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Penn Women's Center on Sept. 14, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

The Penn Women’s Center plans to appoint a permanent director by the end of the semester, as current students and staff work to fill the gap left by the departure of its previous director. 

Associate Vice Provost for University Life Will Atkins, who is facilitating the search, said the University began a search for a new director for the PWC after Sherisse Laud-Hammond, the Center's previous director, left the position last semester to take on a new role at Penn.

The PWC, located at 3643 Locust Walk, was founded in 1973 following a sit-in by Penn students and faculty to protest sexual assault on campus. The center has since served as a resource for women on campus and a sponsor of student groups and events related to gender equity. 

First-year coordinator for Penn Association for Gender Equity and College sophomore Lila DiMasi said she and her fellow PAGE board members began feeling the strain of the vacancy this summer as they planned PennGenEq, a pre-orientation program focusing on gender equity and social justice. PAGE and PennGenEq are both housed under the PWC.

DiMasi said that, because other staff members at the PWC had to take on more responsibilities previously taken care of by the director, DiMasi and her co-coordinators also had to take on logistical tasks, such as coordinating with local restaurants to cater food for PennGenEq.

“We ended up having to dedicate a lot of our time that we could have been using for thinking about improving the actual content of the program to doing things that were interesting skills to pick up, but maybe someone more experienced with the financial processes at Penn could have been handling,” they said.

DiMasi praised the work of Elisa Foster, who is currently serving as the PWC’s interim director. College sophomore Annabelle Jin, who serves as lead organizer of the Penn for Reproductive Justice Working Group, echoed DiMasi's sentiments. 

Jin added that the Penn for Reproductive Justice Working Group, which was formed this summer, is not an official partner of the PWC yet. However, Jin said the group has worked with the PWC to organize an event in June following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and expressed gratitude for the PWC's inclusion of the new group in their programming. 

However, DiMasi noted that she is concerned about the amount of work being put on Foster’s plate as an interim director in addition to her already full-time role as associate director of the PWC.

"I don't want [Foster] to get burned out because she's just been such an amazing resource for us, and if she got burnt out and left the Women's Center, that would be a lot of starting over for us," DiMasi said. 

Foster declined to comment on the PWC's search for a permanent director. 

Foster took over as interim director following the departure of Laud-Hammond in the spring of 2022. Laud-Hammond, a former administrator at Temple University, began her tenure as director in January 2019. She now serves as Penn’s Senior Director of Alumni Leadership and Inclusion. 

The PWC is just one of several centers at Penn that is currently operating without a permanent director. Penn Violence Prevention, a resource focused on preventing sexual violence and harassment, is also undergoing a search for a new director after the departure of former director Malik Washington in February. The office of the Vice Provost for University Life, which oversees both the PWC and PVP, is also currently led on an interim basis by Tamara Greenfield King.

While the search is still in the application gathering stage, Atkins said the University plans to consult students on the selection as the process continues. He said one of the main criteria the University is looking for is someone who will "include more students and stakeholders across all genders."

Jin said she hopes that the next director will promote gender inclusivity in their language and advocacy, particularly regarding reproductive rights.

“The Penn Women’s Center is called the Women’s Center, but they advocate for issues that also affect trans and nonbinary folk, and I think it's important to make sure that we are being inclusive of them in our conversations,” Jin said.

DiMasi said they hope the next director will be someone who brings a variety of life and work experiences to the PWC, with more than just administrative experience.

“I think that it’s also important that the new director is someone who is willing to just genuinely talk to people and not try to run the Women’s Center like a business, but run it like a collaboration,” DiMasi said. “That's what I really appreciate about the current state of the Women's Center, is that I feel like I am a full collaborator in the work of the center.”