Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, San Francisco State University Honoring Leadership and Diversity: Women of Color and the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality

 

Project Leaders:

Jessica Fields (CRGS Senior Researcher and Associate Professor of Sociology[1])

Rita M. Melendez (Associate Professor and Chair of Sexuality Studies, and CRGS Senior Researcher)

Amy Sueyoshi (Associate Professor and Director of Ethnic Studies, with a joint appointment in Sexuality Studies)

Introduction: The Need

The Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality (CRGS) was founded at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 2004. Since its inception, the CRGS has insisted on the importance of challenging gender, sexual, and racial inequalities that inform the experiences of women of color and others. The CRGS mission is to promote social justice and well-being by recognizing and challenging how inequalities undermine healthy sexuality. CRGS researchers pursue this goal through research projects that explore topics including HIV risk among male-to-female transgender individuals; female adolescent risk behaviors; HIV and Latino immigrants; school-based sexuality education; HIV education and incarcerated women of color; race, gender, and sexuality in young adults’ lives. CRGS also pursues community-based, collaborative, feminist, and critical methodologies that foster new and useful knowledge about sexuality and gender.

 

The SFSU community includes a diverse group of students and faculty: of its almost 30,000 students, about 60% are women, and over 60% are students of color. Almost half (46%) of SFSU faculty are women, and over 35% are people of color. The composition of the CRGS does not sufficiently reflect the racial diversity of the SFSU campus, as we indicate below in Table 1.

Table 1: CRGS Gender and Racial/Ethnic Composition

 
Faculty/PIs
Students
Staff
Total
African American/Black
0
3 (11%)
1 (4%)
4 (15%)
Asian American
1 (4%)
0
1 (4%)
2 (8%)
Latina/Latino
2 (8%)
3 (11%)
3 (11%)
8 (30%)
Native American Indian
0
0
0
0
Native Pacific Islander
0
0
0
0
White
4 (15%)
4 (15%)
4 (15%)
12 (44%)
Middle Eastern
0
1 (4%)
0
1 (4%)
Women
5 (19%)[2]
9 (33%)
4 (15%)
18 (67%)
Men
2 (8%)
2 (8%)
4 (15%)
8 (30%)
Transgendered/GenderQueer
0
1 (4%)
0
1 (4%)
 
7 (26%)
12 (44%)
8 (30%)
27 (100%)
 

While we strive to include women of color in all aspects of our Center, we also encounter difficulties when trying to recruit and retain women of color, including queer women of color, in leadership positions as faculty members, students, and research assistants.

 
The Project

The CRGS received funding from the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW) for a self-assessment in which CRGS faculty, staff, and students would work with women of color faculty, staff, and students from SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies. Together, we explored opportunities for, and barriers to, women of color faculty, staff, and students assuming leadership positions at the CRGS. Our strategies have yielded important insight and represented a small step toward improving the relationship between CRGS faculty and the women of color students and faculty at SFSU (particularly in the College of Ethnic Studies) who study issues of gender and sexuality.

 

Jessica Fields (CRGS Senior Researcher and Associate Professor of Sociology[3]), Rita M. Melendez (Associate Professor and Chair of Sexuality Studies, and CRGS Senior Researcher), and Amy Sueyoshi (Associate Professor and Director of Ethnic Studies, with a joint appointment in Sexuality Studies) led the self-assessment. Drs. Fields, Melendez, and Sueyoshi conducted two one-on-one interviews with CRGS faculty, eight interviews with women of color faculty in the College of Ethnic Studies conducting research on gender and sexuality, and six with SFSU deans and research center directors. Dr. Sueyoshi conducted three focus groups with (1) Sexuality Studies graduate students, (2) Ethnic Studies graduate students, and (3) CRGS research assistants to explore student and staff experiences of the CRGS faculty leadership and how staff and students might assume greater leadership roles.

 

Focus groups and interview questions focused on experiences recruiting and maintaining women of color, best practices for successful recruitment and retention, barriers to recruitment and retention, people’s experiences and perceptions of the CRGS, potential collaboration at the CRGS, and leadership opportunities at the CRGS. See the Resource section of this website for the interview guide. Two women of color graduate students in Sexuality Studies assisted in the design and analysis of the interviews and focus groups and in preparing the final report and recommendations.

 

In fall 2009, we presented a final report of the needs assessment to CRGS staff, faculty, and students, other SFSU research center directors, and directors of peer research centers at other campuses with the aim of broadly sharing strategies for promoting the leadership of women of color.

 

In spring 20l0, CRGS staff, faculty, and students gathered at the CRGS to further discuss strategies for promoting the leadership of women of color. Two students of color co-facilitated the meeting. In 2010-2011, the CRGS and its sister organizations, the National Sexuality Resource Center and the Sexuality Studies Department, are co-hosting a series of social justice workshops to continue the work begun in this project.

 

Historically underrepresented groups supported by project

This project aimed to help establish the CRGS as a site of women of color’s leadership. At SFSU, this category—women of color—includes African American, Asian American, Black, Chicana, Mexican American, Latina, Native American Indian, Native Pacific Islander, Puerto Rican, and mixed heritage women.

Challenges arising from project’s focus on designated groups

We chose not to focus exclusively on the Ford Foundation’s designated “historically underrepresented groups” and used the term “women of color” to include other women who are socio-economically marginalized on the basis of their ethnicity or race. California has a long legacy of explicitly discriminating against Asians since the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, including East, South, and South East Asian women not articulated in the originally designated group made perfect sense. Moreover in a “post 9/11” United States, South Asians as well as Arab and Muslim ethnicities who at one point would have been categorized as “Caucasian” in the U.S. Census have faced increasing attack. All those involved in the Honoring Leadership and Diversity (HOLD) project, including the interviewed participants, understood the category women of color in this broader, perhaps “west coast” context: a “women of color” consciousness derived from “third world women” who organized in the late 1970s and early 1980s to create an alternative woman-centered ideology advocating for the poor, immigrant, and disenfranchised.

Coalitions or partnerships formed to help accomplish objectives

The project team represented a coalition of faculty and student researchers from a range of disciplines and university leadership positions. Disciplines and fields included history, ethnic studies, sexuality studies, and sociology. Team members were tenured associate professors, department chairs, acting center directors, and graduate students. We met monthly to plan, build, and implement the HOLD project. Meetings provided an opportunity to talk about our experiences conducting, transcribing, and coding the interviews and focus groups. Such discussions were a source of support and insight as we identified commonalities and differences across the experiences of the study participants and the researchers.

 

The project also encouraged collaboration between the CRGS and the College of Ethnic Studies. Interviews with women of color faculty in the College of Ethnic Studies allowed us to gather and learn from testimonies from women of color navigating the demands of occupying leadership positions, struggling to gain recognition for leadership they already provide, or seeking leadership that responds to their particular needs as women of color.

Greater diversity achieved at Center

The CRGS was the only member center in this project to receive funds for a needs assessment and not for an actual diversity project. This difference in project goals and scale meant that our achievements differ from those of the other grantees: we were focused less on making immediate change than on (1) specifying the needs for change and (2) identifying the most optimal routes to change.

 

That said, while we have seen only limited movement toward increasing diversity at CRGS in the last year, the needs assessment has inspired distinct steps toward creating a more diversity-friendly environment. The self-assessment has given space and visibility to the issues surrounding women of color in leadership positions throughout the CRGS by simply existing. One woman of color researcher commented that the very presence of the project—as evident, for example, in a project poster on the walls of the CRGS—helped her feel as if her concerns had a place at the Center.

 

With the project funds, we took the immediate step of providing leadership opportunities to two women of color graduate student research assistants. The two students participated in the planning, execution, and presentation of the findings. The work of the students not only facilitated the progress of the project, but also provided them with experience and information about the variety of experiences women of color face while working in an academic setting.

 

Disseminating project results at the CRGS furthered this sense that the concerns of women of color hold some weight among their CRGS colleagues. In April 2009, the team presented preliminary findings at the monthly CRGS staff meeting. The turnout for the meeting was unusually high and included a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff. During this presentation, we discussed obstacles to recruitment of women of color, mentorship, support, recognition of women of color in leadership, allies and posed possible recommendations that were opened up for discussion with the group.

 

Overall, the presentation allowed us to report back our findings, which will have a great impact on diversity of the Center. A summer 2009 meeting with Colleen Hoff, CRGS Director, allowed us to discuss in depth the findings and next steps. That meeting led to the subsequent meetings, including the social justice workshops, discussed above.

Impact of project activities and outcomes on SFSU campus

Interviews with campus leaders and research center directors, and focus groups with students served as dissemination and possibly an intervention. Our interviews with campus leaders prompted discussions that do not occur frequently. Each interview opened with a brief discussion of the grant HOLD received, its importance to our Center and to the University, and the importance of gaining the participant’s perspective. The interviews allowed campus leaders to tell their stories of how they are affected by issues of race and gender in the University and beyond. The stories did not appear to vary across racial categories. As expected, all women of color faculty described their experiences both in graduate school and as professors. In telling these stories, each interview provided a space that validated the importance of those experiences.

 

Additionally, the interviews may have led campus leaders to rethink their support of women of color. Discussions of recruitment and retention strategies often pointed to the inadequacy of current models. Though respondents—including white respondents, administrators, and senior researchers and faculty—shared a commitment to supporting women of color in and on their way to leadership positions, most lacked an explicit, informed commitment to engaging in hiring and mentoring processes that would directly promote the interests of women of color faculty, staff, and students. We hope that the interviews encouraged participants to recognize that lack.

 

Likewise, focus groups with students prompted discussion of the role of women of color as professors and advisors. Students from the Ethnic Studies and Sexuality Studies Departments, as well as CRGS research assistants, realized the importance of having women of color in academia but also recognized the challenges they face. For example, one student commented on the burden that comes with all students “want[ing] to work with women of color faculty.” Their greater understanding of the demands that women of color faculty face at SFSU and elsewhere has potentially broad implications, as students become sensitive to the extra burdens women of color bear campus-wide.

 

One stated goal of the project was to improve relations and foster connections between the CRGS and the SFSU College of Ethnic Studies. Interviews and focus groups did encourage conversation among CRGS and Ethnic Studies researchers, and we are confident that we have begun to establish the foundation for strong relationships. However, those relationships are still emergent, and the success of this effort rests, at least in part, on our continued efforts to reach out meaningfully to women of color in the College of Ethnic Studies and across campus.

 
Going Forward

Ultimately, the team expects the impact of this study to be sustained. The faculty members of the HOLD team will continue working on the project after the NCRW funding concludes. Researchers at the SFSU Cesar Chavez Institute are currently examining career satisfaction, gender, and race among SFSU faculty. Investigators pursuing that study have consulted with the HOLD team, and we plan to share our research findings with the Cesar Chavez Institute team in hopes of strengthening the study’s analysis and recommendations.

Challenges faced in implementing diversity strategies

The initial challenge for the HOLD project was deciding who to talk to about the experiences of women of color in academic settings. Intent on creating a bridge between the CRGS, the Sexuality Studies department and the Ethnic Studies department, we looked to talk with faculty in Ethnic Studies who were already researching gender and sexuality, faculty in the Sexuality Studies department, graduate students from both departments, directors, staff, and research assistants working in the CRGS. We found many people we wanted to talk with and once we had the list of names from Ethnic Studies, the Sexuality Studies department and the CRGS, we sent out emails and asked them to participate in the project. The responses began to filter in, and the expected challenge of scheduling difficulties began to arise. Most of the faculty with whom we spoke were already spread thin, and adding another task on their already long list of responsibilities was challenging for them. This seemed especially true for women of color faculty—reflecting, once again, the overwhelming burden that too many of them carry.

 

One of the unexpected challenges we faced during the interview process was when some of the faculty members and directors had trouble staying focused on the topic at hand and veered off into directions that deflected some of the questions that specifically focused on women of color. While these digressions were illuminating, they were also disappointing in that they validated some of the concerns the faculty members and directors who are of color were discussing in their own interviews. This was a surprising development within the interview process and was an unexpected challenge during the interview itself, as well as during the analysis of the interviews.

 

Finally, when the HOLD team presented their initial findings to the CRGS about the issues women of color face while working in academia, the team and the director and staff of the CRGS discussed strategies women of color and those working with them could use while navigating through academia. While the discussion was enlightening for the director and some of the other white staff members present, the themes and strategies presented by the HOLD team were familiar to most people of color on staff. We therefore decided to develop a more elaborate written report to share with the director and other faculty, students, and staff at the CRGS with an eye toward encouraging implementation of diversity strategies in the CRGS.  As the project came to an end, it was uncertain whether that implementation would take place. While change is still underway, the follow-up meetings and current series of social justice workshops suggest that the CRGS leadership strives to find ways to act on the insights of the NCRW-funded HOLD project.

Remaining challenges

We also struggle with the possibility that the project will be marginalized in favor of better funded efforts at the Center. Limited resources—money and time—curtailed our success competing for attention in the midst of many demands on CRGS faculty, student, and staff time.

 

The remaining challenges we face are firmly entrenched racist and sexist structures within academia. Women of color and their allies must commit to understanding and questioning these structures in academia. Additionally, we need to hold those with structural power accountable for discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes and perspectives, whether implicit or explicit, intentional or unintended.

 

Another challenge we face is the availability of funding for projects spearheaded by women of color as well as projects focusing on issues of concern for women of color. Without the resources to fund projects pertinent to women of color, those issues will not be included in academic work.

 

Moreover, centers must commit to including women of color in their research projects as participants, investigators, assistants, consultants, and more. They must recognize and address the power dynamics governing academic and research environments, which can be challenging for women of color and their allies committed to maintaining what Gloria Anzaldúa and others have described as “women of color consciousness” that values relationships, leadership styles, and intellectual priorities unlike or even in opposition to those valued elsewhere in the academy.

The Center’s and University’s commitment to continuation of project

SFSU has already made some commitment to this project. The SFSU Center for Teaching and Faculty Development awarded the team a mini-grant to support the diversification of CRGS leadership. We used these funds to further support the self-assessment, report results, and identify action steps. In addition, the university funds will allow us to more widely disseminate and implement the action plan.

 

The latest budget crisis at SFSU, indeed throughout California and U.S. public higher education, makes this a particularly difficult time to ensure the financial sustainability of the HOLD project. We continue to think creatively about how to secure funding and look forward to talking with others at NCRW and in its member center network about how to prioritize women of color and leadership. We are convinced that such an anti-racist and anti-sexist agenda is indeed central to any sustainable response not only to the obstacles to women of color’s leadership but also to the current economic crisis. Feminist researchers cannot wait until later, when things seem better, to take on issues of race; they must be priorities always, integral to every step our movement takes.

Lessons other NCRW centers can take from project success or challenges

As this report indicates, some of the project’s accomplishments are relatively intangible. The project has promoted discussion of women of color and leadership at the CRGS and with colleagues in the College of Ethnic Studies. Interviewers, interviewees, and transcribers all describe a heightened sensitivity to the issues women of color face as they move into leadership roles, contend with racism and sexism from those who are already leaders, and try to define leadership in ways that honor their women of color consciousness.  The project sparked conversation and reflection about the place of women of color at the Center, the role of white allies in supporting the interests of women of color, and the importance of articulating and staying true to a vision of research and inquiry that prioritizes the needs and leadership of women of color.

 

Our experience has brought us to a series of recommendations, which we offer below in hopes of supporting other member centers in their efforts to promote leadership among women of color.

·      Centers need to be women-of-color friendly, not just in terms of numbers of bodies but in terms of power dynamics and academic culture.

·      As the proportion of people of color increases, creating spaces that are people-of-color-friendly becomes even more urgent as the discussions grow more intense. This intensity may in fact reflect the success rather than the failure of the movement towards diversity.

·      When women of color hold leadership positions, they don’t necessarily wield true power within the institution.

·      Women of color often view leadership opportunities as a negative, putting them in positions where they will take on more mundane work to give others more exciting opportunities.

·      Women of color need to be actively recruited and mentored for them to remain in an institution.

·      Mentoring is a serious commitment that continues even during more difficult moments that may arise.



[1] At the time of the initial proposal to the NCRW, Dr. Fields was Acting Director of the CRGS. In Fall 2008, Dr. Colleen Hoff joined the CRGS as its new Director.

[2] Percent is of whole of CRGS—faculty, students, and staff.

[3] At the time of the initial proposal to the NCRW, Dr. Fields was Acting Director of the CRGS. In Fall 2008, Dr. Colleen Hoff joined the CRGS as its new Director.