A group of students is petitioning the University of Miami administration in hopes of gathering enough support to push for the creation of a Women’s and Gender Resource Center (WGRC) on campus.
Although the change.org petition has only been circulating for a couple of weeks, the petition garnered 433 signatures at the time of publication.
“As a prestigious institution that is striving to create a community of belonging, a Women’s and Gender Resource Center would create a physical space and full-time director dedicated to these issues, and a centralized network of people at UM who feel it is necessary that women have equal opportunities and adequate care,” the petition reads.
Merike Blofield, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) program and political science professor, said she suggested the idea for a center last spring after doing a review and noticing that, when compared to nine other aspirational peer institutions, UM was the only one that did not have a resource center dedicated to issues dealing with gender equity.
“Quite a few students don’t really know the resources that UM has,” Blofield said. “It’s not the kind of thing you really think about until you might need them.”
Blofield said she agrees with the idea of having a space “along the lines of the LGBTQ Center,” where students can find assistance and guidance in a welcoming environment.
The petition itself was created by two UM seniors, Shannon Casey and Carolina Bendaña. Both are familiar with women’s and gender studies — Casey is minoring in the field and Bendaña is double-majoring in WGS and anthropology.
Although Casey noted an uptick in feelings of helplessness among her friends after the election, Bendaña said the demand for a resource center is long overdue.
“We realized that this is something regardless of the political climate, it should have been happening and should have been here since a long time ago,” Bendaña said. “There is a need for this that has not been fulfilled, which is what pushed us to say now is the time.”
According to a 2015 campus climate survey conducted by the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, 52.6 percent of 954 respondents said they believed the university has good support systems in place and does enough to protect their safety. However, less than 20 percent responded knowing how to report issues of sexual assault or harassment. When it comes to sexual violence education, only 27.3 percent of women agreed that the university does a satisfactory job while 50.4 percent of men agreed.
These results, however, are not representative of the entire campus. Respondents only made up 5.7 percent of the total enrolled student population, with predominantly female respondents. The coalition is conducting another survey this year to try to get a more accurate results.
The statistics still prove a point for Casey. As a freshman, she co-founded UM’s chapter of the National Organization for Women after realizing that there weren’t enough resources for women on-campus.
“I was in need of a women’s resource center and I didn’t feel as if I could make it happen at the time,” Casey said.
She said that the goal of the petition is to create a single place where anyone on campus can go to freely express any women/gender-related issues, which include discrimination and harassment, as well as heavier issues such as sexual assault. It’s “a space where they’re heard,” Bendaña said.
In January 2016, former WGS professor Katharine Westaway held a meeting shortly after she was asked not to return to the university in the spring semester of that year. During the meeting, held off-campus, she urged former students and friends to sign an online petition calling for the school to make a Sexual Assault Survivor Support Center space in the Lennar Foundation Medical Center, which was under construction at the time.
The petition outlined a “seven room suite” for the support center, which “would include two therapy rooms, one forensics room for rape kits (with 24-hour access), one media room, one coordinator’s room and one room solely for group therapy and community and victim advocacy.”
“I would want victims to receive the utmost caring, quick, comprehensive, just treatment,” Westaway said to a Hurricane reporter at the meeting. “I want them to be understood to be some of the most suffering people in the world. And I want them to be treated with great care.”
The new iteration of this idea would also serve as a place where different organizations, coalitions and working groups focusing on women’s and gender equity issues could come together. Casey said many of these groups don’t have connections or communications with each other, and she noticed that it’s very hard to gather all of them in the same room, let alone collaborate on events or programming.
She also said that she feels as if much of the staff in charge of the resources on campus is not able to divest enough time into helping students because staff members also are full-time faculty or administrators. A solution to this problem would be to hire a full-time director and staff to run the center.
“Finding a space, a full-time director and a budget will be the biggest challenge,” Blofield said.
A student request of this magnitude must go through multiple layers of approval before becoming a university initiative and coming to fruition. The university issued a statement to The Miami Hurricane on March 1 saying it would look into the proposal.
“We’re aware of the petition being circulated,” university spokesperson Peter Howard said. “There is a lot that goes into considering and implementing requests such as this, and the university certainly will be taking a close look at it.”
When asked what Student Government (SG) is planning to do about it, vice president-elect Coleman Reardon said SG is open to discussing the issue but would have to see exactly what is being asked for in the petition. He mentioned having talked about it before in meetings and said he is willing to continue the conversation.
Outreach Coordinator and Counseling Center therapist Kimberly Martin, who serves on the President’s Coalition for Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, said in an email that the coalition had not discussed the petition enough to come to any conclusions but will be hearing from presenters during its next meeting on Monday.
“The best thing students can do right now is spread the word, sign our petition and send in testimonials,” Casey said. “It’s really easy to ignore one voice, but it’s very hard to ignore a few thousand voices.”
Casey and Bendaña will be hosting an information session 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 7 in the Shalala Student Center Activities Room South. For more information, email Bendaña at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neemi Patel is social media chair for NOW at UM.
Isabella Cueto contributed to reporting.