Consolidating Solidarity

Diversity Center plans to incorporate LGBTQ+ and Women’s Centers

Editor-in-Chief Rosannah Gosser
Photographer Emaje Hall
Graphic Artist Estreya Enquist

A sense of belonging rests on the assurance that one resides in a safe space to address concerns and receive substantial support without judgment, and the campus resources at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo strive to do just this for its community members. But as the current social zeitgeist becomes increasingly inclusive of individual differences, how can resources best adapt to accommodate the needs of everyone?

Ke Kalahea inquired with Farrah-Marie Gomes and Jennifer Stotter , the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Director for the Office of Equal Opportunity, respectively, to discuss a potential union between the campus’ LGBTQ+ and Women’s Centers as a joint effort from the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) and the Division of Student Affairs (DSA). Gomes and Stotter explained the reasoning behind the proposition, as well as the project’s financial challenges, contextual background, and implementation.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the purpose of merging these various organizations and do you foresee any particular benefits or drawbacks?

Gomes

FMG: The Women's Center at UH Hilo was formed many years ago with a focus to increase the number of women applying to, getting accepted at, attending and graduating from UH Hilo. This semester, females represent 67.5 percent of our applicant pool, 65.3 percent of those who were accepted and 61.7 percent of those who enrolled. Of those students who graduated with a UH Hilo degree last year, 68.2 percent were female.

These statistics show that the original intent and purpose for forming the Women's Center have been achieved so the challenge now becomes maintaining these outcomes and looking at whether there are additional factors that may be preventing women from success on their higher education journey. This requires us to ask if we're providing services and supports that are relevant and current to what our students are facing today.

The LGBTQ+ Center was formed several years after the Women's Center and was never provided with a permanent position from the legislature or an adequate operating budget. While attempts were made to model the LGBTQ+ Center after an operational model used by the Women's Center, continued annual reductions in budget have resulted in less discretionary resources available for allocation to the centers. In the last two years, hours in both centers were reduced to half-time while we tried to maintain their operating budgets at the amount of just $2,600 per year per center.

Therefore, the goal for merging both of these centers is to create a single center that can still accomplish the mission of both single centers and, as importantly, help UH Hilo move toward becoming a more transformative learning community through the provision of services that more comprehensively address diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Stotter JS: The benefits of a merger include less duplication of effort and a comprehensive approach to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We will be utilizing an intersectional framework that allows us to consider the needs of the whole person, whether student or employee, at both the individual level and systemically. For example, a transgender woman of color may need assistance in identifying resources – should she go to the Women's Center, or the LGBTQ center, the registrar, her faculty, her advisor, the VCSA, VCAA... who? What if her need is to be able to use her preferred name and pronouns by faculty and staff, and she wants that name on her diploma as well (an immediate need for the classroom as well as a structural need and a policy need for the diploma).

It would be less burden on the student to have one center where she could get all those answers. A center that can work on multiple levels– raising awareness of rights, responsibilities, and resources, on levels both micro and macro, will lead, we believe, to shifts in culture, elimination of stereotypes, improved relationships and a more inclusive campus for all.

What is the current status of the creation of the Diversity Center?

Gomes FMG: Currently, the centers are set up to primarily provide services to UH Hilo students. Employees seek out similar services through the Office of Equal Opportunity. Both myself, as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and Director for Office of Equal Opportunity Jennifer Stotter, are in conversation with Chancellor Irwin to expand the services of the centers to serve both students and employees of UH Hilo in the same space in a way that would truly be inclusive and reflective of our continued recognitions for being the most diverse four-year public institution in the nation.

Stotter JS: The centers have also been staffed through a collaborative effort between the Office of Equal Opportunity and the Division of Student Affairs, both last academic year and during the current year. Given the overlap in our programming priorities, it seemed an excellent chance to work together where opportunities presented, and the Office of Equal Opportunity worked closely with both the LGBTQ+ and Women's Center.

Last year we saw a marked increase in participation in programming hosted by the respective centers, as well as increased awareness of rights, responsibilities, and advancement of equity. However, we have not simply relied on numbers and event attendance. We have solicited feedback from students, employees and the community, particularly because best practices show that an intersectional approach is vital to meeting the needs of the whole person. However, it is also important to have buy-in from our community if we want to be a trusted resource.

Thus, last academic year, there was a student town hall meeting to discuss the possible merger of the centers. Additional consults with students who visited the centers resulted in the interim composition of the centers sharing a single space together this year. Director Stotter and I are forming a small advisory committee to help inform discussions scheduled to begin this month, and the paper will be published in November.

If the project is seen to fruition, when do DSA and OEO plan on having the center open?

FMG: The goal is to have a plan finalized in the spring for full implementation in Fall Semester 2020.