Activists rally to establish campus women’s center

By Nancy Lo

Students gathered in Cobb last week to discuss the prospects of reestablishing a women’s center at the University. Laura Seago, a second-year in the College, organized the event, which focused on creating a home for women’s social and activist groups and for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer (LGBTQ) community.

Attempts to reestablish a women’s center at the University—made as recently as 2001—have been unsuccessful since the last center closed in the 1970’s. “In the mid-’90’s, a student group gathered to advocate a women’s center,” said Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life. Although the University did not establish the women’s center, it tried to address the concerns that had prompted students to advocate for one, Michel said. One result was the formation of a direct line of access to the Deans instead of through the University of Chicago Police Department. This direct line has evolved to become the paging system known as 834-HELP.

According to Seago, the University is the only major university in the Chicagoland area that does not have a women’s center. “When we talked to the women’s centers at Northwestern, UIC, DePaul, and Loyola, they were surprised,” Seago said.

Currently, the University has several programs that address different issues pertinent to women. The Student Care Center has a Womancare section devoted to women’s healthcare issues. The Student Counseling and Resource Service focuses on mental health areas, while administrators serve as sexual harassment complaint advisors and sexual assault advisors.

Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) arranges self-defense classes in tandem with the athletics department. A multitude of other student groups such as Women in Science, Feminist Majority, and women’s athletic groups foster community activism and outreach.

Seago said that former campaigns for a women’s center were unsuccessful because the University felt it could meet the needs of its female students without opening a center. “What the administration overlooked was the value of a place to belong, the importance of a venue in which students can interact with the community over issues that matter to them, and the fact that the concerns of many women were, and continue to be, under-documented, because they did not have somewhere to go to discuss their problems with someone they could trust,” Seago said.

Campaign organizers said that the purpose of a women’s center is to have a designated space for women to coordinate their activism and to have a forum to address their concerns. They emphasized the importance of having a physical space to build a community in which women feel safe.

“Ideally, we would like to offer a social space such as a coffee shop that serves the dual purpose of making people feel comfortable and generating some revenue,” Seago said. “We hope to partner with preexisting organizations to train our volunteer staff and set up a cross-referral system so that the needs of women are fully served.”

She added that all groups would be able to run meetings or programs out of the center, and expressed the hope of having a well-stocked resource library. Seago expressed the hope of training a volunteer staff to understand the needs of sexual assault victims, women at risk, and the queer community.

At Northwestern University, the women’s center exerts an influence on university policy. “We serve as a catalyst for change—there’s a place to think about women’s welfare first,” said Njoki Kamau, Northwestern’s associate director of the women’s center. “Now, women don’t need to be put on the line if they know that we’ll put ourselves out on the line for them.”

At University of Illinois at Chicago, the Office of Women’s Affairs organizes its Women’s Leadership Symposium, Women’s Heritage Month, performances of the Vagina Monologues, and the UIC Daughters at Work Day. A vital part of the program is the Campus Advocacy Network (CAN), which began two years ago at UIC.

“We work with survivors,” said Andie Celerio, assistant director of CAN, adding that CAN does not extend to the surrounding community.

“Sexual assault, domestic abuse, and stalking is far more prevalent than it may seem, and it does affect university students,” Celerio said. “There are a lot of students here who wouldn’t get help unless it was on campus because they couldn’t afford to go or don’t know where to go if we weren’t here.”

The planners of the University center intend to serve the greater southside community as well as the student population.