Nancy Stoffer left the University of Kansas her sophomore year, because, as a lesbian in her first relationship, she felt disconnected from the school.
“I felt if I was to pursue that part of my life that had to do with relationships I couldn’t stay there. ... It was too costly at that point to abandon that part of myself, ” she said.
Stoffer, 59, now works to ensure Fort Lewis College students feel safe and supported at school as the coordinator of diversity programming. In her role, she oversees a bias-awareness educational program called Common Ground and coordinates the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, among other duties. The center, also known as the G-Spot, offers a safe space to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer and their allies. Some students come to FLC from families or communities that are unaccepting of who they are, or at least that’s the way students perceive the social environment. For those students, the center can provide them with the first opportunity to talk about their gender identity and sexual orientation while finding support and friendship, Stoffer said.
“I have seen a lot of tears shed; I’ve seen a lot of students helping students, supporting each other,” she said.
FLC senior Brandon Castle, a member of the Tsimshian nation of Alaska, found the center as a freshman after moving to Durango. He started attending its weekly Tea at the G meetings. The meetings focus on a huge range of topics relevant to the LGBTQ community and widened his perspective, he said.
As a freshman, Castle was a bit unsure of himself. But with Stoffer’s mentorship, he has grown more confident and taken on more leadership roles, such as organizing the annual Valentine’s Day drag show at the college. He is now an intern for the center.
“Working for Nancy, I just have been able to validate my own identity,” Castle said.
Stoffer said working with students keeps her committed to her job, a position she started in 2011.
“My heart is touched so often by witnessing their growth, seeing their potential blossom. ... It’s so fun to watch people grow into being themselves and find their voice because they have been given the opportunity to use it,” she said.
Former FLC student Ruthie Edd successfully advocated for FLC and Durango City Council to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day in 2016.
“She had an impact not only on the college, but also on the larger community,” Stoffer said.
Stoffer applied for the job as diversity coordinator after several friends and colleagues suggested she should do it based on her work as the program director and station manager at KDUR. While at the station, she recruited DJs from the Native American Center and El Centro de Muchos Colores, a center for those interested in Hispanic culture.
Stoffer’s degree in anthropology from the University of Kansas informed her work as the diversity coordinator. But in her position, she has also deepened her understanding of her own biases through the Common Ground training, she said.
“We all have biases and it’s a part of being human, but becoming aware of our biases and how they impact our lives and the lives of people around us, that’s what’s important to do,” she said.
White people are generally those who need to examine their biases the most, because they generally can’t see their own privilege, she said.
“That lack of awareness doesn’t exonerate you or make you not responsible for working toward equity. ... It also doesn’t mean you need to carry around guilt,” she said.
While growing up in Kansas City, Stoffer said she didn’t know anyone who identified as Native American, and because they were unfamiliar to her, she expected Native Americans wouldn’t want to get to know her. But now when she meets Native Americans, she expects that they could have a connection.
“My life was a lot smaller because of my own biases. ... We can have much larger, more fulfilling lives if we actually see each other,” she said.