Author Archives: Lakshmi Sarah

Becoming a Community Photographer: A Window Into the “Real India”

This article originally appeared in Global Voices

 

“Until I came to Ranchi in 2012 for the first workshop, I had never held a camera in my life. My hand shook, and I really wasn’t sure I could do it.”

Deena Ganwer, from Chhattisgarh (quoted online at the workshop’s blog), was one of the participants in a recent series of photography workshops organised by Video Volunteers in partnership with Magnum Foundation.

Video Volunteers – based in Goa, India – aims to train and empower grassroots media producers to express their own stories about their local communities. Video Volunteers helps people to advocate for concerns which might otherwise never make it into the media. Magnum Foundation focuses on production and distribution of in-depth documentary projects; it is the charity arm of the acclaimed photography cooperative Magnum Photos founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson in 1947.

 

Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.

Usha Patel photographs milk cooperatives run by women in Uttar Pradesh.

 

The “Storytelling Through Photography” workshops were comprised of a selected group of 20 community correspondents, all of whom had participated in earlier training with Video Volunteers, and who have been consistently producing videos about their communities. This network of community reporters is a Video Volunteers program called IndiaUnheard, training community correspondents to explore unreported stories – and in turn feeding this community-produced content to national and international outlets, whether mainstream television channels or social networking sites.

From the Video Volunteers website:

These Community Correspondents represent India’s most marginalized perspectives, including Dalits and tribal people, as well as religious, lingual and sexual minorities… Through IndiaUnheard, Video Volunteers offers the global audience a clear window into the real India. Every day, video reports on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education are gathered from across the country.

 

Sunita Kasera photographs a family in Gadiyanwal who lives out of a cart.

Sunita Kasera photographs a family of the Gadiyanwal tribe who lives out of a cart.

 

Building on the IndiaUnheard project participants, the workshops were taught by trainers from Magnum, photographers Olivia Arthur and Sohrab Hura.

Attendees were primarily female, said Kayonaaz Kalyanwala, Program Coordinator for Video Volunteers:

We wanted mostly women candidates and selected those who we felt would have the most potential to take up photography and also those for whom this would be an incentive to make more videos… Our CCs [Community Correspondents] are strong at activism but sometimes less skilled at visuals, and we knew photography was a great way for them to develop a better eye.

From these workshops, each participant created a mini-series, documenting their community. The photo stories feature a range of topics, including alcohol abuse, local superstition, disability, and environmental concerns.

 

Babita Maurya photographs local schools.

Babita Maurya photographs local schools.

 

The community correspondents attending the class worked with subjects in their communities, documenting local stories and lives. For some reporters, their subjects were merely acquaintances, while others knew their subjects well – allowing for a close insight into their daily lives. One photographer, Saroj Paraste, chose a disabled girl as her subject, getting to know her by staying with her family for a week, earning trust before even taking out her camera. Saroj was quoted on the Video Volunteers websiteas saying, “Since the girl was at first not keen to be photographed, I spent a lot of time making her feel comfortable. In the end she grew very fond of me and was happy to be a part of the project.”

 

Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.

Xavier Hamsay photographs a blind girl in his community.

 

Kayonaaz noted that the workshops are a way to introduce the correspondents to another medium through which they can tell their stories. Equipped with simple cameras, they are required to send a set of photographs back to Video Volunteers every few months. As she said in an email interview,

We want to make sure that once trained, they continue to use photography as a tool. At the same time VV is trying to get their work out there through exhibitions and other media platforms.

You can see more photographs are available on the projects’ blog, and Video Volunteers will present on the work of the Community Correspondents during theDelhi Photo Festival in October of 2013.

 

Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors' daily lives.

Nirmala Ekka photographs waste collectors’ daily lives.

 

All photographs are used with permission from the Magnum Foundation.

Emerging powers and the Indian elephant

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera opinion

India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 in the international ranking on the gender gap [AFP]
As Superman once said, and it has since been quoted by President Obama, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Looking at the emerging power of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – what are the responsibilities?

In the wake of the Delhi gang rape and news of the Swiss woman’s rape, I propose the BRICs – with India as a leader – take steps to act responsibly when it comes to women’s rights and violence against women.

The BRICs have gained attention since 2001, when the term was initially coined. From 2000 to 2008, the BRICs’ share of GDP rose from 16 to 22 percent. The Times (London) has quoted a financial adviser predicting that by 2050, the BRICs nations will “dominate the globe”. Each BRIC country has its own view of power and responsibility. Each BRIC country also has its own record when it comes to human rights and women’s issues.

International Ranking on the gender gap ranks Brazil 62nd out of 135. Russia comes in at 59 and India is in the red colour zone with a ranking of 105 and China still makes it into the orange zone at number 69.

Gender violence is a global human rights concern and should be considered an even greater concern for the BRIC countries to continue to be competitively responsible economic leaders. According to Nicholas D Kristof:

“Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence then because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined.”

In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that domestic and sexual violence impacts 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries. A new film, Girl Rising, highlights some of the issues that young women face, arguing that the key is to invest in girls and women.

As co-author of the Gender Gap study, Laura D Tyson, SK, and Angela Chan, Professor of Global Management, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, say:

“Gender gaps can be closed with the right policies. As countries experiment with policy choices in this area, they should share the lessons from their experience to accelerate progress.”

Of the 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of 2012 in New Delhi, there was only one conviction. There is something seriously wrong with this. A wide range of policies and actions should be put in place to ensure that rape and violence against women do not continue to be accepted in society.

 Swiss tourist ‘gang-raped’ in India

Are the BRIC countries responsible stakeholders? Looking at the case of India, we see it is both an awkward elephant in its own desire for a stable region and a responsible partner in creating world order.

In contrast to Pakistan, India sides with the West and has cooperated in the “war on terror”, especially after 2008 Mumbai attacks.

India is set to be the fourth largest economy in 2025. The high-tech industry is booming along with its growing population. It is already a nuclear power, in addition to being a force for soft power through its Bollywood movies and music.

While it would like a place on the UN Security Council, India still struggles with human rights abuses, as evidenced by reports from the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. India has not signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, but of course, it has not been ratified by the US either.

In addition, India serves as home to the Tibetan government in exile – which along with domestic disputes, regarding Naxalites and Maoists in the Northeastern provinces, threaten its ability to work in conjunction with China.

Still, India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor does it receive a plethora of preferential treatment through any global institutions. Despite Bollywood, the tech industry and a diaspora that covers much of the globe, for India to be a power player, it must be given greater responsibility and it must take action to eradicate violence against women.

Here there is a challenge. If India has to take on a greater role, it needs to be given greater responsibilities. But, if the global community has to give it greater power, India has to demonstrate that it can use the power responsibly.

Given India’s history, these greater roles and responsibilities will not be able to come from the West or the rest of the world. It must come from an Indian desire, in an Indian way and perhaps at an Indian time to speak up and speak out.

If the BRICs want to continue collaborating in a way that makes a difference beyond economic policy, they should start with acting to stop global violence against women.

The Best Conference You’ve Never Heard of: Empowering Women of Color Conference

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

I don’t exactly remember  how I discovered the Empowering Women of Color Conference (EWOCC) in Berkeley, California but I first attended the event last year. Far from the stuffy conference rooms of a fancy-dancy hotel, EWOCC is a grassroots conference geared toward women of color, and open to all. This is a place that offers childcare, access for all people regarless of ability and offers low-to no cost registration. Last year’s conference was complete with spoken-word performances, a workshop on agriculture food justice, actually interesting panels, and a creative writing exercises.

This year, the 28th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference was titled, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Bodies and Souls Building Life,” and seeks to honor a multiplicity of women’s experiences around labor: “As women of color, our journeys are marked by stretches of struggle and moments of victory. We seek to honor labor across generations: our mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers whose souls and bodies gave us life.“

EWOCC’s intention is to “build with ancestral ways of working that are attentive to the politics of liberation, decolonization, and healing.“

This year’s conference just happened last week. I asked the organizers to answer a few questions on the history and evolution of their event.

How did the Empowering Women of Color Conference start? 

EWOCC was founded in 1984 by a group of undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. The initial project, was entitled “Women of Color in the United States,” and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Students decided to organize another event. In 1986, with the formation of the GA’s Graduate Women’s Project (GWP), it was decided to institutionalize this event and make the conference an annual project under the auspices of the GWP. EWOCC was one of the first conferences to present women of color with an opportunity to address the racial, class, and gender issues facing American Indian, African American, Asian American, and Chicana/Latina women.

How is it organized?

EWOCC is completely volunteer-run. Every year, the planning committee selects new members, based on their background, interest in planning, and their passion for continuing our conference. Our keynote speakers are chosen by the entire committee over several months of discussion regarding specific issues we want to address in our conference and who would be the best representative of these issues. In the past, notable women of color have given keynotes including Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Dolores Huerta, among many other extraordinary women.

How do you manage to stay true to feminist principles?

We stay true to feminist principles as the foundation of our existence. Specifically, the principles of community, education, holistic healing and overall empowerment are principles at the core of our conference, and why the planning committee remains dedicated to ensuring that this conference continues. This conference fills a gap in many traditional feminist spaces and discussions in that we address issues specifically facing women of color in the United States. We provide a safe space to facilitate dialogue and to share experiences in an empowering way unlike any other conference of its kind.

EWOCC is not the typical scholarly conference in that we expand the invitation participate to community members as both conference planners and presenters, rather than restrict our conference to the academy. We also strive to incorporate the arts, spiritual practices, and other means of knowing, more so than a typical academic conference provides.

How Can Harvard Help End Rape in India?

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

Today, six men accused of gang rape in India head to court. If that sounds eerily familiar, it’s because just two months ago, six other men also went to trial for gang rape in India in a high-profile case involving a woman fatally assaulted on the bus in New Dehli.

After these terrible crimes come to light, we all want to see major change. In reaction to the New Delhi rape, Harvard University decided to sponsor a policy task force “to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries.” But the group received a critique from Delhi blogger Nivedita Menon, who wrote in a post called “Harvard to the Rescue!” that Harvard would be better able to discuss rapein South Asia not from the ivory tower, but by consulting with feminists on the ground in India. “It’s been a long hard haul, so it’s a great relief that the Harvard Law School has stepped in to take this burden off our shoulders,” writes Menon sarcastically.

Harvard’s plan is to produce a working paper to advise on the implementation of the recommendations from India’s Verma Committee, a report pulled together by three members of India’s judicial system that spells out crucial ways to make rape cases come to trial more quickly in India and to create harsher punshiments for people convicted of sexual assault. Feminists in the Global South may have overreacted to the plan for a working paper—it’s possible that Harvard has every intention of consult women across India on what should be done. However, the general sentiment seems to be indignation that Harvard would be able to “save” the poor women of India. This is illustrated in a letter in The People’s Record that charges Harvard with ignoring “the long history of Indian activists themselves fighting to end rape and sexual violence.”

There is clearly a need for collaboration internationally on rape issues, in addition to study.

In Harsha Walia’s piece on the Feminist Wire, she says, “While navigating my own relationship to Delhi and home, it has been infuriating to read Orientalist renditions of South Asian women needing saving from barbaric South Asian men.” Walla sees the myth of Western superiority as a part of a facade of gender equality “‘at home’ that invisibilizes, for example, the gruesome gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio, and US representative Todd Akin’s comments about ‘legitimate rape,’ and the ritualized colonial violence against Indigenous women murdered at alarming rates, and Black women in prisons and migrant women in detention centers, and women of color, poor women, transfolks, and sex workers.”

Let’s continue to create task forces, and study these issues. But let us also work on our transnational feminist collaboration and coalition building, so as not to continually repeat history and create different groups trying to achieve the same thing. I look forward to seeing greater coalition building between Harvard feminists and those on the ground in India.

 

 

Queering the Academy: Four Signs Queer Studies is Still Fighting for a Place in Academia

Judith Butler saying "Gender Yer Doing It"

When do you know your academic field of study gains mainstream support? One sign: When you do notneed to have a hunger strike in order to keep the field of study at your university.

Queer Studies, specifically, is clearly still fighting for a solid place in academia. Here are four of the signs.

1. There are only four collges with Queer Studies majors. According to College Equality, there are only four colleges with LGBT Majors and nearly thirty with Minors. According to a new Gallup survey, the country’s highest concentration of people who identify LGBT live in Washington DC—none of the colleges in the DC area have Queer Studies majors, minors, or concentrations.

2. There are Queer Studies conferences. Though there do not seem to be many, they do exist. The UNC Asheville Queer Studies Conference would indicate that Queer studies is a thriving discipline. That conference has run biennially for the past fifteen years and hosts workshops, papers, and panels by about 50 faculty and students. The website says that it attracts an “international audience of activists, academics, and artists who showcase a range of creative and scholarly pursuits related to the investigation of genders and sexualities,” with participants from Tokyo, Canada, the Philippines, Israel, Australia, England, Europe and across the US. A discipline has to start somewhere.

3. Some professors are still punished for being pro-gay. What about being able to be proud of who you are as an academic and as a person who identifies as LGBTQ? In some cases, we see that free speech is only allowed for some. Last year at Gallaudet University, an administrator was placed on leave for signing a petition to put Maryland’s gay-marriage law on the ballot.

4. Textbooks aimed at Queer Studies do exist. Though, there is still the question of quality and quantity, the fact that textbooks are being written is surely a good sign, though there still seems to be a long way to go in terms of a consistant flow of new books and articles in the field.

In 2010, Gawker published the “Top 10 Colleges for Gay Students,” but what about the top colleges to be a queer professor? Where does this list begin? The next post in this series will look at some indicators  for this list.

Do We Still Need Women’s Colleges? Yes and No.

Women’s colleges were born out of institutionalized sexism. So, do we still need them?

In mid-December the Huffington Post published a guest editorial by Elizabeth Pfeiffer titled, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer.” In her post, Pfeiffer defends the all-female Scripps College. She argues that a school should be defined by “the richness of the community…and the possibilities this kind of environment offers.”

I agree: Schools should be defined by the richness of their community. But that goes beyond a gender binary. How about those whose identity does not fit within this heteronormative binary of man or woman?

Pfeiffer asks,  “Why is Scripps, or any women’s college, still relevant?” Pfeiffer believes one reason is because of the leadership roles she was able to take on, as well as the idea that women’s colleges instill a sense of leadership. She cites the fact that women’s college graduates make up “more than 20 percent of women in Congress and 30 percent of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America.”

The woman’s college is in some cases a moot point, in many institutions across the country, women attend colleges in numbers at par with men. But if some women need this environment to find their power, I am all for it.

Pfeiffer’s article received a response from Shannon Miller, a current student  Claremont McKenna College (CMC). Claremont was a male-only college until 1976 and is part of the five-college Claremont consortium with Scripps. The response, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Don’t Encourage It” asks, “What makes Scripps—or any other women’s college—any better than CMC, based solely on the gender composition?”

Miller argues that Claremont better equipped her to tackle the gender gap than most women’s colleges, particularly because of the co-ed environment. She also says that in her own search she wanted a “challenge” in her college experience, she “wanted to enter a school that would push me to be stronger and bolder, not indulge my weaknesses by protecting me from ‘injustice’ in an inaccurately idyllic setting.”

It’s worth noting that by almost any standard, both Claremont and Scripps are both idyllic settings. I attended Claremont consortium school Pitzer College and can say that there is an enormous percentage of the global population who do not have access and could not afford to be on any of private liberal arts college campus.

But the debate over women-only colleges is about more than the sex break-down of institutions. What we need are not colleges and institutions that define themselves by one means of oppression (sex), but colleges and universities that have a greater understanding of how some dynamics of academia can create institutionalized oppression.

Instead of focusing on whether or not we need women’s colleges, let’s expand the debate to ask what kind of institutions we need, and how we can make visionary institutions a reality. In my humble opinion, we need innovative environments that go beyond sex, race, class and citizenship. For a step in the right direction, check out the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning CIEL. We need a culture shift in academia that’s both local and global.

Hollywood vs. Bollywood: An Interview With Filmmaker James Kicklighter

Growing up in California, I was raised with a substantial Hollywood influence, but the Hollywood that was part of my development comprised of musicals such as Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Disney films filled with song and dance. With Oscar season here, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether Bollywood is gaining power compared to Hollywood.

Looking at income generation, Bollywood sold a total of 3.6 billion tickets and earned revenues of $1.3 billion, whereas Hollywood films sold 2.6 billion tickets, but generated revenues of $51 billion. The industries vary greatly in what it costs to make a film, though the average Bollywood film is budgeted at $1.3 million, Hollywood has an average $13.6 million.

To gain a better understanding of Bollywood and Hollywood from someone on the ground and in the industry, I spoke with director of Desires of the HeartJames Kicklighter.

Does he think Bollywood is becoming more powerful than Hollywood? Kicklighter said that, “In the entertainment business, power pertains to money,” so until Bollywood begins exporting more films that are successful in markets outside of Asia, “it will not have the seat of power.”

Kicklighter notes that as Hollywood explores partnerships with financing and distribution deals, “it is clear that the market is important to Hollywood.” Kicklighter sees the main barrier to Bollywood’s power is not film output, but the accessibility to Western markets: “Bollywood has a style that is uniquely its own. As the international market becomes more important than the domestic market, I am curious to see how this relationship evolves over the next few decades.”

While we may be able to see singing and dancing in Hollywood films, Hollywood still influences Bollywood. As Kicklighter said, “In emerging markets, I believe that the Western lens is the most important.”

Is Slumdog Millionaire a Bollywood film? As the New York Times wrote, “despite the director’s strenuous denials, it could well be a Bollywood film.” The film uses the homegrown version ofWho Wants to Be a Millionaire, an American game show adapted for an Indian audience.

Kicklighter discussed his experience traveling in Turkey last year, while preparations were being made for an American version of ABC’s Revenge. American companies are going beyond selling U.S. TV shows abroad, “Now, they are selling shows with pre-existing scripts to networks in local countries, casting their own local favorite actors. To my knowledge, other countries are not doing anything like that.”

Kicklighter’s most recent film, Desires of the Heart explores facets of two cultures. It is the story of Dr. Kris Sharma (portrayed by Val Lauren), a psychiatrist from India practicing in Savannah, Ga., where he meets Madeline (Alicia Minshew), a local artist with a mysterious past. But as their relationship begins to blossom in America, Kris is summoned home by his brother, Pradeep (Gulshan Groverto marry the woman chosen by his parents.

Kicklighter believes that as the world continues to grow closer, it is the homogenization of culture that is the most negative aspect of globalization.

During the course of shooting part of the film in India, Kicklighter and his team were in Rajasthan, in the province closest to Pakistan. As he recalls, “I remember seeing a large poster of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film Looper at the movie theater right in front of the market. There were cows sitting in the road while dust flew up from the stores. The building had its own local flavor, designed like the other area buildings.”

He saw this in stark contrast to the megaplex in New Delhi, which was just like any other in the U.S., next to “Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Hard Rock Cafe, Gucci, among every other global brand you can imagine.”

What may be more pervasive are the retail malls which echo a global influence of American power, and thus, as Kicklighter sees it, “the power of Hollywood.” The question may not be one of Bollywood mimicking Hollywood, but a global cinema usurping the local.

“I fear that the days of the small, local theater in Rajasthan, even though they carry American movies, are soon to be in the past.”

Six Tips From Women Working Male-Dominated Engineering Fields

One of my greatest high school regrets is that I never took an auto shop class. I would have had a chance to learn some practical skills like changing oil and changing a tire. At the time, I doubt it fit into my schedule, but entering a class of mostly boys scared me as well. It’s not that I was afraid of boys—I considered myself a feminist despite not fully understanding what that meant—but it would still have been intimidating to walk into a classroom full of dudes.

When does this happen, this point where men are encouraged in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math and women are left out? My mother teaches kindergarten; in her class, all the kids seem equally excited by counting and banana slugs. But somehow, by the time women reach the higher echelons of education, there is sorting out, if you will, in which mostly men go in one direction and women in another.
Bitch has covered the reasons behind the lack of women in science and technology fields before, but I wanted to get a personal perspective on what it’s like to work in a predominantly male discipline. I called up two women with advanced degrees in engineering fields and put together a list of five big things they’ve learned about working in these male-dominated fields.
The women I spoke with were Maura Raburn, a Silicon Valley tech worker who has a Ph.D in Electrical and Computer Engineering from U.C. Santa Barbara and Rebecca Batchelder, an LA water engineer who did a Masters in Environmental Engineering at Tufts University.

Raburn said she liked being a gender minority most of the time in school because she did well in most of her classes and had a more generous scholarship than most of her male peers. “I felt I was representing well for my gender, both during my Ph.D. and post-doc,” she says.  Batchelder’s choice of career combines her passions: She decided on Civil Engineering initially because she liked “building things and was good at math,” and chose the environmental track after her involvement with environmental activism. In graduate school, the majority of Batchelder’s classmates happened to be women but all of the professors were male. “It was difficult. In part because grad school is difficult, but also having male professors was challenging,” she says. Batchelder recalls a classmate complaining that when she told her advisor she needed to finish her PhD in four years so that she could begin having children, he replied that he had children while he was getting his PhD—and failed to recognize that he had a stay at home wife.

Batchelder now works at a company with a majority of women, and two male bosses. “I usually find myself as the only female engineer at meetings, even though on a daily basis I interact with women regularly,” she says.

So what have they learned? Here are six nuggets of wisdom:

1. Make friends with your colleagues, both male and female.  Your network is your biggest asset.  Seriously.  This might not seem the case now, but it really matters who your friends are in your field.

2. Learn to take criticism well—consider the validity of the feedback without getting too wrapped up in emotion.

3. Go looking for general career advice. A good source for those starting their careers is the Manager Tools/Career Tools series. Some managers are afraid to give women the feedback they need, for fear of hurting feelings. Read and listen for your own mistakes.
4. Take up a sport where you lose sometimes. Get in the habit of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again.  Raburn’s years of judo helped her lose some of her unhelpful perfectionism.
5. Life is too short not to be treated professionally. If someone with power over you is treating you unprofessionally, try to change the situation, get them to be held accountable, or get out as soon as you can. There will always be other opportunities.
6. Do what you love. That is more important than anything.

Is there an “Adobe Ceiling” for Latina Women in Academia?

In India, the roof is used as an economic indicator. Whether your roof is made of thatch, tin, or tiles sends a message about your place in society.

Academia has a less-literal ceiling that serves as a symbol of status: the new book Presumed Incompetent describes the difficulty of Latinas climbing the ladders of academia as an  “adobe ceiling” (a reference, of course, to the traditional corporate “glass ceiling”).

Recently, Latinas have been gaining a high-profile foothold in academia. Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the court’s first Latina— described herself as a feminist in a recent interview with Eva Longoria. And, despite the fact that it is much overdue, Yale finally gave tenure to its first Latina law professor.

“When did Chicana studies become cool?” a friend of mine asked me, after looking at the website of our own Alma Mater, Pitzer College. I don’t know when exactly it was, but the field of study has become a topic of conversation on the heels of the news that America is a nation of “minority majority” babies.

Yet despite the increasing “coolness of Chicano studies” there remains a long way to go. In 2008, just 339 (3.1%) of a universe of 10,780 full-time faculty law Professors were Latino.

I talked about this topic with Katherine Rodela, a Phd candidate at Stanford University in Anthropology of Education program at Stanford University’s School of Education. My full interview with Rodela can be seen here.

When Rodela first heard the term “adobe ceiling,” she didn’t like it. “I felt like we were using a stereotypical Mexican object to define the complex barriers Latinas traverse in order to become academics.” But she’s warmed somewhat to the term. “I don’t accept it fully, but I appreciate it.  Physically adobe can be beaten hard to crumble—it’s hard, but possible with lots of effort and force.”

Rodela grew up in what she describes as a working-then-middle-class family. One of the big issues she and other grad students of color deal with is a sense of isolation. Rodela, who identifies as Chicana, is the first person in her immediate family to go to college. In her doctoral cohort, she was one of only five students of color.

Rodela is thankful for her family, but also says she does “feel the adobe ceiling at different times” because “it’s hard to envision myself in that world when I have so few examples.”

Rodela also described how as a woman of color in academia, she has felt like she needs to wear a mask at certain times. “I’ve censored myself, I’ve been silent in times when I should have spoken up, and I struggled to re-find the strong voice I had when I started school.  To me, it wasn’t so much the university itself, it was a combination of my own insecurities as a new graduate student and wanting to show that I belonged there,” she says. In her third year of graduate school, Rodela became a mother. “As Latina women and mothers, we can wear masks to protect ourselves and our families.  But, we can’t be silent.”

Key to succeeding in graduate school, says Rodela—and I agree entirely—is finding support. Dealing with self-doubt and isolation is much easier with friends who understand you. For Rodela, finding the group the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity was like a breath of fresh air.

“Yes, graduate school helps build skills and knowledge,” says Rodela. “But not forgetting the strengths I bring has been something I’ve had to remember and keep reminding myself.”