Campus safe spaces offer comfy couches and open minds

Safety in numbers
By LIZ PELLY  |  September 28, 2011


Two months into freshman year, I was sitting in a friend's dorm room when Melissa, the broadcast journalism student who lived down the hall, burst into the room. She was near tears.

"I thought everyone was going to be smart and interesting in college," she mumbled, distraught.

I knew what she meant. Coming from a white, heteronormative, conservative suburb, a big–city college seemed like the ultimate move to a world of diversity, open–mindedness, and progressive values.

Hate to break it to y'all, but Boston University turned out not to be populated entirely by 40,000 feminist vegans who like making zines and going to basement shows. (Bummer.) College is just a microcosm of the rest of the world — with all of its judgments and prejudices — and campus life can be difficult for women, queer students, racial minorities, and students with alternative political and religious backgrounds.

>> READ: "Safety in numbers: an extended list of on-campus safe spaces" by Liz Pelly <<

But if you're thinking, "Well, that sucks," hold up just a sec. While Boston's large, urban campuses can feel isolating and overwhelming, there are places to escape the bullshit: "safe spaces," on–campus havens where all classes, genders, sexualities, races, religions, and other beliefs are proactively discussed and accepted.

The term "safe space" originated during the Women's Movement in the late 1960s, when women's centers flourished on campus. Many safe spaces are the legacy of that movement — feminist organizations at BU, BC, Tufts, Lesley, Harvard, and other schools maintain student–run "safe space" centers — though the term has broadened to include more than just gender.

The Tufts Women's Center, for example, asks that "all who enter be mindful of issues related to identity and social justice such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and citizenship," according to the center's Web site. "We also ask that people be mindful of the ways in which men and women have been socialized to take up space and take up less space, respectively, and engage in ways that create space for all to participate equally."

The center's director, Steph Gauchel, works as "a connector of sorts between students and the university" interacting with students and the campus police on issues related to women and gender.

"I work to create dialogue between students and the university and to bring students questions forward and to seek and/or provide answers," writes Gauchel in an email to the Phoenix.

The center hosts a First Friday Lunch Series: a relaxed, anonymous setting for students to interact with representatives of university offices (i.e. campus police and health services). For example, on October 7th at noon, the center hosts a lunch–time talk on "Sexual Assault and Harassment Resources." Gauchel says that the gender–inclusive first–year mentoring program, led by upper class students, is another good starting point for first years who are looking to talk about transitioning to college, campus resources, and the basics of gender issues.

At BU, too, the Women's Resource Center has become a safe space for LGBT students. "If you go upstairs in the [student union], you hear people saying 'That's so gay' or 'You fag!' all the time," says BU student and executive board member Michelle Weiser. "But you don't hear that in the Women's Resource Center."

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