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Pembroke Center endowed with $5 million donation, welcomes new director

New Pembroke Director names enhancing diversity initiatives, scholarship as priorities

Home to a vibrant community of feminist scholarship and dynamic interdisciplinary research, the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women received a $5 million gift this summer — its largest donation to date — from alumnus Shauna McKee Stark ’76 P ’10 . The gift will work to permanently fund the Center’s director position and help support the Center’s programming.

The inaugural Shauna McKee Stark ’76 P ’10 Director, Professor Leela Gandhi, will begin her tenure with the Center this fall, which also marks the Center’s 40th anniversary.

Gandhi began her transition into the role soon after her appointment this July, noting that throughout the process she has felt “extremely honored” to follow in the footsteps of the prolific female scholars who have served as Pembroke Center directors before her.

Drawing inspiration from her pioneering predecessors in feminist theory, Professor Gandhi described her own vision for the Center’s growth: diversifying the center’s work and scholarship while forming it into an increasingly congenial space for intellectual exchange.

“I hope that I may be able to take Pembroke in a transnational direction,” she said, adding her staunch belief that the Center’s work should be “intensely local” in its focus on Brown’s community, while simultaneously incorporating voices from varied backgrounds across the globe.

In order to accomplish this, Gandhi pointed to several diversity initiatives that she hopes to augment during her tenure, one of which is the Black Feminist Theory Project.

Established in 2016 with the stated mission of enhancing “the visibility and accessibility of Black feminist discourse on campus as a resource for faculty, students and the surrounding community,” the program sheds light on  activism by Black feminists at the intersections of race, gender and other issues.   

The project “helps to ensure intergenerational remembering (to combat) willful ignorance and forgetting of our historical pasts,” while working against “stereotypes that denigrate Black women and deny our … cultural richness,” wrote Melaine Ferdinand-King, the project’s graduate proctor and a fourth-year PhD candidate in Africana Studies, in an email to The Herald. The BFTP’s main work is to maintain and expand an archive on Black feminist theory and to help facilitate ongoing work by Black feminist scholars, she wrote.

In their efforts to expand the project’s reach, Ferdinand-King and her team announced receiving two major donations earlier this summer from Hazel Carby. Brown community members can get involved with the BFTP’s work through Pembroke Center announcements about future opportunities, attending BFTP-hosted lectures and generally supporting and amplifying the contributions of Black women theorists, Ferdinand-King wrote.

In addition to nurturing the BFTP’s growth, Gandhi and her administrative team are working to launch two new initiatives.

The first is an LGBTQIA+-based project that the team hopes will include a flagship course in gender and sexuality studies, a film screening and social events that will aim to grow and support scholarship in the space. Secondly, Gandhi’s team is working to form The Public Health Initiative,  a project that will build upon previous Pembroke research seed grants to host scholars in the medical and public health fields. For instance, the initiative may examine COVID-19’s differential social impacts, specifically in the realms of domestic violence and violence against female-identifying individuals. Both the Public Health Initiative and LGBTQIA+-based project will maintain a strong focus on community outreach and empowering local voices.

In addition to these efforts, Gandhi noted her desire to help bring a “greater diversity of critical theory” to the Pembroke Center, aiming to incorporate more Asian American  and South Asian American voices into its work.

Gandhi seeks to provide scholars from a broad range of disciplines the opportunity to present several endowed lectures on questions of gender in their research. Through endeavors like this, she hopes to build the Pembroke Center into a world-renowned “research destination” that hosts global scholars.

Beyond central undertakings, Gandhi’s new responsibilities also include overseeing the Pembroke Seminar, which she personally taught in 2017.

The seminar is “an interdisciplinary gathering of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students,” who jointly explore the profound implications of a seemingly simple topic, such as debt or nature, said Leslie Bostrom, professor and chair of visual art, who co-teaches the seminar with Evelyn Lincoln chair of the department of history of art and architecture.

This year’s seminar, called “Color,” begins by delving into the neuroscience behind our perception of color before moving into the myriad ways that color permeates our society. This includes the impact of color on race, gender, environmental justice and law. The seminar topic finds itself at the crux of the Pembroke Center’s women’s studies, with ideas of gender, sexuality and femininity, so deeply infused into color and its connotations, that Bostrom and Lincoln find it nearly impossible to separate them.

The two professors pointed to the example of “yellow.” Though it may seem like a simple color, the Pembroke Seminar leaders see much more.

Lincoln and Bostrom recall the dazzling array of contexts in which the color appears, not just in the artistic lens of Proust’s Yellow Wall and Van Gogh’s wheat fields, but also its position as a social construct in yellow journalism, yellow books and Nazism’s infamous yellow star.

But yellow is often seen as deception, historically associated with the potential falseness of outward appearances.

The social importance of color continues in current socio-cultural events. The seminar leaders pointed to the recent Texas abortion law; by deputizing citizens to turn others in, it asks people to work, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called it, “under the color of law.” This modern phrase is derived from the legal allegiances displayed in medieval European heraldry, and it is one of the modern contexts that the seminar leaders put up for discussion, Lincoln said.

“Color itself has layers and layers of meaning in human discourse, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Bostrom said.

Besides her focus on specific initiatives and programming like the Pembroke Seminar, Gandhi hopes to make organic contributions to the Pembroke Center as a whole. Stating her strong belief that “goals emerge when you work together with people,” Gandhi expresses her ultimate objective as the inaugural Shauna Stark ‘76 P ’10 Director to learn from others’ experiences, seeing the community’s goals emerge as she works to make them a reality.

Corrections: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that the Pembroke Center received a major donation of papers from Paula Giddings. The article also stated that this year’s Pembroke Seminar is called “Considering Color.” In fact, the title is “Color.” The Herald regrets the errors.


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