By Heather Shea Gasser
A few weeks ago, in advance of my official UI going away party, I had a dream about feathers (hang with me, here). It was one of those really vivid and realistic dreams, and I awoke wondering (as we often do when we have those kinds of vivid dreams) what it meant. So, I googled “feather symbolism” and learned a variety of interesting things:
- Feathers symbolize renewal and transformation (birds shed feathers when they are ready for new ones)
- Feathers in many cultures are associated with communication and messages
- In Egyptian myth feathers are a symbol of the goddess Maat, the matriarchal figure of truth and justice who judged the souls of the underworld based on the “weight of a feather”
- In the Greek myth, Icarus crafted a pair of wings made of feathers and wax, which upon flying too close to the sun melted and he came crashing back to the sea
- Meril Crabtree writes: Yet feathers are more than history. For many, they are mystical signs, messages, or opportunities. They are scraps of synchronicity in the flowing patchwork of universal meanings. Feathers appear in unlikely places as assurances of wellbeing, as a comforting sign of abundance in the universe, and as unmistakable messengers of hope and encouragement.
Feathers, and birds generally, speak to us of lightness, freedom, of going beyond boundaries, of “getting above it all” (Above the Fray) and the need to “let it go”.
Do you remember the opening scene from Forrest Gump? The white feather floating through the air? Getting caught by a breeze, floating through the town square, amidst the trees, and eventually landing at Forrest Gump’s very dirty running shoe? He picks it up and puts it inside of a copy of a Curious George book. Tom Hanks spoke about the feather symbolism in the movie: “Our destiny is only defined by how we deal with the chance elements to our life and that’s kind of the embodiment of the feather as it comes in. Here is this thing that can land anywhere and that it lands at your feet. It has implications that are really huge.”
When Ray and I made the move from the Desert Southwest to the Palouse over five years ago, I could have landed anywhere but I landed at the University of Idaho Women’s Center, and for me the implications have been really huge.
I have learned, grown, changed, shed tears (and my feathers) a time or two. I have been renewed as a feminist and as a leader through working in the Women’s Center. I have grown as a student affairs professional, as an activist, and as a scholar.
When I think about where the Women’s Center was when I arrived, I am also gratified at the difference we have collectively been able to make over the past five years we’ve spent together. I’d like to take this opportunity to look back and note five key accomplishments of the past five years:
Five years ago when I arrived as the then “interim” director of the Women’s Center, the office was existing on a skeleton crew and missing an admin assistant. And, all of the board-appointed staff members, other than myself, were classified/hourly employees on 10-month appointments. The summer was a lonely place in the Women’s Center! Today, both program coordinators have been moved to non-faculty exempt status and have 12-month contracts, and we just recently hired a new admin assistant to fill the shoes left by two others who went on to program coordinator roles in other units on campus. The Women’s Center provides opportunities for staff professional development and encourages growth.
Five years ago, the 10-month GLBT program advisor shared an office with another staff member, was funded entirely by the Women’s Center, and focused primarily on overseeing the Safe Zone program. Today, the LGBTQA Office is located in a separate space outside of the Women’s Center, receives student fee funding to support about half of the programming and salary expenses, and has grown to be a fully-functioning office with a shared relationship with University Housing. The Women’s Center continues its support of the LGTBQA Office and aligns with the office to promote inclusion on campus of LGBTQ faculty, staff, and students including promoting the policy to add the words “gender identity and expression” to the university’s non-discrimination statement.
Five years ago, the Women’s Center published a paper newsletter (in the format of a traditional feminist ‘Zine) with a distribution of about 250 copies (sent in postal mail) quarterly. Today we have an extensive social media presence on Facebook (538 “like” us) on Twitter (502 follow us) and an active blog, since launch in 2011 has had nearly 300 posts primarily by student blog contributors who receive academic credit with over 35,000 views. Through our social media and outreach efforts, the Women’s Center’s voice, perspectives, and advocacy for gender equity reach far beyond the campus borders.
Five years ago, the Women’s Center’s programming included regular brown-bags and films, as well as several traditional annual events, truthfully, our programming was just as extensive, vital and relevant then as it is today, responding to the current needs of college students…but we have grown in the past five years, adding permanency to the annual production of Eve Ensler’s celebrated play “The Vagina Monologues”, the monthly “Got Sex?” sexual health series, Mad Men Mondays, and other regular programs to our line up. And this past fall, we saw the largest attendance at a Women’s Center event yet, when over 3,000 packed into the Kibbie Dome south stands to hear feminist icon Gloria Steinem speak in honor of the Women’s Center’s 40th Anniversary Celebration. The Women’s Center’s programming continues to bring together the campus and community for important dialogues around issues of gender equity and social justice.
Five years ago, our student staff had dwindled to only three active and engaged individuals and several of our most vibrant student organizations had seen key leaders graduate. Today, we work with a dynamic engaged and energized contingent of student staff and volunteers. Eight work-study students and many more volunteers, service learning students, and interns connect with our office each semester. Further, we have an extensive core of students who comprise our Women’s Mentoring Program, and many more student groups who are collaborators and connected to our office. Despite our off-the-beaten-path location, the Women’s Center sees significant traffic and
I share with you these accomplishments to highlight the significance and relevance that the Women’s Center has on the University of Idaho campus. Directors (11 of them) have come and gone over the years. Few of us have stayed for more than 5 years. So, to what can we attribute the growth and success? It’s because of the tremendous support that the UI Women’s Center receives from the university community, it’s because of the dynamic individuals who form the inner core team responsible for the day-to-day operations and behind the scenes activities, and it’s because of the students who continue to come through our doors with passion and activism.
In dreams feathers mean travel or the ability to move freely in live. White feathers indicate a fresh start. I leave for a fresh start and I leave the Women’s Center for a fresh start as well. For the opportunity to work with all of you, to engage around issues of social justice, feminism, activism and to grow as an individual, I will be forever grateful for my time here. This isn’t good bye, simply “see you soon.” I will be watching with interest form Michigan to see where the Women’s Center is headed next.
To all of the individuals who have shared this journey with me, thank you for making the path worth travelling. And finally, feather rhymes with Heather.