Students, staff push for full-time coordinator for LGBT Resource Center

**This article first appeared at dailynorthwestern.com on May 8th, 2011**

Students pushing for a full-time coordinator in the LGBT Resource Center recently gained the support of the Associated Student Government when Senate passed legislation in favor of their cause.

“ASG Stands with the LGBT Resource Center” was authored by members of Rainbow Alliance, Hillel Leadership Council, In Technicolor and ASG in an effort to draw attention to the resource center’s need for more staffing. It passed April 27, opening the door to a lengthy process that, if implemented, would involve restructuring the staff of the Center for Student Involvement.

The LGBT Resource Center was founded in 2004 and is located on the third floor of Norris University Center. It aims to create a safe space for members of the LGBT community and its allies while providing education and training about LGBT issues for the entire University, said Doris Dirks, coordinator for the center.

Dirks said she currently spends half of her time working with the center and the other half with about 15 groups she advises as coordinator for Student Organizations for Social Justice. Dirks said with the University’s increasing demand for LGBT resources, the job can no longer be done satisfactorily by one person.

“People know. Everybody knows,” Dirks said. “And the message I’ve received is it’s worth working on, it’s in process. And it’s not about me. It needs to make a transition. We’re at a point where I used to say yes to everything, and I can’t do that anymore.”

The Resource Center is the only designated “safe space” on campus where students can go for help with LGBT issues, Dirks said. Additionally, the center is responsible for providing ally training to campus organizations, providing free HIV testing, co-sponsoring events and holding panels. Dirks said she was recently asked to provide training for the School of Law on the Chicago campus but had to decline due to lack of time and resources.

Dirks, as well as a member of the center’s student staff, voiced complaints that a lack of budget and a lack of physical space prevent the center from providing LGBT support for students, staff and faculty who need it. Their newest publicity campaign, displayed on posters and on a banner at Norris, states that though 10 percent of Northwestern students identify as LGBT, 100 percent are served by the LGBT Resource Center.

“If you asked most administrators, they’d say they were supportive of the LGBT community,” Dirks said. “But it’s one thing to say that, and it’s another to put your money where your mouth is. I think it’s an issue of institutional priorities. It seems to me that when the University deems something important, they somehow come up with the money, resources and staff.”

Creation and expansion of coordinator’s role

Though the resource center was founded in 2004, it did not have an official supervisor until 2006, when Dirks, who was already on the staff of the Center for Student Involvement, was asked to be the center’s part-time coordinator.

Natalie Furlett, assistant director for the Center for Student Involvement, said it was an experimental position created before the University knew what the resource center would become.

“I think the amount of work that has sprung out of having that person has created more than what we had budgeted for,” Furlett said. “It now seems like we could use someone who could do it full time.”

The resource center is not considered a student organization but an entity of CSI. Dirks compared it to being of similar function to the Women’s Center or the Multicultural Student Affairs office.

Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs at the Women’s Center, said her office has five full-time staff members that enable it to serve faculty, staff and students on both campuses.

“I think they’re spread thin right now,” Tuttle Bell said of the LGBT Resource Center. “In terms of what we do, they could do a lot of the same things if they had staff and resources available.”

In order to allow Dirks to work with the LGBT Resource Center exclusively, CSI would have to redistribute the other 15 groups she advises to other members of CSI staff, Furlett said. This would mean putting organizations like College Feminists, College Republicans and College Greens under new leadership.

Furlett said she is in favor of the change, but it would have to be done with careful consideration for the groups in play. She said the process would start with a talk among CSI staff and then with Rick Thomas, executive director of Norris, but starting discussion would not be plausible until next year.

Thomas said the resource center is not unique in that it operates on limited resources, as many organizations could also use more space or staffing. He also said redistributing Dirks’ other responsibilities would be complicated, given that the other CSI staff members have equally demanding responsibilities.

He said the center is a clear priority of the University, which was why administration decreased the pool for student offices in 2003 to make space for it and why a part-time coordinator was put there in 2006. He said he can see a full-time position as a reality down the road and will bring it up at the fall budget meeting.

“We make decisions about what we’re able to do and what we’re not,” Thomas said. “If there is demand that is there, and a legitimate need that needs to be addressed, that’s part of the argument I use to justify more resources to be able to meet those needs.”

LGBT centers at other schools

The LGBT Resource Center has a library of books, magazines and DVDs relating to LGBT issues, but resource assistant Chris Garcia said no one knows about it.

Garcia, a Medill junior and co-author of the Senate legislation, said due to the center’s small physical space and location, it gets minimal traffic and does not fulfill its function as a safe space in which people can “hang out.”

“We need an office and position that can grow and can have a stable trajectory,” Garcia said. “We don’t have a good response for hate and bias incidents. We don’t have good resources for trans individuals. The resource center is so small, and for any practical purpose, it’s too small to be effective.”

At the University of Michigan, the LGBT Resource Center, now called the Spectrum Center, has just celebrated its 40-year anniversary. The center was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was founded in 1971, and its assistant director William Sherry said it is still going strong, with four full-time staff members.

Sherry said the Spectrum Center is centrally located and equipped with computers, printers, a refrigerator, couches and bean bag chairs. He said having a full-time staff is an integral part of the center’s success.

“Having people students can develop relationships with makes all the difference,” Sherry said. “Having a full-time staffer makes students more comfortable. They know who they’re going to be talking to. It allows for safety and consistency.”

About two weeks ago, the dean of Harvard College announced it would hire a full-time director of LGBTQ student life, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson. The change was the result of an extensive administrative review of the LGBTQ experience at Harvard.

Garcia said he and the presidents of Rainbow Alliance are writing a long-term plan to address the needs of the NU LGBT community, but that the process should start with a full-time coordinator.

“For the University to prove that it cares about LGBT individuals, you need to have someone in the administration that has LGBT in their title and can commit themselves to working with sexual orientation and gender expression exclusively,” he said.