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Stanford Report, August 9, 2000

Women's Center director seeks to build coalitions


Even as an adolescent Laura Harrison was civic minded, volunteering at a hospital for people with disabilities.

It began to sink in that when she grew up she wanted to do advocacy. "That's when it occurred to me -- somebody has to work on this stuff."

Last May, Harrison, 27, started her new job as an assistant dean and the full-time director of the Women's Center, a position that fulfills her desire to do work with a progressive aim that involves broad-based coalition building.

"I really wanted to work with women, and particularly with women's issues, because that's where my heart is."

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She says she's learned that one can't address women's issues without touching on matters of ethnicity, among others. "Most women are dealing with multiple identifications," Harrison points out.

photo credit: LA Cicero

Harrison, a native of northern Ohio, is spending the summer hiring new staff and getting acquainted with the university. She took over from Lauren Popell, who served as the interim director following the Jan. 3, resignation of Fabienne McPhail, the center's first full-time director.

One of Harrison's first projects has been the five-point Strategic Plan for 2000-01. Its mission statement focuses on collaborative learning, community development and social justice. Harrison has circulated copies to the campus' minority centers, Associated Students officers and "anybody who will read it."

Her boss, Morris Graves, the associate dean of students, likes the look of the plan and Harrison's commitment to involving others. "I think that's a great idea, to develop a plan and get feedback on it," he says, adding, "She has a solid foundation to work from -- I think she'll take the center to another level."

Graves says every director has brought her own special talents to the Women's Center and he sees Harrison as being committed to quality and delivery of service.

Since her arrival, Harrison has filled the 10 part-time student positions, among them the newest position of community center liaison, which involves contact with campus centers. Other student staffers handle wellness, technology, public relations, programming in residential education and multicultural programs, annual events, administration, volunteer coordination and academic resources.

Although some of the titles have changed, "the spirit of the positions are pretty much the same," Harrison says.

Established in 1972, the center serves about 2,500 persons annually, mostly undergraduate and graduate students, for services such as tutoring, academic dissertation groups, brown bag lunches with faculty, health activities, Rape Awareness Week, Herstory Week, the Women's Leadership Awards and Campus Sisters. The center is planning to be among the sponsors of the United Nations Association Film Festival, which will be held in October.

Harrison looks forward to hosting a formal reception for faculty in the fall and to launching a faculty-in-residence program, where different professors can maintain office hours at the Women's Center. Those can be casual meetings with no set structure, she says, "but at the same time, there can be informal learning going on."

So far, Harrison says she's found the Stanford community very welcoming. It wasn't always so at her previous position as resident director and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender program coordinator at Ohio University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in English and women's studies and master's degree in counselor education.

On several occasions during the three years she worked there, she arrived at the center to find Scripture messages left at the door from fundamentalist Christians.

Some people in the community were hostile to the center, there was no outreach or acknowledgment of gay/lesbian students and Harrison was more "tolerated" than embraced, she says.

"Here, there's a lot of people who want to be involved with the office," she says. "People are so invested in the center."

Having a stake in contributing to the greater good and directing her skills to issues close to her heart make her job gratifying, she says. "Collecting a paycheck is not enough."

A committee composed of faculty, students and staff selected Harrison to head the Women's Center from a national pool of more than 70 applicants.

Harrison and Stephanie Eberle, her partner of eight years, are currently residing in Palo Alto. SR