The Academic Feminist: We Heart Women’s Centers, Part II

Anitra Brenda B AmberVlasnik7-10_000Welcome back, Academic Feminists. Today is the second in a three-part series on women’s centers on college and university campuses. The first post tackled the history of women’s centers. The final post will discuss women’s centers role in providing a safe space for survivors of sexual violence, as well as their efforts to make sure that college/university campuses are Title IX compliant.

In today’s post, Amber Vlasnik, Brenda Bethman, and Anitra Cottledge (photos in order left to right) discuss building relationships with other campus organizations and academic departments.

Gwendolyn: What are some best practices for creating and maintaining successful relationships between women’s centers and women’s and gender studies (WGS) programs and departments and other units on campus, such as multicultural and LGBT centers?

Anitra, Brenda and Amber: In our view, the most successful relationships between women’s centers and WGS programs and departments occur in environments where both groups embrace the overlap between their work. Women’s center staff often have at least some academic background in WGS, as well as from various other disciplines. It is also not uncommon for women’s center staff to teach courses, either as part of their women’s center work or outside of it. 

The advocacy and leadership, activist and professional development that takes place in women’s centers complements the curricular themes that are addressed in WGS classes, and vice versa. Once the center and program agree that that is the case, the next step is being intentional about connecting the dots for everybody involved. Are there Women’s Center events or programs that could be added to WGS syllabi? How do we get ahead of those events and have intentional conversations?

Intersectionality has provided a theoretical and practical framework for many centers to engage in the intentional work of dismantling interlocking oppressions. More than a buzzword, those of us who work in women’s centers understand that we must understand ourselves and the missions of our units first, and then look to create meaningful coalitions with others across our campuses and in our communities. We cannot enact our missions without considering the complexities and intersections of gender with other identities and forms of oppression.

While there’s no perfect strategy for engaging in collaborative work, here are some starting points for women’s center staff members or volunteers who are interested in coalition-building with WGS programs and other units on campus such as multicultural centers, LGBT centers, ethnic studies programs, etc.:

  • Go from margin to center. Frame partnerships with academic programs and multicultural and LGBT centers as essential to the work of women’s centers, not as an aside.

  • Be strategic. Go beyond program- or event-level co-sponsorship to find mission-driven points of connection.

  • Prioritize relationships. Assign members of your staff – from full-time staff to student interns – to regularly connect with groups like women in STEM groups, women’s athletics, or gender-based student organizations. Or dedicate specific times in your schedule to having coffee or following up with key stakeholders.

  • Honor your partners’ expertise. Invite partners to be involved in your center’s staff training, orientation, and/or professional development sessions.

  • Get up and get out. Meet your partners where they are – literally. Don’t depend on them to always come to you. Attend their meetings and events; be visible in their spaces.

  • Share your resources—particularly information—generously.

  • Be a real partner. Follow through on your commitments and know that where you end up collectively will certainly not be exactly as you envision it individually.

  • Examine your identities and check your privilege, as needed. Sometimes it’s about you and sometimes it’s not. Either way, try not to let yourself get in the way of coalition.

  • Position yourself and your center staff as a subject area experts on women’s and/or gender issues. You and your center staff should be people that others want to invite to the table.

  • Know that coalition is not comfortable. Bernice Johnson Reagan called coalition work “some of the most dangerous work you can do” (Home Girls, p. 346). But it’s as critically important as it is difficult.

As an example of a center and program that work together well, we are highlighting Wright State University, where one of this piece’s co-authors, Amber Vlasnik, directs the women’s center. In Amber’s words:

“At Wright State, the Women’s Center and the Women’s Studies Program are closely linked. We were both founded in 1993 as a result of two campus climate studies, and we’ve worked to operationalize and institutionalize our partnership ever since. For most of our existence, we have shared physical space and over time we’ve developed a co-curricular programming model that benefits student learning and faculty scholarship as well as the campus and local communities. Additionally, we’ve formally linked the duties of our staff members: the women’s center directorship includes being the Women’s Studies Internships Coordinator and teaching the internships  service-learning course, and we shared an administrative specialist for almost ten years until the position was reclassified as a coordinator and now a full-time assistant director in the Women’s Center.

Our partnership is built on our shared commitments to teaching, learning, and scholarship, as well as our theoretical commitments to feminism, intersectionality, and activism for gender and social justice. Through our collaborative activities and programming, we graduate more thoughtful, engaged citizens and more meaningfully transform our institution. Both programs have been immeasurably enhanced by the other, and so has Wright State.”

Wright State’s example proves that an enduring, mutually beneficial relationship between a women’s center and WGS program is possible if both parties are willing to do the work involved in building, sustaining, and deepening the relationship.  It can be difficult, but the benefits to our students, faculty, and staff–and to our institutions–are worth the ongoing effort.

Brenda Bethman directs the Women’s Center and Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, spends way too much time on Facebook, and tweets once in a while.

Anitra Cottledge is: a higher ed professional, women’s center staff emerita, teacher, writer, and compassionate questioner who tweets infrequently.

Amber Vlasnik is the director of the Women’s Center and internships coordinator for the Women’s Studies Program at Wright State University, is passionate about working and teaching for gender and social justice, and has never tweeted (not even once).

Photo on 2014-06-26 at 12.58Gwendolyn Beetham made up for her undergrad college’s lack of a women’s center by getting a PhD in Gender.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

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