“I think it’s a starting point. Even with the center, it will hopefully be an immediate resource that people can turn to and will be a lot more reliable than the administration has been in the past.” – Justina Yam ’19
The creation of a Gender Resource Center has been a long time coming at Wesleyan. Students have been lobbying for identity-based resource centers as far back as 1969, when a group of students demanded the university create cultural center dedicated to black students. In the 1980s the first iteration of a gender-based center emerged in the form of a Women’s Resource Center at 190 High Street (now the University Organizing Center). Unfortunately the center had a touch and go existence. Within two decades of its creation, the center dissipated, went through a period of revival, and dissipated again. Here is some of that recent history and the current status of establishing a permanent Gender Resource Center at Wesleyan:
The most recent push for a gender-based resource center was sparked by Lily Kong ‘16 and Nina Gurak ‘16 around the end of their freshman year. Kong and Gurak developed their idea for the center through loose proposals to the administration and student testimonials.
Ultimately the administration established a paid internship position dedicated to the Gender Resource Center under the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Michelle Lee ‘16 held this position for one semester but continued working on GRC after her job officially ended. Last year was especially exciting for the GRC board. They put out a call for freshmen to join, created a Pop-Up Gender Resource Center, and drafted an official proposal for the center that was okayed by President Michael S. Roth.
According to this proposal (which can be read in full as an Appendix to the Equity Task Force’s Final Report), the GRC’s mission is “to serve as a community where anyone with gender-related issues can access the resources that they need.” The center will enact this mission by hosting “an extensive library with famous works by female, intersex, and transgender authors, poets and artists” and a lounge/café for gender-related student groups like Wesleyan Women in Science and the Students for Consent and Communication to meet and organize.
The center also plans to offer information about opportunities like grants or fellowships geared towards students with marginalized gender identities as well as resources for survivors of sexual assault and students studying in areas where their identity is underrepresented.
With the IsThisWhy? demonstrations and demands also taking place last year, plans have expanded to include the creation of a center that, to quote the Equity Task Force Report, “has a clear, intellectually grounded mission in social justice and a focus on intercultural development and literacy.” The creation of this center will be facilitated by three committees: the Steering Committee, the Gender Resource Center Board, and the Student Advisory Committee. This semester the committees plan to create a proposal for this center based off the proposal submitted by the GRC Board last spring. Here are brief descriptions of each group.
- The Steering Committee will primarily oversee the creation of the Intercultural and First Gen center, and work with Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias as well as Deputy Title IX Coordinator Debbie Colucci. The Steering Committee includes students, faculty, and members of the Board of Trustees.
- The Gender Resource Center Board is devoted specifically to the creation of the Gender Resource Center. Currently, the board includes Madeleine Lundberg ’19, Isabel Alter ‘17, and Justina Yam ‘19.
- The Student Advisory Committee is comprised entirely of students and is responsible for reaching out to other members of the Wesleyan student body and communicating what they hear to the Steering Committee so that student input can inform their proposal. In the SAC are representatives from queer, POC, low income, and first-generation communities as well as a liaison from the GRC board.
Since it’s still early in the process there are some lingering uncertainties about how the GRC will function within the larger center and, to paraphrase WSA President Rebecca Hutman ‘17, balance the autonomy of each space with intersectionality. Currently, the goal is for the center to open in the fall of 2017.
When asked about the administration’s confidence in this deadline, VP for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias said:
“We are confident with the fall 2017 target, but to be clear, a solid foundation is key; the Steering Committee acknowledges student concerns that we may be moving too fast, and under no circumstances will we make recommendations that compromise the quality of the center.”
From the student perspective, the deadline is a positive starting point. “It’s the most concrete thing I’ve heard since I’ve been working on this project” said Isabel Alter ‘17, a member of the GRC board who has been involved with the project since the second semester of her freshman year.
She continued, “Before [ the date was announced] it always been this abstract [response of] ‘oh, maybe we’ll look for a space for you some day…’ so I feel very positively about getting a date…I feel like right now there are also a lot more people watching, and Roth has made public statements about it.”
Alter specifically referenced Roth’s statement at the State of the School address where he said “I am convinced we will open a center before the next academic year. We have the time and the money.” Alter also acknowledged that at times board members have found the administration to be more responsive during controversies like the Is This Why? movement last year as well as the recent campus turmoil about Scott Backer.
Justina Yam ’19, another GRC board member, questioned whether the administration’s eagerness to create the center is due to its potential to mend their relationship with the student body. “Especially since the whole Scott Backer thing, there’s been more pressure for [Farias] to include student voices on this project,” she says. “He also made it sound like we’re going to give this attention now not just to show the student body we’re sorry but also regain some trust.”
After being asked whether the Center could in fact rebuild the trust lost between the student body and the administration, Yam responded:
“My personal opinion is that they have to have known at some point [about Scott Backer’s past] in the past eight years and that to me is just super unforgivable, but I really hope they’ll pull through with the Gender Resource Center. I think it’s a starting point. Even with the center, it will hopefully be an immediate resource that people can turn to and will be a lot more reliable than the administration has been in the past.”
While acknowledging the University’s sensitivity to public anger and student protest, Alter found a silver lining. “As frustrating as it is for them to be really reactive I think that it could be a positive thing now,” she says. “That could mean something happens, and the fact that we don’t have a center like this is subpar for this category of university.”
Despite the university’s reputation as a progressive, diversity-driven institution eight of the eleven NESCAC schools including Amherst, Middlebury, and Trinity College have already beaten Wes to the punch and created similar kinds of centers.
As work on the Center proposal gets underway this semester the Student Advisory Committee will be conducting listening tours by visiting various student group meetings and talking with members about what they would like to get out of the Center. This way students won’t have to seek out committee members to give their input since the committee members will be reaching out to them. This strategy represents a greater initiative to increase student awareness about the process, as Steering and Student Advisory Committee member Rebecca Hutman ‘17 described:
“We’re going to be updating all our progress on the Equity website, but I also appreciate that putting stuff on a website doesn’t mean that people know it or feel like they have active access to the information. It’s on us to make sure that people feel included in the process and not just say oh I promise you that information exists somewhere. There’s a difference between transparency and access to the information. I think our listening tour is part of that. Instead of asking people to come to a meeting or come to a forum we’re meeting them where they are already at.”
With the current plans for the Center it seems that the University is on the verge of making good on demands students have been making for decades. But with all the false starts and broken promises, what has Wesleyan learned as a school? As an administration?
According to Antonio Farias:
“Wesleyan is a learning organization, meaning it evolves and learns from both its successes and failures in conducting a cycle of continuous improvement – as imperfect and uneven as that progress may be to various members and groups within our community of learners and educators. Pragmatic lessons we’ve learned are to sit in dialogue across our differences of opinion in intellectually meaningful ways, as well as evolving toward greater transparency as a mechanism to breed self-correcting behaviors and structures.”
As the end of the semester gets closer and more progress is made on the Center, we will learn a lot more about the effectiveness of the committees, the timeline for the construction of the center as well as details about the Center itself. Regardless if this process is easy or hard, the center, when built, is sure to bring a positive effect on the campus that will hopefully last.