Students, faculty reflect on the need for campus safe spaces

Some Central Michigan University classes made up of international students have discussed the results of the United States presidential election, while others have skipped over the topic. Caitlin Hamstra, an English Language Institute faculty member and the head of ELI’s Conversation Partners program, said whether or not an ELI class discusses politics depends on the students.

“I teach beginning students and I brought (the election) up but they didn’t want to talk about it so we didn’t,” Hamstra said. “Some groups did want to talk about it so the teachers did. I think it really needs to come from the students – what they want to talk about, when they want to talk about it, how they want to talk about it.”

She said one ELI teacher showed a map of how millennials voted to show that a large percentage of young people didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

“One of the teachers showed how millennials voted so (international students) would know that their age group voted for inclusion, not exclusion; that students shouldn’t be afraid of their classmates, that there are people they can trust, that we do want them here,” Hamstra said.

This semester, wanting international students to feel safe and welcome on CMU’s campus, Hamstra started a group called Women of the World, which aims to provide a safe space for women to share their cultures, experiences and struggles in a comfortable environment.

Though she started the group with international students in mind, it is open to all women. So far, the group has met twice. Hamstra hopes to build the group more next semester.

With the recent presidential election, discussions about safe spaces have become even more prevalent nationwide, with many people either advocating for or against safe spaces. A common criticism is that college students shield themselves from opinions that differ from theirs, using “politically correct” language and trigger warnings.

Hamstra said she defines a safe space as a place where people can comfortably talk about what they want, trust each other and be open about who they are.

“I think it’s really important (to have safe spaces on campus),” she said. “I think for people to be able to learn, grow and interact, they have to feel safe. I think having those spaces demonstrates that the university is committed to those students – that women and international students are an important part of this campus.”

Finding safe spaces across campus

Midland junior Cali Winslow, who is the president of Students Advocating Gender Equality, said SAGE provides a safe space to people of all gender identities at its weekly meetings.

Other identity-focused registered student organizations, such as Spectrum and Transcend, aim to provide a safe space for students at their meetings as well.

The Office of LGBTQ Services provides a safe space for students, while also offering Safe Zone trainings to other groups and areas on campus. Portage sophomore Gwen Bagley works at the Wesley Foundation, a church that participated in the Safe Zone training. She found the training to be useful and thinks more individuals and groups on campus should take advantage of it to gain a better understanding of the issues some individuals face.

After the election, the Office of Institutional Diversity hosted various caucuses where African American, American Indian and LGBTQ students could discuss the results of the election in a safe environment.

Though these spaces exist, Bagley doesn’t know where any safe spaces on campus are located.

Hamstra thinks CMU’s campus could have more safe spaces, specifically for women and international students, such as a women’s area, and easily accessible religious designated areas or prayer rooms.

The goal of these spaces

Winslow said safe spaces allow marginalized people to meet without judgment, harassment or violence.

“Especially after all of the hateful words and acts we’ve seen after this election, it is very important that people have a place where they can feel safe and validated,” Winslow said.

For international students, Hamstra thinks some other reasons international students might not feel safe or comfortable in other environments on campus is because of language barriers and cultural differences. Because of these two factors, she said many international students, particularly women, are hesitant to stand up for themselves or advocate for themselves.

“We just want a place where everyone can feel comfortable and I don’t think you’re necessarily always going to get that everywhere on campus,” Hamstra said.

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Safe spaces and free expression

Though many people see a purpose for safe spaces, many others do not.

Winslow said she thinks some people who don’t support safe spaces have the misconception that safe spaces are meant to censor speech.

“(People who don’t support safe spaces) often point to freedom of speech as justification for their opposition to safe spaces,” she said. “But safe spaces are not about controlling what others say. Fundamentally, safe spaces are about creating an atmosphere of support. It isn’t about censorship – I would argue that it’s the opposite. Safe spaces intend to provide a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing personal experiences.”

Hamstra said she thinks many people who criticize safe spaces are people who don’t understand the need for them because of their own privilege.

“It seems to me that people who don’t want to support those spaces, it’s because they feel safe everywhere,” she said. “They maybe don’t necessarily understand how other people feel. Not providing those spaces is an implicit message that your feelings of safety aren’t as important.”

Muskegon junior Kaitlyn Reed said she isn’t someone who has ever felt like she needed a safe space, but she doesn’t think providing a space for people is a problem. However, she thinks it can get out of hand when people seem to be offended by everything.

Royal Oak junior Sydney Fairman also said she understands the concept of safe spaces and thinks providing them doesn’t hurt anyone, but to some extent, she thinks people should “suck it up” when they don’t agree with something someone else says.

Winslow, however, thinks people who seek safe spaces are not hiding from offensive content.

“People in need of safe spaces are very familiar with offensive language and actions, and face this frequently from the outside world,” she said. “Safe spaces create a safe space to process and deal with the impact that offensive content has had on them.”

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