Meet UM-Flint's new Women's Educational and LGBTQ Center director

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Heather L. Johnson | Director, Women’s Educational Center and Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center
Heather L. Johnson | Director, Women’s Educational Center and Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center

Heather Johnson, the new director of both the Women's Educational Center and the Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center, discusses her impressions of UM-Flint, opportunities and resources for students on campus, and more in this Q&A with University Communications & Marketing.

What intrigued you about this position?

The first thing that jumped out at me when I read the initial job description—and remains to be the most intriguing part of the job for me—is the call to lead and develop a newly emerging campus unit and scope of work encompassed by the position. Over the course of the next semester, we will have several open forums to discuss the process and work we are doing to combine the Women's Educational Center and the Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center into a single entity. This position enables me to incorporate all of my personal and professional interests and passions. As a scholar and administrator, I am deeply drawn to the opportunity to promote activism while developing programs that focus on equity, inclusion, and student success. As an advocate of education, policy, and law, it is not often that my interdisciplinary interests combine with my own intersecting identities to serve as an advocate that promotes programming and research on gender and sexual diversity.

What are your impressions of the university?

Even before I arrived on campus the overwhelming feeling of kindness and enthusiasm from everyone I talked with made it easy to feel welcomed by the faculty and staff. People greet you with a smile, a warm welcome, and are interested in getting to know you. I like the community aspect that I have felt generally at UM-Flint and in the greater Flint community. When I arrived on campus in July, I focused on getting to know as many people as possible and to hear from students, faculty, and staff about their experiences. The main themes of opportunity and promise are the takeaway from the informal and formal conversations I have had with others. People are honest about the recent and longer-term struggles faced by the city and in the context of higher education, but they are focused on how we can create productive and engaging opportunities for student success in this community. I find the self-awareness refreshing, the passion and hope is infectious and fuels the work I do. I am eager to channel this contagious energy into generating a productive dialog and an awareness of gender and sexuality to promote safety and awareness for all students, staff, faculty, and community members.

What would you like the university community to know about your professional background and your goals within this position?

I come to this position with a background in law and education. I use my law degree to inform my research and practice. My legal teaching focuses broadly on law and sexuality, and my most recent research has centered on the gender and racial diversity of the judiciary. As a dual degree doctoral candidate in Higher Education and Educational Policy, my research focuses on leadership and organizational development, the organizational policies that promote gender equity in higher education, and policies and practice that improve teaching and learning.

My personal and professional journey started in higher education at the University of Chicago, and the positive experiences I had as an undergraduate student laid the foundation for my future study and work. The support of key mentors and colleagues through my journey provided me with a template to draw from and an understanding of the network of people and experiences it takes to provide essential educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom for each student. I take my role as a mentor and colleague very seriously and am looking to collaborate and support students in every way possible. My work in higher education at other institutions as a member of the staff and faculty informs my perspective and how to generate interest and engagement around critical issues and to leverage resources to effect change.

My short term goals are to facilitate the merging of the two centers into a single campus unit to support a spectrum of issues and opportunities related to gender and sexuality. I am using this opportunity to examine all aspects of the operation so that we can generate a long-term feedback loop that will help us adapt to changing student and community needs. The overall goals of the combined office are to provide engaging educational programming, important resources and referrals, essential and timely support and advocacy, and foster an open community space and sense of belonging for all students starting in our center and throughout the UM-Flint campus and community.

What should students know about the opportunities at UM-Flint, along with the support network of both centers?

There are so many ways to get involved! The center is open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on many evenings and weekends for events. Anyone can email me directly at if you have an idea, or want to talk about how to get involved, or need information. Please check out our calendar of events at the WEC & LGBTQ Center websites for a list of all the events and programs. In addition to the "Open Forum" events held each month, if I had to list the top five events for the fall semester in no particular order:

First, we are launching a WEC & LGBTQ Center Film Series where we will show a movie every month, provide snacks, and have a discussion with a staff or faculty member to discuss the themes and takeaways from each film.

Second, we have expanded the number of open positions in the Sexual Violence Prevention and Intervention Certificate Program. Students who complete the program will gain skills and experience in sexual violence prevention, bystander intervention, and community building—and earn $100! This program pays students to gain skills and can lead to academic and professional opportunities in the community and the center.

Third, we are programming a large scale set of events for National Coming Out Day (NCOD) on or around October 11, 2018. We are asking everyone to wear a rainbow ribbon to show your support for the LGBTQ community! Events will include the annual "Coming Out Monologues," the "Coming Out Day Welcome" and breakfast, a lunch-and-learn session on "How To Be A Good Ally," and "International Pronoun Day."

Fourth, we are joining forces with community partners to organize a Greater Flint Take Back the Night Event on October 25, 2018. Take Back the Night (TBTN) is a worldwide effort to combat sexual violence and violence against women. The event will consist of three parts: an opening celebration with speakers providing information for the March and vigil, a march through downtown Flint, and an open mic for survivors to share their stories.

Fifth, we are hosting weekly writing groups with the Writing Center. Each week students will work with a writing prompt focusing on various topics to allow students to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. At the end of the semester, participants are encouraged to share their work at a Poetry Slam/Spoken Word Event.

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