spend, and earn.
The sphere of decentralized finance and this new world of sports betting want to hammer home the same message: It’s fun, and anyone can do it. As one ad I saw atop a skyscraper during a walk in Central Park put it, “What’s the best that could happen?” Trading NFTs is so much cooler than suit-and-tie investing, and just look at the young men in FanDuel ads hanging out with their friends in a brightly lit sports bar!
Their demographic overlap, then, should come as no surprise. Both skew male, both skew young, and both want to attract tech-friendly dudes with disposable income. The culture of new sports betting in many ways resembles that of the cryptosphere in its flippant courting of risk and glib dismissal of loss. In Sarah Resnick’s recent article exploring the social intricacies of the DeFi scene, one of the crypto clans she encountered were “degens (degenerates, or speculation addicts),” a self-deprecating community appellation I encountered on Reddit’s r/sportsbook forum. This demographic and subcultural overlap matters because it represents a specific targeting of potential risk-addicts, as well as the normalization of dangerous behaviors rebranded as guilty-pleasure hobbies.
It’s possible that increased adoption will spur legislation on crypto marketing, possibly leading to something in line with New York State’s rules on sportsbook ads. It’s possible, too, that the public will become so educated about cryptocurrency that the “95% of crypto day traders lose money” factoid ceases to be bandied about. But as things stand right now, with cryptocurrencies fast growing in visibility and attracting techies and the tech-illiterate alike, is someone drawn in by one of these ads coming into DeFi with enough knowledge to navigate these waters? “The answer is probably no,” according to a Columbia CS major about to start work at a DeFi startup.
Just like the lack of regulation, the lack of information about the risks traders and gamblers face is purposeful. For sportsbooks and many crypto services, your loss is their gain. Your age, income, and mental health are irrelevant in the face of profit. Only pressure from government and consumer protection groups can induce these industries to take their customers’ safety seriously. Uninformed consumers are better customers: They complain less and they risk more. When you see the next DraftKings ad on public transport or glimpse a promotional display for a new crypto service, know how much predation and pain lies below the brewskis and QR codes.
Crypto services, too, have begun advertising themselves to the sports crowd. Sports figures who have endorsed crypto projects include Floyd Mayweather, John Terry, Stephen Curry, and Tom Brady. Eli and Peyton Manning have appeared in Caesars Sportsbook ads and have “launched” an NFT collection. A 2021 poll by Morning Consult found that sports betters are more than twice as likely to be familiar with cryptocurrency than the general population.
If you are, perchance, someone who watches sports, you may have seen the Coinbase advertisement that played during the 2022 Super Bowl. Costing nearly $14 million, it was 60 seconds of an unaccompanied QR code bouncing around the screen. That ad is now iconic: It drew such an audience that it reportedly caused the Coinbase app to crash. What it was not was regulated. The laws surrounding crypto advertising are far looser than those for sportsbooks; New York regulations mandating the inclusion of a HOPEline don’t apply. Who can say how many sports-watching, DeFi-curious viewers scanned that QR code? Nowhere on that screen was there a hotline number, a message about responsible usage, or even a “gambling problem?”
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
The Summer I Turned Invisible
The representation problem on the YA screen.
By Iris Chen
Illustration by Mac Jackson
There is a red Jeep Wrangler in The Summer I Turned Pretty and there are beautiful teenagers who drive it. The fact that some of these teenagers are Asian does little to resuscitate the pool games, bonfires, and other YA summer story tropes that have already been beaten dead. In the Amazon Prime series—adapted from the equally successful book series by Jenny Han—Belly, a half-Korean high schooler on vacation in the white, wealthy beach town of Cousins, glows up, falls in love with two brothers, and caps off her summer of firsts with a debutante ball. In addition to a narrative that refuses to excite, the show’s progressive facade unsuccessfully conceals its failure to respond to minorities’ interests and thoughtfully challenge America’s conservative origins. Once again, Diversity affirms its timeworn marketability. In its wake, one finds the white world’s strategic dependence on Representation for moral legitimacy.
The Summer I Turned Pretty rarely strays from the font and formula of the YA summer romance; no evident harm is found in this predictability. One might even argue, as David Foster Wallace did, that there is an undeniable brand of guilty pleasure found in watching manufactured, feel-good TV. It is orderly, foreseeable, and comforting.
However, people do not see Han’s work as mere YA fiction; race is the raison d’etre of her work. “An Asian-American Teen Idol Onscreen, Finally,” she declares in the title of her New York Times op-ed about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. “I wanted Asian girls to see my face … I wanted them to see what is possible.” At other times, she denies a focus on diversity, insisting: “I don’t go into writing a story thinking, ‘This is going to be for representation.’ It’s ultimately, how do I make this a really great story?” But her failure to become a really great storyteller means that the only component of the show that excites or disorients is its racial representation.
Neglect on the level of representation takes a psychological toll. As James Baldwin once said, “It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” This place only shrinks when one considers what Hanna Pitkin argues in The Concept of Representation: Representation determines who we do or do not perceive to be part of the political process. It makes the represented “present again.”
The refusal of The Summer I Turned Pretty to engage with race in any meaningful way is disappointing. In its most pointed scene of racial tension Belly’s brother Steven works the poker room of a country club while its members espouse the most routine of racial hacks: “One of the partners at my firm, Chinese guy, all his kids got into the Ivies. I think those people were born with textbooks.”
After, Steven sulks in the kitchen where his older coworker consoles him. “Oh, man, fuck those guys,” he says. “Don’t waste your time trying to earn their respect. You never will. Take their money.” So Steven takes the money. Then he loses it after playing poker with white Exeter boys.
The scene’s perfunctory Ivy League namedrop and lazy moral resolution make it more or less a throwaway sequence, but it raises an important question: Is entertainment responsible for contending with racial questions? If it is, do the Jenny Hans of the world get to make their obvious point that race is not the most interesting thing about themselves and move on, or do the white club members with all their money get the final say? If media is a suggestion of how reality should be, what happens to the busboy who sublimates and represses his own ethnic identity in order to pocket the white man’s blood money? Who does he become? Because in either of the two racial attitudes that the show models as possibilities—the employee’s separationist brand of “fuck him” or the debutante ball’s assimilationist brand of respectability politics—the power and will of the white world remains untouched.
By placing Asian faces in white spaces, Jenny Han diversifies her show; by keeping the world they enter intact, she fails to surpass a superficial understanding of diversity. The show suggests that minorities can partake in the privileged American life only if their presence does not disrupt the power that such privilege entails. Belly and her family only have this kind of summer, called “everything good” and “everything magical,” because they are in the good graces of a white, wealthy family. The diversity is skin-deep. It is one that has been wiped of the experiences that people of color endure and the perspectives that are then produced. It is, ultimately, a diversity that continues to defer to the white standard of civility, beauty, intelligence, and taste; of what is right and wrong, moral and immoral; of all that constitutes humanity, no less.
The possibility of handling race with nuance ends with the fact that you can be Asian, take your ponytail out, remove your glasses, put on some makeup, and meet the adoration of not one, but two white boys. Diversity does not matter, the show argues, because the white paradise has room for everyone. It functionally suggests that racial diversity doesn’t offer anything interesting nor complex to add to the white utopia. Utopias do not need to be amended; they cannot be changed. In turn, the quality of racial representation suffers. When Asian characters lack substance, Asian commodities are ushered to the forefront without context. In The Summer I Turned Pretty there is the birthday miyeok-guk; in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the girls dress up in hanboks.
A truer embrace of diversity needs to reckon with the fact that we absorb culture; it lives within our bodies. But instead of creating the space to draw out these cultural singularities and contend with white saviorism, progressives create language rules. They implement strategies to salve—but not solve—basic economic and social issues. Yet anyone who has been in Steven’s position before will agree that money is not enough to Band-Aid the somatic trauma of a non-white experience in a very white world.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is an apogee of Jenny Han’s role as author of the tale and guardian of the fans. Her characters, Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah, have lived through three books and eleven years. They inhabit their vertices on a love triangle made classic by a generation of Jenny Han novels that came before.
There is, however, one character who is new: Shayla, the it girl whose reputation precedes her and her striped, leg-of-mutton dresses.
She is played by Minnie Mills, CC ’24, a neuroscience major and a model to boot. The Summer I Turned Pretty was her first Hollywood gig, an opportunity she only got after placing her acting ambitions on a long hiatus.
“In this industry,” Mills explained, “it’s very hard to find a space … people don’t test Asian actors unless it’s essential to the story. They do it for tokenized diversity, and Asian actors don’t fall into that … Asian actors are most often cast when the story is specifically Asian, and written where it cannot be any other way.” So Mills, who is half-Korean, swallowed her Hepburn dreams for the rest of high school.
When the entire industry went online during Covid, her first callback came, then her first role: not Belly but blank-slate Shayla whom the producers created, in large part, based on the Minnie Mills whom they saw.
Mills came to the U.S. from London when she was 13 for school. “I was just beginning to find myself and grow up and mature,” she said. But to find oneself at a place like Phillips Academy Andover means assimilation. While she speaks with her original British accent in the show, she tells me that “if you talk to any of my high school friends [at Andover], they’re used to hearing me speak in an American accent because I wanted to make other people more comfortable.” But while changing her accent was simple, she could not change the fact that she is Asian.
And amid white students—especially those who are legacy or varsity athletes—“it’s hard to feel like you’re equal and you’re as worthy,” Mills noted. “For a lot of my friends, a lot of people who are on financial aid or students of color, it’s presented as if you are given this opportunity, and it can be taken away as easily. There’s no room for error.” A similar reality exists at Columbia: the implicit perception that some students are more suited to the opportunity, and others have to prove themselves.
Students are usually told to “be yourself”; that acceptance will follow. However, being oneself feels like inappropriate advice when, like Mills, so many of us have morphed and molted to rise within respectable, white institutions. Who we are becomes a function of whom our environments have told us to become.
Being oneself is a particularly difficult prescription to apply in the entertainment industry when, as Mills noted, “there is still this pan-Asian kind of representation where we are just so eager to see Asian faces in any shape or form that we are treating Asian identities as exchangeable.” Growing up, she recalls her childhood desperation to “consume any media with somebody who looked like me.” She and her sister would sit together on weekends and watch Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior again and again.
When Asian faces feature in only 5% of all that is shown on the screen, “anything is better than nothing” reigns. But one has to question if it really is when what follows are dragon ladies, tiger moms, Koreans played by Chinese or Vietnamese actresses. In more dangerous cases, Black men are slotted into aggressively familiar tropes of the sexual aggressor, impoverished gangster, victim of violence, associations which correlate to the shortened lifespans of Black men in America. Identification, in these cases, means self-mutilation, self-alienation. It is quite literally fatal.
Not every person of color may hunger for representation in the same way; in fact, the myopic grasp toward media representation within the Asian American community is often a syndrome of the upper middle class. But their concerns have drifted into the mainstream because they emerge from an undeniable fact that representation is somatic. There’s a feeling of humiliation when people like yourself are laughed at on screen; shame and emptiness when we are not there at all. And there is the sentiment that Mills and so many others share: When those authentic, real, versions of ourselves are on the screen, identification is more than just an interlude of joy or belonging. Rather, there is a susurrating sense of validation born of the fact that these versions of your own memories, histories, and experiences now matter to the people around you. They matter enough to be showcased on a big screen. To have hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on its production. For people to take time out of their day to watch.
Unconsciously or not, film teaches us what is or isn’t desirable. “It was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve,” writes Susan Sontag. “Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive.”
“At the end of the day, this is a very escapist, fun kind of show,” Mills noted. “We [the cast] had a lot of conversations about that, especially … about that piece of the story. We’re not sure if we’re trying to go The Escapist route, or trying to actually address it.” The ambiguity achieved by attempting both—feigning diversity without meaningful pronouncement—means The Summer I Turned Pretty buys into escapism by encouraging all groups to partake in its fantasy, when in most cases it is neither feasible nor desirable.
Teenagers are impressionable; by settling for escapism, summer after summer, don’t we deny our future a complexity that only art can instill? Don’t we tell an emerging generation of color that the world has no space for them—that their hourly country club wages exist only to be taken away by the arbitrary strictures of poker or life? That racism is simply the hand one is dealt? Do we not have an impetus to think bigger?
The Summer I Turned Pretty directs its audience into a shallow furrow of “diverse” existence, perhaps in the image of YA’s fundamental inability to engage with issues in complex and meaningful ways. Yet the film’s peers prove that representation can be authentically and genuinely handled. The Hate U Give, for example, is a coming-of-age story rather than a ploy for diversity.
Ultimately, anyone who has glanced at the playful lines of a Miró or scrutinized the scenes of a Bosch triptych, felt the compassion within a Varda documentary or analyzed the complex narratives of a Paul Thomas Anderson film—anyone who has let Didion’s rhythms seep into the lines of their own writing—feels the immutable joys that great art can bring. There is instinct at play.
The risks in a chance are high but what that chance may bring is invaluable. One’s life becomes polyphonic. The spirits of these artists come back again and again as another person comes across their work for the first time and embellishes it with a new interpretation that only they could give, sourced from the folds of their lived experience. To deny someone this magnitude of life feels cruel. But it is the price of our negligence.
“One thing I just loved about Shay,” Mills said, “is that she doesn’t put up with any shit.”
We could all take a few notes.
Illustration by Madeleine Hermann
Measure for Measure
By Sylvie Epstein
The magnolia is raining
And my bare arms tremble
Why does your nose sting when you’re about to cry?
I wrote once, about you, and the day with the crunchy leaves, and crying into my mother’s lap
I turn over.
The white cotton of my pillow is cool against my cheek
It feels like a deep breath and so I furrow my brows
Why must my chest feel so tight
I sit up and groan and put on Shelby Lynne
And think about how I should write you a book
Down the street, my red leather boots make me stand tall.
She sees me
and invites me inside to sip tea and read
The others come.
Someone has told a joke and so everyone is laughing
Then later, the air is warm and I am in my aqua dress
Dinner was good, and I am full.
Then it is morning again. my chest is tight.
the pillow feels cool and like a deep breath. I sit and I groan. I furrow my brow.
I think about writing you a book.
The magnolia rains
Illustration by Kat Chen
The continuous work of history.
By Kelsey Kitzke
The overturn of Roe is, possibly, our time’s most stark reminder of the resurgence of history. A landmark decision that guided and, perhaps, enabled our understanding of the solidity of historical moments and the forward march of societal progress is no more. What used to be a grim but passing comment about what once was—a pre-Roe America—has become our enduring reality. It is simple to say that history never unfolds in a straight line, but it is harder to say that history is made in the small efforts of the present. As Barnard history professor Premilla Nadasen reminded me, history is an urgent question of the contemporary moment. How do we imagine our past in ways that mobilize our future? How does the focus of our historical thinking prioritize those most marginalized? And what does it mean to engage with feminist efforts of the past both critically and inclusively?
Nadasen faced these questions from an early age. Her political engagement began at 17 after a visit from her father’s friend, a South African who was imprisoned and tortured in Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela for donating $25 to an anti-apartheid organization. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1980s, she became involved in the anti-apartheid movement herself, through organizations led by women of color. As a scholar and historian, she has written about Black women’s often-ignored organizing efforts in domestic workers’ collectives and the welfare rights movement. And at this critical juncture for political organizing on the left, I talked with Nadasen about where we have been and where we have to go.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: How did your early political experiences impact your interest in studying social movements?
Premilla Nadasen: I was an undergrad in the 1980s, and we don’t really think of that as a decade of social movement organizing or activism. With the Reagan-Thatcher era, it’s probably defined more in terms of big hair and bad music and bad politics. But that was the formative decade of my political development. And it actually started when I was 17, and a high school friend of my father’s came to stay with us during my senior year. He was in Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and a lot of other prisoners—he was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience—and he just started talking to me about his time as an activist there. And as a 17-year-old, I was deeply moved by the stories he told me about when he was detained and tortured. I think one of the most vivid things I remember was when he would tell me, “Don’t sit on my right side, sit on my left side because they broke my eardrum when they tortured me and I can’t hear on my right side.”
As a 17-year-old who lived a relatively good life, it was really, really powerful for me to hear that. Out of that, I started an anti-apartheid organization in my high school. But I also think that the question of politics was something I had a gut instinct about from the time I was very young. My family immigrated from South Africa, my mother worked in a factory; we didn’t have a lot of money. There was a lot of gender inequality in our family, where my brother was asked to do certain chores and my sister and I were asked to do other kinds of chores. So I always had a gut instinct about social justice, but I didn’t have words for it and I didn’t have a framework to understand it. As I became politicized, I developed that language and I developed that worldview that helped me understand what I had been feeling for so long.
When I went to college, I was involved in a couple different organizations. One was an anti-apartheid organization and one was an organization that was focused on racism at the University of Michigan. We were a radical multiracial organization led by women of color. And this was in the mid-to-late eighties—so before Kim Crenshaw wrote that famous article on intersectionality, before Patricia Hill Collins wrote her book on Black feminist thought, we were engaged in and practicing intersectional politics and the importance of women of color leadership. And then, on the academic side, I was taking courses that really solidified my thinking and really expanded my thinking. I remember a course that was taught by Aldon Morris, a sociologist, who would help me see how to understand social transformation from the point of view of social movement. We think about history as changing because laws are passed, because we elect presidents who take initiative. But I think Aldon Morris’ course helped me understand how history is transformed from the bottom up.
B&W: When looking at second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s, I think most people now tend to think about it as a movement dominated by white, upper middle-class women and their issues. And certainly it was, but how has your study of the organizing work of Black women at this time changed that idea of what feminism meant?
PN: I’ve always had a fairly expansive notion of what feminism is. So for me, even though I first became politicized around the anti-apartheid movement, feminism was always really integral to what that meant. I first learned about the welfare rights movement in my organizing as an undergraduate. Our organization called the United Coalition Against Racism was addressing the question of racism on campus and the particular experiences of African Americans on campus, but we also started an oral history project in the larger Ann Arbor community. That was a movement that I had not read about or heard about before. The welfare rights movement and the domestic workers movement helped me realize and understand what the practice of intersectional politics looks like on the ground, particularly for poor Black women.
We think of intersectional politics as something that emerged in the 1990s, but I think it was a practice long before that. African American women, Asian American women, Latin American women, Latinx women have been practicing intersectional politics for generations because, for them, the questions of race and gender and class are inseparable. I call [people in the welfare rights movement] “organic intellectuals” because they were articulating a politics of social transformation that sought to critique the welfare system as something that oppressed women. Johnnie Tillmon, for example, wrote a really important essay in Ms. Magazine in 1972 called “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” and that was something that was very novel at the time because nobody in the 1970s thought about welfare as a women’s issue—welfare was a class issue. But what Tillmon was saying in her essay is that welfare is the way in which poor Black women can achieve autonomy, bodily control, liberation—can be able to take control over their own lives.
The feminist movement in the 1960s was so centered on white middle-class women who wanted to liberate themselves from the household, so they wanted to get jobs outside the home, they didn’t want to be tied down as mothers. But for Black women, the history of motherhood and work has been very, very different. Black women under slavery were separated from their children, were denied the right to be mothers, have always worked outside the home at much higher rates than white women. And so that idea of staying home and taking care of their children was not something that they had access to or the privilege to have. And so the welfare rights movement was [for] state assistance to be able to stay home and raise their children. And that was a very different feminist demand than what we normally think of as feminism.
B&W: And it sounds like an entirely different kind of question of bodily autonomy that white feminists at the time were fighting for.
B&W: Does that need to broaden our definition of sexual and bodily autonomy also include a definitional broadening of motherhood?
PN: Yes, absolutely. So, women of color and white women have had very different experiences as mothers. When you read the social work journals and the popular literature [of the 1960s], there were a lot of social pressures on white women to stay home and take care of children, and so the social work journals wrote about how children would be somehow damaged, would feel abandoned if their mothers went out to work, psychological damage to them. At the very same time, there were a lot of social work journals who were writing about why Black women needed to go into the workforce—that if, in fact, they didn’t go into the workforce, their children would experience psychological damage and would not understand the importance of the work ethic. And so we’ve seen a very different language around the construction of Black women as mothers and the construction of white women as mothers. Historically, there has been a lot of pressure on white women to be a certain kind of mother, to be a “good” mother, while at the same time, for Indigenous women, for African American women, for Latinx women, there has been very little support and very little acknowledgment of the importance of their roles as mothers.
B&W: It seems like the opposite, like a denial of the fact that they are mothering at all.
PN: Exactly, exactly. And that has to do with the very long history of their role in the labor force. Because women of color are more often seen as workers than they are as mothers.
B&W: Thinking of contemporary feminism, some people bemoan the fact that it’s become this bloated thing, as I know you talked about in your Washington Post opinion piece, that has every kind of issue under the sun. But at the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing over what is and isn’t a feminist issue. How do you find yourself determining what is considered “feminist?”
PN: In my academic work and my popular writing, I’ve really tried to expand the notion of what feminism means because I think too often the mantle of feminism has been claimed by white middle-class women, people like Sheryl Sandberg who have a particular vision of feminism that’s really centered on the most privileged women. So my intention has been to say hey, wait a second, there are lots of women who are feminists who practice a feminist politics that are not centered around privilege but are really around economic liberation, about bodily autonomy in different ways. I think it’s important to reclaim the notion of feminism. But at the same time, I don’t want to get caught up in semantics. So my goal is not to debate how we want to use the word “feminist.” It’s really about trying to understand what is the politics around feminist liberation. And for me, the politics around feminist liberation is inclusive in the sense that anyone, male or female, poor or rich, or whatever racial background, can collapse around a radical agenda that is centered around liberating the most oppressed sectors of society. I think it’s important to use the term feminism to reclaim the term feminism; I think that has to sit alongside a genderqueer liberation, alongside class liberation, national liberation, and an anti-racist politics.
B&W: At the same time, I think after Roe was overturned it seemed like it was the embodiment of women’s rights in the U.S. How did abortion became the feminist issue—even the women’s issue?
PN: I think at this very moment, the politics of abortion has kind of become ground zero for political organizing for people on the left. And I think we absolutely have to push back against the Dobbs decision and insist that women have reproductive autonomy, because I think the Dobbs decision is the beginning of what could cascade into more restrictions on not just women’s, but on people’s right to sexual autonomy. At the same time, I think that that notion of an agenda around abortion alone has misrepresented the broader struggle around reproductive justice. The welfare rights movement, as I’ve mentioned—their campaign was around the right to raise children and have the resources to have the right to raise their children. So they fought for state assistance; they also fought against coerced sterilization. Puerto Rican women, African American women, Indigenous women have a very long history in this country of coerced sterilization by either state or private entities. So, I think when we talk about reproductive justice, that includes the right to abortion but it also fundamentally includes the right to bodily autonomy, it includes the right to have a child, it includes the right to contraception, it includes the choice to be in an intimate relationship with whoever you want regardless of gender, it includes the right to live your life however you feel most comfortable regardless of the gender that was selected for you at birth. But in addition to that, we have to look at whether or not people have the resources to be able to make those choices. That includes state resources to raise children, it includes the right to free reproductive health care, it includes the right to gender confirmation surgery, and so we have to think about rights not just in terms of legal rights but in terms of economic support so people can make the choices to live their lives in the ways they feel most comfortable.
B&W: Have you seen that activist knowledge has had an impact on knowledge production in academic spaces?
PN: When I was a graduate student in the 1990s, that was an era of postmodernism. There were very few people, either professors or students, who wanted to address the question of why does this work matter? How does this work impact ordinary people? There was even really this pressure against making academic knowledge accessible or partnering with community organizations. So it was a really alienating time for me because all of my work has really centered on how to uplift the voices of ordinary people, how to make work accessible beyond the academy. I think what I have seen over the past 25 years has been a growing acceptance of engaging with people outside academia. So today, there are more and more people who are engaged scholars or scholar-activists who are thinking about how can I engage with communities? How can community organizing enrich how academics produce knowledge? How can we involve students in what’s happening in communities? Barnard got a grant from the Mellon Foundation for a program called Barnard Engages, which is centered on faculty and students partnering with community organizations for the purpose of furthering the work of the community organization.
B&W: And what is the ideal of academic activism in your mind?
PN: I think there is the kind of academic activism that is extractive, where professors or students go into communities to learn and they take that knowledge and they write papers or books and they never give anything back. There’s an unequal relationship between people in academia and people who are in community organizations. The first thing we have to do is acknowledge that. For me, the ideal is one in which the community organization has equal say and is an equal partner in the kind of work that is produced.
Last year, during the pandemic, I taught a Barnard Engages course with a group called the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a group for labor-trafficking survivors in Lower Manhattan, mostly Filipino. So [Damayan members] were co-curators of the course, they looked at the syllabus, they helped me decide what readings to assign to students, they decided what the final project would be based on the work they were doing. They asked us to interview labor trafficking survivors and staff members of Damayan and produce a report about the impact of the pandemic on the Filipino community. And that was a report they then used, they shared with their constituents, they shared with representatives on the city councils and other advocates.
I [also] taught a course called the Mississippi Semester, and this was in partnership with a low-income women’s organization in Biloxi, Mississippi. This is an organization that lobbies on behalf of women on welfare and tries to expand child care assistance for poor women in Mississippi. They needed some assistance to develop an index around women’s economic security. So I organized a course so the students could do the research for the organization, and we did eventually produce a report. We went down there for a week over spring break, traveled all around the state of Mississippi to meet with the various stakeholders. Our goal was to really try to understand the meaning of poverty and economic security for poor women in Mississippi. What I wanted the students to learn was actually how to listen, that we as academics are not always the experts, that we have to talk to people on the ground. We have to disabuse this notion of academic expertise and think about how knowledge can be co-created with community organizations and how that partnership strengthens both academia and community organizations.
B&W: Considering the increasingly devastating urgency of questions about our future, what makes history also an urgent question in our present politics?
PN: History is contested terrain. It’s an extremely important foundation for our understanding of the world. We see that in our debates around monuments, we see it in the debates around people who are trying to construct a vision of the history of this country centered on a white republic. In that, there’s been an erasure of the history of Indigenous people, the history of slavery, African Americans, the history of immigration, the history of imperialism. And unless we look honestly at what our history is, we cannot understand the complexity of this nation, we cannot understand the contributions of different groups of people. I think people like Dorothy Bolden and Johnnie Tillmon are inspirational models for us today. We are living in challenging times, but they also lived in challenging times. They were poor women who were not formally educated who had enormous hurdles to overcome to become the kind of leaders that they did eventually become. And when we unearth stories of people like that, it offers us a way [to see] how social transformation can happen. History is not just about the great leaders, not just about people in power, but about persistence, about organizing, about baby steps towards trying to achieve the kind of society we want to achieve.
B&W: History isn’t just in the moments that they put in textbooks, but is happening every day, continuously.
PN: In my classes, I talk about how the framework of the 1960s has actually circumscribed our understanding of social transformation. Because it was organizing in the 1950s and 1940s that laid the groundwork for what happened in the 1960s. So I think we have to think about resistance and organizing as a continuum rather than these short bursts of transformation. Even in this moment, it seems like there’s been a lot of setbacks, but there are still a lot of people who are organizing on the ground: the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, the Movement for Black Lives, the mutual aid work that’s happening all around the country right now. I think we have to embrace and uplift those examples of organizing and we will eventually see the fruits of that labor.