Despite the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s vocal support for racial and gender equality, an open letter written this weekend by women, LGBTQ graduate students and graduate students of color at Yale and signed by 118 graduate students lambasted the group’s organizing practices, calling them “manipulative” and “harmful,” especially to underrepresented groups at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
At its recent protests, GESO leaders have called for racial and gender equality among faculty members. In November, the organization collaborated with Next Yale, a recently formed student group focused on addressing issues of race at Yale, to host a teach-in on how Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment could be used to address issues of racism, inclusivity and diversity on campus. But this weekend’s open letter offered a sharp criticism of how GESO treats its professed allies, in particular denouncing the group’s recruitment tactics and hierarchy. These grievances are not new: Graduate students have aired them before, and administrators said they have received similar complaints about GESO’s aggression.
“We are concerned that [GESO’s] organizing practices fundamentally deny the different ways in which we move through Yale,” the open letter reads. “We emphasize here that these organizing issues are structural, not isolated instances that can be blamed on individual organizers.”
On Monday night, GESO’s Coordinating Committee, the group’s leadership, met to discuss the open letter. In an interview with the News, GESO Chairman Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 expressed concern about the letter’s contents, and GESO members interviewed maintained that the organization is a positive space that welcomes debate and discussion surrounding graduate student issues, including those of underrepresented groups.
The open letter contains nine specific grievances against GESO, including its aggressive recruiting and canvassing tactics and its “hierarchical and opaque” structure. The letter accuses GESO members of following students to their homes and using “physical force” to continue conversations, while also claiming that GESO members gossip about specific individuals and use personal information for manipulative purposes.
While these aggressions have been singled out by both allies and opponents of GESO before, the letter claims that they are particularly “violent” and “oppressive” when used against underrepresented groups, as they already face unique challenges at Yale.
“This University is a space where our bodies were not meant to be … [and] where we are still fighting to claim physical space, stability and safety for ourselves and our work,” the letter continues. “GESO must acknowledge the particular violence it reinscribes when it refuses to support our need to walk, work and rest in our community without further harassment.”
According to the letter, GESO relies financially on UNITE HERE, a coordinating group for both of Yale’s unions, Locals 34 and 35. The letter acknowledged that much of GESO’s leadership is made up of UNITE HERE employees, and recommended that GESO take steps to become more autonomous.
The letter also criticized GESO members’ assumptions about the political commitments of underrepresented graduate students, comparing their generalizations to overtly racist acts, such as blackface and misogynist and transphobic costumes.
Forty-nine of 51 signatories contacted either declined to or could not be reached for comment. Anusha Alles GRD ’18 emphasized that while the concerns raised by the letter are serious, the letter was written “fully in solidarity with the union … in hopes of strengthening the union.”
GESO members said they will release an official statement Tuesday.
“We’re very concerned about the letter and its contents, and take it very seriously,” Greenberg said. “We appreciate and value the voices of all our members.”
GESO Co-Chairwoman Robin Canavan GRD ’18 said women, people of color and LGBTQ students make up 80 percent of the GESO Coordinating Committee. Canavan, who is a woman studying in the sciences, said a union provides graduate students with a space to discuss issues of race, gender and marginalization at Yale.
“I know how difficult and isolating it can feel to be on the margins here at Yale,” Canavan said. “I think one of the things that makes [GESO’s] campaign special here is that there is so much debate and discussion.”
GESO member Charles Decker GRD ’17, who is one of 30 black male graduate students at Yale, said he has felt empowered by GESO while fighting to improve mental health care and increase funding at the graduate school.
“I take very seriously the pain expressed by the letter,” Decker said. “That’s why I’ve spent so much time and energy to build a more just and democratic union, just as I’ve spent time and energy to build a more just and democratic University.”
While GESO claims to have the backing of two-thirds of Yale’s graduate students, the organization has often been criticized for aggressive canvassing tactics. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler has told the News in the past that a number of Yale graduate students have reported to the administration instances of intimidation from union organizers.
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley said she was aware of the open letter and is “deeply concerned” that graduate students have continued to report experiences of intimidation from union organizers. Although Cooley did not say whether the grievances lodged in the letter to GESO are direct violations of University policy, she emphasized that by coming to Yale graduate students implicitly affirm their commitment to a philosophy of tolerance and respect for all members of the community.
“I will be reaching out to the signatories of this letter to learn more about their concerns,” Cooley added.
Cooley went on to say that the Graduate School’s Personal Conduct Policy specifically prohibits graduate students from engaging in “coercion, harassment or intimidation of any member of the University community.”
GESO has staged four demonstrations on campus over the last 18 months calling for a vote on a graduate student union.