Donor Spotlight: Supporting Growth and Progress
by Paige P. Parvin 96G
Even from their early days at Emory in 2004, Provost Earl Lewis and Susan Whitlock recognized the remarkable role of the Center for Women in their new community. Their involvement was thanks in no small measure to then-director Ali Crown, who promptly reached out to include them in virtually every center event and opportunity.
For Lewis, it was part of his new array of responsibilities, reporting to the Office of the Provost. He immediately took an interest in its origins and its vibrant presence. He felt the center was at a critical point in its evolution.
"From the very start, I came to realize that the center plays an important role in the fabric of the institution," he says. "It was clearly the case in working with Ali that she had an understanding of the different ways that women are both visible and invisible. She had set up a series of programs to make some invisible activities more visible, and highlight those things that should be noted in even greater detail. Susan and I realized that this is important."
Whitlock, the wife of a provost at a top-twenty research university, was no stranger to the forces and foibles at work in academic institutions. She instantly saw the value of a place where faculty, staff, and students all are welcome. "It is so rare in the university environment to have a place where people meet as peers," she says. "It's important to me to support a place where women meet in ways not facilitated by the hierarchy of academic institutions."
As a graduate student in American studies and women's studies at the University of Michigan, Whitlock did not especially gravitate toward the women's center. "But I had this awareness," she says, "A sense of the work going on there. I knew it was there for me if I needed it. I always had close friends involved in the women's center."
Both Lewis and Whitlock feel the Center for Women stands somewhat apart from its peers. Whitlock says she loves that it has its own library, which she found to be completely unexpected on her first visit. She appreciates the center's efforts to help a range of women through practical offerings, such as financial seminars and health lectures. And she is impressed by the center's visibility across the broader community, due in part to high-profile programs such as the Unsung Heroine Awards. "I love that they are drawing attention to people who are doing their jobs in ways that make lives easier," she says.
Lewis has keenly observed the center's growth and change in his time here, including its first significant shift in leadership: the arrival of Director Dona Yarbrough in 2008. "There is a way in which the center that Ali helped to create was one that grew out of the 1980s and a particular set of dynamics and issues on campus," he says. "The center we have twenty-plus years later is one that's trying to play a slightly different role. It's trying to situate itself more centrally in the academic stream, under the leadership of Dona. She has tried to build on established tradition but also to engage in new partnerships."
For Lewis, a seminal moment in the center's history took place two years ago, when civil and women's rights leader Angela Davis visited campus as the featured speaker for Women's History Month. The highlight was an appearance at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, when lines of people stretched around the block to get in. "That was an example of this community stretching beyond the boundaries of this institution," Lewis says. "That's a different notion for the Center for Women. . . . It represents an evolution from a focus on highlighting the visible and invisible to situating itself in the realm of public scholarship."
Lewis also found that moment telling because it blurred the boundaries of gender and race. Five years ago, Lewis created the Office of Community and Diversity, headed by Ozzie Harris, partly to help bring together diversity efforts. "We have begun the hard work of understanding what it means to really develop a relationship between community and diversity," he says.
As annual donors to the Center for Women, both Lewis and Whitlock are excited to see where the center will go in the next five years. "One of our priorities in charitable giving . . . is providing access and inroads for people into, in this case, the University experience," Whitlock says. "It kind of goes along with the nature of the center and its crossing the lines between faculty, staff, and students. It provides deeper access to University resources to more people, and that's important to us."
Paige P. Parvin 96G is the editor of Emory Magazine and a member of the Center for Women at Emory Editorial Board.