This past September, the LGBTQ+ community at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) witnessed a true passing of the guard as their LGBT Center’s founding director Liz Roccoforte stepped down after serving the community for over a decade.
But with any departure comes new beginnings.
Enter: Harry Hawkins.
As the Center’s newly installed director, Hawkins shares Roccoforte’s enthusiasm and passion for serving the LGBTQ+ community and supporting students at CWRU. After a career in LGBTQ+ advocacy and building programs from scratch, Hawkins is excited to continue the LGBT Center’s legacy by ushering in new changes and creating a safe, open environment for its students.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Hawkins to learn more about how he reached this position, and what steps he hopes to take moving forward.
Since this is the LGBT Center’s first ever change in leadership, what is it like to take on this position after the inaugural director?
It’s an honor. Liz was so dedicated to this center; it was her life, and for her to be there for the 12 years that she was is truly amazing. I have big high heels to fill. It’s a challenge for sure, but I think it’s a time of great opportunity across our campus because it’s a time of change.
Looking at the next chapter of our center, the analogy I use is that we’re like the teenager who’s been sleeping in the racecar bed, and now our feet are sticking out the bottom. It’s time for new things. It’s exciting for me, and I’m enjoying it and just living the dream, as they say.
What brought you to this position?
I went to school to be a counselor, and I didn’t work one day of therapy because I was hired by the Human Rights Campaign straight out of college. I really did that macro-level LGBTQ+ advocacy and it was wonderful. I got to travel a lot and work on campaigns, as well. Meeting other LGBTQ+ activists in other states [was just a great way]to really see the movement at a larger level like that. I ate it up.
I did that for three and a half years, and then a thing happened: the 2016 election. That was the last campaign I worked [on]. I was at Secretary Clinton’s office campaign in North Carolina. [For] a lot of folks who had come in around the same time I did, that just burned everybody up. It was just traumatic on so many levels, but it was very tiring, and all of us collectively felt disappointed in our country.
There were times where I’ve told students that there was just something very different about that one. It was sort of like someone was stating their values to you, and you could see who somebody really was. Many good advocates and activists, the ones who are just the really altruistic ones, [would]stop and say, “Has my moment come? There’s so many more talented and energetic people in this movement behind me, [so]is it time that I step to the side and help in other ways?” And that’s how I felt.
I stepped aside and [went]back to my first love, which was higher education. In Mississippi State University, which is my alma mater, when I was a student there, we didn’t have any LGBTQ+ infrastructure at all. I, as a student, and then other faculty and staff around campus who are LGBTQ+, established all of our LGBTQ+ programs, so that’s really where that advocacy bug bit me.
The assistant director position here at Case came open last year, and I saw that it’s a brick-and-mortar space. It has staff, it has scholarships, it has everything already. Being someone who was first hand doing programs for almost a decade and implementing programs and initiatives, it’s good to sit back now and let the next generation and other people do it and listen to their ideas and provide some guidance. That’s where I am in my life now and in my career.
I didn’t know I was going to become director that fast, so it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I report directly to our vice president of student affairs, which speaks to Case’s commitment to these issues [since]you’re not going to have to go through three or four people to ever raise something.
What do you hope to accomplish as director of the LGBT Center?
We’re seeing this macro-level [shift]with a lot of us who work in the broader DEI umbrella space. [For] those of us who are directors of LGBTQ+ centers on our campuses, or those of us who work with different identity groups, the focus is shifting to retention. When you look at the history of LGBTQ+ centers in higher education at large, there’s been a big development over the last 35-40 years. For a while it was a very niche thing, but one of the changes [is that]we had a graduate student who is majoring in higher education, and their concentration area is LGBTQ+ affairs. That’s a big deal, because now we’re going to have practitioners who are in the field [and]actually went to school to do this.
The big initiatives that I see are with that trend focusing on retention, [and about]what programs [and]initiatives [we]have in place for our queer students who are coming to Case to keep them here. Case has our Queer Peer Mentoring program where [first-year] LGBTQ+-identified students are paired with coordinators in our center who serve as mentors with those students, and it runs for 10 weeks. Over time, I see us building that program out, because I ultimately want it to be a bridge program, and be much bigger and longer.
I’m also just looking ahead at our scholarships, and seeing what other needs do we have out there [and]what other ways we can continue to offer scholarships to queer students. Another one specifically is with healthcare; we have excellent LGBTQ+ healthcare, and I just want to look and see what other ways we can continue to make improvements of what we offer.
Over time, too, talking about the racecar bed, we’ve outgrown our space, and it’s a good problem. On Fridays, it gets really crowded in here, but [it’s] a good thing that students feel comfortable coming in here to hang out and study. But at the same time, we need a little more square footage.
Given the services that you offer, what do you feel is Case’s responsibility as a role model to other universities?
For me as a director, I really want us to be a gold standard in our region and talk about best practices and working closely with our community. I get calls from people all over the country who might have a connection with Ohio or Cleveland. We get people who just reach out all the time wanting [LGBTQ+] information and resources, and I’m always happy to talk to them about it. But even looking at the global reach of Case’s brand, over the summer, I did a presentation for the U.S Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. They were doing a program during Pride month, and they wanted to talk to students who do internships about what Pride month is and just LGBTQ+-related things.
We have so many opportunities to really educate people and connect people to resources. At our LGBT Center, we do three things: we provide education, support, and advocacy. All of our programs and initiatives fit into one or all of those, and when I look at those examples, that’s exactly what we do.
Since I’m sure you have a demanding position, what do you do personally to de-stress?
That is an important question. I say that what gets me up and excited every day is that I’m working with the next generation of leaders, and [for]or LGBTQ+ students, I’m just so happy to play a part in a very formative part of their life. And so for me with stress, when you’re in a helping profession, it’s a lot, and you take on a lot. I very much am a Netflix watcher, [and]I work out, too. Working out [is important for me], but for sure watching Netflix and catching up on my shows, like The Great British Bake Off.
That’s mostly what I do to de-stress and relax, for sure, but it’s a very rewarding job, and I’m just so honored to be in this position. You have to know your purpose and why you’re doing this. You really need to think about what’s getting you up to do this every day. And for me, it’s working with that next generation of leaders, which just excites me. 🔥
- To learn more about the LGBT Center at Case Western Reserve University, visit their website.