A Passionate Advocate for Gender Equality
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 10:58
Photo courtesy of Claire Jia '15

If you found yourself in Frost Cafe the morning I sat down to interview Kyra Ellis-Moore, you would have observed a seemingly constant stream of people giving her a quick wave and a smile as they walked by. You would have seen how engaged she was in our conversation, how much she listened and thought about each question I posed for her. You might have been amazed, as I was, that she was somehow able to listen intently and speak from the heart during our one-on-one conversation, while simultaneously showing the same attentiveness to everyone passing by.

Ellis-Moore is known on campus as a dancer, an AAS senator and a passionate student of law, gender and sexuality. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about her is the way she’s managed to form so many strong relationships with people from all over campus.

“She is the most wonderful friend to me and so many others,” Christina Won ’15 said, summing up Ellis-Moore’s personality. “She is always ready to share in the joys and the sadness, and she’s a great listener.”

The Path from Albuquerque to Amherst

Although she was born in Berkeley, California, Ellis-Moore lived for a brief time abroad in Guinea and then moved to Washington, D.C. — all before she was speaking in full sentences. She later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which she describes as her true hometown.

“I’ve felt like I’ve had the opportunity to grow up and live in a lot of different environments,” she said. “I’ve been able to find myself in a lot of different situations, which is an important part of growing up.”

Her time in Albuquerque proved to be a critical influence on her life. Ellis-Moore said that her decision to come to Amherst was shaped by her time at a bilingual public school in Albuquerque’s poorly funded public school system. She said that while looking at colleges, she sought “a community that valued diversity and expanding access to educational opportunities for people.”

Once at Amherst, Ellis-Moore worked for the Admissions Office as a tour guide and diversity intern. She spoke with excitement about being able to make a difference by recruiting diverse students and supporting prospective students through the admissions process. She takes pride in hearing from current Amherst students: “Oh, you were the one who emailed me!” or “You were my tour guide!”

Combining Interests in Gender, Sexuality and Law

Ellis-Moore is a double major in law, jurisprudence and social thought and sexuality, women’s and gender studies. Although many Amherst students double major, the extent to which Ellis-Moore has managed to connect her two majors through course work and extracurricular activities is incredible. She describes the inspiration behind the decision to major in these two areas as a combination of her mother’s work as a law professor specializing in refugee and human rights law and her first experiences in the LJST department.

She was quick to credit the influence of LJST professor Martha Umphrey. “She’s encouraged my interests in feminist legal theory, gender and sexuality in the law and privacy law,” she said.

In the wake of Amherst’s recent controversies over sexual assault, Ellis-Moore and a group of students from the class of 2014 put together a special topics course on feminist jurisprudence with Umphrey.

“It was a special seminar to sit with these students and talk through how to think about issues, and particularly with Kyra, who’s such a passionate advocate of gender equality and feminist issues, to watch her work through some of the very difficult issues on campus so thoughtfully and in that setting,” Umphrey said.

Ellis-Moore talks about her interests in legal theory and gender equality in such a passionate and well thought out manner that it’s easy to be inspired by the work she’s done. “I don’t necessarily think law is the necessary nor best lens all the time, but I’m more interested in the intersection between law and changing cultural practices,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, Ellis-Moore’s thesis work also focuses on the intersection between sexuality and gender issues and the law. She said she focused on “potentiality and weakness of law” as it relat-ed to abortion in the United States. Her thesis, although it was officially in the LJST department, combined elements from both her majors by examining how the legalization of abortion has affected cultural and social status. Specifically, she argued that new legislation has seemed to have the effect of shaming women out of fully taking advantage of their constitutional rights.

“She wed her political commitments with her scholarly commitments,” Umphrey said of Ellis-Moore’s thesis. “She was able to write sympathetically about people with whom she disagrees and about people with whom she does agree but understands are imperfect.”

Studies in South Africa

When Ellis-Moore was in elementary school, she accompanied her mother on a research trip to Tanzania for six months. Though the significance of the trip didn’t hit her at the time, her travels ended up planting a seed of interest that culminated in a decision to study abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa during her junior year.

The University of Cape Town is well known for its gender studies program. Ellis-Moore was able to do research on sexual reproductive rights with the African Gender Institute, take a class in gender development and queer theory, and, in her words, “just be a fly on the wall” as she observed the conversation around sexual violence in South Africa.

Perhaps the most important part of the crossover between her domestic and foreign studies came from examining issues of sexual violence in different contexts. In addition to her time in South Africa, Ellis-Moore also did research with SWAGS Professor Kruga Shandilya on the 2012 gang rape in New Delhi. After taking Umphrey’s class and studying abroad she said she began to realize, “there’s been rhetoric amongst Americans how bad things are ‘over there’ and how people are treated elsewhere, without being introspective about how bad things are here.”

Ellis-Moore is wary of pinning the blame for sexual violence on a specific group. She maintains that the problems are cultural and implicate everyone in the society in which they occur; as a re-sult, she stressed how important it was for her to educate herself on historical issues of sexual violence and ways in which to address these problems close to home and abroad.

Just Dance

A summary of Ellis-Moore’s Amherst career wouldn’t be complete without detailing her experiences with Amherst Dance. She lights up when talking about her time with the dance group she joined in her first year at Amherst and has continued with ever since.

Although she danced intensively throughout her youth, Amherst dance became a way for Ellis-Moore to do an activity purely because she loves it and it doesn’t stress her out.

“I’ve taken very little responsibility in Amherst Dance, and it’s been one of the few things I’ve done where I haven’t aspired to pursue any leadership,” she said. “It’s not something you necessarily have to be a leader of or be the best at, but just something you do for yourself.”

It’s also provided another space for her to meet some of her closest friends, including Kate Sundheim ’15, whom she met her first year at Amherst Dance.

“Kyra is a sweetheart; she’s hard not to love,” Sundheim said. “Her personality is contagious; she reaches out to everyone and genuinely cares about everyone she meets and everyone she knows.”

Feeling Grateful

As she reaches the closing months of her Amherst career, Ellis-Moore says the main thing she’s feeling is gratitude.

“I’m grateful for the incredible advising and guidance with my thesis, but also I’m grateful for the relationships,” she said. “I feel connected to this place, and I feel rooted here by having friends among the faculty, staff and community.”

She said she feels ready to go, but talks excitedly about how she’ll never forget the transformative relationships she’s fostered here and the ways she’ll engage with Amherst and the town community for years to come. She said that if she had one piece of advice for incoming first-years, it would be to make friends within the larger Amherst community. She told me how easy it is to get wrapped up in campus life without realizing that there’s a larger world out there.

More than just relationships between herself and other people, Ellis-Moore has fundamentally influenced the way organizations, departments, and other groups connect on campus through her research and activities. SWAGS Professor Amrita Basu credits her with “forging closer ties between the Women and Gender Center and the SWAGS department” with “her passion for social justice and her thoughtful and curious demeanor.”

Through her work as a Peer Advocate of Sexual Respect and as a class senator on the Mental Health and Wellness committee, she’s been an intermediary between different groups focused on education and preventive measures against issues of mental and physical health and sexual respect. Her dedicated and passionate presence has made collaborative relationships possible between a wide range of campus groups.

“Relationships” might have been the word she used most often in our conversation. She’s managed to connect different departments and organizations and form friendships with an impressive number of students and staff members.

Leykia Brill, a former Amherst administrator who got to know Ellis-Moore through her time working in Admissions and Student Activities, perhaps best described the impact Ellis-Moore will leave here.

“Her power rests in her ability to see the human spirit, to care and nurture for the pieces of us we so often neglect,” Brill said. “She is so sincere, so warm, so loving, and so true that it is hard to be anything than your best self when she is near. She makes things better. She makes people better. I am blessed to know her.”

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