Women and Gender Studies Department Chair Jane Lehr is a political activist who has been part of many historically important conversations. | Jane Lehr/Courtesy Photo

Kelly Trom

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Jane Lehr is a jack of all trades. From her various degrees of education in diverse areas of study to the many job titles she holds at Cal Poly, the women and gender studies department chair is busy impacting the university.

Lehr came to Cal Poly eight years ago, complete with a Ph.D. and master’s degree in science and technology studies from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in hand. Her concentrations include social, cultural and political studies of science and technology and women’s studies.

It would take many paragraphs to thoroughly describe all of Lehr’s roles on campus, but in addition to being department chair, she is an ethnic studies associate professor, a faculty director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Student Participation (LSAMP) program and involved in the proposed launching of three new and one revised interdisciplinary minors in the liberal arts program.

“I love being involved in many different conversations that are happening at Cal Poly around interdisciplinary and partnerships across disciplines and across colleges,” Lehr said.

Lehr is no stranger to actively participating on a college campus, both in the discussion between different disciplines of study and the many other issues she deems important. In fact, that participation helped her juggle responsibilities during her own college education: Lehr balanced her graduate study work with her role as a student activist on Virginia Tech’s campus.

“I really think that being a student activist and a graduate student at the same time really prepared me to operate in multiple different arenas at the same time,” Lehr said. “It’s that experience in addition to my educational trainings and work experience that makes it possible for me to do this complicated and awesome job here at Cal Poly.”

As a graduate student, Lehr took interest in a broad range of issues from campus-centered discussions and decision making about affirmative action and sexual orientation discrimination to larger national discussion about the United States’ response to 9/11 and sexual assault.

While Lehr realizes many Cal Poly students are nervous or confused about what activism can look like on a college campus, the role of an activist is very straightforward to her.

“For me, what it means to be an activist is about organizing, bringing people together to have discussions and dialogues around issues that are controversial or issues that need attention,” Lehr said.

Lehr’s work primarily consisted of organizing meetings with people on campus and in the community who have similar and differing opinions, doing research about how the issue is really impacting people, running events and creating publications.

Lehr’s activism work, specifically around the discussion about 9/11, created less-than-ideal conditions for the safety of the activists involved. This was especially true during activism events in the Washington, D.C. area and Fort Benning, where there was a large police presence and lack of support for her cause.

“It was very difficult to raise questions about how the U.S. was responding to 9/11, about ideas like blow back, what is the history of these particular regions and how did we become targets,” Lehr said. “In fact, it literally became quite dangerous to ask those questions in terms of physical safety, not just mental and emotional safety.”

However, Lehr feels that because she had a large amount of privilege and access to higher education, she is obligated to take action when she sees members of underrepresented groups being treated unfairly, she said.

“It really pales in comparison to the lived reality of so many people in the United States,” Lehr said. “My experience of briefly being in moments of physical concern as an activist are definitely not huge compared to what it must be like to interact with the police or the military in that way on a daily basis.”

On Cal Poly’s campus, Lehr has been impacting people she works with while she bridges the gap between many disciplines of academic study.

Noya Kansky, an Americorps member working within the LSAMP program, is one person Lehr has positively influenced. Kansky met Lehr while taking her gender, race, science and technology course her senior year. Though she has since graduated, Kansky feels like her academic skills have sharpened as a result of working with her.

“I really admire her as an academic,” Kansky said. “Her ability to draw connections between disparate subjects is so relevant, especially at a polytechnic university.”

Aside from Kansky’s interest in making Cal Poly a more inclusive institution, Lehr was one of the main reasons she decided to take the position. Kansky described Lehr’s enthusiasm for the program as infectious.

Assistant Professor Coleen Carrigan was brought to campus specifically because Lehr’s vision to incorporate new science and technology minors is unfolding. Carrigan admires Lehr’s advocacy on behalf of women and underrepresented groups.

Carrigan hopes to emulate Lehr’s passion and talent for effectively communicating on a broad range of scholarly ideas and applying it to subjects students care about.

“I have only been on campus for a month now, but I keep hearing about the boundaries between science and engineering and the technology fields and the liberal arts,” Carrigan said. “If there is anybody that is going to try to bridge those major fields of study, it is going to be someone like Dr. Lehr.”

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