Several times an hour for the past two weeks, students of every gender and Harvard walk of life have tentatively repeated this inquiry as they peeked down the staircase outside of Canaday Hall’s B entryway. There is no huge sign on the brick wall to announce the presence of the new women’s center, which begins its first full week of operation today. But nevertheless they’ve heard about us. Curiosity sends them gingerly down the stairs or elevator to see what we’re all about.
In many cases, they are just as curious about our existence (and lack thereof in the past) as they are about what we do or how the newly renovated space looks. “Why a women’s center,” they ask, “and why now?” Our answer is simple: For almost 30 years students have asked for a women’s center, and the time is finally right to honor their energy, ideas, and goals with a center that both responds to their concerns and reaches beyond its core constituency to the entire Harvard community.
Many compelling reasons have been offered for the creation of our center. It will provide space and resources for women’s organizations on campus. It will enhance opportunities for leadership development, mentoring, networking, and visibility of women’s projects and issues. And it will provide a space where all students can come together to respectfully learn from one another about gender and the impact it has on our lives, whether they are female, male, or other-gendered.
Not everyone will agree about these reasons or about how gender shapes our individual experiences, and not everyone sees these goals as important. But many students do—and they have been compelling, strategic, and incredibly dedicated in their quest to secure this new space. Ultimately, universities are made up of the students and student communities that comprise them; it is a university’s duty to evolve and respond to the needs and voices of those students.
In the past few months we have put a lot of time into considering what role we should play in the Harvard community and how to best serve that role. We have decided to prioritize three main goals for this year. First, we have endeavored to create a comfortable, warm, and inviting space for students (and others) to come together for collaboration, relaxation, and learning.
Second, we hope to benefit a broad swath of existing groups by enhancing the coordination of women’s initiatives, leadership development, and mentoring programs. The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which serves a similar role for cultural organizations, has done a tremendous job with a similar mandate, and we hope to follow in its footsteps.
Third, we hope to implement student-planned programs that are responsive to changing ideas and needs. Ten interns will direct the programs and events we plan for the year, and these students will continue to seek feedback and input from a wide range of students and organizations to continually respond to the needs of the Harvard community.
As we take these important steps, we will not shy away from taking risks in offering a broad range of programs and events that are needed and wanted. We will not develop an atmosphere of exclusivity that isn’t welcoming to students if they are not the ‘right’ gender or political persuasion. And we will never turn the focus away from student needs and interests. Although it is focused on women’s and gender issues, the Women’s Center is meant to be a resource for everyone.
Not everything we do will be of interest to all students, but our mission is to foster dialogue and open up new spaces for discussion and exploration of the impact of gender on everyone’s lives in this community. As we continue to work toward a Harvard where everyone feels equally valued and included, we’re creating a space that is for, by, and about students.
To those who have said we can’t succeed here, we ask that you consider our mission and goals and come down to Candaday B basement before prejudging and dismissing our efforts. We will not be a “dark basement office with a bunch of pamphlets” as was cynically suggested earlier this year. We will, like every organization at Harvard, be the sum total of those who take part in our programs, offer us feedback, and join in our effort to create community.
So if you are curious or just have a few minutes to kill between classes, come join the others who are flocking to Canaday B to check out the Harvard College Women’s Center. At the very least, there’s bound to be a smiling face and a warm cup of coffee at the bottom of the stairs.
Susan E. Marine is Director of the Harvard College Women’s Center. Jasmine A. McGlade ’07 is a visual and environmental studies concentrator in Mather House and an intern at the Center. Julia E. Rubin-Smith is a student in the population and international health master’s program at the School of Public Health and an intern at the Center.