Katherine Charek Briggs currently serves as the Assistant Director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LGBT Campus Center, which provides education, outreach, advocacy, and resources for student communities and their allies to improve campus climate and their daily intersectional experiences. Charek Briggs is instrumental in making all student feel welcome, and has recently worked with colleagues to get University Health Services to switch to an informed consent model for students who want to receive hormones. This means they will no longer need written consent or consultation in order to get hormones, but rather only need to talk directly with their doctor, which helps to normalize trans care. These collaborative efforts prove that partnership and learning from others is instrumental in creating positive change and a welcoming community in society.
You participated in the 2017 Wisconsin Idea Seminar. What has stuck with you from that experience? The Seminar was a whirlwind and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to learn about Wisconsin industries that were new to me such as cranberry farming, paper engineering, dairy production, crane conservation, and more, and how UW System schools can better support and sustain that work. Having attended two other R1 flagship universities, UW is the only system that engages with a framework like the Wisconsin Idea, and the Seminar highlighted all the opportunities there are for stronger collaboration. I continue to hold the idea of stewardship of UW-Madison’s resources in particular and how we can show up, listen, and best serve other schools and communities across the state who know exactly what they need and the best way to get it done. I think particularly of visiting a medical clinic in La Farge, WI, and having the privilege of seeing their richly and very intentionally crafted birthing clinic set up to serve local Amish families. To the extent I can, I know what it’s like to build services for a specific community: do so carefully, and build trust among everyone working together – the need to have stakeholders listen and find their right entry point is crucial.
How do student voices and perspectives shape the activities of the LGBT Campus Center? We aim for the LGBTCC to be a student-centered office across as many entry points as possible. Our student staff are our biggest asset and we take their input and professional development and engagement very seriously. Students have a voice in hiring, programming, the public statements we release, which events we sponsor or cosponsor, and even how the physical space looks. What music is playing? Whose art is on the walls? Whose voices are we missing?
Our major programs (courses, volunteer program, mentor program, discussion groups) are all managed by student staff, including development and assessment. I think a big piece of student voices influencing the work isn’t just them continuing programs that existed before they got to campus, but pro staff making space and a culture that welcomes students saying – is this still working? Do we need to try something different? What do we really need to be doing right now? – and figure it out and try something new. To help this out, we have a practice of doing temp checks of the space and programs by using the social justice education technique of PANning, or Paying Attention Now, which lets students and staff identify patterns in the office that we can then interrogate using a power/oppression framework. Student perspectives are central to that – we’re serving students, so we need to take any and all feedback as a gift to work with and do even better.
What steps do you take to ensure that student voices are heard in continuing to make the LGBT Campus Center a welcoming and comfortable space that provides education, outreach, advocacy, and resources? We connect frequently with students across campus: working with student organizations like PRIDE in Healthcare, meeting with representatives from ASM’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, consulting with TAs on best practices for their classrooms and advocating for their own needs as students, and more. We try to offer as many inroads for communication and feedback as possible – email, phone, drop-in (and we can meet folks anywhere on campus if the LGBTCC space is a barrier), Facebook Messenger, and town halls and anonymous forms when needed.
In addition, we have close working relationships with campus colleagues who also pass along student feedback: faculty, house fellows, and partner counselors from University Health Services all see different student communities than we might, so their partnership is really instructive. We’re looking forward to working more closely with SOAR and University Housing to help connect with and get feedback from first year students early in their career on campus.
What current projects or initiatives of the LGBT Campus Center are you really excited about? I’m excited about our new semester-long course, QUILL: Queer Interpersonal Life-Skills Lab. It’s based on the Relationship Skills Class developed by The NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse and is facilitated and coordinated by two really phenomenal students at the LGBTCC, Alexandra Little and Dequadray White. This program brings students together to build a cohort invested in culture shift around relationships of all types, and participants go deep about anti-oppression values, boundaries, accountability, communication, conflict, and more. I’m excited about prevention strategies for LGBTQ+ communities and about students growing and building together, not just the traditional model of providing crisis and trauma resources after violence in a romantic relationship. It’s starting so many conversations and I’m so proud of and impressed by the students spearheading the program. Please check out QUILL and how to support healthy relationships at the LGBTCC site!
What drew you to the University of Wisconsin-Madison? I grew up in central Illinois and moved here from graduate school in Texas, and coming to UW-Madison was a shift both back to the Midwest and to a brand new place altogether. I continue to be compelled by the opportunity to use my cultural inroads with other white midwestern people at this PWI to keep learning and help push around race, gender, and other axes where our work always needs to be better and more grounded. I have seen strong collaborations at different points between the institution and community work, like departments hosting panels on state violence with Young, Gifted, and Black or Derail the Jail speaking; student interns moving from classroom assignments up through real committed volunteering with LGBT Books to Prisoners; and student marches that start on Library Mall moving down State St. to meet youth organizers from GSAFE and local high schools at the Capitol. I think we need to make room for more and that potential is energizing.
And as a side note, I’m also so grateful for the embarrassment of resources available to the UW-Madison community, from the vast library and archives system (as a librarian, this is a real gift) to the 24-hour exotic animal vet hospital (they have helped my rabbit!); I definitely don’t take it for granted.
What are some organizations that have influenced you? One of the gifts of being in a community here and learning from organizers in Madison is seeing the ways activism and liberation work show up regionally and nationally too.
Locally, Freedom Inc. is a Black, Hmong, and Cambodian-led organization visioning the end of violence against women, gender non-conforming and transgender folks, and children within communities of color. Their leaders have been organizing in Madison for years and have been visible across actions, policy, youth work, community celebrations, and more. Having role models who we can see are real people working really hard makes liberation work feel accessible and extra possible for people just starting out.
Nationally, Southerners on New Ground, or SONG is a queer liberation org that works via coalition across identity. Their politic of all liberation being bound together is really foundational and they operationalize it via “southern traditions like community organizing, political education, storytelling, music, breaking bread, resistance, humor, performance, critical thinking, and celebration.” So many of these values show up in work at the Campus Center too; I believe joy and celebration are so central to our building a better world.
Katherine Charek Briggs earned an MA in Women’s and Gender Studies and MSIS in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.
Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.