Healthy Relationships at MIT

October 23, 2015

An interview with Amanda Hankins, by Shakti Lieten

I did not expect sexual harassment in the workplace/lab to be a big issue within the graduate community at MIT, but it is. I heard about his when I spoke to Amanda Hankins, a few weeks ago.

Amanda works as the education and prevention specialist for violence prevention and response at MIT.  She works with the graduate community, which also includes postdocs and spouses and partners. Her task is to educate us around issues like healthy relationships, domestic violence, sexual harassment and gender equity. “Gender equity is of course a big issue in general in the world, but also plays a role in our MIT community.” A very simple example that Amanda mentioned is when a male student might say to a female colleague: “I’ll carry that big heavy box in the lab, I am the man.”

When most people hear the term ‘violence prevention’, they think of things like assault, domestic violence, rape; cases involving bruises and blood. Amanda however sees ‘violence prevention’ in a broader scope: discriminating against someone based on how they look, their religious affiliation, sexual orientation, their ethnicity or their cultural practices is also violence, albeit in a different form. 
Some labs at MIT are very healthy places to work, but some are not. In some there is a big gender gap. This can create non-conducive working environments and that is not what MIT wants for its students, Amanda mentioned. In the grad community there aren’t as many resources as there are in the undergrad community. For the grad students, their lab is supposed to be their support system. But what if you don’t feel comfortable in your own lab and your advisor is the problem, where do you turn? That’s where Amanda is here to help us out.

Amanda’s main goal is empowering people to take ownership of their lives. There are resources available at MIT to help build healthier, stronger, happier communities; you just need to know where to find them.

A few weeks ago Amanda gave a short workshop at the Spouses & Partners Connect Wednesday meet-up. She talked to us about what is a healthy relationship and gave us communication tools. The MIT environment can be a stressful one and most of us want to make sure our relationships with our partners and/or children remain good. It is not an easy topic to talk about as most of us think it doesn’t apply to us. But just think for a second, has coming to Cambridge changed your relationship in any way? Maybe it has brought more stress within the relationship. There has definitely been a change of environment and maybe also a change in the roles you fulfill in your relationship. That doesn’t mean there will be abuse or violence in that situation, but there might be some discomfort and unhappiness. That’s where Amanda helps by providing healthy communication tools to live a wholesome happy life here at MIT.

The communication tools that Amanda provided can be very helpful in trying to express your feelings without being eaten up by them and therefore not being able to voice them. In the handouts Amanda provided she showed us that an effective message has four components: observation, thoughts, feelings and needs. When you leave out one of these components the message is incomplete. Contaminated messages are the worst, those are the ones that mix or mislabel part of the message and often lead to accusations. One of the examples Amanda gave was:

"You have been working really late in the lab, you haven’t made it home for dinner all week and the kids haven’t seen you for days.” Imagine this is said in an annoyed and tired voice. This probably does not bring across the message and feeling you actually want to convey. In this case it could be “I feel tired and irritated. I think you spend too much time in the lab. I have to cope with a lot by myself with the kids. It would make me feel happy if you can check in with me to find out how everything is going and see what needs to be done.”

One of the difficulties with such workshops in an international community such as Spouses and Partners is the language. We all communicate with our spouses in our mother tongues/ native languages, which often are not English. But the tools still remain the same. I hope some of you have found this information provided by Amanda Hankins useful in creating a happy life here at MIT.

At the end of our conversation Amanda mentioned that it is a privilege for her to work with future leaders of fortune 500 companies, governmental agencies.…yes, she is talking about us, about our spouses ☺