Situated on the second floor of the University Center, Lehigh’s Center for Gender Equity (CGE) has served as a space for students to find support and spark progressive discussions for the past 30 years.
April 8 marked the CGE’s birthday. Then known as the Women’s Center, it was founded alongside the Lehigh University Childcare Center by recommendation of the President’s Commission on Minorities and Women.
Kathy Calabrese, the first director of the center, said that while the center was supported by many, it was also met with controversy. Oftentimes, people would ask why there wasn’t a men’s center.
“I had to work really hard at times, for people to understand its purpose,” Calabrese said. “It wasn’t to bash anybody, if anything it was to open communications so that we could better understand each other.”
Whether it be through Feminist Film Fridays, book clubs or interactive displays, the center has spent the past three decades working to unpack more.
The center has sponsored prominent guests, such as abolitionist Angela Davis, to talk about gender and the prison-industrial complex, and author Alice Walker, to deliver a keynote address on her writings and the intersectional topics they tackled.
Additionally, the CGE has helped organize events around domestic violence and sexual assault. These include the Clothesline Project and Take Back the Night, both of which aim to amplify the voices of those who have experienced interpersonal and gender-based violence.
For Rita Jones, current director of the CGE, helping create space to respond to gender-based violence is one of the most important strides the center has made. This work has led to the establishment of the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support.
“The center has always created space for campus community members to feel welcome and to find a place, and maybe we didn’t remain their space, but we helped them get to the space they wanted and needed to be in,” Jones said.
This sentiment was echoed by Calabrese, who shared that the Women’s Center briefly hosted LGBTQ+ students who, at the time, had not yet had a meeting area of their own.
While unsure what he wanted to do with the center, Alex Orellana, ‘24, joined because, as a transgender person of color, he appreciated the center’s passion for gender equity.
This semester, Orellana’s work with the CGE focuses on gender expression in the arts. His current project involves reframing classic poems and amplifying voices not usually heard through poetry.
During his next four years at Lehigh, Orellana hopes to help the CGE destigmatize feminism.
“When it comes to the word feminism, and speaking about these topics, there is a lot of stigma, people just want to stay away from it,” Orellana said.
While Jones said that she has seen progress at Lehigh since joining the CGE, she recognizes that there is still work to be done, but also that people are willing to do it.
“We need more conversations about creating trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, gender-nonconforming inclusive campus spaces,” Jones said. “We need to have more conversations about what leadership looks like and how sexed and gendered behaviors do or do not play a role in that. We still do need to have conversations about fair pay and pay justice.”