‘Historic’: LGBTQIA+ task force reflects on new community-specific position


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

The Cathedral of Learning.

By Abby Cardilli, Staff Writer

The posting for a new Coordinator of Belonging and Inclusion in the Division of Student Affairs this month, is the culmination of months of work, according to Tyler Viljaste, the chair of the LGBTQIA+ task force and chief of staff for Student Government Board.

“This position, this eventual staff hire, is historic, it’s huge,” Viljaste, a senior politics and philosophy and finance major, said. “And though 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’d likely have to negotiate.”

The LGBTQ+ task force released a report last spring detailing current available resources for the LGBTQ+ community at Pitt, and recommendations to create a more inclusive environment. The report included a proposal for the creation of a LGBTQ+ center, new staff hires as well as recommendations for more student and counseling services.

After the release of the report, Vilijaste created a petition, which eventually gathered more than 600 signatures, urging the University to begin implementing the task force’s recommendation.

During last summer and the fall semester, members of the LGBTQIA+ task force, including Viljaste, collaborated with representatives from the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Cross Cultural Leadership Development to create a new position in the Office of Student Affairs. According to Viljaste, through negotiations, the position evolved into a program director role, differing from the original title of assistant director.

Aboli 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 a person/people that specifically look out for these needs,” Kesbhat, a senior neuroscience and psychology major, said. “It’s not possible for a catch-all position to truly understand and advocate for the unique needs of our diverse population of students, so it is important to have community-specific positions.”

Kesbhat said ideally this position will entail creating campus-wide initiatives geared toward the LGBTQ+ community.

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

Suz Deemer, an immigration specialist at the University Center for International Studies and a member of the task force, said this position is going to come with lots of expectations.

“Our task force would hope for somebody who is willing to kind of be innovative and build something new,” said Deemer. “Who understands where we’ve been historically in this effort as a University and somebody who is able to provide more structured support overall in the campus, so I think it’s going to be a really big job.”

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

“We hope that that person will be, if not a member of the LGBTQ community, a really active accomplice to the community,” Nelson said. “Somebody who’s going to do a lot of listening before and a lot of learning about the needs of the different LGBTQ student groups.”

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

Deemer said this position will aid in centralizing resources and support for the LGBTQ+ community, while also creating training programs for students, staff and faculty.

“A big part of the job is going to be training efforts, for example allies training,” Deemer said. “We also hope that the position really emphasizes intersectionality and understands that LGBTQ students are also Black students, Asian students, and kind of understanding how a lot of those intersections of identity will affect this work.”

Nelson said the task force sought to both form recommendations and evaluate community stakeholders’ opinions about Pitt’s current resources.

“It was responding to this feeling that there’s a lack of a center on campus, which is pretty unusual in universities of this caliber,” Nelson said. “But before getting into the proposal to create a center, a website and a staff position, the task force did a lot of fact finding and discussing with community stakeholders to sort of figure out the state of resources at Pitt.”

The task force specifically recommended a new executive director role 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 in their free time or on a volunteer basis, without having it contribute to their pay or tenure track.

Deemer said relying on unpaid labor was not sustainable, 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 its mouth was, and actually supporting this through a salary position and dedicated resources to this community,” Deemer said.

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

Viljaste said although this is not the specific position the task force originally asked for, it is still a marker of progress.

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