Rachel Litchman is a senior with majors in Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology and a certificate in Health and the Humanities. This summer, Rachel worked with a group of young people who to address youth homelessness in Dane County. HUD recently awarded the group $2.4 million. Read the student spotlight to learn more.
Why and when did you choose Gender and Women’s Studies?
At the end of my freshman year, I saw a class listing for Sami Schalk’s Gender and Social Justice Fiction class, and I immediately enrolled because of how interesting it sounded. I had never heard of gender or women’s studies before my enrollment in that class. I came into UW-Madison intending to major in creative writing. However, I often found myself alienated in those classes. Creative writing workshops required me to put my personal stories onto the table for judgement, while not being allowed to speak, and most of the time, the feedback I’d get was insensitive or even hostile. When I took Dr. Schalk’s class, I was immediately relieved to be in a room where creative work was not only valued, but where conversations about power and privilege were incorporated into our creative practice and our analysis of texts. I ended up doing an independent study with Dr. Schalk as a sophomore, and that’s when I began to consider majoring in GWS because I realized if I wanted to do creative work moving forward, it was important to me that it not be detached from questions of social justice. Around that time, I also began experiencing major shifts in my health and was diagnosed with a number of disabling chronic health conditions. I took Ellen Samuel’s “The Body in Theory” class, which introduced me to disability studies. Taking that class at the same time as I was navigating the bureaucracy of the healthcare system was a lifeline, as it gave me a language to understand my experiences. I declared my GWS major at the end of that semester.
Has your coursework in GWS Studies changed your approach to your involvement (on or off campus) during college? If yes, how?
Gender studies courses have taught me that my personal experiences are invaluable tools for creating social change. When I first encountered the phrase “the personal is political” in the GWS classroom, I was pretty shocked. As a kid, my education had enforced that the difficult things in my life I wanted most to talk about, in particular my experiences surviving multiple institutionalizations and sexual abuse, and later, homelessness, were taboo. By indicating I had survived any of these things, the systems I had to navigate, and the people in these systems often suggested that there must have been something inherently wrong with me for these things to have happened to me. GWS, however, helped me define “the structural” – and how things like racism, ableism, sexism, classism – can be used as tools to locate “the problem” in the individual so as to obscure the need for structural (or contextual) change. In that vein, GWS has helped me realize “I” am not the problem despite the many ways my body has been labeled problematic. This has been an empowering framework because it’s allowed me to move away from self-blame and realize I can use my lived experience as a way to fight for structural change. In February of 2021, I joined a group of young people in Dane County who, like myself, have experienced youth homelessness. This summer, we worked on a grant application for a funding opportunity called the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. We recently learned that our application was selected by HUD to bring in $2.44 million to address youth homelessness in Dane County. This has all been very exciting for me, and emotional too; I still find it profoundly weird that I’m working on a structural level as part of some of the very systems that failed me. My hope is that by being part of the system, as someone who was and remains deeply impacted by it, hopefully those systems become better at serving the people they propose to help. Too often, systems are run by people who have never needed what the system proposes to provide, and I hope to change that.
How have your GWS courses shaped your future plans?
I honestly try not to think too much about the future. Living with a chronic illness, I have learned many things are out of my control. What I can “do” shifts on a daily basis, and so things in my life tend not to go as planned. However, what GWS, and especially my disability studies classes have taught me, is that I and others are worthy beyond what we are physically capable of “doing.” Even if I may still not know exactly what I want to “do,” GWS has taught me what I am invested in: I am invested in my communities, and in building a world where people can live free from all kinds of harm. I am invested in holding myself accountable, and continuously educating myself about privilege and oppression. I am invested in improving systems so that they serve people rather than retraumatize. There are many places I can put these investments into action. I am proud to be doing some of that work already with the Dane County Youth Action Board and Disability Pride Madison, as well as through my art and writing, but I also know this work is just a start.Read the full article at: https://www.facebook.com/yabdanecounty