Nestled in the corridor leading from the SAU’s Fireside Lounge to the Campus Center is a modest office staffed by just three deeply committed individuals. Despite its name, the Center for Women and Gender (CWG) is open and ready to serve all RIT students. As one might infer, the story of the CWG indeed finds its beginnings as a response to the needs of women students at RIT. However, as the Institute moves toward a more robust model of diversity and inclusion, the CWG stands poised to engage not just RIT’s women, but its men and GLBT students as well. Thus, in sum, we’re all invited.
A History of the CWG
The Center for Women and Gender traces its roots back to 1993, according to current CWG director Darci Lane-Williams. Owing to a need for “a place that [could] respond to women’s issues,” female engineering students called for, and were able to secure, a space then known as the “Women’s Resource Center.”
Explains Lane-Williams: “Women are  percent of the student body right now, so you can imagine back then it was even lower.” Thus, the Women’s Resource Center was formed by a spurt of coalition work bringing faculty, staff and students together, and it operated merely as “a resource center where a woman could go [to] for referrals and resources and information,” relates Lane-Williams.
Over time, however, the “resource-center model” grew outmoded, and female students sought to have the space add a support-oriented facet — which meant a center run by a staff member with whom they could speak. That development came in 1998, when the center brought on “a full-time staff person to actually be in the center [and] have an open, available center during business hours,” says Lane-Williams. One year later, the center was awarded a grant from the Department of Justice geared toward stopping violence against women. This grant facilitated the expansion of the center, and when it ended nine years later, “RIT looked at [the center] and said, ‘This something we really need to look into keeping,’” says Lane-Williams. And the CWG — which then changed its name to the “Women’s Center” — has remained steady at RIT ever since.
A Space for Dialogue
The CWG became a space for women to discuss their concerns. “Only about 10 percent of sexual assaults are actually reported…which is scary to think about,” says Lane-Williams. In fact, she says, most violence against women in general is rarely reported. It’s an inequality the center hopes to change.
The center strives to serve as a place where confidential dialogue can occur and students’ can address their issues. As Lane-Williams notes, prior to the center’s creation, “there was no place … that could be identified as a ‘safe place’ for women.”
Today, the CWG continues to serve the needs of students who may struggle with a number of concerns including “grief, stress, boundary setting, self-esteem issues, body image issues, relationship issues … and of course dating violence, sexual assault, harassment [and] stalking,” explains Lane-Williams. It also offers overflow counseling for RIT’s Counseling Center and never turns away anyone — female or male — seeking support.
In Summer 2010, the center was still known as the “Women’s Center” and changed its name to its current title: Center for Women and Gender. This move was made in light of the center’s recognition that names and titles matter, and by simply calling itself the “Women’s Center,” it may have excluded male students who were actually welcome there.
According to Lane-Williams, “At the time when the Women’s Center was formed, [its name] made perfect sense: It was requested by women; it was for women.” However, men sought out the support of the center as well to deal with similar issues that women experience: rocky break-ups, low self-esteem, body image issues and even sexual assault. “Any of those things we could talk to a woman about, we could just as easily talk to a man about,” explains Lane-Williams.
The center also considered how the old name excluded GLBT students, as the GLBT Center falls under the CWG’s purview as well. Lane-Williams explained the dilemma at the time: “What is a way we can incorporate everyone’s gender — because everyone has a gender — into the name?” The name that resulted, the Center for Women and Gender, would be the appellation to represent the center’s more inclusive vision.
However, even with the name change, Lane-Williams admits that it can still be a bit confusing, especially for guys: “I’ll say to guys ‘Do you have a gender?’ and they’ll say, ’Well, yeah, I’m a dude.’ ’Ok, well that means you can come here,’” she quips. And the center has seen more male visitors since the renaming and its move from the lower level of SAU to the Campus Center in December 2009.
Programming at CWG
The CWG is responsible for some staple programming and continues to meet the needs of, and foster a community for, women. Such programs as its annual, “Lighting the Way” welcome ceremony for incoming female students; its “Women’s Career Achievement Dinner,” a celebration of women students’ accomplishments — this year to be held on April 30 — and its production of “The Vagina Monologues” are some of the events the center plays a vital role in coordinating and planning.
In keeping with the inclusive framework, the center is now embarking on planning events and programs for men as well. The CWG has held a few meetings to date to gauge interest in developing an array of services that parallel its current women’s initiatives. Some suggestions have included a mentor program, and the center has already held forums on issues such as the deleterious effect of pornography on men’s emotional and social health and the sometimes lofty ideals and stereotypes that describe “real men,” which can be problematic for males who don’t “measure up”. These programs signal the beginning as “we will be offering more men’s programming as time goes on,” says Lane-Williams.
As Lane-Williams envisions, CWG will continue to serve the needs of all students who seek its resources. While the pioneers of the center sought a place for women to seek support and counsel, as RIT’s campus has changed demographically, the center is on the brink of a new era: one where women and men, gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered and everyone in between, are welcomed and encouraged to stop by and take advantage of the resources and programs there to support our ever-changing community.
“We’re still growing,” said Lane-Williams. And so is RIT. Not just numerically, but also in our drive toward a more pluralist and inclusive community.