The National Center for Educational Statistics declared in 2009 that: “51.6 percent of contingent faculty are women.” According to a 2014 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Almost half of all unionized workers (45.8 percent in 2013) are women.” As a cis-gender female adjunct instructor and a proud union member of SEIU Local 73, I represent both of the demographics above. As an activist, I am also hungry to address other numbers, such as women earning 78.3% as much as men in the workplace, more than four million women experiencing physical assault and rape by their partners in their lifetimes, and that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country. Thus, one week after Hillary Clinton was voted the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, I and more than 5,000 other change agents met in Washington D.C. to attend the White House Summit on the United State of Women.
On June fourteenth, those who identify all across the gender spectrum convened at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to address issues of health and wellness, violence against women, economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and innovation, educational opportunity, leadership and civil engagement. Featured presenters included Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, U.S. Representative and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama.
Vice President Biden spoke passionately about the landmark legislation of the Violence Against Women Act. He, and the representatives from End Rape on Campus (EROC), shared that: “Nearly one in five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault…” This resonated with me as I know contingent faculty strive to create safe spaces for our students on campus. However, we usually cannot do this adequately as we often have no office spaces or secure communication channels of our own. We want to be there for our students as resources and havens should they be victimized, but due to commuting to multiple campuses just to make ends meet and grading an overload of essays in the meantime, many of us cannot be as available to our students as we wish when they are most in need. As we see many Universities both fail to support the victimized and persecute offenders on campus, we must be reminded that, now more than ever, we as contingent faculty need a voice at the table to change the toxic culture being perpetrated by a bloated administration who tend to favor profit over justice.
Vice President Biden was followed by the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, U.S. Department of State Deputy Secretary Heather Higgenbottom, Mariska Hargitay, Connie Britton, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Patricia Arquette, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, Lilly Ledbetter, CEO Warren Buffet, Kerry Washington, Billy Jean King, Shonda Rhimes and Amy Poehler, among others. Between presentations, attendees could peruse booths showcasing movements and foundations such as It’s On Us, Girls Who Code, Smart Girls, Rights4Girls, CareForce, the American Association of University Women, the Peace Corps, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Diplomas Now, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Women’s Media Center, Ms., the Feminist Majority Foundation and many, many more.
Those featured made up an embarrassment of riches I am still processing and know will reverberate with me going forward. However, as brilliant and devoted and inspiring as the featured guests were, I was as amazed with those in the audience as I was with those up on the stage. On the plane, I was fortunate to meet an advocate and judge for the Yurok tribe. We spent the flight sharing what we were reading. I also had wonderful discussions with a woman working to end genital mutilation and another fighting to keep the legacy of the Suffragettes killed in the White House riots alive. These riveting conversations happened while I was charging my phone. Every connection I made reminded me of the dynamic partnerships that have been created between campaigns, like that between the Fight for 15 and Faculty Forward. Be it through phone banking for other campuses during the formation of their union or standing with fast food workers as they seek to raise the minimum wage, we are all united. All of the summits, conferences and rallies I have attended continue to remind me how important it is to see that we are all truly stronger together.
What invigorated me most about the USOW summit was the overall tone. Everyone present wanted to be there, on that day, in that moment. Every face I saw was transparently overjoyed to discuss ideas and meet other driven people who were and are active in so many ways. I was startled by how brave that is, and how (sadly) rare. We should work to cultivate that in our own units and actions and movements. We must inject our campaigns with the awareness that we are always doing important work, whether we are talking with our fellow members or listening to the President speak. Though we may tire, we should remember that fighting for change leaves us weary for all the right reasons, as opposed to continuing to struggle within a draining status quo. That there is more that unifies us than divides us, be that across movements or genders. We don’t need to wait for an invite from the White House to create a remarkable experience. All it takes is turning to the person next to you and asking them what they want, what they need, what they are willing to fight for that can turn any table into a dais, any stranger into an ally, and any chance meeting into a powerful summit all its own.
Alyson Paige Warren teaches writing and literature at Columbia College Chicago, Loyola University, and in the High Jump program.