New Women’s Center director talks counseling, intersectional feminism and the next 30 years

    When Sekile Nzinga-Johnson arrived for her first days at the new director of the Women’s Center in mid-September, things started casually enough. She met with the three other staff members for lunch, as they all got to know who would be sharing the house on 2000 Sheridan Road.

    “It’s Big Brother, Northwestern edition, you know?” she joked.

    Over these past few weeks, though, she’s spent her time learning the history of the Women’s Center – both the positive and the negative, she said. Her arrival coincides with the 30th anniversary of the center, marking decades full of programming and services for women-identified people and other marginalized groups on campus. But Nzinga-Johnson quickly learned the controversies that she would be inheriting, particularly the restructuring of the feminist counseling services that were absorbed by CAPS. Now, she has been tasked with imagining what the next 30 years at the center will look like.

    “While we might have been restructured, the Women’s Center will always keep itself as a resource at the core of what we do,” she said.

    Nzinga-Johnson herself is a trained clinician – as well as an academic, social worker, policy researcher and vintage clothes pop-up owner – but she won’t be working in a clinical setting. Neither will there be a full-time counselor like former staff member Sara Walz, who had been specifically trained in LGBT issues and trauma-related problems. However, there will still be a clinical presence at the center, she said, which is important to her. As part of the “Let’s Talk” CAPS series, counselor Kanika Wadhwa holds drop-in consultations at the center every Friday from 1-3 p.m. Nzinga-Johnson was thrilled by Wadhwa’s background working with assault survivors and the feminist sensibilities in her work. Both women have met and talked about making sure students feel safe and supported in getting continuous care.

    “It’s so lovely to come here to work. I think it’s also lovely and safe to come here for clinical support,” Nzinga-Johnson said. “And that’s why I’m so glad that Kanika comes here. And so people know they can still come here for that initial contact.”

    She’s also working to make sure that CAPS will adequately support the students who once sought out the free counseling at the Women’s Center, she said. So far, she’s been encouraged by her conversations with CAPS about making sure counselors are trained in gender responsiveness and cultural competency.

    Apart from overseeing the shifts in counseling services, she and the staff have made many plans to celebrate the Women’s Center. They hosted an open house on Oct. 20 to reintroduce themselves to the campus after a year of restructuring. The next major event will be a half-day symposium on Feb. 28 on “critical intersections,” which she described as “giving people space and time to think” about intersectional feminism and how to apply it in their lives. Then will come an awards ceremony on March 1 celebrating both the center and the people who have been fighting for justice in Evanston and on campus. All the while, Nzinga-Johnson will be figuring out how to use the center’s space to build community, whether it’s hosting film screenings or having receptions out on the front lawn.

    To accomplish all this – handling counseling changes, planning events and facilitating difficult conversations about intersectional feminism – the job requires a hodge-podge of skills. Luckily, that’s just what Nzinga-Johnson had: a background in clinical practice, academia and beyond. This mix of experiences convinced the search committee that she was the best fit for the job apart from all the other candidates they interviewed, said Jabbar Bennett, associate provost for diversity and inclusion.

    “It was pretty clear to us from looking at her resume before we even met her that she had a broad exposure to the types of experiences that we would want someone who was leading our Women’s Center to have,” Bennett said.

    While it’s one thing to conceptualize a program, it’s quite another to actually make it happen effectively. This is where her own unique training as a clinician, social worker and academic comes in. She has spent her entire career systematically thinking through each step of the process to meet certain goals, making sure she calls the right people and holds them accountable for following through.

    For all the programs that the center is planning, though, Nzinga-Johnson said the staff also wants to create a space to get away from their packed iCals. After all, “Everyone puts on programs,” she said, but people don’t always show up. She’s particularly interested in making the rooms of the Women’s Center into a safe space for students experiencing marginalization on campus, whether they’re students of color, women, international, first-generation or working-class.

    As a Black woman who got her doctorate at age 30 and is also a mother of three children, she said she doesn’t have to imagine what being marginalized feels like. People often didn’t assume she was a professor because of her age. She felt isolated by her class status and first-generation status, even when she was a teacher. There were certain life experiences everyone seemed to share, except for her.

    “I didn’t go on vacations as a kid. I don’t know what a three-season home is,” Nzinga-Johnson said. “But even as your colleagues are talking, you feel alienated in that space. And so I don’t know which wine I want when we go out.”

    She knows that the physical space of the Women’s Center, with its cushioned couches and reading room filled with natural light, can be a sanctuary of sorts. She said she feels that comfort every day when she goes to work. It’s an old house, and one where students can quite literally make themselves at home and find that sense of peace.

    “These are the kinds of things to care for ourselves so that we can be whole,” she said. “To ask for help, to know where help is, to identify when we need help, to identify safe people and safe places to get help, to know when I need to take a mental health break. So the Women Center is going to continue to be that space for students.”

    Students aren’t the only people that she hopes will feel supported at the center. She’s also planning programs for women faculty and staff, particularly mothers who are faculty members or graduate students. This will including regular drop-in hours for faculty to get some writing done and a writing retreat in the summer. Because academia demands that faculty regularly publish papers in order to be successful, she said, it’s difficult for parents raising children to keep up. When compounded with experiences of marginalization, she has seen that it can be difficult for universities to retain these faculty members. She should know; she’s a mother and she wrote a book on the subject.

    Jabbar Bennett said this thoughtful addressing of the needs of students, faculty and staff is one of the reasons the committee chose Nzinga-Johnson.

    ”It wasn’t that she was totally student-focused or totally staff-focused or totally faculty-oriented,” he said, “but she clearly saw how the center could provide various types of support and how she could help enable that.”

    She’s also clear-eyed about the contradictions at the very core of what the center is. On one hand, it’s been a space to challenge all the “isms” perpetuated by powerful institutions like universities, she says. Historically, their programs have addressed sexual assault, homophobia and racism on campus. The first Women’s Center director, June Terpstra, was even a self-described socialist and anarchist. At the same time, she points out the Women’s Center is fundamentally part of the institution it critiques. It’s beholden to the Provost’s Office, and can’t sponsor any political organizing like phone banking. It’s one of the challenges of doing anti-institutional work within an institution, she said.

    However, she’s prepared to take on the challenge. The first step, she said, is recognizing the issue and naming it.

    “If I’m within a university as a feminist, it’s my job to work to change that landscape,” she said. “And that’s why the Women’s Center was founded, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”


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