Last April, members of two Yale-based activist groups, Students Unite Now (SUN) and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), marched together as part of a citywide labor rights march. In the now long-lost April sun, they clung to large signs, shouted at the top of their lungs and, in the words of SUN member Yoni Greenwood ’15, helped Yale employees earn “some of their most successful contract negotiations” over the summer.
SUN and GESO are both at the core of Yale activism. It shows. When interviewed, members of both groups speak to similar themes: the need to bring a larger number of voices to the table with the University, the dangers of blind faith in the whims of Yale administrators and the reconsideration of the University’s relationship with the city of New Haven.
If you’ve heard of SUN at all, it’s from their vocal involvement — and opposition to the University — in the recent presidential search process. Their efforts began with a bang, featuring campuswide emails and protests during committee meetings, and ended with a whisper, when SUN members learned, through the same campuswide email received by every other Yale student, that Provost Peter Salovey had been appointed. Salovey’s selection by the Yale Corporation caught SUN before the organization had a chance to deliver its petition to open the search.
“We really had the rug pulled out from us,” admitted SUN leader Sarah Cox ’15. “But that’s really telling. We were succeeding in asking the questions we weren’t supposed to ask.”
GESO, on the other hand, made its name long ago, having been founded in 1992 to address graduate concerns and, since then, consistently demanding that Yale graduate students be allowed to unionize. The group has embraced tactics ranging from on-campus demonstrations to reporting Yale to the National Labor Relations Board back in 2002.
Their demands have yet to be met, and they are not abandoning their mission anytime soon. As GESO members Brais Outes-León GRD ’13, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in Spanish points out, the organization’s members believe that “the amount of teaching we do is ignored.”
“I’ve had to teach a class every day of the week. That’s something the administration doesn’t put forward enough.”
To that end, Yale’s graduate students have worked together to draw attention to their concerns, in much the same way that members of SUN have.
This Friday, members of the two organizations will cross paths. The ending of SUN’s first ever all-member meeting coincides with the plenary session of a much larger symposium GESO is organizing over this weekend, titled “The Changing University” and focusing on the ways in which Yale and other institutions can rework themselves to better help the public.
The problems discussed at the event concern both groups and many SUN members said they plan to attend. But while these two on-campus activist organizations share interests, they resist being described as mirror images. GESO identifies with an academic approach, where SUN is still consolidating its interests into a whole and defining its strategies. And while the groups may come closer to working together, they remain conscious of staying true to their own distinct identities.
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As I interviewed Avani Mehta ’15, a visibly enthusiastic member of SUN dressed in a late-era Beatles tee, one phrase stuck out: “Nobody knows what to expect.”
Mehta has reason to be excited. She and other SUN members eagerly anticipate their largest meeting to date, which will be held today.
“There’s going to be something really powerful about having that many people in one room,” Mehta said.
So far, SUN has done pretty well without such a meeting. The group grew out of a set of Yalies who had worked together around the campaign of Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12 in the fall of 2011. Her election effort proved to be a rallying point for undergraduate activists scattered around campus who, after her victory, saw something they could channel into other projects.
“The question became,” Cox explained, “what are we going to do with that energy?”
Identifying an answer was difficult, considering that SUN was born out of the ashes of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC), a similar student group that became defunct just around the time that Eidelson began gathering support.
The UOC’s successes included orchestrating a series of protests in 2008 that pressured Yale into taking its investments out of HEI, a hotel corporation accused of mistreating its workers. But three years after that campaign, during Cox’s sophomore year, “UOC sort of didn’t really exist,” she explained.
Why the extinction? According to Ward 1 Democratic Committee Co-Chair Ben Crosby ’14, who had been part of the UOC and is now active in SUN, “there was a distinct set of people who UOC members were talking to”.
When those people didn’t respond, the action died. Right before that summer, the University announced its plans to increase the student income contribution in financial aid packages. Where the UOC may have protested successfully, students instead saw no organized stand against the policy shift, even once they retuned to campus, Mehta said.
“When we organize, we win,” she added. “But then we have to sustain that.”
Recent events have given SUN a chance to act, bringing students to advocate for transparency in the Yale Corporation about the University’s next president and the election of Democrat Chris Murphy to the Connecticut Senate seat once occupied by Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67.
But as SUN works to consolidate its progress and seize new opportunities to rile up its base, GESO has already accumulated its strength and very clearly defined its identity.
The organization’s latest conference is “predicated on the idea that academics need to come together,” said Kate Irving GRD ’15, the current GESO chair.
Outes-León said that the conference provides an opportunity for any attendee to develop a stake in determining — and improving — the universities’ missions.
“The university would be better if it included more constituencies,” he said. In his view, this symposium is a “positive step to engage the community.”
To that end, it will include panels on “Academia and the Public Good,” “The University and Its Surrounding Community” and “Work and Careers at the University.”
(Also, an after-party — the event is run by students, after all.)
For GESO, talking about these issues is part of placing graduate student concerns on the administration’s docket.
“We’re very invested in this discussion,” Outes-León said. “We would like to be more at the center and to have more of a say.”
This has historically been a challenge. GESO members often see their cause and academic ideals more broadly, as easy targets for University stakeholders less interested in conceptions of Yale’s mission, and as pragmatic when it comes to issues such as its budget.
Recalling how he was drawn to the cause, Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said he “observed … certain tendencies to diminish creative and imaginative space in favor of more corporate interests.”
What those interests undermine is any chance that GESO’s constituency will see the changes it hopes for. The organization’s belief that the odds are stacked against it is key to its history, its narratives and its contemporary perception of what it can achieve. After two decades of GESO activism, the University shows no sign of coming to closer to accepting GESO as the equivalent of a labor union for graduate students teaching on campus.
A News report on a February 2011 GESO rally noted that in December 2010, for instance, the group invited Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard to visit its headquarters. He declined to meet with the organization, pointing that the University does not recognize it as a union, a position it has yet to substantially alter.
The fight, then, is less to attain a goal than to maintain, and solidify, GESO’s standing. The group works with a number of advocacy organizations around New Haven and has also established ties with graduate student groups at the University of California and other peer institutions. “We’re less interested in the concrete outcome than the process,” Irving said.
Unlike their undergrad counterpart, they’ve been honing their craft and their pitch for a long time now — they know how to explain themselves.
And they think long-term, not in response to new developments. For SUN, the presidential search became a raison d’être this past semester. When I asked GESO members whether their symposium was timed to correspond with Salovey’s appointment or the search process, they laughed and said that the event was in planning long before that controversy began.
“It’s one piece of an ongoing conversation,” Irving said.
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Where the groups differ in their approaches, they also differ in their views of each other, and themselves.
Fueled by academic idealism, GESO has clear goals. When asked about similarities between her group’s mission and that of SUN, Irving pointed out that she doesn’t know SUN’s mission statement and thus can’t compare the two. I offered to give her a summary —and then realized that the undergraduates haven’t decided on one yet.
As Greenberg was quick to remind me, the lifestyle and concerns of a graduate student aren’t always the same as those of an undergrad. “There’s a unity of purpose in academia that’s very different from the liberal arts approach,” he said.
One symptom of that is the fact that, in Irving’s words, the challenge for GESO isn’t making the conversation happen among potential supporters — that already exists — “the challenge is making the space.” On this front, the members of SUN, who are still working to make Yale College students take on the role of activists, look up to their graduate partners.
Mehta spoke of less undergraduate enthusiasm for the same sort of discussion. “It’s not that it’s hard [to get students interested], but that it requires a lot of work. We’re asking students to think about Yale in a different way, which is not traditional.”
According to Cox, GESO’s expertise can be a model for SUN: “These are scholars, people who think about these issues professionally.”
That dedication and perceived professionalism has made GESO effective. SUN supporter Kenneth Reveiz ’12, who stayed in New Haven after graduation to work as a school teacher and found an organization called the People’s Art’s Collective, explained that, over its long history, GESO has developed a “solid organizational structure through trial and error.” Part of this has to do with GESO members’ ability to tie their academic interests to their activism work. For Yale undergrads without the same specificity of focus, balance and commitment are more difficult.
“We have limited time,” says Cox, “We are principally students. It’s hard to fit organizing in with everything else”.
And yet the members of SUN do, because for them, the act of protest, of organized advocacy, is necessary.
What will the future of SUN look like? Cox answered, “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s anything that any one or two or three people know.”
But the hope is that if those two, three or 30 people have a chance to organize and create something, they can build the same strength that a group like GESO has found, on their own terms.