Widgets Magazine

Community centers face financial, organizational uncertainty

Community Centers are among the VPSA offices facing organizational uncertainty (MELISSA WEYANT/The Stanford Daily).

Amid various recent changes in University leadership, many campus centers reporting to the Vice Provost of Student Affairs (VPSA) have been facing financial and organizational uncertainty since January.

The centers, which aim to serve marginalized Stanford communities, were thrust into a new interim structure following the sudden departure of Associate Vice Provost for Community Engagement and Diversity Nicole Taylor ’90. Meanwhile, funding for the next fiscal year fell short of VPSA’s requests and its offices’ expectations.

The VPSA offices affected include the seven community centers on campus: the Asian American Activities Center, the Black Community Services Center, El Centro Chicano y Latino, Queer Student Resources, the Markaz Resource Center, the Native American Cultural Center and the Women’s Community Center. The Diversity and First-Generation Office (DGen), the Haas Center for Public Service and Student Activities and Leadership (SAL) make up the rest of the VPSA offices affected by Taylor’s departure.

Taylor, who left Stanford in January to become Deputy Vice President and Dean of Students at Arizona State University, oversaw the 10 aforementioned organizations as one collective VPSA unit called Community Engagement and Diversity. However, following her move, the Community Engagement and Diversity unit has been split up. Under the interim structure, the seven community centers have stayed together as one VPSA unit, but DGen, Haas and SAL report to separate Associate Vice Provosts (AVPs).

The previous structural combination of these offices under the umbrella of Community Engagement and Diversity was a relatively new initiative that Vice Provost for Student Affairs Greg Boardman put forth in 2015. Seeing a common goal among the 10 organizations to “[empower] students to lead in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and pluralistic society,” Boardman decided to unite them and hired Taylor to lead the unit, according to the Community Engagement and Diversity website.

“A lot of what was in [the Community Engagement and Diversity] proposal was how to help these 10 units work together well, and how to support these units comprehensively with administrative, financial and operational infrastructure,” said Deborah Golder, the associate vice provost of Student Affairs currently overseeing the seven community centers under the interim structure.

“[Community Engagement and Diversity] brought all these small little shops into one big unit,” Golder said, adding that it “was a wonderful vision, but because Nicole left, there was no one shepherding that cause.”

Funding goals not met

Many leaders in VPSA and in the Community Engagement and Diversity centers saw this collective initiative as a significant financial opportunity if the University Budget Group recognized the innovative spirit behind the unification and decided to invest. According to Golder, the doubt created by Taylor’s departure led to much more modest investment than the organizations had been hoping for, a characterization disputed by Lisa Lapin, vice president for university communications.

“There were no new positions funded in any area,” Lapin said. “In part because of flat performance of the endowment and in part because some money is being set aside for the outcome of the long-range planning initiative and the priorities that emerge.”

Golder expressed VPSA’s previous hope that the community centers would be next in the Budget Group’s “cycle” of investment, citing the great need for more funding in that area.

“[Community center funding] got some traction this year, but not at the level that we would have had if we didn’t have this level of discontinuity in leadership,” she continued.

Although former Community Engagement and Diversity offices did not receive the level of funding they had expected, some centers did have some favorable outcomes in this year’s budget plan. For example, the Markaz, which serves the Muslim community on campus, received three more years of full funding beginning on September 1.

Additionally, the DGen office received a “significant allocation,” according to Golder. Half of DGen’s allocation was made up of base funds, which will be matched in future years. This will be DGen’s first allotment of base funding; in previous years it received the entirety of its funding through one-time grants that must be renegotiated each year. This year, only half of DGen’s funding is through one-time grants.

The move to base funding can make a world of difference when it comes to the ability of centers to plan for the future and expand.

“Some of the challenges when you’re working with one-time funds is [if a center wants] to launch a program,” Golder explained. “You don’t want to launch a program that you want to do annually if you don’t know you can pay for it after the first year.”

The same difficulties of long-term planning apply to staff growth as well.

“Say you need to hire a staff person,” Golder said. “It’s really hard to hire someone to work on a one-year contract, because the cost of living is so high.”

Dereca Blackmon ’91, associate dean and director of the DGen office, expressed that she and her team were excited and grateful for the base funding. They plan to use the funds to pay half of their staff and to extend the longevity of the office indefinitely.

Even so, the DGen office needs more funding in order to fully serve the Stanford community, according to Blackmon.

“We were doing more with less, so what we were asking for was enough [funds] to do what we were already doing,” Blackmon said. “Sometimes it is to [the DGen office’s] detriment that we go above and beyond what our resources are, because then I think people expect us to keep functioning in these dysfunctional ways.”

Blackmon lamented a lack of transparency between the VPSA organizations and the budget office, calling this “disconnect” the “hardest part of the process” of sustaining the DGen office.

“Having to look at the entire campus and decide who should get what money is a really hard job for anyone,” Blackmon said. “[But] it is frustrating that sometimes we sit down with people who make the [budget] decisions and they really don’t know what we do.”

She reflected that Taylor’s former leadership had been helpful in bridging that communication gap but stressed a need for continued confidence in VPSA offices on the part of University leadership even in Taylor’s absence.

“[Taylor] did enormous work in helping us speak better about the collective impact of what we do,” Blackmon said. “It’s not that we did anything differently, she just helped us talk about it differently. … So, when I was able to talk to the Budget Group I [said], ‘Look, Nicole isn’t here, but the same work is happening.’”

Student organizing

Students who care deeply about the Community Engagement and Diversity offices, including the community centers on campus, have long recognized the need for increased funding from the University.

These sentiments led Julian Peña ’17, a current Resident Assistant in Casa Zapata, to begin organizing a student grassroots coalition in May with the aim of raising awareness for the need to increase community center funding.

The coalition, which as of yet does not have a name, began in support of funding for El Centro Chicano y Latino in particular and has since expanded its focus to all the community centers on campus.

“I’ve been trying to get this rolling for a while,” Peña said. “We’ve all always desired to increase community center funding, but we have not yet done anything [until now].”

In their first two weeks of action, the coalition has begun drafting a long-range planning proposal to communicate the need for increased community center funding to the administration. The proposal will focus on the long history of the centers’ support for marginalized students through academic support and tutoring, mentorship, community-specific counseling and community building.

“Many students describe [community centers] as a home away from home — the one place at Stanford where they feel understood and welcomed. I get that, and I feel that way too,” Peña said, adding that “community centers contribute to Stanford’s intellectual vitality and support students of color.”

Alpha Hernandez ’19, another member of the coalition, spoke about her experience advocating as a 2016-17 senator for the allocation of ASSU discretionary money to community centers, an effort she described as “disjointed.”

“There always were people working on [allocating funds to community centers],” Hernandez said. “We just never were able to come together.”

Hernandez explained that even when the funds were allocated, there was still “very little that senators really could do except for make noise to the administration.” The University Budget Group, she indicated, could allocate much more money to the community centers than ASSU’s smaller discretionary funds allow.

“Our immediate goal is to have Stanford take responsibility for [permanent community center funding] so the community centers can focus their attention on the important things like planning and executing their vision — not scrambling for money,” Peña said. “I don’t think we’re asking for anything new, actually. I think we’re asking the administration to catch up with the work we’ve been doing without their support.”

Continuing cooperation

Along with funding uncertainties, the 10 offices formerly part of Community Engagement and Diversity continue to wonder what the future will hold for them in terms of organizational structure and VPSA leadership.

“The interim is weird,” Golder said. “We are trying to sustain the good work the centers have always done, making sure they have the infrastructure and support they need in the short term and then trying to set vision for what we think should be next.”

Faith Kazmi, associate dean and director of the Women’s Community Center, echoed Golder’s sentiments about the changes in VPSA leadership.

“When Nicole left, many of us [in the Community Engagement and Diversity units] were disappointed because we were looking forward to her leadership through a longer period of time,” Kazmi said.

However, Kazmi also stressed her confidence in the work community centers have been doing without Taylor’s leadership.

“We’ve been able to do a good job with the current resources we have and been able to maintain partnerships. … and we have continued to, and in some ways grown, our ability to work as a cohesive unit,” Kazmi said. “We’ve had to describe the work that we do many times to different parts of the Stanford community, and so we are in the stride right now of being able to share our story and how we impact students.”

In addition, Kazmi expressed optimism about the future of the Community Engagement and Diversity offices.

“I think it’s a really exciting time on campus,” Kazmi said. “The president, the provost, the vice provost and the entire campus are reimagining how things could work. And I think that’s not unique to our unit.”

Kazmi added that the 10 centers continue to work together, even in the absence of a formal structure uniting them. Leaders in these spaces hold regular meetings in which they discuss administrative and policy issues, Stanford’s long range planning and the U.S. political environment at large.

Furthermore, Kazmi acknowledged the challenging opportunity to restructure the VPSA organizations under the changing university leadership, with Taylor’s departure, Vice Provost Boardman’s retirement at the end of the year and the entry of a new president and provost.

“While we are all still doing a really great job of managing our respective centers, managing change and response within our centers, we are all looking forward to the certainty that comes with knowing what the structure is going to look like… once [Boardman] retires in August,” Kazmi said.

Despite the current uncertainty, many leaders, including Blackmon, see this turnover as an exciting opportunity to improve the VPSA organizations.

“My entire upline is changing,” Blackmon said. “When I talk to my mentors and colleagues about it, we can either look at that as terrifying or exciting. But the messaging that I’m getting from everyone makes me excited.”

Blackmon also emphasized the progress she has already seen in administrators’ attitudes toward Community Engagement and Diversity offices, even in Taylor’s absence.

“We’re talking about diversity and inclusion more than ever before,” she said. “We [even] have a president who’s first-gen,” she said. “So there’s a hopefulness that happened under [Taylor] but that is continuing under the new administration: that our work is going to be valued, and that our input are going to be respected. And I think that’s exciting.”

Contact Katie Keller at ktkeller ‘at’ stanford.edu.