A Home for Feminism & Activism at BU

The new Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism is thriving, thanks to contributions from CGS students.

Walk through the ground-floor entrance of BU’s George Sherman Union and down the tiled hallway—past BU Central and its pool tables, past the computer kiosks where students check their email. When you see the Terrier Card Office sign, turn left. At the end of the hall, in a former storage space, you’ll find a cozy room filled with comfortable, if somewhat mismatched, couches and chairs. A rainbow peace flag adorns one wall, opposite a bulletin board cluttered with fliers. This is the home of the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, a BU student organization that has something few other student groups have: a permanent home.

Space is a premium on BU’s urban campus, but three years ago the University granted a group of young women the square footage they’d been clamoring for, providing for the first time in years a physical space for celebrating women at BU. Since then, the women (and some men) involved in the center—which was known until recently as the Women’s Resource Center—have made much of the University’s gift. They’ve organized lectures, discussions, workshops, film screenings, a craft fair, art exhibitions, and an annual benefit concert, all at least loosely related to their mission of promoting feminism and nondiscrimination. The center also offers a full lending library and sexual health resources and makes its space available to other student groups—from Vox (the campus Planned Parenthood affiliate) to BU Bikes (which offers free bike maintenance workshops)—for meetings and events. In spring 2011, the University named the center its Student Group of the Year in recognition of its rapid rise to prominence on the campus activities scene.

Several of the women behind the center’s success have ties to the College of General Studies, including faculty advisor Stacy Godnick (assistant dean at CGS), co-director Ariana Katz (CGS’10, CAS’12), and former events coordinator Elizabeth Castillo (CGS’12).

Dynamic, passionate leaders

The Student Activities Office named Godnick Advisor of the Year for 2011, but she insists she provides little more than a sounding board for student leaders. “These students are just so dynamic and so passionate about what they do. They really have done the work,” she says, pointing out that the center—which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday and open many nights and weekends for events—is fully student run. “They maintain the space. They train volunteers. It’s pretty amazing.”

Katz, who is serving her second year as center co-director, is also quick to share credit, saying that she considers herself more a coordinator and connections-maker than a leader there. She helps set the agenda for weekly leadership meetings and then facilitates them in her egalitarian style—beginning each session with a feelings check (“it’s an antiauthoritarian thing, because from an authoritarian perspective, you should be 100 percent all the time and do what you’re told and feel happy”) and always seeking consensus.

A sociology major with a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Katz discovered the center fall semester of her freshman year—the first year of its existence as the Women’s Resource Center—when she spotted a flier at CGS advertising a “stitch and bitch” in the GSU basement. A longtime feminist and knitter, Katz showed up, yarn in hand, and immediately felt a kinship. By spring she was volunteering to staff the center’s front desk, and by junior year she was its co-director.

While her role at the center is demanding, “I’ve gotten so much back out of it,” Katz says. “It’s a constant exchange.” Castillo, who is studying abroad in London this semester, feels the same way about her experience at the center last year: “It really was a two-way street,” she says. “It helped me tremendously—helped me grow as a person, and meet so many different types of people, and learn new things.” Organizing the center’s annual Women Rock! concert also provided Castillo—a music lover who hopes to organize music festivals for a living someday—with invaluable career preparation. “Our headliner, Jenny Owen Youngs, is one of my favorite musicians,” she adds, “so being able to bring her in was amazing.”

A place for exploration and connection

The supportive atmosphere of the center inspired students to explore and share personal interests. “We had a belly dancing afternoon,” says Katz, by way of example. “It just happened. Someone said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and we said, ‘Great.’” Similarly, when Connie Ortiz (CGS’11, CAS’13) was assigned to organize an advocacy event for her Women in Politics course, her friends at the center jumped onboard, helping her to host a film series titled “Watch Girls Change the World,” which included films about women demanding peace in war-torn Liberia and teenage girls escaping prostitution in New York City.

The center thrives on the passion and energy of its members. “Everyone genuinely cares about the things we discuss and the things that we do,” says Ortiz, a devoted member. “It’s also a very welcoming and open place—that’s one of the main reasons I joined,” Castillo adds, remembering the first night she stepped into the “warm, friendly” center and was encouraged to join the discussion around its second-hand coffee table.

When the center was first established as the Women’s Resource Center, some questioned the need for a space devoted specifically to women on BU’s predominantly female campus. Godnick says that university administrators nationally have grappled with questions like this for years: “Do we need a black student union? Do we need special interest groups and spaces?” The answer comes down to building community on campus. “What I have seen in the center,” says Godnick, “is that it has become a welcome space for a certain type of student who may not have found a niche anywhere else, be they women, men, gay, straight, what have you. It’s one more place where students can connect.” The broad appeal of the center is the main factor that led the organization to change its name earlier this year. “We realized that we’re not just serving women, and a name that says so isn’t doing credit to the community we built here,” Katz says.

CGS students, in particular, are drawn to the center for several reasons. For starters, says Katz, they understand the concept of intersectionality. “It’s a sociology term—the idea that gender intersects with race, intersects with class, and that you can’t isolate a variable,” she says. This is a key philosophy of the center, and it’s similar to the interdisciplinary thinking that characterizes CGS. “In CGS, all of our classes are intersecting,” says Katz. “So, I can’t isolate the philosophy that I’m talking about in my classes with Professor Sweeting and not try to apply it to the Cold War discussion in Professor Tilchin’s class.”

CGS students are also practiced in creating “intentional communities”—groups of people drawn together around a common cause. So many different kinds of people come to CGS for so many different reasons, says Katz, that students are motivated to create their own like-minded sub-communities within the College. “Seeking out people you love and care about and working with them really, really hard—that’s how I formed my CGS Capstone group. So my Capstone team was an intentional community,” she says. The Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism is also an intentional community, working not to create a winning Capstone project but a more informed, inclusive, and empowered student body at BU.

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