A new committee in the University of Oregon’s graduate-employee labor union seeks to make space for students of color.
The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation’s new people-of-color caucus wants to represent people of color within the union, caucus chair Ricardo Friaz said.
“The goal of promoting equity in our union for the year is directly informed by our collective desire to build fair representation in a space where people feel like they can talk and also be heard,” said Friaz, a third-year philosophy GE. “And we felt that the union can improve on that in a lot of ways.”
The GTFF is the labor union representing 1,400-some graduate employees, the graduate students who teach, research and work in university administration in exchange for tuition and fee waivers. Since the 2010-11 school year, UO has seen more graduate students of color, according to institutional data. In 2010, about 12% of graduate students were of color. In the 2018-19 school year, about 20% of graduate students identified as people of color.
The main goal of the POC caucus is to draft some kind of report on the issues covered during this last year’s contract-bargaining campaign, specifically on issues relating to people of color. The caucus, which numbers at above a dozen members, also wants to promote “equitable meeting practices” to include all voices, and support electing people of color and allies to union and community leadership positions.
But before the recently formed caucus can fulfill any of those goals, the caucus is asking: What does it mean to be a person of color, and who can claim that identity?
At the caucus’s first meeting, members discussed how the term POC relates to Black and Indigenous peoples, the ways in which POC is a U.S. concept and how the caucus should work in relation to the broader GTFF, according to the minutes from the caucus’s first meeting.
“We noted that it was a topic and conversation we’ll continue to have, and discussed how we maintain space for the conversation,” the minutes state.
At least one member, Friaz said, proposed naming the caucus using the acronym “BIPOC,” a less-common term that stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. That member wanted to use this acronym to highlight “the hypervisibility of Black bodies and the invisibility of Indigenous bodies,” Friaz said. Other members were concerned about specifying certain identities, as they felt like doing so would necessitate specifying all other identities.
This discussion is complicated by how the term “people of color” is popular in the U.S. but has not caught on in other countries. For Tamara Niella, who lived in Argentina before coming to UO, the term “person of color” was relatively new to her.
“In the caucus, there are a lot of international students,” said Niella, who is studying social personality psychology. “Or like me, students who’ve never lived in the U.S. until now. The term is pretty new [for us], and still there’s a lot of confusion around this.”
Niella said she joined the caucus because it “felt like the right group of people.”
“It just felt like a group of people that I felt safe to start working on things that interest me, or that that are important to me,” said Niella, adding that one of the caucus’s goals is to “create a structure within an organization that can be equal and that can hear all voices and respect all voices.”
At their first meeting, caucus members waited to speak when someone else was speaking, something noted when members finished their comments by saying “check,” Niella said. At the start of the meeting, everyone answers a fun question to introduce themselves, such as, “What’s your favorite vegetable?”
This structure comes from Friaz, who describes himself as “very invested in organizational structure.” That, he said, comes from his GTFF experience as well as his time living in a graduate-student co-op, where its 17-or-so residents would gather regularly to discuss issues concerning first-comes-first-served parking availability, dish-washing schedules and which kinds of foods could be bought with co-op funds. (Only vegan foods were allowed.)
“When we have something like goals, we need some kind of mechanism to say: How did we agree to these rules? Did we give everyone a chance to talk about this, who’s in the caucus?” Friaz said.
The caucus’s website also hosts a list of recommended reading from writers including Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred of Years of Solitude” and Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism.”
On another webpage, a list of favorite memes includes one Vine (where an exuberant 5-year-old wielding a knife at a pool party flees from his dismayed mother) and an Instagram post from “peter_sadcat,” which shows Friaz’s melancholic-looking orange tabby, named Peter, scrolling Facebook with dead-looking eyes.
Other GTFF caucuses include a GEs with children committee, an organizing committee and a responsible-consumer committee, according to the GTFF website.
“We, in this group at least, have to figure out how to come to terms — in a way that’s probably something we’ll have to keep renewing — [with]what our identity is, what values we have and how we’re even thinking about ourselves,” Friaz said.