OLIVIA GINGOLD – APRIL 18TH, 2019
On the 22nd of March, BER Staff Writer Olivia Gingold sat down to speak with Summer Sullivan. Summer is a graduate student, pursuing her Master’s in Global Studies at UC Berkeley.
Olivia Gingold: Hi Summer, thanks for meeting with me today. I understand you’re getting your Master’s in Global Studies here at Berkeley: what made you decide to get your Master’s?
Summer Sullivan: I was at Americorp right after I graduated in 2017, and I was doing grassroots level organizing and community-engaged work in Bakersfield. I realized I really loved it, but I was also really frustrated by all of the red tape and structural systems that inhibited any type of real grassroots change. In that moment, I said to myself, “This is really frustrating and I feel like I want to understand why these systems are in place.” So for example, when I was working on food insecurity, I had to say to myself, “This isn’t just about people not having food, it’s about their economic situation and their political situation that is limiting their access to food and to water.” These are things in my mind that are human rights. It goes more than just looking at food insecurity in a silo. I wanted to kind of pull back, again going back to this systemic line and asking: “What are the sociological forces? What are the economic factors that are affecting people, and devaluing their life?” So it was these questions that drove me to apply to master’s programs.
I did my undergrad in Global Studies as well—I think this field really allows me to take an extremely intersectional and very interdisciplinary approach—globalization means essentially a lot of different things, and when looking at food insecurity or environmental justice, you can still ask, “How does Global Studies relate to this.” We’re all so interconnected, everything is global now, I would argue. This field has allowed me to do the work I want to do without having a specific or overly narrow lens. This field allows me to take a broader approach while still focusing on what I think is important.
OG: Within this broader approach, what does your master’s entail, and what do your courses look like?
SS: There’s about twelve people in the program. We had a proseminar by David Beecher in the IAS and History department last semester that was about nationalism and imperialism—Frantz Fanon and totalitarianism. So again, asking bigger questions about what structural forces are related to globalization. So for example in nation building, one of the big questions is: “Is the nation real? What is nationalism?” And seeing a lot of the global conflict today, these questions are more important than ever, and that’s what we were focused on last semester. Then this semester, we have a seminar with professor Alan Karras called “global inequality.” Again, building on last semester’s theme but taking a more “contemporary” approach. Even though we read Adam Smith and Polanyi, we also read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Here we’re asking the questions of “What role does globalization have in either creating or perpetuating economic inequality?” And it’s more complicated than this undoubtedly, but I always like to ask the question: “How is this affected by race, gender, class?” Taking that approach, and being critical, we are talking about inequality. Then again going back to colonialism and imperialism, how are these systems reproduced in contemporary society? Have they even gone away? What is their role in perpetuating inequality? Within this program, we are able to focus on what we think our interests are, so for example I just wrote a paper about labor and inequality and how different forms of labor are valued in capitalism. I guess it’s sort of a Marxist critique; here you can see that I was able to approach what I found interesting, which is what makes Global Studies great—because it’s broad but then you can also focus.
OG: Tell me more about this paper. What were the conclusions you drew, what are you finding out right now, and what has surprised you?
SS: Requirements were to read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Wallerstein’s World Systems Analysis, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 20th Century. And we had to write a 7-10 page paper just with those three books. I took the critical approach of focusing on labor valuation within capitalism, and just asking a basic question Marx asked: “Why are people who are doing the most valued the least, and if Adam Smith believes a commodity’s value should be based on the labor put into it, how does that disconnect occur, and where is this divergence coming from?” And then thinking about Piketty, if his argument is that wealth will continue to accumulate and exacerbate the wealth gap with inheritance, that type of money is going to continuously grow exponentially, while people who are spending their days working and laboring in our new gig economy is having an essentially impossible time catching up. So the question is, how can we talk about inequality without saying that this system is broken? I just saw what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at Southwest and it resonated with me. She said that she’s tired of “meh” politics, and how these discussions about how “capitalism is going to fix itself” or “we’re going to be able to fix the inequality within capitalism” are ineffective. In my paper, I’m focusing on labor, but I’m also zooming out and relating to this argument Ocasio-Cortez is making, asking how we can think that making little tweaks is really going to fix anything? Of course, I don’t have an immediate solution but I think it’s important in my opinion to start thinking about how we can imagine other alternatives, because what we have right now is not working.
OG: I understand food insecurity is a primary focus of yours. How did you draw parallels between your paper and the time you spent in Americorp? Can you tell me a bit more about the trends in food insecurity that you’ve noticed in your experience?
SS: It’s interesting to me because I was working on a university campus, CSU Bakersfield, and the campus was 41% food insecure for students, faculty, and staff. Coming to Berkeley, this is the #1 public university in world (allegedly), and more than 40% are food insecure on this campus, from the statistics that just came out. Again, there’s this idea that it’s a rite of passage to be a struggling college student, or skimp on meals, or eat ramen, but I think this is a problem. It’s the expectation that students should struggle, and make sacrifices all the time, and not be able to afford food. There’s lots of students that are working jobs, or raising kids—and I regularly ask myself, “Are you skipping meals so you can buy your books?” But the fact that this is an expectation, and that people who are doing these are seen as hard workers? What kind of society is it that we’re living in that makes this the norm? And I think in relating that to the larger questions I’m asking, it all goes back to economics and politics of situations that are creating policies that are disallowing people to have adequate access to food.
All of these things are interrelated. So it’s about transportation, where the closest grocery store is, and if food is affordable. And then you have the twin crises of obesity and poverty, so it’s not only access to food, but it’s also asking questions like, “Is this quality food? Is it filled with chemicals?” And then you have something like the soda tax that actually came from Berkeley. This is basically a tax on poor people—if your alternative is drinking poisoned water or buying bottled water, firstly, you’re going to buy bottled water, or you’re going to buy soda because it’s cheaper than water, it has sugar, and it’s satisfying if you don’t have other foods. All of these are interconnected, and everytime I come back to it, I think back to my passion for the environment and nature, and think about how our factory farms and industrial farms are exploiting the land, and how we’re filling food with chemicals. Then we have the audacity to talk about, “Oh how are we going to feed all of the people with the population problem?” But realistically, it’s more that we have a distribution problem. We have enough food to feed everyone in the world—it’s just distributed improperly with people in the Global North having way more access to it. And it’s interesting because even here in Berkeley, we talk about inclusion, but how many homeless people do we walk by on our way to campus? We’re just seeing the gap increase with little change.
OG: This distribution issue you just talked about, can you explore that a little bit more for me?
SS: I have to give credit to the person who introduced this argument to me, which is the professor I work for, Khalid Kadir. This argument comes directly from him, and he said it in PE 101 as well, but it’s that the way the issue of population is framed is that we have a population problem. A lot of scientists and a lot of professors here at Berkeley believe we need to be doing population control. But this is essentially telling brown people in the Global South that they need to stop having kids. This is not only sexist, but also a racist argument. We in the Global North and Global West, and in “Western countries,” are either not sharing our resources, properly managing our resources, or are extracting from other nations, their resources, and disallowing them to “develop.” I think the basis of the argument is that we need to look at the fact that we actually can support a growing population if we were able to distribute things more properly. But in the exacerbated neoliberal society that we live in, that doesn’t happen because everything has a price tag. So we have people all over the world who don’t have access to food, and are starving. What can we afford here in the West that other people can’t, because we created a system where others don’t have any money or any access to in the first place? We need to reframe the issue of population control, and think about, “Is this really a problem of too many people or is it about distributing resources in a way that is equitable?” It’s an issue of inequality.
OG: Are there any other topics you’ve explored in your master’s outside of food insecurity, or has that been your primary focus?
SS: Food insecurity is a big lens, and last semester I had to write a couple of big papers. One of the central points of my research is labor and gender issues. Last semester, I wrote a big paper on gender based violence in the context of how the state itself is a patriarchal institution and often times creates laws that perpetuate this type of violence. I did a case study in the Nepali context—again it’s a Global Studies class—and I also wrote about lone mothers in the Irish and Swedish welfare states. These are places that are supposed to be this beacon or model of capitalism that is supposedly so helpful to everyone, but looking at it and stating that this has different effects, and these policies have different effects for single moms who are trying to participate in the economy through labor market activation policies that are actually very controversial and commodifying.
OG: What are those?
SS: Basically, the pretext is “We want you to participate in the labor market so you can have money and don’t need to rely on the welfare state anymore.” Sort of like, “here where we have people on welfare to work: we’ll get you the job, we’ll train you,” but what type of job is it? Then, who’s taking care of your child, and is it a job you want to do? There’s this need to ask the bigger question that’s uncomfortable to ask: why is it that in the society we live in, someone has to participate in a labor market to have work and to have value? When you’re dealing with the social issues of being a single mom, what layer does that then add?
And I will say that in Swedish welfare stated for example, childcare is apparently good. But in Ireland it’s different because it actually perpetuates a cycle of in-family care. For example, if I’m a single mom and I ask my mom to watch my kid while I go to work, it’s just a burden shift. There’s this talk of women having to work twice as much—due to gender roles—because you go to work all day, and then you come home and take care of your kid, cook, and do laundry. This is just highlighting that there are, even within these supposedly utopian systems, different impacts for women and women of color as well. This is a question that needs to be addressed and asked.
Getting back to your question, I have a lot of themes: labor, environmental justice, but also looking at gender issues. There is a constant theme in everything I do, because this is such a different lens. In any issue, when you add the gender lens it completely changes things, and this is really important because as a woman who wants to be in academia, this is not only interesting to me, but also a reality.
OG: Division of labor in gender is a big deal, are you willing to explore it a little bit more?
SS: That’s a tough one. It’s basically that a lot of feminist literature, feminist studies, and now intersectional feminist studies, look at the motif of daily life. What happens every day that might not seem extraordinary, but is so different between genders. And there’s this idea of gender binary; society as a whole is becoming more open to these ideas, but we still live in a patriarchal society. This is one of the topics I’ve been looking at a lot lately, particularly because it’s so relevant to me—that is, the emotional labor women have to face. Constantly propping up men’s egos is so exhausting, and even more exhausting to constantly not only do your regular job and regular work, but also be there for other people—mostly men. This is unpaid work, but emotional labor is real, and finding boundaries is so hard. Internalizing this is internalized patriarchy in the sense that it feels like my responsibility to care for people all the time. This goes back to that idea that women should be nurturing, caring, all the time. And this is great if women want to be this way, but it’s about taking a step back and asking: “Am I doing this because I want to or because I have to? Or because I should?”
As a female GSI (graduate student instructor) as well, with a lot of my students, I’m constantly wondering about what am I wearing: is it ok, is it too much, and who’s looking at me? And this also translates over to just the everyday walk down the street: what am I wearing, what do they think, are they looking at me? In terms of the division of labor, we have a huge pay gap still. It’s large although I don’t remember exact statistics, and the difference between race as well. I may be white, but it’s different for an African American woman—she may be paid less than even me. The types of jobs women are getting and workplace sexual harassment is something that’s on my mind as lot, especially navigating the spaces of potentially applying to graduate school. These are very real concerns and if I’m going to work with a male professor, this is something I have to think about. But this is something a man is never going to have to think about. These are questions that race through my head all the time: What am I wearing to office hours? What will they think about me? Should I wear makeup, should I not? There’s a massive difference between what I have to think about and what someone who identifies as a man has to think about. It’s obviously really complicated but this is what I’ve begun exploring in this realm.
OG: I know you graduate in the spring, what are your plans after graduation and how do you plan to incorporate your degree in those plans?
SS: Yeah! So, I definitely want to apply to PhD programs, but I wasn’t able to do that this year given my rigorous masters program. But I plan to apply in 2020, that’s the ultimate goal. For the next year, I have an internship with the International Alliance of Research Universities, so I’ll be in Copenhagen, Denmark working in the office of global development for a month and then Chiang Mai, Thailand to assist in a Critical Research in the Global South course co-taught by Professor Kocharyan. I’ll be doing that over the summer, and then I think for the next year I’m interviewing with a farm in Petaluma called Petaluma Bounty. They focus on sustainable food and growing practices, and all of their food go to people within the local community, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. So here I am, going back to the original issues. If this is the type of work I want to do, I want to learn more about sustainable growing practices and working with a community in a non-patrimonial way. This wouldn’t pay much but I think right now I’m not too concerned about that because I know it’s probably temporary, and hopefully my PhD will work out. I’m kind of a sporadic person, I jump from things a lot and it’s been great being in academia, but I am excited to go back and do more “On the ground work” with a community who’s doing good things for the people living there, increasing food access, increasing awareness of sustainable growing practices, and doing educational programs. In terms of my Master’s, to me it’s not about the degree; it’s about what I’ve been able to learn. I’ve learned more about myself than a piece of paper can tell me. I’m not even going to participate in my graduation. I’m not concerned about that because it’s more about the experience. It’s proven to me I do want to teach, I do want to be a professor, and I do want to do research, but it’s just more about the growth that’s happening. I don’t want to be in an ivory tower, and I’m excited to go back and get my hands dirty.
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