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Women’s centers get new leader

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / May 3, 2012
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Layli Maparyan, the new executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, is an academic who has taught women’s studies at Georgia State University for the past 12 years. But she has also worked directly on social issues.

In 2009, she started helping the University of Liberia in Africa design the curriculum for a gender studies program. She sits on the national board of Foreverfamily, a group that supports families with at least one parent in prison.

“Layli has the perfect combination of rigorous scholarship and action in her background and her interests,” said Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, president and chief executive officer of YWCA Boston and a member of the centers’ board of overseers and search committee.

Maparyan, who will start work July 1 as the centers’ Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 executive director, said she was drawn to the centers’ emphasis on research that can change policy in a way that benefits women and girls.

“I like to know that the people that we are serving as a research institute are actually feeling the changes in their lives,” she said in a video created by the centers as part of the announcement of her appointment. “Of course, we have a responsibility to change institutions and social systems, but those changes . . . have to be felt down to the ground level.”

The Wellesley Centers for Women was created in 1974 and is one of the largest gender-focused “research-and-action” groups in the world. For example, the centers’ National Institute on Out-of-School Time, has since 1978 conducted research, as well as provided training for school and community leaders who run afterschool programs.

The centers, with an annual budget of $6.5 million, have more than 40 active projects. They have produced more than 400 papers, reports, and curricula.

Since 2000, Maparyan has been an associate professor in the Women’s Studies Institute at Georgia State and associated faculty of the Department of African-American Studies. Earlier this year, she received the $25,000 Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award for encouraging her students to change their communities.

She is known for her scholarship on womanism, a philosophy that women’s day-to-day experiences can help them solve broader social problems. “Oftentimes, we look to society and experts to come up with solutions and ignore the so-called little people,” she said in an interview with the Globe.

Maparyan has written two books on womanism, including, “The Womanist Idea,” published last year. She began her career in developmental psychology, interested in how complex identities concerning race, spirituality and sexuality play out.

Ferrell-Jones said the search committee was looking for a strong leader, rather than seeking someone who would take the centers in a particular direction. The search committee, she said, was drawn to Maparyan’s dynamic personality. “She exhibits deep curiously and makes connections with people quickly,” Ferrell-Jones said.

At Wellesley, Maparyan said, she will spend time getting to know the centers. Their global research has often focused on Asian and Muslim women and she hopes to eventually expand their reach.

“I’m going to bring an African portfolio to that and broaden it to Latin America and other parts of the world,” she said.

Maparyan is also interested in examining how the media influence women and girls.

Maparyan, 47, was born in Geneva, N.Y., but grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where her father, who died in 2006, was a community college professor and later, president of the college. Her mother is an artist.

“I consider myself a civil rights baby,” she said.

She was raised in the Bahai faith, which she said fostered some of her ideals: gender equality and an end to racism and other prejudice. She received her bachelor’s degree from another women’s college, Spellman College, and her Ph.D from Temple University.

Wellesley College provost Andrew Shennan said he believes Maparyan will be a strong advocate for the centers. “I think she has the potential to be an extraordinary leader for the centers, someone who can broaden the audience for the excellent work that’s done at the centers, and can help me and others at the college find more ways of connecting what happens at the centers with what happens at the college as a whole,” he said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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