Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) Jenny Guerra is a leading figure of advocacy at Whittier College for LGBTQ+ issues. Guerra has been head of the LGBTQ+ as of 2015. That same year, former Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Dean of Students Elizabeth Schrock conducted a college-wide survey that showed a staggering one fourth of the student population identified as LGBTQ+. In an interview with the Quaker Campus, Guerra shed some light on the history and creation of the task force.
“Originally, it was established by our former president [Sharon Herzberger] and it was focusing first on our trans students. It was a transgender task force,” said Guerra. “I believe it was in 2014 when it was established. The initial co-chairs were [Vice President and Dean of Students Joel] Pérez and [Director of Human Resources (HR) Cynthia Joseph] from HR, and they . . . created a report and did research on best practices and what was needed for . . . our college.”
Moving forward, the task force leadership roles were passed down to Schrock and Guerra in 2015. “[Schrock] and I . . . sat down and really talked about what was pending, what was processed, and what had really been done to get an update,” said Guerra.
In 2017, Guerra and Shrock met as a task force with representatives from Residential Life, the Athletics Department, student clubs and organizations, and other students and professors. They decided to change the name to the LGBTQ+ Task force. The reason was that “it was felt that there was really a bigger conversation there,” said Guerra. and that work could be done to benefit the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
Guerra was happy to speak about the Task force’s progress and initiatives in recent years as well, such as putting correct signage on gender-inclusive bathrooms. Guerra said, “[Former Safety and Compliance Coordinator] Magaly Perez and [Assistant Director of the OEI] Kayla Kosaki did a walkthrough for all of the buildings to figure out where the restrooms that needed signage are.”
Orders were put through for the signs and Guerra, the OEI, and the task force turned their eyes to expanding. On the importance of community input in improving campus life and instituting gender inclusive bathrooms across campus Guerra commented, “The director of the library helped identify which restrooms we would make gender-inclusive, because it was brought to my attention there were none there.” She identified the faculty master houses and the Dezember Alumni House as places for current and future improvement.
Whittier College’s 2015-16 first-year students may not recall seeing gender-inclusive housing being advertised. During that year, Guerra stressed the importance of this. “I got feedback from students that, as first-years, they were not aware that there was gender inclusive housing,” said Guerra. “So, I was just like, ‘it should be advertised to all students’,” said Guerra. “I said, we can not be advertising that we have gender-inclusive housing if it’s not going to be consistent, because if an incoming student says, ‘I’m going to come to Whittier College because they have gender-inclusive housing’ the expectation from a student perspective is that there is going to be gender-inclusive housing, all three years [after their first].”
Working to carry through on this, Guerra assured that “Harris C will always be a gender-inclusive housing space,” and that there was only possibility for expansion in the near future if students’ needs outgrew the available space.
I came into this interview having sat in on a single meeting of the LGBTQ+ Task force the previous November and was skeptical that it could have addressed many of the gripes that I, as a queer and trans student, had about campus life. I personally moved off campus early due to housing issues as a transgender residential student, and I have frequently voiced issues with inclusion in terms of housing, restrooms, language, and knowledge in the three years I have spent here.
However, the LGBTQ+ Task force worked to push gender inclusive housing on campus and now has Harris C as a permanently established gender-inclusive housing option. The Task force is modeling protocol for name changes and preferred-name usage after Pomona College and, most importantly, they are making sure that incoming first-years have all this information accessible to them by meeting with families, informing students, and working to add this information to the school website. The OEI is working in tandem with the Office of Residential Life, the Office of Admissions, the LGBTQ+ Task force, Campus Safety, the Office of the Registrar, and even more departments in an administration-wide collaborative effort.
From my perspective, the LGBTQ+ community on campus has massively expanded since I have come to campus in the Fall of 2015. When asked whether numbers on campus were increasing or decreasing, Guerra relayed her own experiences.
“I know that there’s always an annual LGBTQ+ mixer at the beginning of the year, and before me being here, there were about eight students that came to the mixer. Then, in my first year when Elizabeth [Shrock] and I worked on it together, we had an increase to about 30 students. I remember we ran out of food because we were just planning for 15 people. Last year, I believe we had closer to 40 students that came to the mixer and then, based on what I’ve heard from students that have utilized that event, they have been able to find their community.”
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised on what the Task force had accomplished and what they hope to achieve in the upcoming years, as well as Guerra’s determined mindset towards the future and her confirmation that the OEI had the president’s support behind them gave me comfort.
“I think that our president [Linda Oubré] has been very transparent about the importance of equity and inclusion work and really being able to redefine the difference between diversity and equity work. Because, we talk about being a diverse institution, but to do equity and inclusion work is hard work . . . specifically, we have not talked about the LGBTQ+ community, but I know that [Oubré] is in support of the work the OEI is doing when it comes to marginalized communities. We have not gotten any pushback like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t implement this. Oh, we shouldn’t do this.’ I think there’s a lot of potential,” Guerra said.
I could not help but let Guerra’s optimistic view of the possibility of continued administration and campus-wide cooperation affect me. I have found my community at Whittier College over the past few years, and while I have been critical of the administration’s work — and lack thereof — in the past, my candid interview with Guerra made me feel that LGBTQ+ incoming students would not have to find their own community despite the administration’s actions, but maybe even with the administration facilitating them. The Task force appears to have good things to come as they continue to speak, stand, and support Whittier College’s LGBTQ+ community.