September 14, 2020

ST. HILAIRE | Fighting on Balch’s Frontline

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I’ve been told many times over the past year that I have a “Balch Vibe” and I don’t know how to take that. On one hand, I can interpret it as having the vibe of someone who grabs the patriarchy by the throat and kicks it in the balls (a vibrant visual).  On the other hand, I can interpret it as fitting into all the negative stereotypes of living here: Just another prude, nerdy, radical feminist, who lives among the bugs. I don’t think I fit into the latter stereotype, but what do I know? I don’t see that in Balch so maybe I wouldn’t see it in myself either.

I see the “Balch Vibe” as a sort of subtle anger. It sits somewhere between constant annoyance and rage. To be a Balch Resident Advisor is to come to terms with the fact that in 2020 on Cornell’s campus there is still a necessity for events geared towards dealing with gendered microaggressions. Imagine that — we live and work on a campus where the most powerful person is a woman, and I have residents who are looking for advice on how to deal with the guy in her 9 a.m. discussion section who belittles her every time she opens her mouth.

Put yourself in our shoes. We’re a staff of 12 women who are already angry because we are dealing with all kinds of aggression concerning every part of our social identities. Now, the cherry on top: Departmental neglect.  On Aug. 11, roughly 100 students came to campus ready to do their jobs as Resident Advisors. It was only when we arrived that we learned that being a Resident Advisor this year means more than hosting programs and supporting residents. Now we are Covid-19 monitors and Behavioral Compact enforcers; we are expected to put ourselves in a more than reasonable amount of danger regularly. I knew there was a risk in coming back (my family and friends gave me the list in their latest campaign effort to keep me on Long Island) but this was different. It was dangerous.

Now, can you blame your good sis for striking? For context, I am a goody-two-shoes, a teacher’s pet; I haven’t always been such a fan favorite. I was scared to strike. I didn’t want to offend anyone by advocating for myself. But, when you’re at your desk sitting by yourself after a good cry, enveloped by a silence that leaves an opportunity for your thoughts to run rampant, you realize just how messed up this all is. The feeling only worsens when you realize how unsupported you are and how dangerous the situation you put yourself in is.

We were being taken advantage of. Onlookers and some other Resident Advisors saw our exercise of collective bargaining as selfish and opportunistic. They spoke as if we weren’t aware of the stakes for re-opening, as if we couldn’t recognize that Cornell’s reopening plan largely hinged on a staff of undergraduate and graduate students enforcing policy and holding residents accountable. On the contrary, we were hyper-aware of this fact and that’s why we went on strike. We weren’t prepared to go on nightly rounds, bust 12 person parties or interact with residents wearing a thin black mask in which corona would quite literally “run through like a tomb raider” (in the words of Megan thee Stallion). It wasn’t fair to us and it wasn’t fair to the residents.

Believe me when I say that no one does this job for the money. Last year, my RA paycheck wasn’t enough to purchase a Coach Bus Pass from Ithaca to New York City.  I love my job even with all the bad parts. A close friend of mine, and the Senior Resident Advisor of Balch, Isabelle Aboaf ’21 said it best: We went on strike because “we felt rage out of love.” We give a lot of ourselves to this role. We carry the baggage of our residents and ourselves while balancing school and other parts of our lives. We elect to forfeit a sense of work-life balance because we live where we work. That’s why it was so upsetting to see our higher-ups who don’t interact with us daily dismiss us countless times when we requested basic precautions like a training session revolving around the pandemic or PPE.

I feel that I owe it to my department and my school to acknowledge that changes are being made. I have a face shield now and I am hopeful that our other demands will be met in the future. We are all going through our first pandemic, and I understand that comes with difficulties. Here I am, answering a variety of emails that I don’t have the answers for or never expected to receive. I am more than willing to pull my weight in all of this.

Many Resident Advisors participated in the strike because we were mad and we were tired of being taken advantage of. I think it’s amazing that we all reassured one another that we were making the right decision and that it was worth it. Perhaps that’s the Balch vibe: Loving your job but understanding that we deserve better from our department. We should be given empathy.

Catherine St. Hilaire is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at cas529@cornell.edu. Candid Cathy runs every other Monday this semester.