$5 million gift to fuel new ideas, welcome new leadership at Brown’s Pembroke Center

The gift from Class of 1976 Brown alumna Shauna Stark, the largest in the Pembroke Center’s history, will establish an endowed directorship and support bold feminist research by scholars from multiple fields of study.

On the eve of its 40th anniversary, which it will mark during the 2021-22 academic year, Brown University’s Pembroke Center already has two big reasons to celebrate.

The Pembroke Center, a hub of research on gender and sexuality that brings together scholars from multiple fields of study, received its largest gift to date this spring. In July, it will welcome an accomplished humanities scholar as its new director, a role endowed for the first time ever by the new gift.

The $5 million gift from Shauna McKee Stark, a Class of 1976 Brown graduate and member of the Pembroke Center Advisory Council, will permanently endow the center’s director position and bolster programming that influences the way questions of gender, sexuality and difference are addressed in scholarship and society.

Taking the helm as the inaugural Shauna McKee Stark ’76 P ’10 Director of the Pembroke Center is Leela Gandhi, a professor of the humanities and English at Brown. Gandhi, a literary and cultural theorist whose research and teaching focuses on the legacies of colonialism, will begin her three-year term on July 1. She succeeds Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, a professor of comparative literature and Italian studies, who has led the center since 2014.

University President Christina H. Paxson said the gift will enable the center to continue breaking down gender, sexuality, race and other barriers through research and engagement that transcend fields of study.

“The Pembroke Center brings together people from across disciplines to engage with ideas that are important to the world and demand diverse perspectives,” Paxson said. “By making this profound investment, Shauna Stark underscores the importance of research and teaching on women’s history and feminist scholarship, and enables the center to grow and build on its initiatives that serve students, scholars and the public.”

As director, Gandhi will oversee a wide-ranging slate of Pembroke Center programs, initiatives, courses and research projects. Those include the gender and sexuality studies program for Brown undergraduates and graduate students; the scholarly journal differences; the Pembroke Center Archives, which houses documents, oral histories and papers that aid scholars in studying gender and sexuality; the Black Feminist Theory Project, which enhances Black feminist discourse with speakers and scholars from across the globe; and the Pembroke Seminar, which brings together an intergenerational group of scholars and practitioners from across multiple fields of study to explore topics ranging from human rights to consent.

Gandhi said one of the many reasons she was compelled to take on the Pembroke Center directorship was the “intellectually exciting and capacious” experience she had convening a Pembroke Seminar on pacifism in 2017-18.

“At Pembroke, I felt there was encouraged a spirit of genuine collaboration, intersectional inquiry and what I like to think of as dissident fields in the humanities space,” Gandhi said. “The best term for that, I think, is intersectional critical human sciences — a combination of feminist, gender, sexuality, race and post-colonial studies. I saw that, at the Pembroke Center, transformative thought mattered.”

Gandhi said she would like to bring more international perspectives to the center in future years, transforming it into the “go-to place for interdisciplinarity.” The newly endowed position enables an opportunity to expand work by scholars in the European humanities, Middle East studies, South and East Asian studies, Africana studies and regions in the Global South by establishing colloquia run by faculty from across the University. It will also enable the center to bring scholars with a global perspective to the University for residencies.

“One of the most ample ways of doing gender and sexuality studies is in alliance with associated fields,” Gandhi said. “These are resources we didn’t have before to bring in people to be with us and work with us — not just visit but be here, and participate.”

Gandhi also plans to further develop one of the center’s key initiatives, the Black Feminist Theory Project, by focusing on bringing to the center feminist scholars of color, ranging from fellows to emerging and established scholars. She envisions formulating a yearlong program that extends the work of the project with colloquia and seminars, she said.

Fighting for gender equity, 40 years later

An independent investor who began her career as a financial analyst and later became a financial planning manager, Shauna Stark was the founding investor of the Establishment, a feminist alternative news and culture site that launched in 2015. Currently, she also is a director of Empress Media.

Extending the Pembroke Center’s reach and expanding its programming on the foundation of an endowed directorship is a fitting way to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Stark noted. The current moment is also, she pointed out, a reminder of the ease with which women’s gains can be diminished.

Noting that “women have suffered the most, economically,” during the pandemic, Stark said witnessing recent rollbacks on women’s gains over the past 30 years, and the ensuing impact on women who are essential workers and caregivers, led to her “desire to do something big and something permanent in 2020,” which is when she decided to commit to endowing the directorship.

“I wanted to do this now,” Stark said. “I wanted to make a stand, and now I get to watch what happens.”

Combating setbacks and ensuring that the work women perform is not invisible or undervalued is not new to Stark. Over the years, she has made the Pembroke Center her philanthropic priority and supported initiatives including the Pembroke Center Archives, which make visible and accessible the papers of major feminist scholars and the history of women at Brown and in Rhode Island. Stark also established a postdoctoral fellowship in 2019. That program continually refreshes the gender and sexuality studies curriculum at Brown while enabling emerging scholars to advance their research in a manner that impacts how society understands and thinks about women and historically underrepresented groups.

Now, by endowing the directorship, Stark strengthens an approach to research at Pembroke that acknowledges how various forms of inequality operate together and exacerbate each other.

“I had a real, personal stake in saying I’d make this permanent,” Stark said of the directorship. “The Pembroke Center is a vibrant place of feminist scholarship. I want students to feel that, to see it and to take advantage of all its programs. An endowed directorship ensures permanence and sends a message that the center will not be marginalized, that its work will continue.”

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