“The WRC… I should go there more…”
Many have made the first trip of their Swarthmore careers to the WRC in the last month: just in March, the WRC hosted a discussion on Hillary Clinton, co-sponsored over 5 Women’s History Month talks, organized a community-building dinner, and co-led Healthy Sex and Relationships Week. The WRC also regularly partners with multiple student groups, supports survivors through regular events, boasts three floors of meeting space, and maintains a paid staff of nine students and three administrators.
Still, “what is the WRC?” remains a popularly-uttered phrase on campus. Well?
Nora Kerrich ’16, a WRC associate, calls the the WRC a “revolutionary space.”
Women’s spaces on college campuses have a long history of political and social importance and Swarthmore’s is no different. Established in 1965, the WRC was created as a space for the safety and service of women on campus. It has existed that way since, regularly serving as an open space and creating programming related to gender and women’s issues. Lightning struck the space in 2013 causing a fire that destroyed most of the WRC’s library and necessitated significant rebuilding.
Despite this fiery setback, the central vision and purpose of the WRC has withstood its 50+ year long history.
“The WRC is a space that is politically oriented towards highlighting the achievements of women and supporting the political cause of equity for women and gender nonconforming folks,” said Kerrich, who has been involved in the WRC for 4 years.
“Colleges and universities are patriarchal institutions”, Indigo Sage ’16, another WRC associate, pointed out. “The WRC exists to be a space that is aware of that, and tries to support students who aren’t supported by it”.
It is that vital political and cultural purpose that drives her and most of the staff to each put in a full 8-10 hours a week working on programming, planning, hosting, and collaborating with other groups on campus.
Eliza Henneberry ’19, another associate at the WRC, discussed the importance of the WRC as a nurturing space that fosters people and conversations. The space, while political, also fills a community need.
Staff advisors, too, are motivated foremost by the necessity of the WRC.
“You can see this [need for the WRC] in the campus climate study where nearly 1 in 4 respondents said that they personally had experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct on campus and 29% of those respondents said that this conduct was based on their gender or gender identity,” Becca Bernstein, staff advisor of the WRC commented.
This year, there’s been a concerted effort to be intentional and strategic about events and programming. Staff members hope the chosen programs and collaborations directly speak to the mission. In keeping its tradition of emphasizing community, a new Anti-Pasta Bar dinner will be held every Sunday to build friendships and offer a safe space for discussion. The recently started Tea with the WRC centers a weekly discussion on a topic, and WOCKA (Women of Color Kicking Ass) meetings take place in the building every Thursday.
Even though fundamentally much remains the same, a lot of the WRC’s structure and scope has changed with this year’s new team. Gone are house sitters and in are a paid, semi-specialized staff of 10 students and 3 administrators who oversee vision, plans, and programming.
“The new formalized model, of weekly meetings and direct links to administration through staff will keep student-workers accountable”, Kerrich added.
There’s also an increased emphasis on collaboration. The new “project-team model” has created a Community Outreach group which solely works to develop collaborations with other groups. Both in terms of providing space and organizational planning, the WRC currently works with WOCKA, SwatFems, the Title IX office, and OSE, amongst others.
The WRC also hopes to be explicitly and intentionally welcoming of trans and gender nonconforming students — staff members feel as though it is making progress, though more can be done.
“Something we are cognizant of, with the history of women’s resource centers as a whole, is that they aren’t racially inclusive, they aren’t inclusive of gender nonconforming people”, Hennebery said. “The WRC has the potential to foster a real transgender community.”
Still, the WRC faces both new and old challenges.
“One challenge is in maintaining a sense of student leadership and power over the WRC, which I think is key to the space remaining relevant and active,” Kerrich explained.
With the staffing changes, she identifies this as a key consideration going forward.
“The staff is also trying to be more public in marketing so that everyone that needs the space knows about it,” Sage added. “I hope the forward momentum continues after graduation.”
Another challenge is in achieving additional institutional support.
“It is disheartening to not have the same kind of staff support that the IC and BCC have”, Kerrich said, referencing the lack of a full-time staff support.
Henneberry discusses a key issue that the WRC team has been working on: making the WRC space fully accessible. “There’s a lack of support that shows itself in small and big ways,” they said. “We need a ramp.”
The space is currently struggling with both funding and instituting a wheel-chair accessible ramp. It seems additionally difficult to handle given the marginality of both disability issues and women’s spaces.
“It can be draining to not feel supported by the school,” Henneberry said of these challenges.
“To say that the WRC has experienced growing pains this year would be an understatement, but the fact that we are emerging from this year with so much hope for the future is really the most important thing,” Bernstein concluded.