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Students Ask: Where Did the Women’s Center Go?

I came to Lesley fresh off of a fairly miserable high school experience.  There was little interest on behalf of the administration to challenge the status quo– one in which male athletes were heroes, and women were objects. Change simply didn’t occur, and I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I left after graduation, frustrated and ready for a brand new start at Lesley, where I was sure I’d find my sense of belonging. I wanted to talk to other female-identifying individuals like myself, who had experienced four years of similar frustrations. I wanted to find closure and come to terms with a piece of my identity that brought me so much joy… yet so much scrutiny and unwanted attention.

Lesley brands itself as an inclusive campus; but now, for female-identifying individuals, the inclusion piece is mostly an unspoken assumption, a culture that is expected to be upheld even in the absence of a formal meeting space for us. The Women’s Center sits dormant on the bottom floor of White Hall. And what does this mean for female-identifying students? An opportunity for a space for honest conversation has been lost.

Last year, during my freshman year at Lesley, the Women’s Center was open. I frequently passed by on my way to lunch or my dorm room, overhearing a conversation or activity taking place inside. Now, The Women’s Center has closed, and no one is quite sure of what has
happened to it. Students arrived back this fall to find its usually-open doors shuttered, with little explanation.

Curious and concerned, I tried to piece together what had happened by reaching out to faculty members. I saw on Lesley’s website that the Provost’s Office used to fund the Women’s Center. I reached out to see if that partnership was still active and, if so, whether or not the
Provost Office had any insight on the Center’s closure. I emailed a faculty member at the Provost’s Office, who did not respond to my request for comment.

Beyond silence surrounding the Women’s Center closure, it seems there’s a lot of confusion, with no level of leadership at Lesley able to offer a conclusive answer on what happened. I emailed the main Women’s Center email address, womenscenter@lesley.edu, wondering if any students who used to volunteer there regularly would answer. Graduate Assistant Michelle Goldberg got back to me. She told me to “reach out again in spring 2020 for an update” on the Center’s operations. She reiterated that it isn’t “operational” at all “this semester.”

Yet, as of November 18, 2019, the Women’s Center is still listed as open on Lesley website, which would lead students to believe that the Center is still operational and thriving. But Dr. Diana Direiter, a Co-Director of the Women’s Center, had a different take. She replied to my email inquiry stating that the Center is currently in a “transition period.” They’re hoping to “have open hours and programming (including [their] popular self-care kits during finals week) before the semester ends.”

But with December already here, it doesn’t look likely. This also contradicts what the official Women’s Center email account had to say. With so many voices, it’s tough to find the truth. Even with slightly more hopeful information provided by Dr. Direiter, there’s still no telling how long the “transition period” might last. There’s also no actual reasoning as to why the Center closed in the first place in her answer. Was it a lack of staffing? A lack of overwhelming student interest? A lack of adequate funding? I can’t find the answer, even though I’ve asked.

Even beyond faculty-level confusion, there’s larger, institutional miscommunication. Lesley’s own website currently provides misleading information; as of November 19, 2019, the Women’s Center was still listed as open despite the fact that it hasn’t been operational at all this semester. Dr. Amy Rutstein-Riley, listed on Lesley’s website as the second Co-Director of the Women’s Center, is actually no longer involved with “the center’s operations.” Via email, Rutstein-Riley explained that she has been “pulled away” from her role at the Center as she is currently serving as “the Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Education.” She is also unclear about the Women’s Center’s current schedule and operations.

The confusion surrounding the reason behind the Center’s closure is perplexing, but the need for it to close at all is alarming to me, regardless of the reasoning. As a university, we’re already noticeably without “blue lights” and measures typically present at other schools to make female-identifying students feel safer. Especially in a heavily-populated city environment, female-identifying students can face unique challenges and discomfort simply walking to class or running errands alone at night. If we’re not going to have these features in place, then we must have a space dedicated to honoring, discussing, and addressing female-specific struggles.

As a student, this has been frustrating. Without a conclusive answer, I feel like I can’t inspire the change I want to see. There is no clear path to take to get the Women’s Center reopened again because of the amount of organizational confusion over its status and identity. However, with enough student voices, this can change. So send emails. Advocate for the return of the Women’s Center, for the programming you’d like to see at Lesley. Show Lesley’s administration that you have interest in the Center and its continued presence on campus.

Inclusivity can’t be an unspoken rule, or a “given.” It must be worked on consciously every single day. There must be work, research, student-faculty conversations, and most importantly, action and implementation to reinforce it. The Women’s Center was a fantastic “brave space” for discussions around what it’s like to be female-identifying in such a polarizing society and political climate. Without it, where will this important work be done? Where else will these voices be elevated? And where else will they be listened to?

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