GVSU -- Creating Social Change in West Michigan
Since 1971, the University of Michigan has had an office dedicated to serving the needs of LGBT students and their allies. I was hopeful that when I checked out GVSU, I would find this same kind of resource. When I discovered Grand Valley did not have such an office, I felt overwhelmed with the work that needed to be done. Why, 35 years later, did our local institute of high education not keep pace with the largest university in the state? Little did I know all that had been going on at GVSU for the past ten years!
It wasn't until I was on the ground with Triangle Foundation in West Michigan that I had the opportunity to meet members of the GVSU staff and faculty to learn of the great work that the LGBT and allied community had been and was continuing to accomplish at Grand Valley.
This fall, Triangle Foundation recognized the work and vision of Grand Valley State University by honoring them with a Catalyst award for their equality and justice work on behalf of the LGBT community. I had the honor of presenting this award to GVSU at the Triangle Foundation State Dinner. I have included the text of my presentation below to share how the university has worked to create such immense cultural change. I am so honored to now be a part of this visionary community!
"Eight years ago, Grand Valley State University had the doors slammed in their faces regarding domestic partner benefits. Large private donors with high name recognition threatened to withdraw financial gifts unless the university closed the chapter/closed the book on this issue. It was a devastating blow to the many advocates for equality at GVSU, including Milt Ford and Kim Ranger, who had labored tirelessly for years around this issue.
This left the community in a powerless situation. In order to find their voice once again, the community came to the administration with something that would get their attention … money. Under the direction of Gary Van Harn, the faculty and staff developed the LGBT Scholarship Fund. This fund, which quickly became the fastest growing scholarship on campus, was the first time the term LGBT was published in university materials. Today that endowment has grown to over $82,000 and serves LGBT youth who, as a result of coming out, are asked to leave their homes and find themselves in need of housing and financial support to continue their studies. The LGBT community is now working with partners such as West Shore Aware to continue to build this emergency fund which provides for students in this transitional period. As a result of working with students who receive these necessary funds, the university has become increasingly sensitized to the special needs of their LGBT students including making special accommodations for transitioning transgender youth.
Grand Valley’s commitment to the LGBT community can be seen in their development of a new position – Vice President of Equity and Inclusion – as well as their Allies & Advocates program which trains approximately 75 faculty and staff per year on how to reach out to their LGBT students and advocate on their behalf. In an additional step forward, Grand Valley extended their anti-discrimination policy this year to include “gender identity and expression.”
The GVSU LGBT Faculty and Staff Association, under the direction of Neal Rogness, reopened the conversation about domestic partner benefits. Working with University President Tom Hass; Tom Butcher, University Legal Counsel; Scott Richardson, Director of Human Resources as well VP Equity and Inclusion Jean Arnold, this year Grand Valley State University opened that slammed door and began offering “household benefits” to the faculty and staff.
And finally, this week I attended the grand opening of the new LGBT Resource Center on the Grand Valley campus. This large office occupies a beautiful space and represents a dream that took many years of work and planning to come to fruition. Since this office opened its doors weeks ago, it has served over 300 students!
For the tireless work of three generations of LGBT activists on the Grand Valley campus, for the many strides forward for equality that have been created as a result of that work, and for the many lives that will be not only saved but also enriched and empowered, it is my great honor to present Grand Valley State University with the 2008 Triangle Foundation Catalyst Award!"