Twenty years of the Weissman Center

Harriet Weissman ’58 and Paul Weissman in Chapin Auditorium during the celebrations of the Weissman Center for Leadership’s 20th anniversary.

By Christian Feuerstein

The Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College celebrated its 20th anniversary with events that ran from the raucous to the resolute.

Guests of honor were Paul and Harriet Weissman ’58, whose vision and support inspired the creation of the center. As President Sonya Stephens said, “It all began with Harriet Weissman ’58 and her husband, Paul, who recognized how important leadership is and how much the world needs Mount Holyoke students.” 

Congresswoman Nita Lowey ’59, a classmate of Harriet Weissman, said, “In the two decades since Harriet and Paul established the Weissman Center for Leadership, hundreds of Mount Holyoke students have been encouraged and empowered through courses, internships, lectures and a host of other experiences to fulfill the charge of Mary Lyon to ‘Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do.’”

The celebrations kicked off on November 7 with a pre-broadcast premiere of “Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare,” a documentary about Frances Perkins, class of 1902, that will debut on public television in March 2020. Audience members included the alumna’s grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, and the Honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as a number of Frances Perkins scholars, who cheered and applauded key points in their namesake’s story.

Amy E. Martin, director of the Weissman Center and Professor of English on the Emma B. Kennedy Foundation, moderated a post-screening panel discussion with Naomi Barry-Perez ’96, the director of civil rights for the U.S. Department of Labor; Sarita Gupta ’96, director of the Future of Work(ers) program at the Ford Foundation; and Maria Mossaides ’73, child advocate for the commonwealth of Massachusetts and the president of the Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Association.

All three panelists were eager to connect their current roles to their time at the College. 

“The organizing bug? I got it here at Mount Holyoke,” said Gupta. “I really found and exercised my voice here.” 

“Here’s the beauty of Mount Holyoke,” said Barry-Perez. “We understand that we have to have solidarity. We need to lift each other up and amplify each other.” 

Mossaides cited Frances Perkins as a role model. “She was not embarrassed to use her voice to help the voiceless,” she said. “My daughter would always say, ‘What would Frances Perkins do?’”

The following day, there were two roundtables. One featured alumnae discussing the future of leadership and featured Leocadia Zak ’79, the president of Agnes Scott College; Kavita Ramdas ’85, the director of the Open Society Foundation’s Women’s Rights Program; Marcella Jayne FP’13, an associate with Foley & Lardner LLP; Angelica Mercado ’19, the executive director of Educación sin Límites; and Courtney Brunson ’16, a first-year student at Harvard Law School. Faculty participated in a second roundtable on innovation in scholarship, learning and leadership. 

Cruz gave the keynote speech, citing the Weissman Center’s partnership in creating a STEM camp for girls in the Playita neighborhood of San Juan. She acknowledged faculty leads Jennifer Matos and Jared Schwartzer, as well as the Mount Holyoke students who come to Puerto Rico to teach. 

Faculty, Cruz said, continue to talk with their Puerto Rican students. Cruz read a letter from one of the girls in Puerto Rico, in which she expressed pride in her scientific knowledge and reported she was ahead of her class because of the camp.

“You have changed this girl’s life,” Cruz said. “And also her family’s life for generations.” 

“The 20th anniversary celebration more clearly defined the influence and growth of the leadership center for Paul and me,” said Harriet Weissman. “This was made apparent by speaking with students, whose lives have been transformed by their interactions with the initiative, and by the faculty, whose teachings have been enriched. In addition, two innovative programs deserve recognition: the Leadership in Public Service program, which brings students to Washington, D.C., to interact with alumnae, and the MHC Semester in DC

Paul and I could not be more proud of the work of the center and to have our names associated with it.”