Jess Gallagher shares their experience as a student in the Human Rights Studies M.A. Program so far.
In which program are you enrolled and when is your expected graduation date?
Human Rights Studies, M.A Fall ‘23
What is your research focus? What drew you to this particular issue/set of issues?
My concentration in the field of human rights is disability, historical, and restorative justice. I focus on the history of disability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by examining institutionalization within the U.S. and how disablism persists in the 21st century using the lens of History, Disability and Mental Health Law, Oral History, and Storytelling. Being a disabled student, I was always drawn to learning more about disability culture and really began to become part of the community when I joined the editorial team at Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ). I was able to meet some amazing scholars and activists in the field (and gained some great friends along the way!). After that, my research moved to focus on ableism and inaccessibility in academia, linguistic justice in higher education, and enacting antiracist pedagogy in the Writing Studies field.
Which class would you recommend to other students interested in the same issues as you?
Oral History & Justice: Memory, Power, and Trauma with Zoë West and Mental Health Law with Robert Levy
Where did you grow up? In which countries and/or cities have you lived?
I grew up in Derby, Connecticut, which is actually the smallest town in CT. I lived there for the majority of my life with my parents and grandparents. After some time, my parents and I moved to Orange, Connecticut, but I love Derby and it'll always be my home. I currently live in New York and I love being close to all my friends in the HRSMA cohort.
What is a must-read for a human rights student?
The books that really motivated me to become a Disability Justice activist were Jay Dolmage's Academic Ableism and Alice Wong's Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. I also highly recommend Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition by Liat Ben-Moshe. These books emphasize the importance of uplifting the lived experiences of disabled people, how ableism persists in our current institutions, and what we can do to promote cross-movement solidarity with respect to racial justice, disability rights, neurodiversity, and LGBTQIA+ rights.
Can you describe any volunteer or extracurricular activities that you have been a part of during your time at Columbia and how this experience has impacted you?
Currently, I'm the Co-Vice President of the Human Rights Graduate Group (HRGG) and the Editor-in-Training at RightsViews. Working with these organizations has allowed me to explore human rights initiatives and engage with the wider campus community at Columbia. I am also a College Road Counsellor and College Prep Program Coordinator at Community Impact and I work with adults in NY who have recently received their GED and want to apply to colleges. It's been great working with people in the community and learning about their goals for the future. I also work for the National Advisory Council and National Museum Committee at Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance (PMPA). Here, I work with an amazing board of Disability Justice activists who are creating a two-year Commission to establish a National Museum of Disability History, Culture, and Civil Rights and I'm so happy and honored to take part in the grassroots advocacy necessary to achieve this goal by recruiting prominent disabled activists from across the U.S to join this initiative.
What has been your favorite moment in the program so far?
My favorite moment in the program so far has to be taking Daniela Ikawa's "Introduction to Human Rights" with all of my really good friends in the HRSMA program. It's always so much fun seeing everyone each week and learning more about their experiences in human rights. I think it's really helped us all grow closer as a cohort and expand our perspectives on a wide variety of human rights movements since everyone comes from different backgrounds within the field!
What has been the most challenging part of the program?
The most challenging part of the program has to be juggling my job, internship, extracurriculars, and schoolwork. However, it's been a really rewarding experience and I'm glad that I've been able to explore so many different opportunities while I'm here!
What are your goals (professional or academic) after graduation? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
After graduation, I hope to pursue a PhD in History with a focus on Disability History, the History of Science and Medicine, and Oral History. I love working with students and hope to help establish a disability cultural center and a center for disability studies at my university and work as a professor. In ten years, I hope to create an international non-profit organization that encourages students, scholars, activists, allies, and others in the community to investigate the roots of their higher education institutions and their connections to disability history and provide resources/workshop materials to middle and high school students that teach them about disability history and the civil rights movement.
What is your favorite spot to study (or spend time) on campus?
My favorite study spots are the C.V. Starr East Asian Library and the Barnard Library. In autumn when the weather is still nice, I also enjoy reading at the tables outside Hamilton Hall.
What is one thing that your peers would never guess about you or might find surprising?
I used to work as an Art Educator at two non-profit organizations! I also really enjoy writing poetry and creative nonfiction short stories.
What is your hometown/area famous for?
Apparently, we're famous for being the home to the first electric trolley system in New England! But, if you ask me, I'd say, Derby, CT is known for its love of soccer, state parks, and tight-knit community.
If you were to start a book club, which book would be first on your list? Why?
I absolutely love Octavia Butler's work, so I suggest reading the Patternist series (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay's Ark, Patternmaster, Seed to Harvest, and Survivor) for a book club! Butler's writing is amazing and she is able to cover so many topics within her writing that explore capitalism, racism, sexism, classism, illness narratives, religion, and centers Black women's agency while bringing depth to the representation of their experiences within her stories. I'm also a fan of dystopian novels, and Butler's work is so influential to the wider science fiction community!