Carolina People: Dr. Terri Phoenix
Director of the LGBTQ Center
15 years at Carolina
What is your role as director of the LGBTQ Center?
I think about my work in four different “buckets.” First, I provide education and training (e.g., Safe Zone, LGBTQ 101, and class presentations); second, I oversee programming to build community for LGBTIQA+ students on campus; third, I provide direct support to students, staff and faculty, advocate for inclusive policies and procedures on campus and represent the Center and Student Affairs on various committees; and fourth, I attend to the administrative responsibilities of running the LGBTQ Center (e.g., supervise the full time staff; work to secure resources for the Center; manage the budget and administrative functions of the Center; and supervise the facilitator of the Trans Talk Tuesday support and discussion group).
With students we provide a lot of support around issues of coming out and identity development. Students will reach out to us to talk about and process through issues that arise related to coming out, family relationships, issues dealing with professors, or changing their legal name or legal gender. With staff the most common issues we address are concerns about climate at the university and issues of transitioning or coming out as transgender or non-binary at work.
How have your responsibilities changed since the switch to working remotely?
Transitioning to working from home has been a lot of work. I am as busy now as I ever was working on campus. Supervising is more challenging in ways because you aren’t able to get all the in-between staff meeting conversations and interpersonal interactions. We’ve been utilizing Slack a great deal to approximate those, and our staff meetings have been a little longer. Our staff members Mariel and April did a fantastic job facilitating our online Center After Dark and other programming for the last part of the semester. April continues to facilitate our Book Club and monthly programming events (all delivered online).
Our Lavender Graduation Ceremony was online this year and was a great success. Previously we have had 120 people attend the in-person event, with anywhere from 15-30 graduates participating. This year, we had 19 graduates participating, and 48 people in attendance at the online ceremony. We pre-recorded our presentation and awarding for the advocacy awards so they would be captioned. People were really moved by the event. They were very appreciative of it and how meaningful it was to them.
We’ve spent a great deal of time and energy to pre-record and caption our training programs and presentations, such as SafeZone and LGBTQ 101. We will continue to utilize these recordings for as long as we are under physical distancing requirements, and we may also eventually use those recordings as a model for a set of trainings delivered online.
For me personally, there are ways in which I have found working remotely to be more productive. For example, I’m able to work with less interruptions and more focus. I also find that I can make more meetings in a day because I’m not spending the time walking across campus between meetings. The downside is that I’m getting less exercise during work hours so have had to build more of that in outside of work time. I love my workstation at home. I look out a window into the forest. I also appreciate that I get to have lunch with my family every day. My partner has been coordinating the home schooling for our 10-year-old daughter, so I have not had to juggle that responsibility as many of my colleagues have. I’ve also really enjoyed the opportunity to dress more casually and comfortably. I’ve been in my jeans or shorts every day since mid-March. It’s been wonderful.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced when transitioning to remote work?
The biggest challenge has been how to support students and provide a sense of community via remote services and programming. Many LGBTQ students left campus to return to places where they are not out to their family or in some cases out but not affirmed by their family. In both of those situations, some students have said it has been hard to access online programming of the Center for fear that their family will discover what they are doing and it will cause conflict or worse. While many people have had to deal with isolation during this time, this kind of isolation is particularly challenging for LGBTQ folks because they don’t have the support from family with which they are quarantining (in many cases they live with ongoing condemnation or invalidation).
How are you maintaining a sense of community among those you serve? What LGBTQ remote programs and resources are available for Carolina community members?
We have a “Want To Talk” feature on our website where people can request phone or zoom conversations, email correspondence, and text conversations. That feature is particularly important now. As are communication tools like Slack and Group Me. While we already used Slack and Group Me as tools, we have seen an uptick in use of those since students have gone home. We also have been delivering our Book Club and Center in the Summer programs remotely. I have had more phone conversations with students, which is unusual, but is a really nice side effect of the physical distancing.
Eirlier in the spring we reached out to incoming students through a partnership with the Admissions Office, and we will continue to connect through orientation. We frequently direct folks to our website, which has a great deal of resources available on it, from the national resource list, local resource list, list of gender nonspecific bathrooms, to Transitioning at Carolina (a resource for people transitioning in terms of their gender identity or gender expression).
How have you set up your workspace at home? Where are you working from and did you bring anything from your office to your home?
I’ve always had a desk and office space in my house. It’s where I work from home historically and where I do the business of our household. It’s not as neat as I’d like at this point because without file cabinets, I’ve got an “open” filing system (read stacks). But I love looking out at the forest that is behind my house and hearing the birds outside my window. I love that I can go downstairs for a cup of coffee, tea or Diet Mountain Dew and say hi to my family and dog during the day. I love that on most days I am able to have lunch with my family. My alternate workspace at home is on my back deck. That is wonderful —the sun, the breeze, the sounds of nature, ahhh.
How are you continuing to support Carolina’s mission?
All aspects of our work support the strategic plan of the university as a whole and of Student Affairs. The first pillar in the Carolina Next strategic plan is Building Community Together. The mission of the LGBTQ Center aligns with that pillar very nicely. I often talk about our work as having three broad components: education, direct support/advocacy, and community building.
In addition to building community for LGBTIQA+ folks on campus we are supporting the successful graduation of LGBTIQA+ students both through direct support and assistance but also by addressing climate issues through our educational programs. Data from the 2016 Diversity Survey (see OIRA website) document that LGBTIQA+ students are more likely to have seriously considered leaving the university and that is directly related to not feeling a sense of belonging in university life. The Center programs and relationships with Center staff provide that sense of belonging and mentorship to support student retention.
What do you like most about your work?
It is hands down the students that I like most about the work. It is an amazing privilege and joy to watch students come into the University then to provide support, nurturance, and community as they grow and develop during their time at Carolina. I have learned a lot from students over the years and hope that I continue to remain open enough to do so. I have some wonderful memories of poignant interactions as well as funny interactions and situations. I still have students from years before that keep in touch with me and every now and then someone will reach out to say how much the Center programs and staff and space meant to them.
I also really like the impact that our work makes on the greater society. Through our education programs we are teaching the future doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and people of many other professions how to be intentionally inclusive of people who are historically marginalized by the effects of heterosexism, cissexism, and sexism. These people hopefully (and in many cases I know) go out into the world and work in their sphere of influence to create a more inclusive and just world for LGBTIQA+ folks. And the LGBTIQA+ folks we support to successful graduation go out and change the world as well. That’s a powerful motivator to go to work in the morning.
Lastly I would say that I feel this work is somewhat of a calling. I want my life to make the world better for having lived and this work feels like a way to do that.