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Washtenaw United: Creating safe spaces at the University of Michigan’s Spectrum Center

Jesse Beal
Spectrum Center
Jesse Beal


Jesse Beal (they/them) is the director of Spectrum Center. They joined as associate director in November 2021 and were named the director in December 2022. Prior to arriving at the University of Michigan, Jesse served as the director of The Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University. Jesse is an experienced student affairs practitioner, who brings over a decade of experience leading student-facing affinity-based resource centers at Amherst College, Brandeis University, Suffolk University, and MSU. They bring a demonstrated history of working towards equity and inclusion in higher education with a practice that is collaborative, student-centered, intersectional, and justice based.

Jesse has been a social justice and LGBTQIA2S+ activist, educator, and consultant for the past fifteen years. They present regularly at national conferences and at many colleges, universities, and nonprofits. Jesse serves as the external coordinator for the Consortium of Higher Education LGBTQ Resource Professionals, a member-based association working toward the liberation of LGBTQ people in higher education. Jesse is also a PhD student in the Michigan State University Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program studying LGBTQIA2S+ populations in higher education.

They possess a Master of Arts in women's and gender studies from Brandeis University and a Bachelor of Arts in women's and gender studies and government from the University of Texas at Austin.

As the director, they provide campus-wide leadership on strategies to advance equity, and inclusion with regard to gender and sexuality. Jesse drives our strategic planning, sets unit goals, and oversees the operation of the center and our programs and services.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. This weekly conversation series explores issues of equity and opportunity in Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and, last month, we marked Pride Month. We looked at the celebrations of advancements and discussed the challenges that remain in moving forward. For many in the LGBTQ plus community, some of these issues are present on a daily basis, and there's a need for support and safe space. Well, that's exactly the function of the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan. Our guest today is Jesse Beal, and they serve as director of the center. And thank you for taking some time to spend with us today. Jesse, I appreciate it.

Jesse Beal: Thanks so much for inviting me. I'm so excited to be here with you today.

David Fair: You know, you arrived at the Spectrum Center as associate director back in November of 2021 and became director in December of 2022. Now, you already had a good job as director of the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University. What about the work in Ann Arbor at the Spectrum Center led you to make the move?

Jesse Beal: That's such a great question. You know, Spectrum Center is the first LGBTQIA2S plus campus space resource center in the country. We celebrated our 50th anniversary just a couple of years ago, and we are, you know, one of the best LGBTQ centers, you know, in the world. And so, it was an unparalleled opportunity to come and work with Will Sherry, the former director. And our incredible team to do work at the University of Michigan for our incredible students. And, of course, you know, to continue the legacy because we are the first and we'd like to continue to innovate and serve our students the way they deserve.

David Fair: Sometimes, as we look forward, it's also a value to look back. Did your personal journey ultimately lead you to work in this arena?

Jesse Beal: Yeah. I mean, I identify as a person within the LGBTQ community. I have been a student activist in this area. My first job in higher education was working in the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas at Austin. And then, my coursework, my education, my master's degree, and, of course, being the parent of a trans son also, all of these things led me to want to do this work.

David Fair: Well, you now have a year and a half to get a feel for the U of M campus and the students that you serve. Overall, do you consider the Ann Arbor campus a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ plus community?

Jesse Beal: That's a great question. I think, you know, it's a complicated one. We have five out of five stars on the Campus Pride Index, right, which is the premier benchmarking tool for colleges and universities to determine how LGBTQ-friendly they are. We have all of the right policies in place, and we work tremendously hard to advocate for our students. And I think, overall, we are a welcoming campus. But, you know, at the end of the day, it only takes one person being rude to you to ruin your day, you know? So, I think, structurally, we do an incredible job.

David Fair: And I wanted to go down that path a little further. Do you, by and large, feel that, despite policy and despite a 50-year legacy at Spectrum Center, that there is some institutional and systemic issues that still need to be addressed moving forward?

Jesse Beal: Well, of course, right? Equity and inclusion are both moving targets, right? And as we move forward, our community has different needs than it had years before. I've been doing this work for 20 years now, and some needs have stayed the same, right? The need for all gender restrooms, the need for housing, right, that's supportive of folks has gender identities. But there are new challenges, right? And there are new things that students are asking for. So, one thing students are asking for now is, you know, being able to put their chosen name on their dissertation, right? And that's a really important ask in something that perhaps wasn't a priority in years past because we were working on some of the more, you know, essential needs based work, like housing and restrooms and anti-discrimination policies, right? And so now, we're doing that next-level, 2.0 work, right, to ensure that our students have what they need to thrive here.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United and our conversation with Jesse Beal continues. Jesse is director of the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan. I certainly don't need to tell you that every human being comes with their own baggage and challenges, and you're charged with creating a space and environment that can help address those individual issues for students on campus, but also in a way that builds community. So, how do you approach that programmatically?

Jesse Beal: Yeah, so, you know, everything that almost everything that we do is open to everyone on the University of Michigan campus. And a lot of our things are also open to the larger community, right? So, when we bring a major speaker, priority goes to our campus community. But often, you know, anyone in the Ann Arbor or Michigan area is welcome to join, right? We center our students in the work that we do. So, you know, our programming is driven by their needs and their desires, the things they want us to do. We even have a leadership body within the Spectrum Center called the Spectrum Center Programming Board, which is a student organization that leads their own programming that, of course, we pay for, right? And that keeps students at the forefront of the work that we do because they are, you know, our most important constituency after all.

David Fair: Do you find that, for some, there is hesitancy or trepidation to walk through the doors and explore the services offered? I mean, sometimes it's hard for anyone to ask for help or support.

Jesse Beal: Yes, absolutely. And that's certainly the case for us. You know, there are some students who will never even come to Spectrum Center because of their own feelings about their identity, right, and what it means to be a member of our community. And, you know, that's part of the reason why we're in the middle of doing a major website overhaul right now is we're trying to get as many resources as we can into our online platforms to ensure that anyone is able to access us even remotely, right, if they don't feel comfortable coming in. But also our amazing partners at the David Bohnett Foundation, they have agreed to purchase a new cyber center for us to put into our offices, which is a set of brand new computers that students can use, they can work, they can check email, they can, you know, hang out. But it is an excuse to come into the center, right? And sometimes, that's all students need. They just need a reason to say, "Oh, I need to print something. Well, Spectrum will let me do that," right? And then, they're in. And then they can make friends and connect with a staff member, right? And it becomes less about like, "Oh, I'm going into Spectrum."

David Fair: So, how much thought do you put into when someone enters the center ensuring that there is an engagement that creates that sense of safe space?

Jesse Beal: Yeah, no, that's absolute. That's one of our number one priorities. So, we train our front desk staff. We always have someone working at the front desk, whether it's a professional staff member or one of our many student staff who greets everybody who comes through the door, right? We also try and make our center feel like a home away from home to our students. When I got there, I joked that I was like, "This looks like financial aid, right?" I can't tell if this is the queer center, right?" And nothing against financial aid. But like, you know, this is, you know, yes, our offices are where we work, but our common space is our students' living room, right? And it should look and feel like that. And so, one of the things that we did was we actually worked with student artists to purchase some of their original artwork to decorate the center with, right? And so, when students come into our office, they see their art, right, or the art of their peers. They see magazines. They see we have a Switch in the center, right? And we have a library. We have plants everywhere and unicorn toys and all sorts of stuff, board games, right, so that it feels like when they come into our space, they're coming home, right? Because we want them to feel like this place belongs to them because, truly, it does.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Jesse Beal on 89 one WEMU. Jesse is director of the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan and our guest on Washtenaw United. And I want to talk a little bit about education, Jesse. Now, to overcome discrimination, there needs to be some inclusion of those who discriminate. And you mentioned the mission of the Spectrum Center goes well beyond the walls of the center itself. So, what educational programs are you taking into the larger community that might well benefit moving forward the idea of eliminating discrimination?

Jesse Beal: So, we have an amazing staff person named Eli, who's in charge of our education and training area, and we have a number of workshops that are open to the University of Michigan community, and sometimes they're open to campus partners, colleagues from across the area as well. Our most popular workshop is our pronouns 101 workshop. I can sure you can imagine why. We also have our brand new "Towards Solidarity" day-long workshop, which is all about how to get an action and work to support communities that perhaps you do not belong to, right? And then, we have our new web course, which debuted last year, and we're reissuing after a successful pilot program. So, there's lots of opportunities for folks to get educated to learn more. We also have put a ton of resources on our website for folks who, you know, just want to learn a little bit more about vocabulary or need some resources if they're supporting somebody who is dealing with suicidality or anxiety, right, and needs to get some more help that even our office provide, right? So, we are trying to democratize education around LGBTQ identities as much as possible. And, sometimes, that's on our website, sometimes that's referring folks out to other incredible websites like Glisson or Planned Parenthood. There's so many incredible organizations out there that are doing good education on queer and trans identities that we want to amplify as well.

David Fair: So, somebody who is listening today and might want to get in touch with the Spectrum Center and learn more about the work being done and maybe how to get involved, what is the best avenue in?

Jesse Beal: Sure. I think the best thing you can do is go to our web site, which is the Spectrum Center dot umich dot edu. You can also, if you're a person who is on social media, I am told by the youth that our Instagram is poppin'--not sure what that means, but here we are. So, our Instagram is, UM Spectrum center with CTR instead of the full word. And all of our events and programs are posted on there as well, as well as educational posts to help educate community through social media, which is wonderful. So, those two places, I think, are the best avenues for folks who want to get involved.

David Fair: Well, I have certainly appreciated our conversation, and I thank you for your time today, Jesse.

Jesse Beal: Of course. Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm so glad to be able to be with you.

David Fair: That is Jesse Beal. They serve as director of the University of Michigan Spectrum Center and has been our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on Jesse and the Spectrum Center and the work he is doing at the school and in the community, visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you linked up. Washtenaw United is presented in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Spectrum Center

Spectrum Center Events List

Spectrum Center Online LGBTQIA+ Resources


United Way of Washtenaw County invites everyone to show support for members of the LGBTQIA+ Community and learn about the history and different identities within the community.

The U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage to same-sex couples nationwide in 2015, and in 2022 Michigan’s Supreme Court delivered a decision affirming that the protections, rights, and freedoms afforded to all Michiganders extend to sexual orientation.

However, while landmark policy progress is being made, attacks on the LGBQTQIA+ community, are on the rise. A record of 70+ anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this year.

Take this quiz to test your knowledge and learn more about LGBTQIA+ anti-discrimination laws and policies in the United States.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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