Last year, Sherisse Laud-Hammond was named the new director of the Penn Women’s Center (PWC), a position in which she is the first Black woman and woman of color to serve. A 2005 graduate of the Master of Social Work program at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), Laud-Hammond’s prior social work education and career, as well as her ongoing dedication to social justice and change, are unmistakably evident when she describes her goals and vision for PWC.
Repositioning the Center as a more inclusive, diverse, and representative space for the Penn community was high on Laud-Hammond’s priority list—and in her first year as director alone, she has led highly successful rebranding and fundraising efforts to this end, in addition to overseeing a timely and well-received roster of virtual programming, all during a period of unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, PWC had increased the number of events and classes held at the Center by 30%. During the pandemic, PWC pivoted to Zoom programming, hosting community lunches and a virtual Take Back the Night had 300 people attend online, while continuing its Wellness Series with the Netter Center and the African American Resource Center, offering mindfulness meditation, financial wellness, and psychological wellness. Also, in response to killings of members of the Black community, PWC has co-sponsored and co-facilitated Black healing and solidarity circles.
Laud-Hammond’s path to PWC began in education. “I taught second grade in the School District of Philadelphia,” she says. “Some of my students had behavioral problems and I realized that many of them weren’t eating breakfast at home before school. We began eating breakfast together as a class, and the behavioral problems mostly disappeared. That lesson made me think more about the high rates of Black children and adolescents being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I saw so many students of color being seemingly labeled and misdiagnosed. I wanted to learn more about mental health and health disparities. I felt called to study the role of race and environmental factors, like poverty and food insecurity, in student behavior and achievement.”
This led her to a career move in mental health—a move that almost steered her away from Penn. “After teaching, I worked at a mental health agency in Philadelphia. My manager actively discouraged my ambition to apply to graduate school. She said Penn would be too hard and too expensive. She told me I couldn’t do it,” says Laud-Hammond. I was so upset—and determined—that I applied to SP2 and only SP2. I channeled her negativity and discouragement into motivation to fuel my goals. And I got in.”