“History”: LGBTQIA+ working group reflects on new community-specific position

The assignment of a new Membership and Inclusion Coordinator in the Student Affairs Division this month, is the culmination of months of work, according to Tyler Viljaste, the president of the LGBTQIA+ Working Group and chief of staff of the Student Government Board.

“This position, this potential hiring of staff, is historic, it’s huge,” said Viljaste, a senior policy, philosophy and finance official. “And while it’s not our pie-in-the-sky dream, it’s not our big ask that we asked for in the proposal, we knew going into it that we probably had to negotiate.”

The LGBTQ+ working group has published a report last spring, detailing resources currently available to the LGBTQ+ community in Pitt, and recommendations for creating a more inclusive environment. The report included a proposal for an LGBTQ+ center, new staff hires, and recommendations for more student services and counseling.

After the publication of the report, Vilijaste created a petition, which ultimately garnered over 600 signatures, urging the University to begin implementing the task force’s recommendation.

Over the past summer and fall semester, members of the LGBTQIA+ working group, including Viljaste, have worked with representatives from the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Cross-Cultural Leadership Development create a new position within the Office of Student Affairs. According to Viljaste, as the negotiations progressed, the position evolved into a role of program director, different from the original title of deputy director.

Abolished Kesbhat, vice president of operations for SGB and a member of the task force, said a community-specific position is needed to foster a truly inclusive community.

“LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, and staff have unique needs and there needs to be someone or people who specifically cater to those needs,” said Kesbhat, a neuroscience and psychology major. “It’s not possible for a catch-all post to truly understand and champion the unique needs of our diverse student population, so having community-specific posts is important.”

Kesbhat said that ideally this position would involve building campus-wide initiatives for the LGBTQ+ community.

“There are a lot of people who have made incredible strides towards a campus that is inclusive of LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, and staff,” Kesbhat said. “These individuals are best placed to continue their quest for a more inclusive campus in a more formal and specific role.”

Suz Deemer, immigration specialist at University Center for International Studies and a member of the task force, said that this position would raise a lot of expectations.

“Our task force is hoping that someone is willing to somehow be innovative and build something new,” Deemer said. “Who understands where we are historically in this effort as a university and someone who is able to provide more structured support across campus, so I think it’s going to be a really big job.”

Since the position primarily involves interaction with Pitt students, Laura Nelson, assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarships and Creative Activity and a member of the task force, said active listening and engaging with Pitt’s LGBTQ+ community is crucial.

“We hope this person will be, if not a member of the LGBTQ community, a really active accomplice in the community,” Nelson said. “Someone who will listen a lot first and learn a lot about the needs of different groups of LGBTQ students.”

According to the job posting, this new hire will be responsible for “attending organization meetings, meeting regularly with student leaders, and assisting with the organization’s programming efforts,” among other duties.

Deemer said this position will help centralize resources and support for the LGBTQ+ community, while creating training programs for students, staff and faculty.

“A lot of the work will be training efforts, like training allies,” Deemer said. “We also hope the post really emphasizes intersectionality and understands that LGBTQ students are also Black students, Asian students, and kind of understands how a lot of these identity intersections will affect this work.”

Nelson said the task force sought to both make recommendations and assess community stakeholder views on Pitt’s current resources.

“It was responding to this feeling that there is a lack of center on campus, which is quite unusual at universities of this caliber,” Nelson said. “But before getting into the proposal to create a center, website and staff position, the task force did a lot of research and discussions with community stakeholders to determine the state of resources at Pitt.”

The Task Force specifically recommended a new role of Executive Director in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and an assistant director position in the Office of Student Affairs. According to Viljaste, faculty and staff often provide mentorship and resources on their own time or on a volunteer basis, without contributing to their salary or tenure.

Deemer said relying on unpaid labor was unsustainable and the University needed to change this common practice.

“So we really wanted it [the task force’s proposal] to be something that the University was putting its money where it was, and actually supporting it with a salary post and resources dedicated to that community,” Deemer said.

Looking ahead, Viljaste said he hopes the University will continue to foster an inclusive environment by creating a similar position for OEDI, dedicated to research and substantive policy change, and building external relationships with other LGBTQ+ centers and academic institutions.

Viljaste said that while this is not the specific position the task force originally requested, it remains a marker of progress.

“We are delighted with this position,” Viljaste said. “And the fact that it’s better than, you know, where we were a year ago.”

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