The Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills College in Oakland. Beth LaBerge/KQED
The Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills College in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'Sacred Land': How Mills College's Proposed Transformation Sits With its Proud LGBTQ Legacy

'Sacred Land': How Mills College's Proposed Transformation Sits With its Proud LGBTQ Legacy

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In May 1990, Bay Area high school dropout and single mom Ariel Gore was casting about for a place to get her undergraduate degree. She turned on the TV and saw Mills College students protesting a decision to make the historically women’s college based in Oakland co-ed.

"And I was like, 'Oh, my God! There are feminists at Mills and they're having a big protest! They look like lesbians! I should go there!" Gore said. "And so I did."

Gore went on to author more than 10 books and launch Hip Mama, an award-winning magazine about the culture and politics of motherhood. She said she was a natural introvert before she arrived at Mills. The school helped pull her out of her shell and transform her into the opinionated public figure she is today.

Mills College alum Ariel Gore (Courtesy Debbie Baxter)

"My sort of invisibility, I could get away with that in a co-ed environment in a way that wasn't really allowed at Mills," Gore said. "You know, every professor in these small classes was like, 'Well, Ariel, what do you think?'"

Gore is among many members of Mills' large LGBTQ community currently processing the college's announcement that it will stop granting degrees in 2023, transform itself into a "research institute," and allow hundreds of UC Berkeley undergrads of all genders to begin living on its campus this fall.

Fearing a unique legacy will be lost, Mills students, alumni and faculty are protesting the changes to the college, which today serves 609 women and non-binary-identifying undergraduates and 352 graduate students of all genders. At a rally outside campus last Friday, more than 100 Mills students and alumni demanded trustees reverse their decision.

The growing coziness between UC Berkeley and Mills is also upsetting some students, who say they haven't been consulted about the changes and worry that admitting hundreds of Berkeley students to campus could undermine the college's powerful identity as a safe harbor for women and nonbinary individuals.

"They're going to have people walking around on sacred land," said Mills undergraduate Cassandra James, who joined the rally on Friday. "And it's like, do they understand the concept of Mills’ values and Mills’ morals?"

A Legacy of Inclusivity

Mills, founded in 1852, has long shed its perfumed reputation as a finishing school for wealthy white ladies. But it took until the 1970s and '80s for the college to become more racially inclusive thanks to the efforts of students and faculty of color.

"I look at how diverse it is now and it just warms my soul, because that was not my experience in the late '70s," said Renel Brooks-Moon, who graduated from Mills in 1981 and went on to become the public address announcer for the San Francisco Giants. (The Baseball Hall of Fame recognized Brooks-Moon as the first female announcer of a championship game in any professional sport for her role in the 2002 World Series.)

Today, 34% of Mills students identify as Latinx/Hispanic and 12% as Black or African American. But Brooks-Moon said when she was studying for an English literature degree, there were very few students and faculty of color.

"We fought to be seen and to be heard," Brooks-Moon said, adding that Mills' emerging LGBTQ and BIPOC communities often came together to push the campus to be more inclusive. "My time at Mills really helped to nurture that appreciation for the LGBTQ community, because we were all fighting for the same thing."

Podcaster and author Nia King, who graduated from Mills in 2011, said she was drawn to school because of its inclusivity.

"I’m a Black, Lebanese, Hungarian, Jewish, queer and cis-gender woman from the Boston area," said King, who has for the past eight years hosted and produced We Want the Airwaves, a podcast featuring interviews with queer and trans artists of color.

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And she appreciated the school’s academic rigor. King said the politically engaged ethnic studies undergrad curriculum helped shape her both as a thinker and a leader.

"Looking at how research has been used as a tool of colonization in the past taught me how to take embedded assumptions out of questions," she said.

Mills College alum Nia King, center, at a book reading in Oakland. (Courtesy Tim Abad)

But despite the strides towards racial inclusivity Brooks-Moon and her generation made at Mills, King said a legacy of feminist transphobia persisted well into the 21st century on campus.

"A lot of the rhetoric about it being an all-women’s school was very exclusionary to people that were male-identified trans students and also nonbinary trans students," King said.

King said trans student activists like her then-partner, a trans man, fought hard to be heard. Their efforts paid off when Mills became the first women’s college in the U.S. to adopt a transgender admissions policy in 2014. Today, more than half of Mills students identify as LGBTQ.

"Mills was the trendsetter there," said Emerald Archer, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition. "And many of our institutions were looking at their policy as a model of what we could do at other institutions across the country."

'One Fewer Resource' as Women's Colleges Struggle

Archer said the number of women’s colleges in the U.S. has dropped from 230 in 1960, to 36 in 2020. Ten schools shuttered in the last six years alone. Many have had to go co-ed to stay afloat. Small schools with strong identities like Mills have struggled financially and lost students. Archer said the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse.

"The pandemic is really challenging [school] presidents and their administrations to make sure that their institutions are alive on the other side," Archer said.

Archer said the pandemic has also been particularly tough on people who identify as women. It’s driven millions out of the workforce – especially women of color.

"This is where women's institutions kind of get it right," said Archer of the need for schools like Mills, where many students are the first in their families to attend college – 44% of Mills undergrads are first-generation college students. "Places like Mills, they can catch those students. And if Mills isn't there, that's just one fewer resource that folks can draw on."

The current talks with UC Berkeley do seem to offer one possibility for Mills' future.

The plan to house 200 Berkeley undergraduates of all genders on the Mills campus this fall is just the latest in a long list of collaborative efforts between the small private collage and large public university. In recent years, Mills students have participated in UC Berkeley study abroad programs, and Cal students have taken biology classes on the Mills campus.

"To continue its mission, Mills will need to work with other academic institutions, and UC Berkeley is a great institution here in the Bay Area who we've worked with for a long time," said Mills President Elizabeth Hillman. "And we are in conversations about what we might be able to do together that we can't do apart."

Chicora Martin stands on grassy quad on Mills campus
Chicora Martin, vice president of student life and dean of students at Mills College in Oakland on March 24, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Meanwhile, campus officials are speaking only in the vaguest terms about what Mills' future as an institute will look like.

Chicora Martin, vice president of student life and dean of students, said whatever form the institute takes, Mills will still continue onward with its core mission of pushing for social justice.

"Because we can't grant degrees may not necessarily mean that we don't lose what Mills can offer," Martin said. "I’m hoping a lot of what makes Mills Mills will not be lost."

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