GSWS alum takes on public health ethics
As an undergraduate student in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Ris was an active advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. They spent their summers working with the VCU Learning Garden in collaboration with Side by Side, a nonprofit that serves LGBTQIA+ youth, teaching youth and emerging adults about navigating trauma and healing through nature and community. Ris also conducted research through the interactive research symposium, Access4All, on accessibility through community care to support individuals experiencing anxiety and isolation at VCU.
A lifelong learner, Ris is tackling their next academic feat, obtaining a master of public health in the VCU School of Medicine, before exploring the path towards a doctoral degree.
We got a chance to catch up with Ris to learn more about their work as a scholar, activist and community leader.
What are you passionate about?
There are a few things I’ve noticed that can produce a genuine sparkle in a person’s eye and learning is one of them. There are these moments when exposure to challenging information integrates with self-reflection and it lights people up from the inside. I’m passionate about seeing that in other people and experiencing that myself; my preference is co-creating it. I’m also passionate about deconstructing ideas that don’t feel good; that feel harmful or ulteriorly motivated. Put in another way, listening to the voices of anger, dejection, pain or violation and learning to move past the emotion to get to the message. My entire life is built upon sharing empathy, naming harm and envisioning alternative realities. People seem to easily forget the infinitude of life’s possibilities and I feel weirdly responsible for reminding them when I get the chance.
What are your career goals and aspirations?
In the short term, I’m working on having a voice in public health ethics relating to transgender health care. There seems to be some attention needed to the quality of care we give this community and I have intimate experiences with some of those needs. After finishing my master of public health, I plan to switch back into humanities for a Ph.D. program. Hopefully a fall 2022 start. While I always keep myself open to new ideas and opportunities, I have my career sights set on teaching at the collegiate level and writing books. I intend to be a public facing scholar, and to engage with those in and outside of academic settings; it’s part of my feminist praxis to widely disseminate knowledge and in varying ways. I’m finding myself to be a lifelong learner, so I’m doing whatever I can to ensure I’m intellectually stimulated for the rest of my life. All I know is I have some deeply intricate thoughts I’m itching to share, but I’m still finding the language for it, and it might take my whole life to do so but I’m okay with that pursuit.
Describe a favorite memory as a student in the GSWS department.
A favorite memory is the symposium Dr. B. Ethan Coston organized as our final project in the queer/crip course they designed. From start to finish, that class was built on autonomy, community, consent and belief in knowledge as power. The entire semester was spent understanding and critiquing the power structures that entangle and subordinate queer and disabled people; we used queer theory to critically engage with disability studies. That class shifted my entire worldview, as it helped me realize that I had been suffering from OCD and that I’m neurodivergent, which I now embrace as an integral part of my social experience, along with being trans, white, queer, etc. It empowered me, as education should.
And with that empowerment, I and a few of my classmates were able to stand in front of a room of about 100 people and share our newfound understanding of some of the ways ableism operates in our society and world; a concept that is not often named or discussed, despite the reach it has into every single human life. We got to publicly grapple with the concepts of time, terminality, space, community-building, and lived experiences of and as physically, cognitively and/or intellectually disabled people. You could see it in the faces of the audience — friends, family, peers, classmates, professors and administration — that everyone learned something important that day, and we all shared a heap of empathy with one another. Never have I seen or heard of a professor in any other department organizing something so intimately human and necessarily intellectualized. It was an enigmatic experience to have in a university setting — but also ideal.
What does the word "community" mean to you?
My mind always associates community with fluidity and support. It can be both an inductive and deductive process. Sometimes we are placed into communities based on social identities and sometimes based on the ways it fulfills temporal needs. Sometimes both and neither. I think of community as a social body — much like an individual body — that grows, morphs, changes throughout its own life, but perhaps at a different rate than an individual, as it functions to serve those who are connected by acknowledgment of some common feature. It involves mutual engagement and reciprocity, as well as care for the self and others. Community allows people to have valid, distinct needs from one another while tethering us to those who may have needs we can fill or may be able to fill our own. Community is empathy, security and care; all some variation of basic social human need.
What books and educational materials would you suggest to someone who is interested in learning more about the gender spectrum?
I always recommend Judith Butler’s books/articles, especially “Gender Trouble,” if you’re into heady stuff and want to read one of the main texts that influenced the emergence of queer theory and thus a more critical engagement with the concept of gender in academia. “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg is a classic and had a heavy influence on the community. “Nobody Passes” edited by Matt Berstein Sycamore was revelatory for me. I haven’t read it yet, but Alok-Vaid Menon released a book called “Beyond the Gender Binary,” and they’re a pretty highly regarded writer and thinker in the community. Not specifically about the gender spectrum in an expansive sense, Kimberele Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” is an important one for a conceptual understanding of ways gender operates in interpersonal and institutional interactions. It explicates a bit on how gender and other social identities are had by everyone, and they deeply shape our lives, whether we turn our awareness toward it or not.
For guided self-study, I like to recommend “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein. That one helped me a lot. My number one suggestion, though, is always a journal; a book of blank pages. A space to get to know yourself as a free agent in the co-creation of ideas and meaning. The gender spectrum, if you want to think of it that way, is a continuum that every person is placed on, not just those of us who are forced to challenge its capacity for inclusivity. Within a day, there are more moments than I can count that are loaded with assumptions of behavior, interests, abilities, capacities and knowledge that draw from learned ideas of how to be a ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ but these assumptions don’t usually make logical sense. Not in our current social context. And we all experience these moments. I always encourage people to ask themselves whether they truly feel understood and valued, and if not, is it because there are assumptions being made about expected behaviors, interests, abilities or sets of knowledge that can be reduced to the gender that’s been prescribed to them?
What advice would you offer an incoming freshman?
Following your passion(s) will never lead you to a bad place! If you already know what you want to do in your undergraduate career and life, I’d encourage you to take a class or two that seems interesting and unassuming. If you don’t know what you want to do, stay curious for as long as you possibly can; there are no wrong choices if you’re satisfying yourself. And lastly, question everything. The worst that happens: It comes to your attention that someone thinks you’re naive. The best thing that happens: You might just change your understanding, someone else’s perception or the way things work for the betterment of everyone after you.