S.8, E.3: “I Want to Be Able to Do the Right Thing”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus student and advocate for justice Emily Joan Falk.
Posted on February 23rd, 2021 by

Gustavus junior and triple-major Emily Joan Falk ’22 (Political Science, Spanish, and Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean Studies) discusses her social justice activism on and off campus, including her involvement in Indivisible-St. Peter/Greater Mankato, Students for Reproductive Freedom, and the annual student-run Building Bridges conference.

Season 8, Episode 3: “I Want to Be Able to Do the Right Thing”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College in the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

I first met my guest today, Emily Joan Falk, this past spring semester 2020, when she took the Gustavus history departments’ Thinking Historically course required of majors and minors, and which I happened to be teaching. A junior at Gustavus, Emily is majoring in political science, Spanish and Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean studies, or LALACS, and minoring, I’m happy to say, in history.

In addition to her academic work, Emily, like many Gustavus students, is involved in various co-curricular campus activities, including Building Bridges, the annual student-led social justice conference, and Students for Reproductive Freedom, of which she is co-president. She’s active as well in Indivisible Minnesota and National Period Day, and has testified at the Minnesota statehouse on behalf of the Minnesota Private College Council.

Her concern for issues of justice has reflected too in her position as racial and disability justice intern with the Ark Minnesota Organization, a position she has held since August 2020. In short, Emily is a fully engaged student in and out of the classroom, on and off campus, and her activism is accompanied by serious thinking about the issues that engage her.

In the short time I’ve known her, I’ve been impressed with the way she combines the Gustavus’ values of excellence, community justice and service. And I’m delighted to speak with her for the podcast. Welcome, Emily.

Emily Falk:

Hi. Thank you for having me.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Yeah, it’s great to reconnect. We haven’t talked since the last day of class this past semester. You passed, so no worries.

Emily Falk:

Well, that’s good to know that I passed.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you’re good. You did great work. It was fun to get to know you. So you’re at home right now. Tell us a little bit where home is first of all.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So I’m from Foley, Minnesota. It’s a super small town, about 20 minutes outside of St. Cloud. So right in the middle of the state. And we live kind of in a subset. So Foley is a very small town, but it’s really spread out, which is interesting. So there’s like little townships within it. So we live in the township of [inaudible 00:02:35] within Foley.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Foley, in terms of number of people, is it smaller than St. Peter?

Emily Falk:

Oh, yeah. St. Peter is like five or six times the size of Foley.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. So Foley is about maybe a couple thousand people or something like that, it sounds like.

Emily Falk:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

All right. Well, good. And you’re not taking a January term course, but you were telling me before we started recording about your morning at the hospital where you work. Tell us a little bit about that work and what’s been going on since we’re in the middle of this God awful pandemic.

Emily Falk:

Yeah, for sure. So I work at the St. Cloud Hospital and like I told you before we started recording, I just walk around and count stuff all day for the laundry department. So it’s like keeping different units of the hospital stocked. And honestly, when COVID first started, I remember the first couple of weekends I went back home to work, it was like an absolute ghost town in the hospital. Like there were no patients, not a whole lot of staff in the hospital at all, just because they were trying to get everyone out and we’re switching a bunch of units into COVID units.

So there was a lot of rapid change and then numbers in central Minnesota just kept spiking. And so there ended up being just a ton of COVID cases for the longest time. And we had, gosh, I want to say like 90% of the hospital’s filled, not with COVID patients, but everything on top of that. There were so many staff in like a labor pool because their units were closed and they were unable to work. It’s been really interesting to see how everyone’s adapted to the change and how we’ve had to change the way that we work and the way that we interact with people on a day-to-day basis.

Because usually it’s like, you can… My badge has access to everywhere because we go to all parts of the hospital. But now it’s like, they have these big signs up like, “No through traffic. No visitors,” all these different things. And it’s hard not to be as social, because the hospital can be like such a tense environment sometimes. So, especially visitors, they just want to see someone smile at them and tell them to have a nice day and you can’t really do that with a mask on. You can’t really do that when you’re in a COVID unit and you see people with like these huge… I honestly want to say it’s like a space suit.

Some folks like in the really critical areas are wearing like PPE that looks like a space suit and all these different things. And it’s been hard sometimes. Some days are just really stressful. But lately because of the holidays, they usually try and discharge as many patients as possible around the holidays. So we’ve actually been going home early a couple of days over the last few weeks just because no one’s in the hospital. And it’s weird to see it go from a ghost town, like totally abandoned in some areas to now today, this morning I saw it just seemed packed again.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Boy, all that is so interesting. You also were mentioning before we started recording, I’ll come back to what you said in a second, but that you received the first dose of the vaccine, which is great. I’m delighted to hear that. But I think what you’re saying, there’s going to be so much written obviously by scholars, not just historians about the impact of all this on our public health system.

But there’s the issue of morale, of course. But what you’re also mentioning about kind of the social aspects of health care. I mean, having been in a hospital, both as a patient and many times as a visitor, you’re right about that. You’d like to be able to interact with not just the person you’re coming to see, the loved one or friend, but a smile from the staff or maybe a handshake with the doctor or nurse and all those little things we can’t do at the moment. And yeah, I think that would be hard. How long have you been doing this, by the way?

Emily Falk:

So I started right after I graduated high school. The first day I worked was like two days after I graduated.

Greg Kaster:

So you really have seen a lot of changes then. This isn’t an assignment, but maybe you keep… Are you keeping a journal at all? Maybe you should do a little writing. Actually, what you could do is write an op ed maybe even for the local newspaper about some of your experiences. Because it’s important to record this stuff. It really is.

But you’re in the front line. So take good care. You’re doing obviously important work. The town of Foley, I’ve never been to. I can picture it on the map now that you located it for me. Why Gustavus from there? What brought you to Gustavus? Were there family members who had gone? That’s often the case, not always. But why Gustavus?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So it actually is the case for me that one of my family members, my uncle, John, went to Gustavus. He was a goalie for the hockey team. So my family has always just been, my mom’s side especially has been a big hockey family, big fans of hockey forever. And he was a MIAC champ in 1984 at Gustavus. And they would always talk about it and going to hockey games at Gustavus. And I was touring other MIAC schools at the time.

So I remember like right before touring Gustavus, I went to Hamline and St. Thomas. And it was actually on my second visit at Hamline and I was almost going to go until I went and toured for the first time. And I was like, “Oh, I actually really like it here.” Immediately I just kind of felt like I was at home. And I wasn’t expecting to like it as much.

I was kind of under the impression, “Oh, I’m from a small town. Of course, I’m going to go to school in the cities.” That just makes sense, because that just seemed to be the natural progression for a lot of my friends in high school. But I just didn’t feel at home at any of the other schools I was touring. It just seemed too overwhelming, I guess.

Granted, they were small schools, but it was still like, yeah, so you live here as a freshmen, then you move off campus. And then if you want to, you can graduate in three years with the paralegal certificate and all these different things. And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” Whereas at Gustavus it was like, “No, you can stay here all four years.” To me, St. Peter is not a small town by comparison to where I’m from, but it felt small enough that I could call it home, but big enough where I was still able to like explore different things that I hadn’t experienced before and feel at home.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. And there’s nearby Mankato, which is really big compared to Foley and even St. Peter. And of course the twin cities aren’t that far. Yeah. It’s so funny. It’s a big theme in the podcast. I mean, I wasn’t expecting it. But what you just said, I mean, the number of people who have said they came to Gustavus because of the campus visit. Are you a Gustie Greeter also or not, or you were?

Emily Falk:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So you know this firsthand from the other side too. I mean, how important that visit can be to a person. Everyone has commented on that about that feeling of comfort and feeling like this is a place where I can thrive. So it’s good to hear you say that as well. What brought you to poli-psych?

I mean, you know I teach you about these three, you’re a triple major, and why not a fourth history? I couldn’t resist. I mean, how did you come to have three majors? I mean, is there any kind of logic to it? I can kind of see obviously Spanish and LALACS, Latin-American, Latin X, Caribbean studies, but tell us a little bit about that path to those majors.

Emily Falk:

Yeah, for sure. So I usually joke that I’m bad at saying no, and that’s how I ended up being a triple major. So when I first came into college, I already knew I was going to major in political science. That’s never changed. But I originally wanted to double major in psychology and political science. And so I was taking psych classes and poli-psych classes, and I was going to minor in Spanish.

But I was just like, as much as I’m interested in psychology, especially forensic psychology, I just have a language brain. I love learning Spanish and having conversations in a different language because it’s just opened so many doors for me, like to be able to communicate with more people, to be able to form relationships with more people.

I’m super interested in radical politics, and Latin America is absolutely the home of radical politics. Just find it so interesting, whether it be The Zapatista movement in Mexico, or like the Communist Revolution in Cuba. To me, it’s so interesting how the left has developed in Latin America in comparison to the United States. And even coming into Gustavus, the first poli-psych class I took was Political and Legal Thinking with Jill Locke, who was interesting.

And just reading so much different political theory from different theorists and different political scientists was really eye-opening. Because although I would consider myself like a left leaning person and like very politically aware, I just realized I was missing out on so much that is out there.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And that’s some… Oh, go ahead. Sorry.

Emily Falk:

Being able to absorb it all just kind of made sense for me to pick those three, because I feel like they’re so connected in just like who I am and what I do, and just like how I interact with academia and academics.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I wasn’t sure about how poli-psych connected to the other two, but you’ve made that clear. And as I indicated in my intro, one thing I am impressed with about you is your ability to combine not just activism, that’s sometimes easy, but the thought as well. And I think Jill, professor Locke’s course on political…

Well, she’s a political theorist, right? But that course no doubt has helped you with that. The other thing I think that’s interesting about you is that you were already interested in political science, if I’m hearing you correctly, before you came to Gustavus. Tell me a little bit about that. I mean, was that something you were already studying in high school?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So I had taken a political science course at my high school. We did college in the schools through St. Cloud state. And so my favorite teacher in high school, her name is Ms. Kroschel. I don’t know if she listens to this podcast, but if she does, shout out to her.

Greg Kaster:

I hope so.

Emily Falk:

Because she went to Gustavus as well. And it was really interesting because she wouldn’t talk about going to Gustavus a lot, but she definitely encouraged me to visit. And I loved her course. She was so influential on me. She’s really interested in theology as well. So I took Western Civ with her and political science at the same time. And just, I guess, seeing how everything worked with the things I was already interested in, like, I’ve always been interested in social justice, but I never really had any route or any way to express that interest being from a small town.

And so just taking that course to me was just… I don’t know. It just gave me insight that there were other people like me that were interested in the same things and that you could make a career out of it. It was more than just being some social justice warrior out in the streets. [inaudible 00:15:04]

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. That’s so important. I mean, and that’s where… Boy, teaching is phenomenal when teachers inspire students or, as others have said on the podcast, exactly what you just said, you become aware that, “You mean I can do this for a living or I can make a career out of this?” A vocation, I feel like.

But yeah, that’s cool. Boy, I’m jotting her name down and maybe we’ll interview your teacher as well for the podcast. I mean, social justice, it doesn’t sound like it was something anyone in your family was doing. Any kind of activism or talking about?

Emily Falk:

I guess it was always a conversation, but not explicitly within my family. But I think my dad’s always just been like a huge inspiration for me, both my parents really, because they’ve always really instilled in me the importance of kindness and treating everyone with dignity and respect and treating everyone equally.

And my dad always told us growing up, “You and you alone are responsible for your actions and you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of those actions,” which has been like, I’m sure you can tell, absolutely ingrained into my mind and it’s something I live by.

And so growing up, just like seeing the news and things of like people not being accountable for the things that they did and seeing that injustice and inequality was existing when that’s not what I was experiencing at home.

It’s like when you’re being told that everyone should be kind and everyone’s going to be treated equally, and then you leave the house and it’s like, wait, what’s going on? It kind of just wakes something up within you that, if you can do something, if you can make a change in any way, shape or form, you should do it. And it just called me, I guess, to be on the path that I’m on now.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. What you’re really talking about is the gap between sort of ideals or values and reality. That often fuels activism, especially young people’s activism. That was certainly true in the 1960s and it’s still true. And you’re another example of that. Now, I’m trying to remember, was it your dad who was a policeman, was or is, or is that a different family?

Emily Falk:

Yeah, he is.

Greg Kaster:

He was. And is still or not?

Emily Falk:

He is still, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And is that on the local police force or?

Emily Falk:

Well, he’s a detective in the next town over.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s interesting. So what was it like to grow up with a dad who’s a policeman?

Emily Falk:

Yeah, it’s honestly been really interesting. When I reflect back on it, a lot of the things I do now related to racial justice and activism and Black Lives Matter I feel like was really influenced by him and just the way he lives his life. He’s the kindest and most genuine person I know and truly treats everyone with respect no matter what. And to see the way that he performs his job and knowing that that is not the case. That’s not how everyone does their job.

I still remember where I was standing when I found out that Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson. And I was like, “This cannot be real. This can’t happen. Police brutality was a thing in the ’60s.” Up until I was 14, I thought racism and racial injustice was completely a thing of the past. Because I didn’t see it. Foley is so small. It’s ninety some percent white. I did not see racism, police brutality or anything like that occurring in my community because everyone around me looked the same.

And so to realize that it was happening in other places, I was just like, “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. Something is wrong with that.” And I felt like a lot of internal conflict. I’m like, wait, my dad’s a good person and he’s a police officer, but these people who are police officers are bad people. And just with a lot of rhetoric now about like defunding the police or abolishing it.

And kind of being able to understand that perspective, specifically like from a defunding the police perspective, it’s just given me a lot of valuable insight to that as well of what policing is and how it should be done and how it’s really serving and protecting the community. But that’s not what we’re seeing happening. And what can we do to make sure that everyone in our community is safe and turn it into more of a situation of mutual aid and support instead of reprimanding members of the community, if that makes sense.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, it all makes sense. I mean, first of all, that’s incredible to be around 14 years old and you’re one who is dealing with all kinds of issues already at that age. but then to kind of think about what you’re seeing on television, reading about what’s Michael Brown and others, and then your own dad is a policeman. Yeah, that’s all important and informative, I think, as you’re suggesting. Did your dad talk much about that with you? Did you have conversations with him about let’s say Mr. George Floyd’s death here in Minneapolis or is it a subject you kind of both stay away from?

Emily Falk:

I mean, I feel like I was I guess kind of an angsty teenager at the time because I was really mad, I guess, and I just was like absorbing all the information I was getting so quickly. And so I didn’t know what to do. And so honestly it was a little bit of an argument for a while because I didn’t understand, I think, fully what I was talking about or the significance of it on a larger scale within the United States.

And as I’ve gotten older, I understand how to have a conversation, not just with my dad, but with anyone that isn’t so confrontational and coming up like, “I am right. I read two articles and I am a genius now and I am going to get up on a soap box and scream at whoever.” It’s not like that.And it was for a while. And I remember when George Floyd was murdered and just having a conversation with my dad about that and talking about how the officers that did that, they shouldn’t have a job.

He’s like, “There are some people that shouldn’t be police officers.” The MPD has had a lot of problems that haven’t been addressed and that is deeply problematic and there needs to be something done about it because the civil unrest is not new. It has been building up for a long time. It’s just more people know about it because they can see it on their TVs and they can hear about it.

But he’s known about some of these issues for quite a while. And he’s like, “I’m not surprised that this happened,” because they still had that chokehold within their code of conduct. They never took it out even though within the state of Minnesota, you’re not supposed to do that. They totally outlawed it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. All that again is so interesting. And you’re absolutely right about in Minnesota, in the twin cities, I mean, the segregation and racism, it’s hard to say as someone who I’m not from Minnesota, but certainly have grown to love it after living here more than 30 years. But yeah, there’s a long history here, as you are saying. And actually an alum, William Green, who went to Gustavus, graduated some years ago, but teaches at Augsburg, and he’s written four books now on black history in Minnesota. He gets to some of the roots of this.

Some of what you’re describing, as you suggest, you were just sort of being a teenager. I’m having semi traumatic memories of arguing with my dad over many things and feeling bad for my mom who witnessed these arguments with my dad, my only sibling, my younger brother and me. But in all seriousness, I mean, it gives you a vantage point on some of the issues surrounding the murder of George Floyd in similar events, a vantage point with your dad as a policemen that not all of us have.

I also want to comment on your dad’s, maybe your mom’s, that comment they made or he made about kindness. Wow. I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but I remember reading, I think it was the author, Kurt Vonnegut, saying something like just how important acts of kindness are in this world. And it’s easy to dismiss that as some sort of softy, inconsequential attitude or sentiment, but it really is. You’re lucky. You had good advice, it seems to me, from your parents. What about your mom? Was she working too, or is she working while you were growing up?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. We actually work at the hospital together. So she works as an administrative assistant in the safety and security office. So everyone calls her the badge lady because she makes all the hospital IDs and things. So she is like the first face you see when you go through employee orientation and you get to go downstairs and get your picture taken. And then there’s my mom telling you to smile.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. So do you have much interaction with her when you are at the hospital? I’m gathering probably not.

Emily Falk:

I mean, yeah. She works right down the hallway from me actually. So during my breaks, this is going to sound so childish, because we have lunch together like most days that I work, but she’ll pack me a snack or something in her lunch box. And so I sneak down there during my morning breaks and I just kind of like hang out in her office and I grab an apple or something. And it’s really nice. I love my mom. We’re really close. And so it’s hard to be able to see her throughout the workday. We can just vent to each other if we need to a little bit.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I think it’s not childish. It’s nice and sounds sweet to me. Back to the major. So poli-psych. What about Spanish? I mean, were you already studying that in high school as well?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So I took Spanish for three years in high school and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue studying Spanish in college. I knew I wanted to do like a minor, but I just had no ideas until during my senior year of high school, I went to Spain for two weeks…

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I’m envious. Oh, I’m envious. I’m so envious. Keep going. Sorry.

Emily Falk:

I mean, it was a really great experience. I don’t think I would trade it for anything in the world, especially hanging out with my host sister, who was the same age as me, and her friends, wow, just really opened my eyes to how important language is. And it just kind of sparked, I guess, a passion within me to keep learning it because I can talk to more people. It was great.

Greg Kaster:

What part of Spain were you in?

Emily Falk:

I was in the region of Andalusia, so the southern part of Spain. So I was in a town during my family stay called [inaudible 00:26:53], which is about 20 minutes outside of Calis. So it was right on the southern coast of Spain. It was absolutely beautiful.

Greg Kaster:

I am so envious. I may have mentioned to our class, I went to Mexico, I think I was a junior, and just fell in love. I went with my then girlfriend, who was fluent in Spanish, and I had not taken Spanish in high school. I was taking it in college. And we went central Mexico, just absolutely love, for a semester. And it was, as they say, transformative, life-changing in so many important ways. But I’ve always wanted to go to Spain.

I’m not sure I’ve told anyone else about this before, but I went through kind of a bull fighting phase, not as a bull fighter, but I was so into… I don’t know. Maybe it was my younger Hemingway. I just was so into reading about bull fighting and bull fighters and watching even. My parents and brothers were somewhere in Chicago, maybe in the Chicago amphitheater, where a bull fighter named [inaudible 00:27:51], I think was… Is that his name? I think so.

You could watch the bullfight on this big screen and eat Spanish food and I was in heaven. So I outgrew the bullfighting part, but not the desire to go to Spain. So I am envious. That’s awesome. Well, your time at Gustavus, have you had a chance to go abroad again or not?

Emily Falk:

Not yet. No. I was supposed to go to Argentina the spring semester, but unfortunately Ms. Coronavirus decided to cancel those plans. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to go during the fall semester or if I’m going to go over J term, but I would really love to spend some time in Argentina.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, me too. Again, not been there. I hope you get to go. I’ve done some podcasting with faculty in the Spanish section of the modern languages, literatures and cultures department. So I don’t know. If you’re taking courses with a particular professor, I’ve done with professor Mejia Suarez and professor Angeliue Dwyer hall, all interesting people.

I wish I had kept out my Spanish. I have not, I’m embarrassed to say. But I wish I had. But my brother-in-law is a doctor in Phoenix and he and his wife, my wife’s sister, they came here to Minneapolis and we went out to dinner at a local restaurant and there was a guy we know, who actually works in our building also, but he worked at this restaurant and is from Ecuador.

And suddenly my brother-in-law is speaking fluent Spanish guy with this guy and I’m stunned. I had no idea, like, where is this coming from? And it turned out that he’s had to learn Spanish and he’s learned it in part just by interacting with all of his patients in the Phoenix area. And so to your point about being able to communicate with people, I mean, language is a bridge between cultures, but also sometimes just very practical applications of it. And there it was. So Spanish, pol-psych, Latin American, Latinx, Caribbean studies, it all make sense. Now, the wildcard question, history. Why the minor in history? What drew you to history?

Emily Falk:

Oh, I’ve just always loved history. It’s always interested me. My favorite movies growing up were Indiana Jones. And I was convinced I was going to be him when I grew up. I had had a hat that my mom got from New Zealand, but I was like, “No, this is my Indiana Jones hat.” And I wouldn’t take it off. I was like, “I’m going to go be an archeologist.”

I realized archeology isn’t like that. What I really want to do is just travel around in the ’40s and like punch Nazis, I’m sure. But yeah, I just loved history, and I watched this cartoon called Time Warp Trio and King Tut, just like different things in my childhood I think that just influenced my love of history and just an interest in it.

But then as I’ve grown older, like history is a part, I think, of every academic discipline, right? It all has a history. It doesn’t start and end with what you study, which I find so fascinating because all of that has directly impacted where you are right now doing work, like if you look in general, us as human beings.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Now you’re preaching to the choir, as you know. Yeah. Also, it occurs to me, I mean, there are so many students who’ve mentioned when I’ve talked to them, not just for the podcast, but about where their interest in history came from. It’s no surprise. I mean, we historians know this popular culture, but I’d like to know more about that. For example, what you just mentioned, what’s it called the cartoon you mentioned? I had not heard of that before.

Emily Falk:

The Time Warp Trio?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I had not heard of that. Drunk in History I’ve heard of and watched actually. I think it’s no longer being made. But film, all of that stuff is so interesting and I think important for teachers of history to know about and think about. Well, there’s still time to major in history, so we’ll see, not if you want to graduate in four years. We’ll accept a minor. That’s great.

So you’ve been not only doing really excellent work academically, but you’ve been really quite involved in the various activities that I mentioned at the start. Let’s talk a little bit about those. I actually did not know much about the organization of which you are co-president, Students for Reproductive Freedom. I’d heard of it, but I hadn’t known as much about it until preparing for this podcast. Tell us a little bit about that and your involvement in that, what the purpose of the organization is and what drew you to it.

Emily Falk:

Yeah, for sure. So the organization actually started the spring of my first year at Gustavus. And so at first it was just like, my friend, Nora Hochstein, invited me. And she’s like, “You would love this. One of my friends that I work with in the career development office has started this organization through Planned Parenthood. You have to come to our meetings.”

So it was like me and six other students. And we were just starting the org. And we’re like, “This is important. We should be doing this on campus and we just want to be able to have fun while we do it.” And we started tabling and doing different things to pick it up off the ground. And then at the end of the year, I applied to be vice president of the organization and they actually stopped me one day and they’re like, “Oh, actually, so do you just want to be president next year? Do you want to take it over?” And I was like, “Ummh, okay. Yeah. I guess I can do that.” And I was just so shocked.

So that involves an internship with Planned Parenthood Generation Action as well. So that’s been really great to be in an organization that just encompasses everything that I’m passionate about in relation to reproductive rights and health care and women’s rights. I actually get to learn about it and do different trainings and things that make me, I feel like, more knowledgeable, but also I think just better, better able to serve the group.

And we are currently working on getting free menstrual products in all the campus center bathrooms through a company called Aunt Flow. So last year we were able to chat to the health and housing committee on student Senate with that. And so hopefully, fingers crossed, we will be able to get them in there by the end of the year. But that’s been something I think that’s been one of the main focuses of our group is de-stigmatizing like just getting a period in general and the importance of menstrual products, not just as like they’re not luxuries, right? It’s a necessity. We have condoms everywhere. Why can’t we have tampons?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And first, congratulations on that. I didn’t know that. That’s awesome. And obviously this relates to your work with National Period Day. You want to say a little bit about that?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. That was so much fun.  I feel like working with Planned Parenthood or just any nonprofit, I would really recommend for people interested in social justice or any kind of activism, because everyone knows each other really and it opens so many doors. And that’s what happened, was my supervisor at Planned Parenthood was like, “Oh, I know you’ve mentioned that your group is doing this. So here’s the person that’s doing this National Period Day rally at the U of M. Do you want to like co-sponsor it and go speak?”

And I was like, “What?” Yeah. So I was able to talk about I guess menstrual inequality at Gustavus and within other like private colleges, because the University of Minnesota actually has free menstrual products within, I guess, the equivalent of the Jackson Campus Center, which is really impressive because they have a huge student body. And so I was talking about why this is important and I was able to speak from my experiences doing that work at Gustavus and being able to be there with not only other like-minded just individuals, but organizations as well.

There were so many people there. Erin Maye Quade, if you know who that is, kind of a local celebrity. I think she worked in the House of Representatives for a while, does a lot of political work, is an absolute icon. And she and her wife, I have met several times now, just doing stuff not just within political activism and action, but just on social media as well. They do so many different like Zoom things. It was just so cool. So she hosted that. There was… Oh, I forget the name of it, but they work with women who have endometriosis and making health care more accessible for them.

There is this organization for queer folks called The Coven, which is local to Minneapolis. That was there as well. And it was really wonderful. And I feel like making those connections with folks within the community and different organizations is so important because it makes you more able to effectively serve the people around you if you can connect them to the resources that they need, and to also be able to learn. I had no idea where any of these other places were. I didn’t even know a thing. I’m not from Minneapolis, and you want to describe something there, I’m like, “I don’t know what that is.” So being able to see it and learn about it just makes me more able to, I guess, create pathways for people where they need that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, absolutely. I used to teach… And you’re making me want to revive it, actually. I used to teach a course called American radicalism or American descent, and maybe I will revive it. But that is a huge part of what you’re describing of activism. Whether it’s on the left, the right, it doesn’t matter. But kind of the social aspects of it, right?

Emily Falk:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

I didn’t participate in lots of demonstrations as a younger person in some sense, but part of it is just being with other people, as you’re suggesting, both making connections that can be useful to you as an activist and the people you’re trying to help, or the causes you’re working on, but also just the fun of being around other people and feeling that energy and excitement. No small thing. I would imagine this has built your confidence as well, I would think, as a speaker. Is that true? Do you feel that?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. Well, I was still very nervous to go up and speak in front of that many people, but I was in speech in high school and I actually was in the category original oratory, which is like an original persuasive speech. So I have absolutely no problem telling people exactly what I think. So I feel like that’s just grown, which has been really useful, because public speaking and I guess just presenting or doing things like that in general, it can be really nerve-wracking for some folks. And it doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous, but I felt really confident in my ability to speak or convey an idea effectively.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And don’t ever lose that willingness to tell people what you think. Hang on to that. I still get nervous. I mean, I’ve been teaching for, say it was more than 30 years, and I’m always a little bit nervous before, whether it’s online or in person, it doesn’t matter. And I always tell myself, if I don’t feel that, I’ll probably stop teaching.

As you’re suggesting, it doesn’t mean you don’t develop confidence. But I think that’s true of actors too sometimes, at least for some. The other thing I want to talk to you about, so you mentioned… I mean, I forget the phrase you use, but it’s important. I mean, I can imagine some people making really funny on National Period Day, but you make a serious point, and that’s one of the points of the day, which is there is this kind of issue of equality, right? It’s an economic issue.

I mean, these products, as you said, they’re not luxury items and they cost money. And so, why is it that institutions, if they’re providing let’s say condoms, which wasn’t always the case at Gustavus. I’m old enough to remember when that was not the case at Gustavus. I remember a biology professor who left I think after a year because he just wanted to do something else, but you don’t put your box of condoms on the table in his classroom.

Anyway. Am I right about that? That’s the issue, right? I mean, these things cost money and not all students can afford it. I mean, the other issue maybe is that this isn’t just a feminine product. You want to say a little bit about that? They’re often described that way, right? Feminine products. Go ahead.

Emily Falk:

Yeah, totally. I think it’s an issue. Well, not to be like, “Oh, everything’s so interconnected,” but it really is. And I think that equality related to menstruation is related, I think, directly to economics, just in the sense that so many food shelves and homeless shelters and organizations that are similar, the one thing that they always want is menstrual products because they don’t get them because people don’t think about someone who menstruates who’s homeless, who does not have access to that and is now in the streets and doesn’t know what to do. And they’re just expensive.

We had an event last fall called A Sexy Sustainable Bingo, where we gave out free condoms. And also we played bingo. And what we did was our prizes were environmentally friendly menstrual products. And when I went to target to buy them, seeing how expensive they all were was, wow. I already knew it was an issue, but I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is ridiculous.” Because in some states, thankfully not in Minnesota, but they’re taxed as luxury items and they’re not a luxury.

And I think for all women’s products, there’s a pink tax, where the price is just higher and sometimes they’re taxed as luxury items. Whereas if they are marketed towards men or those who I guess are more masculine, the price is significantly less and they are not taxed because they’re seen as a necessity. So it’s the issue then of gender equality. But then it’s also the issue within what if you are a transgender man who is still getting their period? The assumption is that all folks who menstruate are women, but it’s more than a women’s issue.

It is, how do we de-stigmatize it so that everyone understands you don’t have to be a woman to have your period and it’s not gross and it’s not something that you can’t talk about or like having the open and these are really products we should have an all bathrooms because you don’t know who’s using what, right? And it’s kind of I think a bold assumption and obviously transphobic and exclusive to just assume that… There are some men that get their periods and that happens. There’s non binary folks who might feel more comfortable using one bathroom over the other. Think of how awkward that is to then dig in a bag or your pockets for like quarters to try and buy a tampon and it says feminine products on it, but you don’t identify with that.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Those are all excellent points, I think. And points that, frankly, I hadn’t thought a whole lot about until I read about it even before, because I think this was last fall, right? The National Period Day, if I remember.

Emily Falk:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So before I knew you. But I’d never really paid that much attention to the economic side of it and also the implications of calling these products feminine products. So again, kudos on getting that done at Gustavus. It’s almost done, it sounds like. That’s really exciting. That’s a concrete achievement that you and your fellow activists can take great pride in.

The other thing I’d like to talk a little bit about is your work with Indivisible. Man, that’s become really an important organization I think nationally and locally at the state level as well. I know some people involved here in Minnesota and now you too. Tell us a little bit about that, how you came to be involved in it and what it’s about.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So last J term, actually, I was in a course with Misty Harper and it was a native American history of the US. And she at the time was also involved with Indivisible and just going to the local rallies that they would hold. And a couple of my friends would actually go to their weekly rallies and demonstrations as well. And I don’t know how I totally had never heard of it.

But I started going when the government was like, “Yeah, we’re just going to hang out in Iran for a little bit.” And just everyone was really scared and I was like, “Oh, this is not okay.” And so I went to the rallies and I just kept going. And I was reached out to by a member of the leadership team and they’re like, “Do you want to be on the leadership team? Do you want to join us? I was like, “Yeah. Okay.”

Greg Kaster:

This is a theme in your life, right? Where people ask you, ‘Hey, would you like to be president of the Students for Reproductive Freedom?” Or, “Would you like to speak at this rally?” And now this. Someday, someone’s going to ask you, “Would you like to run for office?” We’ll come to that a bit. So keep going. Tell us what your responsibilities are for Indivisible.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. And so then after that I just started getting more involved, which is great because I think that being a college student on the leadership team is important because I feel sometimes that Gustavus students have a hard time getting off the hill. We’re super involved on campus, but sometimes on campus it can be difficult because we are involved within the campus and not the greater St. Peter community.

And this has been a way for me to encourage not only like myself to put myself out there, but also for other students to do the same thing. Anytime we had demonstrations or rallies, like to count every vote rally that we had right after the election in Mankato, I mean, I send all the notifications out to Students for Reproductive Freedom so that everyone knows what’s going on and that there’s other ways to be involved and to have your voice heard.

And so one of my responsibilities has been sometimes I’ve organized rallies or demonstrations. I’ve spoken at some of them. But we have weekly meetings and we plan our solidarity Saturdays or Sundays, and just ways that we can serve the community and like where we’re needed. What is occurring locally, nationally, at whatever level, politically, that we need to speak out about?

And it changes every day, which is crazy to think about. But it’s really just about building community with folks who are like-minded, and not only that, but making a seat at the table and inviting more people into the movement and ensuring that everyone has a place and that we’re voting and that we are holding politicians accountable so that it really can be like a representative democracy.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, IM not directly involved in any way. I sort of support it from the margins. And again, I don’t know some people involved in it. But I’m super impressed with the mission of the organization, its attempt to be inclusive, and also the fact that it… For time, I wasn’t sure, is this going to be sort of a one-off? But it’s not. I mean, it looks like it’s really going to be sustained.

You mentioned professor Harper, my colleague in the history department, and I was able to podcast with her about the George Floyd murder and the history around it. I don’t know if you came across professor Yurie Hong of classics, who’s been involved in Indivisible and other actions as well in the area. And I think too, the point you just made about getting off the hill.

One of the things I do like about you too, by the way, you’re out and your activism is not just the thinking that goes with it, but that it isn’t confined simply to campus co-curricular stuff. We’ll talk about Building Bridges in a second. But that you’re getting off the hill and into the community. I think that’s super important and useful too in all kinds of ways, both to you individually and to the community and college, both.

But let’s talk about building bridges now because that’s also an amazing effort that’s been ongoing. I don’t know when it was started, but I can’t remember when there wasn’t a Building Bridges conference. And you’ve been pretty involved in that almost since the start. Is that right? Since you started your time at Gustavus, 2018 or something like that.

Emily Falk:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Tell us a little bit about what Building Bridges is and what you’ve been up to in it.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. I love BB, Building Bridges. It’s so much fun. And yes, I know Yurie Hong very well. She’s the one that asked me to be a member of the leadership team. She was one of the first people I met at Gustavus, because I went to the religion and classics, I guess, like little presentation that they put on Accepted Students Day. And she convinced me to come because I just thought she’s so cool and it’s so cool.

But yeah, Building Bridges is really so much fun. I know you interviewed Joy Dunna for one of the episodes of the podcast. So I met her on one of those Accepted Students Day. I was like, “What do you do? You’re so cool. What are some things I could be involved in?” And she was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s Building Bridges.” And I was like, yup. Right away, I knew I was going to join. And I did.

And this is the 26th year that we have been doing the conference and my third year within the organization. And it’s just really cool. I have no other way to describe it. It’s really I think a Testament to, I guess, the students’ abilities, but also just to like build leadership within Building Bridges has always been about building the members’ confidence and understanding that we have the ability to run a big social justice conference and get huge names within the sphere like David Archambault to come and speak at our school and at this conference because we are well-qualified to put this on. And it’s just been really cool.

It’s not just the conference. Obviously that is the end goal that we work towards. But it’s also like the learning part of it as well. We spend a good chunk of our meeting learning about our topic and our keynote speakers and discussing the ways in which, as individuals interact with the topic, how we relate to it, what we can do as like a community at Gustavus to just do more than the conference and supporting the cause. It’s not just kind of like you mentioned one-off, like one-and-done, like, oh, yeah. So this year we’re doing liberation.

Greg Kaster:

I was going to ask you. Go ahead. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. Which seems like a broad topic because it is. But there are so many different kinds of liberation. So there’s a lot we can do with it. And I’m so excited to see how folks with an action piece especially, which is like they turn the second floor of back into almost like an interactive art piece and every room is just filled with student art and interaction for folks to be able to like get out of their seats and interact and learn about the topic in a different way, but they’re going to be able to do that online this year.

And that’s so cool to be able to see like the creativity come out. I’m on the events committee and being able to do different online events and plan them and brainstorm and, how are we going to promote it? Like, how do you promote things online? Because you can use social media. It’s so cool just to see the amount of passion and drive within the planning process. And it’s the best.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, all I can say is I’m envious. Looking at it as a faculty member, I’m proud. I think in a way it’s its own curriculum. As you say, I mean, the learning that goes on, it’s kind of like the Nobel conference or the Mayday conference. I mean, the event itself is of course awesome. And that’s the point. But it’s all the work and learning that precedes the event and then the great satisfaction in pulling off such an event and this spring pulling it off online, which I know all of you will do well. It’s funny, the other day I was interviewing an alum, graduated in 2014, Katie Schlangen, who was a bio history double major. She’s now in Hong Kong.

But she was super involved in Building Bridges as well, like Joy Dunna, a history major. And again, much of what you’re saying about the importance of that that experience at Gustavus. So congrats on that. I look forward to this year’s BB. I hadn’t heard that before. That’s the Building Bridges conference. So again, I’m just so impressed with the ways in which all of your different activities really intertwine around social justice. And that leads me to your internship work with The Arc. I’ve heard of The Arc. I know a little bit about it. But how long have you… Well, I think I said you’ve been doing that since what, August 2020? So not that long. But tell us a little bit about your work there, what draws you to it and what it involves?

Emily Falk:

Yeah. So when I first came home last year, once we were sent off campus, I was like, “Well, what am I going to do over my spring break?” And so I was applying for different internships and I actually got The Arc’s policy research internship, which I did over the summer.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Emily Falk:

Yeah, it was a really wonderful experience to… I love doing research. And so to be able to do it about the political implications and nuances of the disability rights movement was so fascinating because so often in activist work and in social justice, fears, accessibility and disability rights are often kind of like overlooked and there’s a lot of ableist language around activism like, “Stand up. Use your voice.” You don’t think about the implications of that all the time and how that might be exclusive. And that was just so wonderful.

And they offered me the position of a racial justice and disability justice intern, which I actually just finished up not too long ago. But it’s just cool, honestly, to be able to do something that I’m passionate about with organization that is already doing so many wonderful things and like, how can we make this work more inclusive? How can we build the understanding between the disability community and folks with disability who are also experiencing racial injustice or police brutality?

Because folks with disabilities are more likely to experience police brutality. How do we incorporate that into what we’re already doing? Because I told them this work already is what we’re doing. It’s already aligned with our mission statements and with our principles. We just need to do it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The stuff about disability and the ways race connects with disability I find quite fascinating. And what you just said is true. I think about how disability issues get too often overlooked. It only was a few years ago when I was teaching my first term seminar in the 1960s that a student in that class decided to do her paper on the disability movement coming out of the out of the ’60s, which was usually forgotten, easily forgotten even by me.

You focus on the civil rights movement, women’s rights, the anti war movement, et cetera, gay rights. So again, kudos to you for your involvement there. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a walking advertisement for Gustavus education. But let’s maybe conclude on two notes. One, what’s your pitch for Gustavus? Why come to Gustavus, if you were speaking to a prospective student? And then two, just looking ahead, I know you’re only in junior, but what you see yourself doing maybe in five years out after graduation.

Emily Falk:

Well, my first pitch for Gustavus is there’s a lot of vegetarian options in the caf, more than any of the other of my ex schools. So if you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, it’s the vegetarian food.

Greg Kaster:

That’s important. And it’s good vegetarian food, right? Delicious.

Emily Falk:

But I guess it’s really about the community for me. It was why I chose to go to Gustavus and it’s why I continue to go to Gustavus because of the relationships that I have made with faculty members, with other students. I’ve met my best friends and the entire world at Gustavus. I have truly found a place where I belong. I have become connected with communities that I’m a part of in ways that I never thought would be possible.

And on top of that, like the learning. I feel like this is a place for lifelong learners. It truly is. You come and you know that you’re not only… You’re here to get a great education, right? But as you are going along, what I’ve realized is I’m never going to stop learning. I’m not just here to get a credit, like my science credit or my math credit, or like any of the Gen Eds done. It’s more than that.

It’s I’m going to continue using this information and the skills that I have gained through every single class for the rest of my life. As for what I plan on doing after graduation, oh my gosh, my sister, it was so [inaudible 01:00:44]. She asked me, she’s like, “What are you even going to do after you graduate?” And I’m like, “Hmm, that’s a really controversial question, isn’t it?”

But I think what I would like to do is I would just like to work or do research after my undergrad for a couple of years and hopefully work with nonprofits more because I just think that that work is so fascinating and I just really enjoy it. But I would like to go to law school to be a civil and human rights lawyer possibly, maybe I’ll work for the ACLU, something like that, who knows? I might even live in a city, like Minneapolis. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll move out of the small town. I just want to be able to do the right thing and have that be my career.

Greg Kaster:

You will. I mean, all of us know you will. I have no doubt about that, that you will. And I can certainly see you in law. I can see you in policy, politics. And this reminds me that when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, you were a part of, was it sort of a memorial at Gustavus?

Emily Falk:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

You were part of that as well. I assumed you had an interest in law and she’s certainly an amazing role model for so many women, but also men as well. Yeah, I can’t wait. I want to podcast with you again in probably five years or seven years, we’ll see, and see where you’re at. But I look forward to following you the rest of your time at Gustavus and then beyond. I’m super proud of you.

It’s so interesting what you’re doing. And I look forward to seeing you back on campus, I hope soon, maybe by the fall, I think, when we’re all vaccinated. So this has been really interesting and fun. There’s nothing better for a teacher to listen to a student who’s so engaged as you are and learning and doing. Those two things, of course, aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, far from it. But anyway, it’s been a real pleasure, Emily. Take good care. Thanks so much.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you’re welcome. And good luck with all the Building Bridges stuff. Look forward to that too.

Emily Falk:

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It means a lot to be on the podcast, because like I said, I’m a big podcast fan. But thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot. So thank you.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Take good care. We’ll talk soon. Bye bye.

Emily Falk:

Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing; Gustavus graduate Will Clark class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast; and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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