We are over two years into a global pandemic and regulations and guidance have remained anything but consistent as we oscillate between surges and lulls in Covid-19 cases. This has led to a lack of consistency in the way we work, and, moreover, how we fit work into our lives.
Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GNCP) released a study in 2021 on the Gendered Impacts of Covid-19 on the nuclear policy community. This work was based on a comprehensive survey and found that those who identify as women in this field suffered disproportionately, both financially and professionally, during the pandemic.
Lovely Umayam, the founder of Bombshelltoe Policy x Arts Collective, worked with GCNP to build off of this work and produce a project centered around the experience of women in nuclear policy. The result culminated in Lifelines: Experiences of women in nuclear policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lifelines includes essays by Victoria Wu, Anu Damale, Chantell Murphy, and Ana Velasco, with illustrations by Elisa Reverman. Umayam and Reverman joined Ploughshares Fund’s president Dr. Emma Belcher on the foundation’s podcast, Press the Button, to discuss the project and their reflections on the lessons for those working in the nuclear policy space.
Right at the start, Umayam emphasizes that while this project focuses on the experiences of women, it does not imply that others did not suffer as well. Rather, it is meant to highlight the burden that did fall on women in the nuclear policy field during the pandemic. And it does exactly that. Each essayist describes their individual experience as a woman in the field, sharing extremely personal and insightful reflections on the way the pandemic influenced and shaped their work. Diving into the project, Reverman’s goal was to produce “visually demanding” illustrations that captured the “inner tensions and turmoil” so many expressed in the essays, and anonymous survey results collected by GCNP.
Umayam says, “we like to pretend that we can decouple the individual from the work, but when the work is specifically about security and protection, which is the case in the nuclear policy field, it's impossible to ignore how insecurity accumulates within ourselves, our immediate communities, and in the world.” Reverman demonstrates these tensions with illustrations that include fissure lines across images and depictions that reflect the complexity of emotions described in the essays.
Such tension has become even more apparent when reflecting on the work the nuclear policy community is doing in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With Putin’s overt threats of nuclear use, many working in the nuclear policy community have found themselves answering calls from friends and family asking what to take seriously, what are the chances of nuclear war, and, at the root of all fear, are we safe?
Umayam added an update in Lifelines that emphasizes the need for a “continuum of care” across the nuclear policy field. She explained that when Russia invaded Ukraine there was an expectation that experts and practitioners would automatically pivot to contemplating the likelihood of nuclear war. Many, however, are still dealing with continuous challenges posed by the existential threat of the pandemic. Umayam believes that as a community, we must “take a beat and learn something about what happened to humanity.” Embedding a continuum of care in organizations and workplaces is one thing Umayam hopes the nuclear policy community will learn is paramount if those in the field are going to be successfully supported in their work. After all, the nuclear threat, like the pandemic, should motivate us to seriously reflect on what keeps us safe.
It is encouraging that there are a series of efforts across the nuclear policy field that have worked to uplift similar efforts, and demand change within organizations to center the self in their work. But, one of the first steps to changing the field, Umayam noted, is that reports like GCNP’s and Lifelines must be recognized as a “credible body of work in the field, the same way that one would treat the new report on how many nuclear weapons exist in the world.” The success of the field depends on the people that make it up, and this connection cannot be ignored.
As a PhD student in analytic philosophy, Reverman was not sure if she would be able to connect with the stories of Lifelines. But, she shares with Belcher, the “essays were so honest and powerful, it ended up being a lot easier for me to find this common ground and find something that I think any kind of audience member could find relatable.” In generating such personal and relatable reflections, the essayist already combated one of the great challenges Umayam highlights in nuclear policy work: breaking down the status quo that “the universal and objective unit of analysis is state behavior.”
The entire interview with Lovely Umayam and Elisa Reverman can be found here. The project Lifelines: Experiences of women in nuclear policy during the COVD-19 pandemic can be viewed on bombshelltoe.com/lifelines.
Alexandra B. Hall is the Policy Associate and Special Assistant to the President at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.