Community centers: Who gets them?

April 10, 2018, 12:13 a.m.

This article is the second in a mini-series examining the role, goals and challenges of community centers and other community-centered organizations on campus.

Once a week, early enough that the sun has barely risen, a small group gathers outside Green Library for an hour or so and chats. Seated around a table at Coupa Cafe, they discuss typical Stanford things: what classes to avoid, what grad schools to apply for, what articles they’ve been reading.

But the conversation also extends to topics that would be foreign to most other students. The difference between a piddle pack and a wag bag, for instance. Or the importance of good ventilation when designing tents for the desert. Or the relative merits of the Navy versus the Marine Corps.

These are members of Stanford’s military-affiliated community: students, staff and fellows, most of them veterans, who have a personal connection to the armed forces. Unlike other campus communities, Stanford’s veterans do not have a designated community center in which to meet and organize. So instead they sit outside, at Coupa Cafe, and build their community there.

“This is a place where we can meet and talk about those things with other people that can relate to [them],” said Stephen McReynolds ’20, a member of the Stanford Undergraduate Veterans Association who frequents the morning meetings. “It’s really nice, and we’re able to do it, but there’s no privacy there; there’s no space there. If it’s raining, we’re like, ‘Alright, well where do we meet?’ It’s tough.”

Nor are Stanford’s military-affiliated students the only ones who do their communing outside the walls of a community center. And that’s something that they — along with Stanford’s disability, Catholic, low-income and other communities — want to see changed.

“Eventually,” McReynolds said, “we’d like a permanent space.”

Communities without community centers

There are currently seven officially-designated campus community centers, each of which aims to support students based on a different racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual identity. Although they are open to all students, the centers are particularly important to members of the given community on which they are focused.

“I’m just really amazed that different communities can have a space that [is] physically present on campus and can make so many different things happen,” said Celia Chen ’20, one of three ASSU Community Centers Leads.

However, there are of course more than seven factors around which Stanford students can identify — the result being that not every community that wants a community center has one.

“Our Community Centers are so successful at their jobs that numerous other groups have made requests for their own centers,” notes the White Paper on “Inclusion, Equity, and Stanford Culture” that emerged from the University’s ongoing long-range planning process. “These include FLI (first generation and low income) students, members of our faith communities, and members of our community with physical or mental disabilities, among others.”

Cohorts from each of the three named groups — FLI, faith and disability — spoke with The Daily about ongoing efforts to establish their own official community center. Along with Stanford’s veterans, each of these communities is at a different point in the process and envisions their center fulfilling different purposes.

Yet they all share the same end goal: a physical space to call their own.

“I would love to have a space like Hillel does, where we could be a resource for a lot of different organizations,” said campus minister Lourdes Alonso, a member of the Catholic Community at Stanford (CC@S), in reference to the Jewish community space Hillel@Stanford.

Although Hillel is not itself a University-run community center, it serves many similar roles to the seven centers that are. The Markaz, meanwhile, is an official center focused on Muslim identity.

Other groups seeking an official center are farther along. The disability community recently received University support to have a designated space: the Abilities Hub. However, those involved say the space is still several steps removed from the community center they ultimately want.

“We’ve been granted a temporary space, [for] which we have reservation privileges,” said Bryce Tuttle ’20, president of the disability advocacy organization Power2Act and a leader of the new Abilities Hub. “We have two rooms in the BEAM and Office of Accessible Education (OAE) building, which we’re allowed to reserve provided that BEAM doesn’t have other events there.”

But, Tuttle added, they still “do not have an official designation” as a community center, and are currently sponsored by the student-run group Power2Act rather than the University itself.

The FLI community is in an altogether different situation. Currently, the Diversity and First Gen Office (DGen) is the main school organ that supports them culturally. DGen is administratively grouped in with the seven community centers, but according to Associate Dean and Director of DGen Dereca Blackmon ’91, that’s not the same as having a designated FLI space.

“[DGen is] not a community center,” she explained. “It is an office.”

Currently, Blackmon said, DGen serves two roles: supporting the FLI community and fostering diversity at Stanford writ large. Her vision for the future, though, is to split the FLI half off and turn it into an actual community center, while leaving the diversity half an office.

“That’s something I’d like to see short-term,” she added.

Stanford’s military community is in a somewhat analogous position. The Office for Military-Affiliated Communities (OMAC) is a primarily administrative body; although it hosts a few social events, McReynolds said, “they’re really not able to do too much more.”

A petition on the OMAC website pushes for the same solution to this issue that the other three student communities have landed on: full community center recognition and a designated physical location.

The issue of space

The University, for its part, recognizes the demand for multiple new community centers. Administrators argue, however, that similar results can be achieved without resorting to such a spatially demanding solution.

“There’s only so much physical space on the campus, and we want everyone to have a sense of place and home [here] — and that can look all kinds of ways,” said Deborah Golder, associate vice provost for Student Affairs and dean of Residential Education. “Some people’s home is the Haas Center, some people’s home is being a Bridge counselor, some people’s home is the Black House … You could imagine there [being] 100 centers.”

However, speaking about the Abilities Hub in particular, Senator Kimiko Hirota ’20 emphasized the importance of a physical space in legitimizing campus communities.

“[A group] having their own … permanent space is one of the main pieces of feeling like, ‘Yes, we are a community center,’ outside of the actual complicated … status of being a community center,” Hirota said.

Golder agreed that “sometimes you need that physical environment” to allow people to fully connect to an identity. However, she emphasized that doing so for every student community wouldn’t be feasible.

“We have over 700 student organizations, and everyone can’t have their own [space],” she explained. “That’s the real tension. How do we find enough places for people to gather who want to gather within their community?”

Blackmon, however, pushed back on that way of looking at the issue.

“No one asked the question for arts, ‘If we have a music hall then we can’t have a visual arts space,’” the DGen director said. “I think that’s limited thinking, and I really want to push people against that kind of ‘we can only have so many centers, everyone can’t have one’ [mindset]. We don’t think that way about engineering or arts or anything else.”

An ongoing process

The creation of new community centers has historically been “very student-initiated” and driven by activism, Chen said. The contemporary push for even more has, thus far, been pursued through similar mechanisms.

“[The Abilities Hub] is the product of between three and seven years of advocacy work,” Tuttle said. “So right now we pretty much have our foot in the door and we need to demonstrate that we’re using it, that people want to have it and that the University should provide us with funding and a full-time director and a permanent space.”

Although student advocates have been calling for a designated space on campus for the disability community for several decades — and temporarily got one in Meyer Library, before it was torn down in 2015 — Tuttle attributes the recent success with creating the Hub to renewed activist fervor around the issue.

“There’s sort of this movement building around disability advocacy on campus,” he said.

But even that victory is a partial one. Aside from access to BEAM’s internal calendar and associated room reservation privileges, Tuttle said the Hub still has no formal designation under the University. It remains fully student-run and now takes up almost all of Power2Act’s time.

Meanwhile, other groups have followed different paths towards more official status. For instance, Blackmon said that the DGen office’s initial creation was the result of “a specific opportunity from a specific donor.” And although it has since been retrofitted to serve as a semi-social area, “the designated space… is very small.”

As such, she and the FLI community have turned to more formal mechanisms in pursuit of better accommodations.

“Several submissions called for the creation of a Community Center (with yearly base funding and dedicated professional staff) for FLI students,” the aforementioned long-range planning White Paper notes.

Space is also the underlying issue for CC@S, which — like DGen — has offices in the Old Union complex. These offices can serve as an ad hoc social space for Catholic students but are still a far cry from the affordances of a true community center, advocates say.

“It’s one thing to have different religious organizations on campus,” said Father Xavier Lavagetto, pastor and director of CC@S. “The question is, can there be more of a conversation?… And part of that is also simply a function of space, time and place. So this place is just too small.”

Lavagetto is still very early on in his push for a Catholic community center. He has a meeting with University administrators — including Provost Persis Drell — set up for spring quarter, and hopes to eventually meet with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne as well.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out, what is the need,” Alonso said. “And we know that there is one, but we don’t know exactly what it is.”

Need-finding has also been a big part of the process for leaders in the military-affiliated community. McReynolds said that OMAC is currently interested in renting out a room to host the morning meetings in, which could serve as a proof-of-concept for a permanent community center.

McReynolds sees this as a potential path forward, alongside dialogue with administrators and the online petition.

“My understanding is that the University has heard this and they are listening to it, [but] no broad commitment has been made,” McReynolds said. “They’re receptive to the idea, they understand that there is a desire and a want, they probably accept that they could call it a need, but I don’t know where it is on their priority list.”

The benefits of a center

The four communities that the Daily talked to identified a quartet of benefits implicit in becoming a community center: space, staff, money and broader recognition.

Space is the most tangible of the four. Blackmon, for instance, believes that “being a center is definitely place-based,” and leaders of the Ability Hub identified having a designated, exclusive location as important for building communities.

“We want… an independent space that we alone have access to, that can be used both during events and outside of events like other community centers,” Tuttle said.

He added, “Since we’re sharing the space, BEAM has fully justified worries that they won’t be able to use the space [as] they want or they need, which really puts us in an uncomfortable position, because we’ve been given this space by people and through meetings that were with neither BEAM nor the OAE.”

However, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Career and Experiential Education Farouk Dey — who oversees BEAM — spoke favorably of the shared-space situation.

“At BEAM, it is important that our space is inclusive of all students and conducive to community engagement for all student groups,” Dey wrote in an email to The Daily. “We are glad to have the opportunity to partner with the Abilities Hub, OAE, and the Schwab Learning Center to share our space and resources for the benefit of all students.”

Tied in with spatial concerns are, for certain communities, monetary ones.

“We’re poor,” said Lavagetto of CC@S. “I mean, we happen to be on a very rich campus, but we’re poor. And so we make do, but one of the things I dream of is, [could] we get some kind of space on campus? Would the university allow it?”

The Abilities Hub, meanwhile, has no outside funding, according to Tuttle. Their budget is, in effect, the same as that of its sponsor group, Power2Act.

What’s more, they lack any official staff: Abilities Hub leaders hope community center status would come with a full-time director.

“We’re beginning to construct an informal infrastructure,” Tuttle said, “but all of that has to be under the student group.”

In a more abstract sense, many communities view community center status as holding symbolic value in addition fulfilling a practical purpose. It is, to them, a sort of validation.

“I do think the center designation would indicate the University’s recognition of FLI students as an existing community who need a specific set of supports,” Blackmon said.

Others saw it as important for ensuring the long-term presence of a given community on campus. Without being a community center, Lavagetto said, “you’re always depending upon the goodwill of others… [so the] ability to rest [can] sometimes be hard.”

To highlight what good a community center can do for a given community, McReynolds pointed to the enormous benefit he got out of the veteran center at College of San Mateo, which he attended before transferring to Stanford.

Fresh off his service in the Marine Corps, McReynolds found himself craving contact with people at San Mateo who had experienced similar things that he had. The veterans center — which combined administrative functions like issuing VA cards with social functions like networking events —  met that need.

“It gave me a sense of community,” he said. “I could walk in after a stressful day and be a veteran again, if that makes sense. I could talk like that, and I could act like that, and then I could walk back out, put that game face on, and go be in charge of my student body or be in class or just be a regular student.”

It is a model, he suggested, that Stanford should try to emulate.

“[Veterans’] success and happiness here, and certainly our potential here as individual students and as a community, would be very positively impacted by a center,” McReynolds said.

Unique problems

However, although issues relating to space, funding, staffing and representation exist across multiple communities, each identity group also faces certain problems particular to its membership and place in the Stanford ecosystem.

Were they to get a community center, these particularities would have to be taken into account.

The disability community, for instance, has trouble assessing the number of people who might benefit from a community center because many students might not be open about their membership in the community to begin with.

“There are a lot of really vocal advocates… but everyone else who really needs the space and really needs to feel comfortable and feel safe doesn’t really want to say it, because they don’t necessarily want to talk about their own disability,” Tuttle explained. “And that makes it really difficult for us.”

Similarly, Tuttle noted that the current location of the Abilities Hub is less than ideal because it is far from much of the campus’ disability-accessible housing and, in sharing space with the OAE, suggests that the disability community is primarily defined by its academic accommodations. He also said that part of the facility was not wheelchair accessible — an obvious problem for a space partially meant for students with physical disabilities.

CC@S faces issues of its own. For instance, like other religious groups on campus, they are funded by their parent organization; in this case, Lavagetto and Alonso are employed by the Diocese of San Jose and work primarily off of an endowment and community donations. Although individual Catholic-affiliated student groups are eligible for ASSU funding, the parish itself doesn’t get money from the University.

“You can’t ask students, can’t ask parents, can’t ask alumni,” Lavagetto said. “So we have to go outside that bubble. And that’s the difficulty.”

They do receive University support in the form of free office space in Old Union and use of Memorial Church for Mass, although additional event space has to be rented and their staff is entirely funded by the Diocese.

They face cultural issues, too. Lavagetto said that the diversity of traditions and cultures within Catholicism complicates the notion of a single Catholic community, as does the balance between cultural and religious identity.

“We’re on campus as a religious organization,” he said. “Okay, that’s fine. But while the University doesn’t see us as a culture, everyone else does.”

Veterans, too, face problems unique to their community. For instance, certain features of the veterans center at College of San Mateo that McReynolds recalled — like information about suicide crisis hotlines and help securing VA benefits — are of particular relevance to the military-affiliated community.

One aspect of Stanford’s veteran community that a community center would have to engage with would be the age gap that often exists between undergraduates who enroll out of high school and those who enroll after time serving in the armed forces.

“A lot of us do have different adult things,” McReynolds said. “A couple veterans have kids.”

Yet the challenges that set these communities apart are also, in some cases, the things that make recognition by way of community center all the more important to members.

“A lot of students of color and other marginalized students wouldn’t come here if we didn’t have the kind of resources that we do,” Blackmon said. “And I think people want that diversity, but they sometimes have resistance to the support system for it.”

A path forward

Regardless of the specific issues faced by any one community, however, certain more systemic issues remain.

For instance, it is unclear what the standard is for determining who does — and does not — get to have a community center.

“I think one of the things [Vice Provost for Student Affairs] Susie [Brubaker-Cole] will be challenging us to do is have a more comprehensive process for it, not having [it] be so random or arbitrary,” Golder said. Golder said that given that physical space is limited, Stanford should come up with a better-defined system to determine who qualifies for a community center.

Meanwhile, others emphasized the tricky role of using quantifiable data to apportion new centers.

“Trying to figure out the criteria for who should have a space is really hard, because it hasn’t been historically by things like the number of people in the community, or the amount of services they access, or the amount of services they provide, or the type of services they provide — all of which would be great metrics,” Blackmon said. “But folks have advocated for their communities to have centers, and there’s been some parity … in how those centers have been supported. So to come in now and say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to hold these metrics that haven’t been held before,’ it’s confusing.”

The alternative, she continued, would be that people continue to rely on activism and advocacy to secure University support for a center, as has historically been the case.

Another factor to consider, in addition to whether new space is viable, is whether current space is being used as efficiently as possible.

“It’s important to be able to maximize the resources, because if we’re going to go to the University, the president and the provost, and say we don’t have enough space, it’s important that we be using our spaces in the best possible way,” said Director of Operations and Student Unions Jeanette Smith-Laws.

Laws also noted other factors — the Bay Area housing affordability crisis; stipulations in Stanford’s General Use Permit; the needs of other parts of the University, like academics or housing — that further constrain the degree to which new community centers are viable.

“It’s a whole University system that needs space,” she said.


Contact Brian Contreras at brianc42 ‘at’

Brian Contreras was the Daily's Investigations Editor during the '19-'20 school year. Before that, he was a Managing Editor of the news section. A graduate of Stanford's class of 2020, he studied Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Anthropology. Brian hails from Washington, DC and is pursuing a career in tech journalism. Contact him at briancontreras42 'at'

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