Giving Voice to Gender Justice

Wednesday, April 17 2013


Following in the footsteps of strong leaders on the University of Idaho campus working to advance and advocate for women, five honorees were awarded the Virginia Wolf Distinguished Service Awards in March.

Students Whitney Chapman and Colleen Kulesza, staff members Virginia Solan and Heather Shea Gasser, and community member Lela Ames were honored by the Women’s Center for their commitment to gender justice. Recipients are selected by a panel of past award winners.

“Each year I continue to be astounded by the courage and depth of activism for gender justice of the award recipients,” said Kay Keskinen, member of this year's awards selection committee.

The award, named after physical education professor Virginia Wolf , who taught at the University from 1964-1982, began in 2002. Wolf took an active role in addressing issues affecting women on campus, including chairing the University’s Women’s Caucus and helping to launch the campaign that brought about the establishment of a permanent Women’s Center.

“Having known Ginny and the risk-taking she took for gender issues, I am sure she would be proud of this year's five recipients. Their activism does not stop with the award; each continues to affect change for gender justice in many, many ways,” said Keskinen, a personal friend of Ginny Wolf.

This year’s winners include:

Whitney Chapman is an graduating senior finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology with a double minor in women’s and American Indian studies and a certificate in diversity and stratification. One of her nominators writes: “Should I speak up? When confronted with an ethical question regarding human rights and inclusion, Whitney Chapman sits on my shoulder. What would Whitney do? That is why I am nominating Whitney Chapman for the Virginia Wolf award.” Whitney's passion, activism, and ability to confront and stand up to sexism and misogyny, and work as an ally to other underrepresented groups, is impressive. She is a phenomenal student leader and feminist. But Whitney’s work isn’t just about talking, it’s about action. She has dedicated hundreds of outside hours to serving as a mentor, working as a trusted intern, standing up for social justice issues on campus and in the community, and serving as a source of support to other students newer to activism. Whitney’s acute curiosity and deep interest in gender issues, feminism, and activism have led her to a purposeful place on campus, and we have all benefited from her presence. Another nominator says “She is a dynamic combination of fierce passion and genuine humility – creating and inspiring lasting and deep change, combining the gifts of a brilliant strategist with the heart of a womyn who believes in the intrinsic goodness of her fellow human beings, who believes that equity can be achieved if people will only open their eyes to their interconnectedness with all living things.” Whitney intends to go to law school and turn her passions and activism during college into a life-long career of advocating for social justice issues and confronting bias. She will likely blaze a trail that no one else has yet traveled down.

Colleen Kulesza is a doctoral student in the College of Natural Resources and is working on her dissertation research studying women hunters. Colleen is a dedicated feminist activist and outreach educator. As a graduate intern at the Women's Center, she has consistently engaged students in critical dialogue around social justice issues, embarking with them on a journey of continual learning and exploration. Her experiences of this deeply gendered recreational activity inspired her to interview other women who hunt, and analyze how women are portrayed in hunting literature, specifically with regard to stereotypical gender roles. In publishing her research, Colleen hopes to instigate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the way that hunting is regarded in our society. Colleen is a strong and committed ally to the LGBTQA community, and an understanding mentor and guide for her peers. Her activism has truly blossomed in the past few years. She fights unflinchingly for members of underrepresented groups—her level of advocacy for those marginalized by their ability, age, single parent status, and socio-economic background is impressive, indeed. The unconditional support and compassion that she provides to students in crisis is deeply inspiring. Colleen actively challenges bias, and defends the rights and dignity of members of all targeted groups. Colleen performed in The Vagina Monologues in 2012, and this year, served as co-producer and activist-educator on the global V-Day movement. She helped coordinate events for the Women's Center's 40th Anniversary celebrations and has assisted extensively in the planning of the NWWSA conference. Colleen is a founding member of Women’s Center Advisory Council, and through this group, her legacy of student involvement, leadership, and activism will continue long past her tenure at the University.

Virginia Solan has worn many hats during her social justice journey: a journalist, an ATVP campus responder, interim Administrative Assistant at the Women’s Center, Yin Radio producer, current Violence Prevention Coordinator here at the University of Idaho, and mother advocating for the rights of her children (Sam, Milo, DR & NJ). Virginia has spent many hours working one-on-one with people in crisis, and also facilitating trainings and discussions about messy and complicated topics. Virginia uses her background in sociology and her current graduate work (Master of Education in Adult/Organizational Learning and Leadership) to critically analyze the root causes of gender inequity and other social justice movements. Virginia’s work with Yin Radio, a nationally syndicated, hour-long radio program broadcast each week, provides the perfect example of Virginia’s dedication to human rights and inclusion. Each week, Virginia worked either independently or with student interns to create a radio program exploring issues facing women in society. Some of the programs involved interviewing community members, national leaders, and local faculty and staff about feminism, human rights, and activism. Virginia brings the unique combinations of responsibility and creativity, as well as empathy and passion. She embodies the spirit of true activism by serving others tirelessly, even through years of low pay and little formal recognition. Virginia gives survivors power by offering them support, choices and really hearing – not just listening to – their stories. Virginia also brings a tireless spirit of empowerment to all of her professional roles and personal identities. She is both a proud member and ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and fights for equality for herself and her loved ones on an everyday basis. Her first-hand knowledge of assault and abuse makes her a diligent ally for the survivors she serves. By impassioning all students to get involved, to stand up and raise their voices through programs such as “The Power Project,” her survivor/ally speakers' bureau, and vested interest in other student groups, Virginia Solan demonstrates her courage and commitment to challenging misogyny and sexism on this campus – a true and inspiring role model to many.

With her commitment to gender justice and gender equity, and her activism for a more inclusive and diverse university community, Women’s Center Director Heather Shea Gasser stands out as a teacher, advocate, and community leader. Under her direction, the Women’s Center has increased prominence on campus, in the community, and in the larger academic world of women’s centers and Women’s Studies programs. The programming she oversees at the Women’s Center reflects the intersectional nature of diversity, where gender is thoughtfully examined in relation to race, class, sexuality, and physical ability. Her innovations have also resulted in increased LGBTQ programming and Safe Zone training for students, staff, and faculty. In 2012, Heather directed the year-long planning and celebration of the Women’s Center’s 40th anniversary, putting together a series of events that recognized and honored the history and achievements of the Center. She worked to bring noted feminist activist Gloria Steinem to campus and town, offering events not only for students, staff, and faculty, but also for the wider community. Those 40th anniversary events also included a Brown Bag Series that featured historical and current perspectives on being a feminist on campus, an F-Word poetry slam in downtown Moscow, and a hugely successful gala and fundraising auction. But Heather’s activism goes beyond her broad responsibilities as Women’s Center director. An advocate for organizational change, she has also been central in developing, coordinating, and facilitating the University of Idaho's Leadership Academy, the Women’s Leadership Conference, and the 2013 Northwest Women’s Studies Association Conference held in Moscow. For these reasons, and many others, Heather Shea Gasser has earned this award.

Lela Ames, this year’s community recipient, began affecting change for gender justice in the mid-1970s. At the first meeting of the Moscow NOW (National Organization for Women) chapter in 1975, Lela immediately became an active member by being the chapter treasurer, a position she held for many years. The following year Moscow NOW hosted a statewide meeting to create the Idaho NOW organization, and Lela became its first treasurer. In 1976, Lela wrote a script that became a reader’s theater play about Susan B. Anthony voting and her arrest when she attempted to vote. This play for four readers was presented at least three times at the Women’s Center, and several times at local and regional events. Lela was an artist, often creating a logo for Moscow NOW and Idaho NOW. Lela’s three children remember their mother traveling to Boise to testify at the State Legislature on women’s issues. Lela was an active participant at “Women Speak Sundays” at Moscow’s First United Methodist Church. Lela was not afraid to speak her mind or to try to persuade others. Lela taught kindergarten for many years. Her daughter Lisa shared, “She tried to impress upon the kids that they could grow up to be what they chose. In a day when adult role models portrayed very gender-specific professions, Mom always tried to bring in an inclusive vision.” Lela also wrote a children’s book about Susan B. Anthony. Lisa, a mother herself, wrote this: “I really don't think many younger people understand how much work was done by folks like my mom to push for gender equity.” Lela’s work as an activist, a speaker, an artist, a teacher, and a parent has raised awareness about gender issues and touched many lives and generations.