A student at the University of Pennsylvania wants to make sure future generations understand historic struggles for equality, so that similar mistakes don’t happen again.
Carolyn DeChants is earning her Master’s in Social Policy degree from Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. For nearly a year, the 26-year-old Ann Arbor, Mich., native has been working on a digital archive with the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at Penn.
“The LGBT Center has played an enormous role in the lives of countless students, faculty, staff and alumni here throughout its 30-year history,” DeChants explains. “We wanted to create something that would be meaningful and useful to all of those people, whether a nostalgic alum or a researcher.”
Bob Schoenberg, director of the LGBT Center, and Erin Cross, the associate director, were interested in chronicling the Center’s legacy back to its establishment in 1982.
Luckily, Schoenberg, a self-proclaimed “pack rat,” has kept everything.
Schoenberg, Cross, and DeChants started sifting through the filing cabinets, storage containers and boxes full of LGBT history at Penn.
“The archives have proven to be invaluable,” Schoenberg explains. “I was genuinely surprised to learn fairly recently from some graduate students how significant they consider what I have saved to be.”
He adds now that the materials are being curated and made widely available, they can be used for study and research so that others can learn from history and create change today.
“Penn has consistently been ranked as one of the best colleges for LGBT students and serves as a model for institutions nationwide,” Cross says.
The LGBT Center’s leadership team has talked about creating a history project for years, and students have shown interest in the project, Cross explains. But it was not until DeChants was hired that the Center’s archives became a reality.
“Her considerable skills, work ethic and intelligence have driven the project beyond what we imagined and will allow it to grow beyond her tenure,” Cross says. “It will be an important asset for generations to come, thanks to Carolyn.”
In order to create the archive, DeChants photographs or scans documents and artifacts. She then uploads them to an online database so that the information will be available to everyone.
“An online archive allows us to gather enormous amounts of information and make it readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. It makes the Center’s history more public and more interactive,” she says. “This flexibility and utility is what made a digital archive more appealing that a static document, such as a book.”
While working on the digital archives, DeChants was often taken aback by some of the historic documents that she’s come across.
One such item was a personal narrative that was published in The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Awareness Days Supplement in 1998. The story described one freshman’s difficult experience with a roommate. With support from the LGBT Center and the staff at his dorm, the young man confronted his roommate, explaining that it had taken him years to accept that he was gay and asked the roommate to respect his privacy.
They began to repair their relationship, but the roommate’s parents had something different in mind. They suggested to their son that he should never sleep in the room while the gay student was there and lodged multiple complaints. Eventually, the roommate left Penn. In the story, the student touted the support he received from everyone at Penn.
For DeChants, this one example illustrates what might be a common experience because students find that Penn is a safe place –- sometimes their first safe space -– where they can be their complete selves. She says this is a common thread throughout the history of students’ writing about their experiences as LGBT people at Penn.
Another artifact she discovered dates back to 1973. It is a copy of a registration form of what might be the first organized LGBT student group here, Gay Students at Penn.
“Throughout this project I have been struck by the enormous gains that LGBT people have achieved in the last three decades, both here at Penn and in the United States at large,” she says. “However, there have also been some powerful reminders of the sacrifices that many LGBT people and their allies made to achieve those gains.”
For the past year, DeChants has also been actively involved with the LGBT student group at the School of Social Policy & Practice, QSP2, which advocates for LGBT people and perspectives in the social-work and social-policy fields. The group has been instrumental in providing emotional and social support for the LGBT community, incorporating LGBT content into the curriculum and building coalitions with other organizations.
Gradually, she became more aware of the role that research and policy play in defining and solving social problems. She wanted to learn more about how to participate in that process, but she was also interested in the behind-the-scenes nature of policy work.
“I was drawn to the School of Social Policy & Practice because of the diversity of professionals that comprise the SP2 community,” she says. “Policy thinkers study with social workers who collaborate with academic researchers who partner with non-profit professionals. That kind of multi-faceted, collaborative environment and approach to social problems was appealing to me.”
As a part of the curriculum, students are required to participate in field placements. DeChants has served as a policy intern at the People’s Emergency Center, an organization that provides emergency and transitional housing to homeless women and their families. Her responsibilities have ranged from analyzing the data on the number of people receiving homeless services in Philadelphia to setting up meetings with congressional staff members and other political officials.
“I am very glad to get to use many of the skills I learned in the classroom on real world projects,” DeChants says. “It has also been gratifying to get to know Philadelphia better and meet some of the amazing people who serve homeless folks in this city.”
She hopes to have the online archive set up and in a sustainable form by August, when she will finish her degree.
DeChants is currently looking for a position conducting policy research or program evaluation in the Philadelphia area. She’d be thrilled to continue working on LGBT-related issues in a full-time position, but she is passionate about using research to help illuminate and ameliorate the experiences of any marginalized populations.
She says the archive will be a “living” database that will never truly be finished. She hopes that members of the Penn community will use it and add to it for years to come.