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Q&A: Director Sharon Davie talks about how the U.Va. Women's Center has expanded its mission
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Sharon DaviePreparing Tomorrow's Leaders:

Director Sharon Davie talks about how the U.Va. Women's Center has expanded its mission

By Anne Bromley

Sharon Davie has been there since the beginning, directing the University's Women's Center since its doors opened 10 years ago. She has seen the center go from recommendation to reality, when it was established as a result of a task force appointed in 1986 by then-President Robert M. O'Neil to study the status of women on Grounds. She has nurtured its growth, in the early days planning the Women Artists and Scholars series, coordinating a much-needed information and referral service, and publishing Iris: A Journal About Women, among other programs, with a dedicated band of helpers.

The center has expanded from occupying two offices in Minor Hall to its present 1,800 square feet in the Corner building. With three full-time and 35 part-time employees, plus several groups of volunteers, the center is quickly outgrowing that space.

As one way of marking the center's 10th year anniversary, Inside UVA talked to Davie about what the Women's Center does best and how it is preparing women to become tomorrow's leaders.

Q: What is the center's mission today?

A: The mission statement is "the University of Virginia Women's Center embraces all women -- enlightening, supporting and celebrating them as shapers of the world." It was created about five years ago, right in the middle of the center's history, since we're 10 years old now.

The original mission focused on institutional change. I think it's interesting that the current mission focuses on the active agency of women -- "shapers of the world," women having an impact beyond the personal sphere. There's a sense also of the Women's Center itself as an activist agent.

Sharon Davie: A quick study

Education: Ph.D. and M.A. in English, University of Virginia, 1972 and 1969, respectively; B.A in English, Dickinson College, 1968

Previous Jobs/Accomplishments: Director of Womenıs Studies, University of Virginia, 1980-1989; Instructor, U.Va. English department, 1976-1989; Consultant and instructor at Darden, 1992-1995; American Council on Education fellow, Rutgers, 1995-1996; Bryn Mawr Summer Institute in Higher Education, 1988; Woman of Achievement, Women Faculty and Professional Association, 1990;

Family: Daughter, Jesse Ellen Davie-Kessler, 15, attends Charlottesville High School, plays soccer and plays viola in the Chamber Orchestra. "She is part of a group of girls and boys at CHS who took it on themselves to organize the first-ever month-long celebration of Womenıs History Month."

Relaxation: Reading murder mysteries, singing in a gospel choir, writing, sitting meditation, traveling, walking in the mountains and fields.

Current Reading: Deep South by Nevada Barr; Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp; Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg; Night Falls Fast, Kay Jamison; and poetry by Derek Walcott, Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver.

What I Did Last Summer: "I was a fellow at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico -- magical -- no electricity, no phones, outhouses, yurts, bells to wake by, time to write and climb mountains, the wildflowers an explosion of color, old lodges. The oldest Ponderosa pine in New Mexico (the Buddha Tree) lives there. Twenty people considered 'social or environmental activists' are chosen from around the country for two sessions each summer."

Upcoming Book: The Handbook for University and College Womenıs Centers, edited by Davie. Fall 2000. Greenwood Press. A "road map and travel guide" of best practices and effective responses to different issues by 18 authors from a range of schools, community college to Ivy league.

We put the current mission statement on everything that we do. It's on the calendar, it's on the newsletter, and we're reminded over and over that joy is part of our jobs -- "celebrating," putting our faces to the sun and helping other people do that. I think that is a real change. I don't know if it's part of a natural evolution of where we are as women or where we are as a women's center and as an institution.

I do not mean that there aren't problems. One of the things that many women's centers do, and this is certainly one of those, is to be here to bind the wounds on the one hand and to save the world on the other hand -- "supporting and enlightening.² But there's this third piece, to understand what women have done, are doing. The Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award celebration of Sharon Hostler [last month] is a great example of that. Here's this incredible woman who has given so much and achieved so much -- why not take the time to acknowledge that?

Q: What do you like about the job of directing the Women's Center? What motivates you, excites and challenges you?

A: I love working in a job where I care about what I'm doing. I believe in it. I have a passion for it. It matters to me personally and professionally, the kinds of issues that are addressed by the Women's Center. I feel privileged to be able to work with people at the University and within this community. People are so giving here, and I think it's because of that vision that we can work together to make a better place and to make ourselves better. It's extraordinary, seeing how many people are willing to give of their time and their energy and their creativity to the Women's Center, to the students, to the community, to the projects, to working on change.

The other thing I love is that the kinds of things I do are so diverse. They might range from being in a group that's looking at the interior and exterior environments at the University and their relationship to diversity [for the Charting Diversity study]. Or it might be someone walking in who wants to talk about being in a relationship that's abusive and how she can get help. Those are about different kinds of change, but they are both part of the job.

Q: Who are the Women's Center's constituents? Have the students changed over time? How do you reach out to them?

A: One of the important things that has happened over the years, and this has definitely been a result of collaborating with many people on Grounds, is that the students who are involved with the center are more diverse ethnically, racially, in terms of class, in sexual orientation, and in terms of ability, and that's part of what the Women's Center stands for. It's an integral part of any kind of impact that the center could have on U.Va. for the better.

On womenıs centers

"Each of the close to 450 campus-based women's centers in the U.S. has developed in a way that matches the culture of the institution in which they're housed. The first women's center, at the University of Minnesota, was started in 1948. A lot of centers developed in the early '70s. That was a real flowering time for women's centers -- it coincided with the dissemination of women's studies programs and some of that new knowledge, whether it was women's history or literature, that women didn't necessarily get in school. A lot of self-teaching was going on. Here, given that women were admitted fully as undergraduates in 1970, it's not surprising that the women's studies program started in '79 and then the Women's Center in '89. There are centers that are younger than we are, and we get asked for help by centers that are just starting."

The center also has a student advisory committee, made up of students from lots of different cultural groups and different interest groups on Grounds, that advises the center in very active ways, and that's been a positive, helpful thing.

Out of that group came a program that we co-sponsored with Hereford College last year called "the Politics of Beauty" that we held at Hereford, and it was incredible. It was a series of eight programs, but each was quite different. There was a panel of U.Va. students and faculty that looked at African American standards of beauty. There was a panel on male beauty and what that means.

One of the ways that the constituency has changed is that Counseling Services is seeing about half and half students and community members now, also an ethnically and racially diverse group, primarily women. We currently have a male counseling services coordinator, and that has allowed some men to feel comfortable coming in, often on relationship issues. The age range [of clients] is much wider than at the beginning.

Q: What were the initial goals of the Women's Center and have they changed?

A: Education was always an important part of the mission. From the beginning there was a vital need to take some of the new discussions about women and gender happening inside the classroom and find ways to integrate them into people's lives outside the classroom.

There was also a goal of assisting individuals to grow. Sometimes that would be people who were in pain. Sometimes it would be people ready to soar. The information and referral [service] and advocacy and support got built in very early.

One of the things that's a more recent development over the last few years is the emphasis on leadership development for girls and women of all ages. If you look at the senior leadership of the University, we don't have a critical mass of women or people of color there. What is still needed at all levels is to help each other to become the fullest people we can be, to have our own voices, to be a leader in the sphere that we choose to be a leader in. Leadership development has become a part of the Women's Center, with mentoring being part of that.

Women 2000: Shapers of the World

The University celebrates three milestones for women this year: 30 years of full coeducation, the 20th year of the Women's Studies Program (now called Studies in Women and Gender), and the Women's Center's 10th anniversary. The center has coordinated a year-long series of events to celebrate these achievements in conjunction with all 10 U.Va. schools and many other programs.

"Women 2000: Shapers of the World" features lectures and workshops offered by galvanizing women and activities focusing on creativity, leadership and mentoring. Several "Leadership Luncheons" bring together students with professional women in a range of fields. Speakers include Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice president of the AFL-CIO, on March 27, and on April 3, David Sadker and Phyllis Lerner on "Failing at Fairness: How Colleges Shortchange Women and Men." Two exhibits in April, co-sponsored with the Bayly Art Museum, will feature paintings by Trisha Orr and poems by Gregory Orr, and Pati Hill's "Wall Papers."

The 10th anniversary year will culminate with a conference and benefit dinner on Nov. 2 to honor former recipients of the Women's Center's Distinguished Alumna Award. Established in 1991, the award honors a female U.Va. graduate who has demonstrated excellence, leadership and extraordinary commitment to her field, and who has used her talents as a positive force for change. The conference will bring back the award recipients to discuss current issues facing women.

An example would be the Young Women Leaders Program, which is about four years old and is co-sponsored with the Curry School of Education. Middle school girls are mentored by U.Va. undergraduate women, who themselves work with graduate students, and the graduate students work with faculty advisers. Another part of it is a community service project that they do with their mentors.

Our work with the community has grown in other ways as well. An important part of this has been the strong support of the Women's Center Council, which includes community members along with people from the University.

We're also working more closely with some of the graduate and professional schools. In collaboration with the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing, for instance, we set up mentoring activities for undergraduate women to get together with medical students and for the nursing students to be able to encounter leaders, sometimes from their field and sometimes not, in order to expand their own knowledge on some of the issues that are important in nursing.

U.Va. is so decentralized and the culture of the schools are so different that I think as the Women's Center has grown, it has become clear that it's necessary to tailor some of the work we do to different schools.

Q: Are there other programs that are key to the center's objectives?

A: Another one that's new and fits into this kind of mentoring/leadership mode is the First Year Resource Center, which is very collaborative. I think that's the key piece of the value of the Women's Center -- as a bridge builder or a collaborator. Nothing at the Women's Center is going to be very successful if we do it off in a little corner just by ourselves, but if we're able to bring different units and resources and perspectives together, then something really wonderful can occur and that's often what happens.

The First Year Resource Center is one of those examples: the Women's Center took the lead on it and manages it, but we do it in collaboration with the Office of Residence Life, the Office of African-American Affairs, and the Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. The program is quite different than anything I would've imagined when it started. It is essentially its own little center in Cauthen House, a first-year dormitory, that works specifically with first-year students and first-year issues. The folks who take the lead on creating what happens are upper-class students.

Q: Women and men?

A: Women and men. The Women's Center is intended to help create an institution and a community that's a better place for all of us, which means that it's for women and men. There are programs within the Center that are specifically aimed at women, because the organizing principle underneath the idea of having a women's center is that historically in higher education women have been treated as less. Women have not been given equal opportunity. That's certainly true here at the University of Virginia, and there is a need for a focus on women and specific issues that have to do with women or with gender, but there's also a way in which women and men on many issues can and must work together.

Another program that got started early on [and has expanded] is Counseling Services. The Women's Center has now become a yearly training site for four to five master's level interns and a doctoral student who is practicing supervisory skills. There are support groups -- for sexual assault survivors, for instance, or for women with eating disorders or concerns about eating. There's a dissertation support group this semester, as well as groups for adult children of alcoholics and caregivers for the elderly.

In addition to individual counseling sessions and the workshops, we also have a traveling workshop series. For instance, recently the center did a workshop on body image at one of the sororities at their request. It was in an atmosphere where there could be a level of trust, so that more difficult, self-revealing kinds of issues and questions could arise.

Iris [the journal published by the center and Studies in Women and Gender] has developed an internship program over the last two years. Eileen Boris, (the current Iris editor,) has been a breath of fresh air and has brought wonderful ideas and energy to the magazine. The publishing internship program has 10 to 12 undergraduate interns every semester who get course credit. They take a seminar on feminist publishing and study issues that have an impact on women or issues of gender. They also create this magazine from A to Z, from editing to working with artists to figuring out how to get ads.

Q: Do you have a vision for the next 20 years, that being one time frame the University is using to enhance programs, to improve itself?

A: The Women's Center Council and staff had a retreat in January looking at the University's Virginia 2020 initiatives, in science and technology, public service and outreach, international education, and the performing and fine arts, and how we envision the center aligning with, supporting or leading in those areas. Some of the things that I think were exciting intertwine the activist and the academic in more powerful ways. That's what I wish would happen in 20 years at the University of Virginia Women's Center.

In the conclusion of the book I'm editing on women's centers, [I'm finding] some exciting directions. One of those has to do with women and the Internet. You have places like iVillage, AOL's Women's Connection Online or the Feminist Majority Foundation Online, that [have] resources or communities for women. How do we link into them for our own constituency here? How do we take what we do really well and put it out there using the Internet so that it reaches many people?

The second piece is the notion of understanding ourselves as a global community. Learning about women's centers and women's networks in other countries is amazing, because of the differences and the similarities. The women's center in Zagreb, Croatia, for example, has been connecting women who come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in an incredibly war-torn, nationalistic part of the world. It started from their response to women who were sexual assault survivors. It's inspirational to look at some of the courageous steps that women [there] are taking and what they're doing in a context where they're seen as unpatriotic by many people.

It seems to me likely that [the Women's Center will make] some international connections that will be very fruitful, a two-way street.

Q: Why are women's centers needed today?

A: The fact that we have more than 50 percent women as students doesn't mean that women students aren't still dealing with issues that this society is dealing with -- sexual assault, issues of body image and eating disorders, issues related to career development and work environment. If anything, we're more aware of them now than we were 10 years ago. I think there's a commitment as an institution, as a community, as a people and as a nation to recognizing that women can move into leadership positions at every level. That's where we need to work right now.


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