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Women’s Center celebrates successes

The Women’s Center will cap its fifth birthday celebration Friday with a blowout bash featuring world-renowned conductor JoAnn Falletta, music, food and performances by Echoes and Lehigh Leela.

“We have celebrated our fifth birthday so far by sponsoring three special events by outstanding female performers: folk-rock singer Dar Williams, legendary rapper MC Lyte, and comedian and activist Margaret Cho,” says Kristin Handler, the center’s director. “The culminating event is our fifth-anniversary reception, followed by a private dinner for Lehigh alums who have contributed to the center during the last five years.”

All members of the Lehigh community are invited to the Women’s Center’s birthday party from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 8. in the center’s office on the second floor of the University Center. The kick-off will be a meet and greet and short talk on women and leadership by world-famous conductor JoAnn Falletta, who will conduct the Lehigh Philharmonic Orchestra at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall on Saturday, Dec. 9. The official cake-cutting will take place at 4:30 p.m.

Partygoers will also be treated to delightful music, courtesy of a trio of musicians from the Lehigh Philharmonic Orchestra, along with performances by Echoes, an a capella choir and Lehigh Leela, a dance troupe within the Indian Student Association. For more information, visit the Women’s Center’s Web site.

Making HERstory

Started in 1989 by a graduate student in computer science, the Women’s Center was rebuilt from the ground up five years ago in order to better serve the needs of Lehigh’s women students.

In the early 1990’s, the Lehigh University Commission on Women and Commission on Minorities issued a joint report which recommended establishing a Women’s Center. The Women’s Center was opened in 1991 and staffed by one coordinator, Kathy Calabrese, who was responsible for both the center and a newly established child-care center.

In 1999, Calabrese assumed a full-time position as director of the Child Care Center and the Women’s Center was transferred from the Provost’s Office to the Student Affairs stem. After Student Affairs conducted an intensive evaluation of the needs of female students, faculty and staff, Handler was hired as the center’s first full-time director.

Handler immediately began to rebuild the Women’s Center, basing her work on a model of environmental intervention. The center was moved to a larger and more central location and also received a larger programming budget.

“The center offered a variety of services and programs from 1989 until it closed for planning and renovation at the end of the spring 2000 semester,” Handler says. “It reopened in its new form in spring of 2001, equipped with new resources that have allowed us to make tremendous strides since then.”

Many of the early goals of the Women’s Center included remodeling its new location to be welcoming and attractive; building community among women; addressing women as a diverse group with diverse needs and interests; educating campus about gender and women’s issues; promoting communication between women in different areas of campus; empowering students to address gender issues with peers; providing a more visible and intuitive resource for students with issues like harassment, sexual assault and eating disorders; and promoting a more diverse and inclusive campus in all dimensions.

Notable accomplishments

Over the past five years, the Women’s Center has accomplished many of these goals and much more. Some notable achievements include:

• Creating and obtaining funding for two additional full-time professional staff positions: a sexual violence prevention coordinator and an administrative coordinator.

• Founding Lehigh’s sexual violence prevention program and the peer group Break the Silence. The program includes mandatory peer education programs on sexual assault during first-year orientation, a 24/7 peer hotline, and year-round prevention education programming.

• Supporting annual student-run productions of The Vagina Monologues since 2001. The seventh production of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play will take the stage in February 2007.

• Creating and empowering student “working groups” to take full responsibility for planning Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Healthy Body Image Week.

• Starting The Women’s Word online newsletter.

• Establishing a credit-bearing internship, Women’s Studies 373, in the Women’s Center.

• Sponsoring lectures by Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, Margaret Cho, Bernice Sandler, Alix Olson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Karen Armstrong, Joan Morgan, MC Lyte, and many more.

• Sparking and supporting The Movement: a campus-wide student activist group on diversity.

• Developing a mission and goals statement that has been used as a model for women’s centers around the country by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), which publishes national standards of practice for student services and programs.

“I am very proud that the center has become a vital resource and vibrant contributor to Lehigh’s campus culture,” Handler says. “We have established a sexual violence prevention program and are recognized as a leader on diversity issues, but there is still much work to be done.”

Creating a better climate for women

Handler says that the future work will build upon the strong foundation that has been established over the past five years, and will continue to emphasize student empowerment.

“Since we cannot create a culture that values women without the partnership of students, the Women’s Center is committed to student empowerment,” she says. “Many of our programs on body image, sexual assault and other issues are created by our student employees, interns and volunteers.”

In addition, students present peer education programs, says Handler, and staff the 24/7 Break the Silence sexual violence hotline (974-HOPE). They also produce the Women’s Center’s online newsletter, The Women’s Word, and annual literary magazine, Origyns.

Among the Women’s Center’s goals are to continue the work with the Movement and the University Diversity Initiative to address racism, sexism and homophobia as interlocking forms of oppression; to ensure that issues affecting women and the LGBTQ community are included in the definition of “diversity;” to build on the sexual violence prevention program by marketing the Break the Silence peer hotline; to develop a peer education program with the Student Athlete Mentors and the athletic department; to educate faculty about sexual violence resources and how to refer students to them; and to secure a permanent sexual violence prevention programming budget.

“The Women’s Center is here to create a better climate for women here at Lehigh,” Handler says. “To achieve a more inclusive culture requires continual efforts across the university. We’ve made great strides the first five years. I look forward to seeing what the next five years will bring.”

--Sarah Cooke

Posted on Wednesday, December 06, 2006

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