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Staff Spotlight: Claire Kaplan

As Director of the Gender Violence and Social Change Program at UVA’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, Claire has long been a leader in gender justice advocacy. As determined as she is caring, Claire inspires us all in the Women's Center with her ability to see what's needed and to make it happen. If only Walt Disney had taken her advice when she wrote him a letter at age ten...for that story and more, read on.


Tell us about your greatest triumph or challenge at UVA.

This is a hard one to answer, as there have been many of both. I believe my greatest triumph was the development of Survivor Support Network. But in recognition that none of us works in isolation, I must give a huge shout out to former intern Julianne Koch, who came up with the idea and helped pull the original materials together. I had been doing these trainings in an ad hoc way, but with Julianne’s inspiration we organized it into a coherent program that has had a huge impact on the University, especially during the period after the publication of the Rolling Stone article and the murder of Hannah Graham. Immediately prior to that all faculty and staff were notified that they were mandatory reporters, yet there was no training in place to prepare them for that. We were able to offer SSN training to literally hundreds of faculty, including all the deans in the Engineering School, in the aftermath of those events. I love doing these trainings because there is such a need and participants are so appreciative of what we have to offer. They also are grateful to hear from the panel of survivors who are an essential part of the training.


The work/life pathway to where you are now, was that totally planned? Organic? Some combination?

My pathway was almost entirely unplanned. All my life I wanted to be a veterinarian. I love animals. I attended UC Davis with that intention, but I was undone by physics and a time in history when women were the exception in vet schools. So I ended up going in the direction that the tides sent me. I earned a Masters (with a focus on screenplay and non-fiction writing) in the Professional Writing program at USC (Southern California), where I worked at the School of Filmic Studies. Around the same time I signed up – almost by happenstance – to volunteer at the LA Commission on Assaults Against Women. I went through hotline training but was determined to never do that work for pay, so that I could take myself out of it when I needed, because as a survivor I know how easy it is to burn out. I wound up working at the LACAAW (Director of Outreach) for two years. Before that, however, I was hired to work at Warner Bros, a job that was an adventure of sorts. Eventually I moved out of the LA area with my partner (whom I met through our Deaf Services program, when she trained as one of the first Deaf hotline counselors in the US), and eventually we ended up in Northern VA. I saw the UVA job when it was posted in the Washington Post and applied. The rest is history.


Whose work (scholarly, artistic, or pop culture) inspires you to work harder or think differently?

Some of my colleagues nationally have influenced my thinking: Chris Kilmartin, Sarah Cook (who was my first grad assistant!), Mary Koss, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Dorothy Edwards, Angela Y Davis, and Kimberle Crenshaw are big influences. The conversations that FB has allowed nationally on pages such as Pantsuit Nation or others that aren’t necessarily activist but a place for storytelling has been instructive for me as well. I’m inspired by artists who do not see a divide between their work and their politics. Also, friends who talk about activism as an expression of love really blow me away. Friends such as Susan Tate and Elly Tucker, are just inspirational. National leaders such as Brene Brown, who share their message about vulnerability, shame, and courage. My wife, Lisa, who was an out-there Deaf activist when we met and who keeps me honest about my hearing privilege. I could go on.


How has your view of yourself as a feminist or your view of feminism changed over time?

I became a feminist in the early 1970s when I watched my mom struggle through a divorce when women couldn’t even get a credit card without their husband’s signature. Things seemed pretty black and white to me. I’ve become less rigid in some ways since then. Especially doing anti-violence work, one must always be flexible and inclusive, for example, of male survivors, who had to fight pretty hard to get attention by the anti-violence movement. I still believe the patriarchal capitalism is the problem, but hearing from women of color and trans people in particular have made me think differently—and the process has been completely thrilling.


What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves (or on your Kindle)?

I collect kids’ books and have an incomplete manuscript of my own. Mostly I love books that are for young teens, but there are a few books for others that I love: George and Martha top the list, but as a kid I collected all The Black Stallion books. I also have a lot of early 20th Century kids books: Bobbsey Twins, that sort of thing. Digression: When I was about 10 I wrote to Walt Disney (he was still alive then) and asked him to make a movie out of the original Black Stallion book. I got a very nice letter back from a PR woman telling me that “perhaps they would make a movie out of it one day.” Fast forward about 15-20 years when I was working as an itinerant script reader, and met with a friend who was the Director of Development for Disney. That was the year The Black Stallion was released to great acclaim and big box office numbers. I told him about my letter. He asked me to send him a copy, which I did. He sent it around the office with an attached memo: “Where were you when this girl wrote this letter?”


Who’s going to play you in the movie of your life?

I think Cathy Bates would be a good casting for me. I love her toughness, her kindness, and her ability to be completely insane without caring what other people think.


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