An Interview with Laura Lockwood, Director of WGRAC at Trinity College

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Laura in her office

This semester, I took a course called Global Feminism with Professor Linda Tabar. Our final project for the course was to conduct an interview with someone who has been engaged in feminist or queer movements. Laura Lockwood is the director of the Women & Gender Resource Action Center at Trinity. I have gotten to know her since I got to Trinity and thought it would be valuable for other students to read about her work in organizing and at Trinity. Here is the transcript of the interview I conducted with her.

MK: I first want to ask you how you locate yourself within or outside of certain patriarchal and other structures. How did you start recognizing and understanding power structures within a feminist or anti-racist lens? How did you gain this consciousness?

LL: So actually it was pretty young. In my high school there were race riots. This was the early 70s. I started understanding power structures pretty early on because of the racial issues going on in my high school and some of the  power dynamics  I observed growing up. I felt like I had some sort of personal understanding of that, and then witnessing the racism and violence at my school horrified me. I went to an integrated school, but my neighborhood was segregated, which most neighborhoods were back then. My parents were both progressive and  taught me early on about discrimination and the structures that support it.

So, I started out as an anti-racism activist. My goal after college was to work against housing discrimination: segregation/redlining and “slum removal,” under the guise of  “urban renewal.” In college I learned everything I wasn’t taught in high school – the real history of discrimination and racism in this country. Feminism came to me later. After college, when I didn’t get the job I thought I was going to get (because of Reagan’s war on poor people’s programs) I ended up going into community organizing. I  did street organizing in neighborhoods, public housing developments and in parishes and congregations around issues that people defined. With power in numbers people could have a say in the decision-making that affected their neighborhood and city. Everything from getting rid of slumlords to pushing the housing authority to stop evictions. I organized in New Haven and New Britain (CT), both really poor, segregated cities.

Most of my leaders were women. From the street level I got to understand the face of poverty, which sounds really cliché but organizing is about building relationships and the families I worked with were working poor or on assistance. Some were homeowners, most renters. So the intersections – we didn’t use that term then- of race, class, and gender, and the strict gender roles, were ever present. So it was really interesting and a good education. Organizing was very tough work. It was about the redistribution of power, building relationships, and bringing people together who would have never realized that they had a “common enemy.”  We had white homeowners, non-white homeowners, parishioners of color, renters, and everybody in between coming together and saying “we’re all being oppressed by city hall,” or, by a corporation that bought up people’s homes for their land.I didn’t really come into feminism until after organizing for seven or so years, about the time when I started coming into my own as a lesbian and really understanding and identifying just how f—ed. everything was!

I came to Trinity to get my Master’s part-time when I was working at a women’s rights legal project downtown, Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF). I was the Education Director and led anti-discrimination and sexual harassment prevention and response trainings all over the state and region. I managed the legal information referral line which served the entire state, providing family and employment law consultation and referrals. That gave me  background in issues of child custody and child support as well as discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation in the workplace (the term gender identity wasn’t used as regularly then). Meanwhile, I took law courses at UConn Law on labor law and gender discrimination as part of my MA and volunteered at the Women’s Liberation Center in New Haven.

Doing all of this, learning about patriarchy and having grown up witnessing and affected by the ‘60s and ‘70s movements, I saw that we could change laws but also saw that covert and overt racism, sexism, homophobia/heterosexism remained potent. And, then we had the backlash, which is still going on, starting in the ‘80s: trying to reverse everything that had been gained, trying to re-oppress us, if that was possible! That’s why some students think that feminists are “feminazis” because of this very effective backlash. They did such a “good” job – the moral majority, Newt Gingrich, Reagan, and others.

MK: The whole idea of consciousness, I think, is part of why I see WGRAC as so important; it creates consciousness on these issues. When you came here, what was the state of the campus and the women’s center, how did you work with it, and how did you put yourself into the space?

LL: The women’s center started in the late 70s with faculty and students saying “we need a safe space” because women had just gotten here, and it (the campus) was a mess.  I arrived in ’98; Diane Martell, a friend,  had been the coordinator. It was only a 10-month position at that point. Over the years I worked to get it up to 12 months because I was working in the summer but not getting paid. That took a long time. It (the Center) was smaller, the Sexual Assault Response Team was sort of loose. We had a sexual assault counselor who actually was an out lesbian – she was here part-time when I arrived –  but she resigned soon after I started and they didn’t fill the position. They just sort of said “Laura, you do this.” I said, “Okay,” and figured it out. I started formalizing (the team) and organizing. My objective was to create a campus where people felt more comfortable to come forward. Back then our (sexual misconduct) reports were really low. They’ve gotten so more numerous which is so important… and, it’s a much more welcoming process. It’s almost impossible in this culture at Trinity to make everyone comfortable to come forward. It’s just so hard to do that because you can’t control for everything like retaliation from friends and fear, but we’ve tried. I worked on that really hard (changing the culture). Many of us have, and continue to.

Also, we didn’t have a Safe Zone program, didn’t have a Coming Out Network, and, didn’t have a QRC, so, I started the Safe Zone program. There were a few stickers around campus but nobody had any training behind them, so there were just people who were allies. Or, a handful of out folk with stickers.  I borrowed heavily from UCONNs  model and started it here.

I slowly started trying to build WGRAC to continue as a safe space that does programming, training, that brings awareness, raises consciousness, and brings everyone together to try to undo the barriers that separate us. We also became a sort of catalyst for change, like campus culture change and activism. Here at Trinity, as you know, activism (historically) hasn’t been as visible as on other campuses, but if students wanted to do something I would help them plan, but I didn’t think I should be the one to say “this is what you should go do” because it’s all about empowerment. You have to give students the opportunity to learn, and you have to meet students where they’re at, which is what I learned in organizing. There have been some years where students have done marches and sit-ins, and other years where it’s been more covert activism. To me it’s all good; it’s all about learning and growing, and to me it’s really important to give students opportunities to find their voice, find their uniqueness, and find their power. Anything that we can do here to make that happen, we try to do that.

MK: So you said that since you’ve gotten here, the reporting has gone up and it’s become more welcoming. What do you think has been the most important impact of WGRAC on campus? What do you see as your greatest accomplishment through WGRAC or through your other work?

LL: I really wanted to make WGRAC a household word at Trinity and that it be known as a place that’s open and welcoming. People can choose to come or not, but that people didn’t feel excluded. I think we’re getting there. It’s hard to know when you’re in it how people feel from the outside, and it’s always still a challenge getting people in the door. I think that’s one accomplishment.

In terms of gender-based power violence or sexual violence the work that I’ve helped make happen through policy and  developing reporting options, as well as addressing victim blaming and bystander intervention, has made it easier for students to come forward. And then the hundreds of student survivors I’ve worked with one on one –  I’m hoping that I was helpful to the students I worked with.  I will never really know but that’s a big part of my work, and what we’ve done is to train and empower others so students have other options other than WGRAC for reporting or disclosing an incident. Not everybody wants to go to a white, middle-aged lesbian woman at WGRAC! There’s still stigma attached to some of that. So spreading the wealth, in that respect, not only through the SART team but through training and through the different options that we now have has helped create a more open environment. We’ve helped raise the discourse – the conversation – about these issues, which helps removes the stigma and the code of silence.

MK: If you don’t mind, we can go into a little bit more about you? I know you’ve touched on how you came into consciousness and how you experienced it, and I’m just wondering day to day, how do you approach your work? How do you approach building these relationships with other women and people you work with? Also, how do you approach taking care of yourself as you do this work?

LL: I guess some of it is perseverance. I think that when you’re in movement work or when you’re in empowerment or social change work, you know and I’ve been working on social justice issues for most of my life, you just can’t give up. I think there have been a lot of challenges here at Trinity: past administrations, funding, and, staffing. It’s been really hard sometimes. What I learned when I was an organizer is that you take the really small victories and rewards, and realize how big they are. If I had expected for really big things to change here quickly I would have been out of here a long time ago, because social change  is very, very slow. But,  it’s a labor of love. It’s about building relationships, bringing people together and trying to break down the barriers one at a time. It’s really, really tough work. And you’re working in what was an all-male environment with very embedded institutionalized patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. It’s embedded in the stones. You just walk around campus and you feel that very male presence. It’s hard, but I always tell students who say “I’m out of here, I want to transfer,” that this is just like “out there.” When you graduate, you’re going to be more ready to take on “out there” than maybe some people that went to school where everybody thought like them. This is real, even though we’re in a bubble, so to speak.

MK: How do you approach things on a daily basis? If something is frustrating to you or you become overwhelmed by the misogynistic space, how do you handle it?

LL: I do different things. Sometimes I go vent to somebody in confidence and get support. Other times it’s about self-care, which as yet isn’t really part of the ethos here. We’re getting there. I do my best to try to take care of myself. There have been a few times when I’ve just wanted to walk. You have to say to yourself, “Okay, the world’s not going to end. How important is it? What can I do to care of myself? Who do I need to talk to?” And then you look at all the good that’s happening, the positive changes, and the little victories: students getting that “aha moment” when they learn something new or exercise their voice for the first time. Or they start seeing how intersectional oppression works;  a program they ran goes well; a speaker creates a buzz….

Sometimes it’s tough, but this is what you do when you’re in social justice work. There’s a lot to make you angry, but it’s not the anger that will keep you going, it’s the compassion. Anger can and will fizzle, even though there is a lot to be angry about. As long as we have some underlying compassion for people that will carry us through. And, I love this work.

MK: I know you said that when you were organizing, the leaders that you saw were women. Could you talk a bit about how others have impacted you. Who have you looked to as examples?

LL: I was lucky when I was organizing, I had a wonderful mentor. She (Alta Lash) teaches organizing here as an adjunct, and at that time oversaw the organizers in this region and impacted me incredibly. Here at Trinity – it’s gotten better –  but in the past there weren’t a lot of women in administrative positions that could mentor me. Karla Spurlock-Evans has been very helpful to me as well as other colleagues. I think it’s just been mostly activists I have known or befriended in and out of the workplace who I learned the most from or who have inspired me, not to mention some activists historically.

MK: What is your perspective on the idea of solidarity? Do you see your work as a mode of solidarity?

LL: Yes, I do. I think solidarity is a great word but I think what it really means is tough to define. For instance, when we’re talking about white women and Black Lives Matter, one needs to understand what it is to be an ally. And to be in solidarity with a movement, as an ally.   I can say I support you,  that I will do what you ask, but I cannot claim that movement for mine. I have to recognize my implicit bias and my privilege, and do. I think that sometimes, while solidarity sounds really good, it may be a word people hide behind instead of looking in the mirror and saying, “What about my bias? What about my racism? Have I confronted my prejudices?” Sometimes words and symbols can cover these up if we let them.

I think (in this country) that the powers that be will do everything they can to divide and conquer and try to keep us apart, and they’ve done a great job at doing that and stoking division, and that’s their game. In capitalism, you can’t really come together fully. Lives are intentionally segregated, so there’s a lot of work to be done to get past those barriers. Until that’s addressed, bigger solidarity can symbolically happen in a march, yes, but it’s the work in people’s living rooms and in the basements of houses of worship where the organizing and the nitty-gritty stuff gets worked on. I think people have to understand when you’re an ally and when you’re not.

MK: Branching off from the idea of solidarity is this idea of dialogue and being in dialogue with those who are different. Many people see it as a powerful tool, but sometimes it can be non-productive when the experiences of marginalized people are either erased or generally not prioritized in dialogue. How do you see the issue of dialogue on Trinity’s campus?

LL: I’ve heard people say, “enough dialogue already, we need to act,” or students of color will say “we shouldn’t have to educate others.” When you’re in a minority on campus, or in a community/country, that’s what you’re doing every single day. It’s an unfair burden. It’s complicated because I think there are students who want to learn and get educated and don’t know how to do that, and then there are students who want to just get demands together and take action. To me, especially in an age which is much different than five or ten years ago when people are talking less because of texting and technology, I’m all about creating safe spaces where people can talk to each other. I don’t think it should only be that, but I think people need that as a basis, a starting point. Students need to feel like they can be themselves, be heard,  and not feel judged when they say something “wrong” or out of their privilege or experience. Even students of color in an oppressed minority have some privilege because they are on this campus. That’s hard to navigate, because people don’t feel privileged at all, and I get that, best I can.

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