A challenge to change

Over the past 25 years, Women’s Studies Department chair Johanna Brenner has been a relentless advocate for social change, community education and the achievements of women not only within the Portland State community but throughout Portland as a whole.

That’s why she received the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award at the 16th annual PSU Salutes ceremony last Thursday.

When Brenner finished her doctorate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, the thought of moving to what she called the “sleepy little town” of Portland was less than appealing after the culture and glamour of Los Angeles.

“I felt like I was going to Siberia,” Brenner said.

Though Portland was not then the cultural center it has become since the population boom in the ’80s, Brenner decided she could handle the city for a year, and so in 1981 she became a part of the small women’s studies staff at PSU.

Though her plan was not initially to become a permanent fixture of women’s studies at PSU, events of the 1981-82 school year would drastically alter her trajectory.

Only a month after Brenner moved to PSU, a budget crisis due to the faltering Oregon economy caused PSU administration to eliminate the entire Department of Women’s Studies. This announcement enraged the department. Since its establishment in 1976 it had already faced cuts, leaving only a skeleton crew of one instructor, Brenner, a 1/3-time department coordinator and a secretary.

Throughout the year, community members, students and staff pulled together to create a campaign to save the department. Part of the campaign included a demonstration in the Park Blocks in which participants cut an effigy of the PSU president into tiny bits.

The struggle to save PSU’s women’s studies department engaged Brenner and the community in a way she had not though possible.

“It was a political and intellectual challenge to me,” she said. “Also, I really bonded with the students and faculty.”

The campaign salvaged the department in the form of one position, a 1/3-time coordinator to organize classes cross-listed from other departments. Brenner occupied that position for a few years after the previous coordinator stepped down, as well as a staff position in the Department of Sociology.

She eventually became a tenured professor and the chair of the department.

Throughout the years, Brenner has been involved with many struggles both on campus and in the community. She was a founding member of the only non-profit feminist bookstore in the country, In Other Words, at 3734 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.

“[Brenner is] like a mighty oak tree, so strong and powerful. She stands her ground politically with no doubt. She effectively gets many different women’s voices heard,” store manager Sue Burns said.

“To me, it’s a place where women’s studies ideas are made available in the community, so you don’t have to be on campus,” said Brenner, who is currently the co-chair of the In Other Words board.

One of her current projects is the Literary Feast, an annual fundraiser for In Other Words, which will take place tonight.

Another of Brenner’s projects is the Walk of the Heroines, a project which, when completed, will be an interactive tribute to inspiring women from varied communities.

“The stories we’ve collected of the women we’re honoring are so inspiring and diverse,” Brenner said.

The project is still in the fundraising stage, but the goal is to break ground in the fall of this year.

Brenner has also been involved in raising funds for scholarships for women’s studies students, 4 – 5 of which are available for incoming students in the fall.

Brenner has also been busy writing. An article she wrote with colleague Nancy Holmstrom titled “After 911: Whose Security?” about the multiple and gendered definitions of security was recently published in Against the Current magazine. Another article she wrote, “Socialism and Family Life,” will appear in a book later this year. A collection of Brenner’s articles, “Women and the Politics of Class,” was published in 2000.

Though a very accomplished individual, Brenner gives credit for her success to her colleagues and students at PSU. When asked whom she would give an award to, she was stumped, but just for a minute.

“There’s so many, many people I would give an award to. My collective award would go to students, staff and faculty.”

Brenner’s students seem to appreciate her in return. Susan Blanchard, a women’s studies major at PSU, came to the department after meeting Brenner. Blanchard was undecided on a major when she initiated a conversation with Brenner, whom she met in an elevator and thought was a fellow student. That anonymous woman set up an advising appointment with Blanchard, eventually recruiting her to women’s studies. It wasn’t until later that Blanchard found out that the anonymous woman “evangelizing in the elevator” was the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies.

“I think she’s amazing and she’s really inspiring,” Blanchard said. “She’s taught me that anybody can be an activist and that it’s possible to bring activism into your life no matter how busy you are.”