Nicole Guidotti-Hernández shares her thoughts and initial plans on her new role as the inaugural executive director of the Mills Institute.
By Allison Rost
Photos by Ruby Wallau
If you walk into the Mills Hall living room from the Oval and turn to the right, you’ll soon find suite 128. In previous years, it’s served as the headquarters for Graduate Literary Studies and the Institute for Civic Leadership, and of course, it may have once been residential space. It’s a collection of rooms that, at least in February of this year, doesn’t contain much save for some modular furniture and a conference table.
Except for the center office. The new digs of Mills Institute Executive Director Nicole Guidotti-Hernández are already chockablock with papers and publications, but like much of the Institute framework, the larger space is waiting for her plans to come to fruition.
In a career that’s taken her from Ithaca and Tucson to Austin and Atlanta, she’s fought against structural sexism in the academy in ways that are likely familiar to many Mills alums—and have driven her to this new opportunity to build up the Mills Institute into a launching pad for social justice efforts. In a wide-ranging interview on February 2, she spoke candidly about that, though we recommend catching Guidotti-Hernández in person as she visits various regional Mills clubs or online in a Zoom alum forum on April 18. What may not translate on the page is the sheer conviction and enthusiasm she’s bringing to the table.
Mills Quarterly: How are things going so far? I didn’t realize you had this much space.
Nicole Guidotti-Hernández: I’m still not entirely unpacked, but I’m excited that this space is starting to shape up. The Mills Institute’s plan is to grow, and we’ll fully embrace the Northeastern model of hoteling and flex space. We’ll expand into new spaces, or be in our space but also connect to other places nationally, globally, etc. I fully anticipate that folks from across the Northeastern network will be traveling here to work with us, and we’ll have plenty of space to accommodate them. At the same time, we’re also using the historic space of Mills Hall. It will become a curated space because we are the institutional container of the Mills legacy. We want to make sure that people see pieces of the historic Mills in this suite and not just in our programs. We’re going to rotate images from the archives of the College and the museum, and we’ll use this as a gallery space—not just for Mills pieces, but for prominent women artists.
You’re starting to staff up, with positions open for grant writer and assistant program director (as of early February). There could also be student workers and people traveling from other spaces. What do you envision this space looking like?
Those two roles will be hybrid for now. We will also hire an associate director full-time. The program coordinator will be the most public facing aside from myself and the AD.
We’ll also hire an admin assistant who will be at the front desk all the time. And a student worker. Eventually, we want to have a social media person. We’re working on a coherent marketing and social media campaign that includes a logo and brand distinction, so people understand where we sit within Northeastern and where we are in relationship to the historic Mills College.
I’d like to use the Mills archives to write about concrete topics related to the College. When Aurelia Reinhardt was president, there were several interned Japanese women who wrote to ask about how to start preschools in the camps. I want to write about them, and how Mills was seen in that internment moment as a model for early childhood education. When we’re up and running, and we have the capacity—I’m hoping that’s in two years—then I can really start this historical work that will put the Institute on the map.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been the inaugural leader of an organization. I wanted to ask you about your experiences at the University of Texas at Austin with the new Department of Mexican American and Latino/a Studies there.
In retrospect, I think I can take away from the experience what not to do. While I faced some generational sexism, I did have really good mentors. I learned donor stewardship while I was there. I learned how to talk to people about ethnic studies as something that’s valuable and useful, not just about making people feel better. I built a department in a year. I learned a ton and it was super useful, but I was too ambitious and too visionary as a Mexican American woman who went to school on the East Coast and wasn’t from Texas. I’m from California and I’m mixed-race, so I didn’t fit in. I had the support of President Bill Powers, but once he stepped away, I decided to move on.
You grew up in the Salinas area, right? How did that background affect your experiences with higher ed? Were you a first-generation college student?
My mom and I graduated from college the same year: she from San Jose State and I from UC Santa Cruz.
I encountered sexism when I was in high school. My counselor was a Mexican American man, and he was very nice, but he did not encourage me to go to a four-year university. He was like, “Just go to Hartnell (College, in Salinas), mija, it will be fine!” I didn’t think about applying to college until my senior year, and I applied to one place—University of San Francisco. I had no guidance whatsoever, and I didn’t get in. I was a kid who grew up in the gifted and talented program, but if I’d had a different high school counselor, maybe things would have gone differently. Unfortunately, I did not know about Mills until I was already in graduate school, but I would have been a great Mills undergraduate. Clearly, the problems that I had by confronting authority as a young woman had to do with my feminist leanings and the fact that I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Instead, after community college, I went to the other hippie school, and that was life-changing, because we were treated like intellectuals. It was the best decision ever. I found my footing, I found my people, I found my community. I was trained to follow interests that are so interdisciplinary that I’m just agnostic. I read in every field, and I’ve taught history, women’s studies, and English. UC Santa Cruz opened those doors for me.
How did you get from there to Cornell?
My undergraduate mentor, Margo Hendricks, was one of five Black Shakespeare scholars. She said, “You’re going to graduate school, but you’re only going to go to a top 25 program or you’re not going. Your parents don’t know what you’re doing—they think you have to get a job. Figure out where you’re going to apply, but if you get in and don’t get funding, you’re not going.” So, I did.
I applied to about 25 programs, and I was admitted to six. I was narrowing it down between Wisconsin and Washington and hadn’t heard from Cornell, but one of my mentors said I should call. I did, and I was on the wait list. When they told me they had a spot for me, they invited me to visit, and they got out all the students of color in the department for me to meet. But I decided to go, and some of my oldest and dearest friends now were in that group.
Of course, it was still really hard, and when I called my parents, they asked, “What’s it like?” I said, “I don’t know. It’s like Home Alone: I’ve never seen anything like this before, but I’m going to do it.” And it happened! Cornell has amazing resources, though it didn’t necessarily know what to do with us as students of color. I became a part of the activist community around ethnic studies. It was very DIY; I have a whole archive of material from when we were agitating for Latinx studies that I’m eventually going to write about. We wrote a 25-page report where we mapped out a 10-year plan for how they should build the program. I chalk up those experiences to why I’m a good administrator because I was already thinking structurally as a student.
You just wrapped up four listening sessions with the Mills community. How did those go?
We had two in person and two online. Eighty people participated, and it was 70% Mills people and 30% from the Northeastern network, which was exactly what I wanted. We didn’t capture enough from students, but we’re going to go back and do a mind-mapping session with them so they get their space to think about what this place means to them. But back to the sessions: I don’t think people knew what to expect. We flipped the tables and asked folks to pitch ideas to us. That was my way of signaling that I want to harness their creativity, their intellect, their experience, their concerns, and make sure they show up in the strategic plan. It was a little unorthodox, but I think the sessions modeled what is to come.
We will eventually hold an unveiling of the strategic plan, and we will say, for example, “Susan Baker from the Class of 1980 proposed this idea and we’re moving forward with it. Susan, we want to publicly acknowledge your work, your thoughtfulness, and your engagement with the Mills Institute.”
What was the thinking behind the listening sessions? How did you approach them?
My thinking was that we need to have a space where people can say what they need to say and make their feelings known without feeling like they have to say what they think I want to hear. That’s why I went to the listening sessions, introduced myself, and left. Good leadership isn’t just about walking the walk, but also about knowing when to step away and give people the space to do and say what they need to in an unencumbered fashion.
For me, acknowledging the labor of people, particularly of women, is vital. BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folks often do all kinds of behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t get compensated. I would like the Mills Institute to be the soft-landing place that says, “We know historically what your labor has been. We’re acknowledging it here and we want to move forward with you.”
There may not be a concrete answer to this yet, but what specific kinds of roles would alums be able to play in the Institute?
Learning for the life cycle is going to be one of our key concepts. So, for alumnae, that means mentoring folks, developing programs under that rubric, fundraising for those programs, participating in those programs, attending launches and conferences, etc. The other place where I see alumnae interfacing is in our community partnerships, broadly defined. I’m talking about those partnerships as glocal: thinking globally but acting locally.
For instance, Mills once had a historic partnership with Ewha Womans University in South Korea. I want to reignite that, and I want alumnae who participated in that exchange or roomed with people in that exchange to help us think about and reimagine what a partnership between our students and their students looks like in the 21st century. Would alumnae want to do a one-week intensive gender-studies course in Korea with Korean faculty? Would our undergrads want to go? And would we want to add in a greater component for girls in the Oakland Unified School District? Those are the kinds of partnerships I’m thinking about, spanning generations and creating a place for inter-generational knowledge production by nonbinary folks, women, and girls.
Another strand coming out of planning is that we will need alumnae to help us cultivate a pipeline of what I’m calling advocacy professionals. Those are people who essentially engage in work around advocacy—most Mills graduates are advocates, right?—and how we can formalize advocacy work that’s often uncompensated. That’s not firm yet, but that’s where I’m heading.
And we’ll need alumnae to help us populate user networks, locally and nationally, to find professionals who already have bachelor’s degrees but are looking to make a career pivot. The Mills Institute charter specifically mentions educating women and girls in transition. So, let’s say someone’s been a software engineer for 20 years, and they want to become a DEI officer in their company and earn a certificate because they want to learn how to use DEI data to drive hiring practices. Or there’s a woman of color in an organization who is assigned the role of DEI officer because of osmosis… maybe we can help her earn a credential that allows her to ask for more money to leverage her knowledge so she can stand with authority and not be dismissed.
We have alumnae who are in tech. We have alumnae who work with a variety of organizations. We need those connections.
So what does the first year of the Mills Institute look like? What’s the building-up process?
It’s about information intake, data collection, capacity-building, branding, populating the staff, and building trust. Once the staff is in place, then we’re going out and seeking those partnerships and other opportunities for connections.
In addition, I’m hiring a grant writer to enable the Mills Institute to become self-sustaining longer term. While generous funding from Northeastern is in place for the next several years, the best thing we can do to fortify the Mills mission is to create financial stability for the Institute in a way that couldn’t be done before. So, that grant writer is essential. That grant writer is going to drive our project model. My idea is that once we get one grant, we’ll take the data and deliverables from that grant, and then we’ll leverage for another grant that allows us to expand our staff, deepen our reach, publish, serve more students, and make concrete moves.
I want us to be known for providing signature educational opportunities for women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folks. And if we’re going to have a globally recognizable slate of curated programs, research projects, and deliverables, we can’t do it on a shoestring. But I also don’t expect Northeastern to foot the bill, which is why we must be a revenue-generating agency. It’s got to be a full-scale operation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from feminist struggles in this country is that financial independence is key to our collective liberation.
What do you think the relationship will be between the Institute and Northeastern? What kind of symbiosis will there be, if that’s something that’s quantifiable yet?
The nature of my position already indicates that it’s a top priority for the network—I report to [Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs] David Madigan and [Senior Vice President for Global Network and Strategic Initiatives] Mary Ludden, and I’m meeting with them bi-weekly. That attention means they have really high expectations of us, but I like that: This is a system where if you can dream big and show impact, they will fund it or they will help you find a way to fund it.
I don’t just think about tomorrow, I think about five years from tomorrow. So, what does thriving look like? I think that Northeastern wants that for us too, and I want us to be the shining diamond in the network that models the importance of women and girls’ leadership, and BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I want others across Northeastern to look to us when they need to do a better job of getting a more diverse population in a program: “What is the Mills Institute doing? What models do they have in place? Can we collaborate with them?”
Oakland is a deindustrializing port with lots of poverty. So is Portland, Maine [where Northeastern’s Roux Institute is located]. We may be thousands of miles apart, but we have more similarities than on the surface. I think my other job as director is to figure where those synergies are. How can we model and create industry-standard programs that then we multiply across the network, but then maybe also take to our university partners?
We will be as visible and as important in the network as we can be, but people should know that the Institute is top of mind. We have a real opportunity to take everything that made Mills special but couldn’t do before because of financial burdens and make it all more visible and well-known.
What else do you want this audience to know that we haven’t already discussed?
I want them to know that I am available, that I am committed to the Mills legacy, and that I want to earn their trust. I don’t believe in making promises I can’t keep.