This is part of an ongoing series.
Every October on Front Campus, colorful and thought-provoking T-shirts are clothes-pinned to roped lines, flapping in the wind—airing the dirty laundry of violence against women. This year, the vibrant menagerie commemorates 15 years of a women’s program at Georgia College.
Under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Graham, the program has grown exponentially. She started as a sophomore, pinning shirts for Georgia College’s first Clothesline Project, to managing an innovative center that’s increased from one founding undergraduate to a staff of 25 student workers.
About 6,500 students attend more than 80 programs and events at the Women’s Center each year. There are diverse programs for men, as well as women, LGBTQ+ individuals, the disabled and anyone who needs a place of acceptance.
“Clothesline is still near-and-dear to my heart,” Graham said. “It’s one of my favorite times of the year, when we’re in community with our community.”
The university’s focus on women started with the Clothesline Project at Georgia College in spring 2003. But the Women’s Center didn’t open until spring 2005. It was located in the basement of the Maxwell Student Union—the third campus women’s center to open statewide. Fourteen years later, Georgia College is still only one of four universities in the state with a center for women.
Graham and two friends were women’s studies minors. A professor approached the group to see if they were interested in starting a clothesline on campus. The trio researched the national event that originated in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 1990. They borrowed a plastic tub of shirts from Emory University to get started. Every year, students and community members paint and glitter their own T-shirts to hang.
Today, the center has more than 800 shirts, a big increase from the first 50. Every shirt tells a story. Viewers stop dead in their tracks, seeing a message that resonates. Emotions can be intense, causing some faculty and students to break down in tears. Graham’s staff is trained to listen, soothe and give referrals for counseling.
“We’ve expanded,” Graham said. “First, it was about women who experienced violence or knew someone who had. But, very early on, we had men coming up who’d experienced child abuse or incest themselves or had a mother or sister or girlfriend who’d been raped. We shifted early on from only allowing women to make shirts to letting anybody who’s been impacted by violence.”
Junior year, Graham and a friend were given a class assignment to bring change to campus. They suggested a Women’s Center and pitched the idea to former campus President Dr. Dorothy Leland. Her response was, “How much money do you need?”
The following spring, Graham started the Women’s Center as a senior intern. She was under the supervision of Dr. Allia Carter, former director of Diversity and Multi-Cultural Affairs, who helped Graham broaden protective services for all women, not just white.
That led Graham to view things through a gender lens, as well. Men have been on-staff since the beginning. Ninety percent of all acts against women are committed by men. But only 4-to-10 percent of men actually commit violence. This prompted Graham to start Men Against Violence, a group that does preventative training.
In 2013, Graham received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to start Project Brave, which enhanced training. Since then, there’s been an increase in bystander intervention and decrease in the acceptability of rape. Today’s male students are less likely to think in a predatory way and fewer students engage in victim-blaming behaviors.
Since its inception, the Women’s Center has helped more than 200 women in crisis. Some were beaten or raped. Others had unplanned pregnancies. The center is a place where they can heal.
“We give them a sense of belonging,” Graham said. “You need a certain vulnerability to listen. We get to be there for some of the hardest days in a student’s life. We help them realize what happened doesn’t define them. They can become strong again.”
Programs like faculty-led discussions and TED Talks help students see the Women’s Center as a second home, a place to learn and relax. Now located at historic Blackbridge Hall, the center also serves as a real-life work site where students practice job skills.
Last summer, interns were busy creating and refining a program for middle school girls. Student workers plan topics for educational events and leadership development. They select books and film for discussions and organize the yearly “Vagina Monologues.”
New this year is an initiative connecting the Women’s Center to socially-innovative leadership. Students attend ongoing classes with readings and discussions. They’re asked to come up with unique ideas for change on campus.
Graham sees herself every day in this new generation of students, as they forge their own paths.
“Georgia College did the same thing for me,” she said. “There were faculty and staff, who took a 19-year-old girl with big ideas and gave me an opportunity. I could’ve failed, and there have definitely been times along the way when I did fail, and I’ve fallen short. But I had people here who believed in me. That made a big difference.”
“The Women’s Center was born out of social innovation, and I want to pass that on,” Graham said. “Our students have phenomenal ideas on how they want to change the world. Our job is to support them so, when they leave, they’re equipped with the confidence to be changemakers wherever they go.”