Announcing Our 2023 Halmo Geography Scholar: Kels Rizzo!

Submitted by Nell Gross on
Kels and Toby Gallant from the Student Disability Commission stand together to the right of the emergency contraception vending machine located on the first floor of Odegaard Library in the cafe section. Photo used by permission from Kels Rizzo.

No stranger to social justice advocacy in their education and career, Kels Rizzo enrolled at the University of Washington with the goal of "mov[ing] through spaces with camp ground rules 'leave it better than you found it.'" Certainly they are improving the UW campus with their project "Expanding Reproductive Healthcare at UW Seattle," by sponsoring legislation to install an emergency contraception (EC) vending machine on the main floor of Odegaard Library, and now establishing a permanent maintenance and funding plan for the vending machine. With the 2023 Gerald W. Halmo Geography Scholarship, the Department of Geography is pleased to recognize Kels's knowledge of reproductive healthcare geography, as well as their commitment to mapping the process of implementing sustainable policy changes. Undergraduate Program Director Bo Zhao calls Kels's project "an important initiative for increasing access to necessary healthcare services on campus."

In part, these scholarship funds will support the production of outreach posters and digital media intended to solicit input from the campus community about the location of additional emergency contraception vending machines. Kels notes that the scholarship will also support the completion of the "digital mapping project of this process for bringing the vending machine to campus that will be gifted to the geography department for future student cohorts." Says Kels, "[W]hen I saw the opportunity to get some funding for what I'm doing anyway, it was very appealing. The accountability and specificity of the scholarship guidelines helped me to visualize and narrow the scope of labor for spring quarter, so I'm really grateful that this worked out! The encouragement and support from the geography department have made all the difference in the world as to how I am able to show up at UW."

Thank you, Kels, for your work with Toby Gallant and the Student Disability Commission, and for your advocacy for reproductive healthcare access! Below, Kels shares more details about this project and the ways that their study of geography informs their strategies for making changes in their community.

On getting involved in this project and its significance: I was writing legislation for ASUW as a public policy intern to bring medication abortion services to Hall Health. I met with stakeholders from the RSO Huskies for Reproductive Freedom and together we decided to add emergency contraception vending machines to our legislation following the model. It made sense as a strategy to give the University something with fewer barriers for implementation that they could say "yes" to right away.

As a disability and reproductive health advocate, I've seen the power of local organizing firsthand. So, making the campus more accessible for people to access reproductive healthcare and reducing stigma for those needs seemed attainable and necessary. I've learned so much from organizers and advocates who have taken the time to mentor me and demonstrate leadership, so it felt really good to channel some of those lessons into making UW more accessible for current and future students. 

On a more personal note, I had my abortion when I was 22 and a community college student. I was in Washington State in the pre-Dobbs era, so my barriers to access were about as low as they get. I still had to officially confirm my pregnancy at a doctor's office, cross state lines to access the closest clinic, and navigate Apple Care to get the funding assistance I desperately needed as a full time student. As anyone with this experience knows, any delay to the process is incredibly stressful. I often wonder about how empowering and affirming my experience could have been if I could have just gone to my campus health center and been given a stigma free consultation and pill package that's safer to use than Tylenol. Would I have been able to prevent the pregnancy entirely if there were a vending machine where I could have procured emergency contraception without interacting with a pharmacist? I'll never know how my life could have been different if my experience had been different, but I have no regrets about any of it. Imagining how it could have been more affirming and de-stigmatized is what informs the work I contribute to this project now. We sell an average of 100 boxes per week out of the EC vending machine, and those numbers continue to rise. 

On process and project management as professional skills development: I like being in the spaces and places where decisions are being made and I've learned that being in the conversations about how something will be implemented are critical to the building of life affirming institutions. The "how" is sometimes more critical than the first step of getting to "yes." Good policy can die or be weaponized based on who controls the implementation, and I find it both frustrating and fascinating. 

Our next goal as a cohort is to get funding for EC vending machines at any publicly funded post-secondary college or university across Washington State. We're also working on our statewide campaign to get funding and support to implement medication abortion care at campus health centers across the state. I may not be here to see these projects through, so right now I'm working on keeping our campus cohort connected and empowered to continue this work after people graduate. This is all volunteer-led, and there will always be more work to do to make campuses more equitable and accessible. My goals are to stay focused, keep learning and contribute to collective work towards liberation. I trust I'll find professional opportunities that are a match for the skills and experience I can bring.

On the study of geography as preparation for this project: One aspect is the importance of where the machines are located. "Discreet and accessible locations" is the guiding language. This requires spatial imaginings for groups at the intersection of disability, race, LGBTQIA+, DACA recipients or international students, etc. but also practical implementation as to the "where" on campus. The machine was originally placed next to a men's room in a dark corner next to By George Cafe, and while Student Life was technically meeting "discreet and accessible" by certain guidelines, disabled and genderqueer students were immediately vocal about the inaccessibility of the location. It has since been moved due to the advocacy work of these students, and is a practical example of the importance of engaging marginalized communities in geographic implementation.

Huge thanks to Isaac Rivera for the Abolition Geography class he taught in Winter 2022. Not only did that class bring me to the geography major and department, but his class gave me a very grounded language for what it is that we're trying to do with this project. When we talk about abundance, experimentation with existing frameworks, the presence of life affirming institutions, creating material change to spaces... that is all from the intentional, humble and brilliant teaching that Isaac brings to his classes. Other notable subjects include career exploration, research design, queer geographies, social reproduction theory, Black foodways, and so many others who have taught courses or engaged in conversations with me that have helped or challenged me to visualize and situate what my thinking and career as a geographer can look like. It's not so much "what" I'll be doing, but these classes, instructors, professors and frameworks have forever changed "how" I will show up in future professional and organizing spaces.

[Find more information about the ASUW Senate legislation as well as the installation of the emergency contraception vending machine from The Daily.]