In just over a week, I’ll be graduating from this place. My friends and I are beginning to pack boxes and open up new parts of our lives, but this week has been a time of reflection. After thinking a lot about the people and things that have transformed me and given me meaning, I’ve realized how important the Harvard College Women’s Center has been for me.
Harvard has long been a space for men only (women weren’t allowed full access to Lamont Library until 1967). As Radcliffe and Harvard began to co-educationalize over the years, several iterations of the Women’s Center rose and fell, but only the current iteration of the Women’s Center has received substantial administrative support.
Here’s why this matters:
As an institution that has historically centered masculinity, we need to keep talking about gender and how it plays out in our academic, social, and political experiences. Who gets representation in the Undergraduate Council? Who feels comfortable in STEM classes? Who dominates social spaces on weekends? Why?
I’m not one for “safe spaces” rhetoric, primarily because one person can never guarantee to everyone in a room that the room will remain safe–we all have different triggers and needs, and we can’t all know the triggers and needs of others in a room. However, I am the biggest advocate for safer spaces, spaces where everyone is consciously and actively prioritizing the safety and comfort of others.
For the past four years, the Harvard College Women’s Center has been my safer space on campus. In my first year, I wanted to attend events that focused on identity–it was weird for me as a queer woman of color to feel at home on campus, but the Women’s Center gave me a place where I could go to study or hang out with friends, and programming where I could meet people who felt similarly confused and anxious about being at Harvard, regardless of their identity or background.
Since then, the Women’s Center has become a second home to me. As an intern, I’ve had the opportunity to plan events that I’m interested in attending, always considering what I would have wanted as a newcomer to this often-overwhelming, often-impersonal campus.
Diverse spaces make a huge difference in student life. To see myself represented, to know that my presence won’t be doubted or questioned, to bond with others who experience marginalization–this space is essential in facilitating those connections. Quoting Sara Ahmed,
The brick wall is what you come against when you are involved in the practical project of opening worlds to bodies that have historically been excluded from those worlds. An organisation can be a world; a neighbourhood; a street; a home; a nation.
The way that universities organize themselves is not conducive to finding community, especially as a marginalized person. This is why I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon one of the few physical spaces on campus where all genders are explicitly welcomed, where programming considers intersectional identities, and where staff are eager to support me in all of my academic and extracurricular identities. The Women’s Center allows me to exist as a whole self, as a full person instead of a diversity metric or a GPA.
As Harvard has recently grappled with exclusive social spaces, I want to emphasize the importance of the already-existing inclusive social spaces such as the Women’s Center. During my four years here, I have not encountered any other space filled with as much conscious love and care. Exclusion is not a part of the HCWC’s mission. All genders are encouraged to enter and participate in the space, allowing students to drive programming and build community. I’m grateful to have been welcomed into a place where I can feel at home with coffee, tea, condoms and cookies.
As I leave Harvard, I wonder how I will find another safer space to inhabit. I know, however, that my years as an HCWC intern leave me well-equipped to build my own.