Women's Center History (written by Michele Coffill, GVSU News and Information)
It didn't matter much during the earliest days of Grand Valley's Women's Center that staff members worked from a small office in the Dean of Students suite. From the start of 2001, Marlene Kowalski-Braun and Jo Ann Wassenaar were often away from their desks building the relationships on-and off-campus that would serve as the foundation for the center.
"The fact that we didn't have a physical home in the beginning was not a deterrent," said Kowalski-Braun, who has served as center director since 2001. "It allowed us to build relationships and that makes sense for a women's center. One of the principles of feminist leadership is relationship building, finding a collective voice to help build a vision."
It was a collective voice from campus that led to creation of the center. In the late 1990s, faculty and staff members and students served on a task force to research development of a center. Many people thought a center for women student would complement other campus services already in place: the Women and Gender Studies program fulfilled the academic focus, and the Women's Commission served faculty and staff members.
Task force members visited women's centers at other universities and gathered information about mission statements, staffing, budgets, and activities. They presented a proposal for a Grand Valley Women's Center to administrators, including Dean of Students and Vice Provost Bart Merkle, and it was approved by then-President Arend D. Lubbers in 2000.
"It's one of those unique Grand Valley stories. Because we are such a young institution, creating something new is welcomed and many people and departments are willing to help," Kowalski-Braun said.
The collaborative spirit that was so instrumental in establishing the center has remained a guiding presence when developing the center's programs and services. The partnerships created by the Women's Center staff reach beyond university departments and student organizations to include community nonprofit organizations. That link was forged in part by Wassenaar, associate director, who brought a strong background in nonprofit administration when she began working at the center in 2001. "We never saw ourselves as only being on campus, "Wassanaar said. "We had a vision of reaching out before the term 'co-curricular' became popular."
The Women's Center connects with many West Michigan nonprofit organizations and regularly places student interns, sponsors events, or hosts celebrations with the Center for Women in Transition in Holland, Girl Scouts of Michigan Trails, Kent County Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team, and Safe Haven Ministries, to name a few. The internships and requests from students to volunteer continued to increase and led to establishment of the Women's Issues Volunteer Corps in 2003. Since then, nearly 1,000 students have received training by Women's Center staff members to participate in service-learning projects throughout the area.
Connections with the community and Grand Valley's Women and Gender Studies (WGS) program provided the base for the Women's Community Collaborative, a unique academic course that integrates classroom theories and the practices of community activism. Students are placed in internships and serve more than 100 hours per semester at a nonprofit organization, in addition to completing course work. WGS faculty and Women's Center staff members teach the course.
Of the many annual programs on the Women's Center calendar, "The Vagina Monologues" is a highlight. Every year since 2002, a diverse cast of nearly 75 students, faculty, and staff members perform provocative and thought-provoking monologues written by Eve Ensler. Proceeds from annual productions have totaled over $70,000 to benefit campus groups and area women's organizations, and the international V-Day campaign that works to end violence against women and girls. The February event is also a leadership tool for participants. "The students now organize a daylong conference for other universities in the area. They are not just actors, but educators and activists," Kowalski-Braun said.
Another Women's Center calendar mainstay is Silent Witness. Each October, red silhouettes are unveiled to tell the stories of West Michigan people who were killed by acts of domestic violence. Other recurring programs include Rape Aggression Defense training; Eyes Wide Open, a peer education program that targets sexual assault; and the Women's Tea, a celebration during Women's History Month.
The center also offers two annual scholarships: one for nontraditional students and the other, in connection with Women and Gender Studies, for students who volunteer their time to better the lives of women or girls. The WGS scholarship is named for Jean Enright, a retired Grand Valley staff member who has made significant community contributions.
Since its inception in 2001, Women's Center staff members have made significant contributions to improving student life at Grand Valley. Koleta Moore, director of Grand Valley's EXCEL Program, was a member of the task force that studied the feasibility of a center a decade ago. She said students trust the center as a resource. "What they do here makes it a better place to work for all of us. It broadens what we can do and offer to students, "Moore said.