It is the easiest thing in the world to condemn Nazism and hate-fueled violence. I do so, unequivocally, both in my capacity as the head of the Women and Gender Center at CU Denver and as a compassionate human being whose heart is broken by the vitriol and violence that came to the fore in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.
It is far more difficult to speak about the complicated political climate that encircles Charlottesville and extends across the United States. I represent a public university whose policies protect against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, pregnancy, creed, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, gender identity, gender expression, political philosophy or political affiliation. What happens when these identity categories come into conflict, as they have at times in recent political discourse? How do those of us who work at public institutions balance our commitments to supporting students of all political affiliations and identities with our commitments to support students from historically marginalized communities—including, but not limited to, students of color, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ students, and women?
If you’ve wondered why some public officials have not made public statements about a given issue or news item, it’s likely because the path forward on these issues sometimes feels unclear. The First Amendment protects speech, even unpopular speech—but it doesn’t mean people have an automatic right to a platform from which to speak. Public universities are designed as places where people are exposed to a range of ideas and ideals, and university officials often struggle with how to manage this when unpopular speech starts to edge into bigoted or hateful ideas. Professors want their classrooms to be places where students feel comfortable engaging in an honest exchange of ideas, and they’re sometimes unsure of how to manage this when one student says something that makes another student uncomfortable. How can they guide the conversation to a place where people feel safe and supported? There’s no guidebook on this.
I wish the political discourse in our country was in a different place, so that I didn’t have to worry about how to effectively stand in solidarity with the students whose rights are at risk without alienating students whose political affiliations align with the majority governing party. But I guess if standing up for what’s right was always easy, then it might not feel as rewarding.
So here’s what I can tell you: My office focuses on issues related to gender, gender diversity, and gender equity. These issues cannot and should not be separated from the rights and concerns of people of color, immigrants, people living with disabilities, queer people, or anybody else who does not enjoy equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the United States. My liberation is bound up with yours, and yours with mine. Therefore, I stand in solidarity with all those whose rights and safety—emotional, physical, and legal—are at risk. This means more than simply grasping the low hanging fruit. (After all, it’s the easiest thing in the world to condemn Nazism.) It also means centering the concerns of those people and communities who are most vulnerable, and committing to using the resources I have available to support them in whatever ways they need.
As we begin the Fall 2017 semester, I want you to know that the Women & Gender Center is committed to advancing an equitable, compassionate, and empathetic campus climate in which all students feel able to learn, set educational and professional goals, and achieve those goals successfully. If there’s any way I, or anybody at the Women & Gender Center, can help you feel supported as you begin or continue your journey at the University of Colorado Denver, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Please also consider attending a brown bag event tomorrow, Thursday, August 17, to discuss the events in Charlottesville. This event is sponsored by CU Denver's Center for Identity and Inclusion. It will be located in Student Commons Building room 1500, from 12:00pm-1:30. This will be an open discussion with no formal agenda.
In kindness, compassion, and justice,
Women & Gender Center Coordinator
University of Colorado Denver