Campus / News / April 29, 2009

HRC forum explores meaning of ‘safe space’

This week has been an important one for the campus’s Human Rights Center (HRC). With an open house on Sunday featuring plentiful tie-dye, a potluck and dozens of Knox students, many students became more aware of a campus space they never knew existed. The students who are aware of it and use it, however, are now trying to think of ways in which they can change and improve it.

On Monday, an HRC open forum was held in the Alumni Room in light of the recent housing debacle in Senate and the attempts by multiple people to define what a safe campus space is and, most of all in the forum, what the HRC should be. This relates to the debates surrounding the Queer and Ally House, which passed in Senate, and the Feminist House. While the meeting’s discussion eventually turned to how to improve the HRC, it began with people voicing their concerns with whether or not it is a safe space.

Sophomore Gabriel Paz, who led the forum, opened conversation with an article by junior Ellie Poley from last week’s The Knox Student. He quoted the section that said, “One night a week with only one Common Ground representative and a bunch of other random people hanging out: does that sound like an open safe space that could realistically create positive, queer-friendly change on our campus?”

Senior Rachael Goodman-Williams, who was not present but asked Poley to read her e-mailed statement aloud at the forum, said, “I want to make it known that I still feel very strongly against using the HRC as a party space. The trial ‘safe party’ that happened earlier this year was, in my opinion, a total failure. People proposed this party as a way to ‘re-define parties’ but that’s not what it was. We all agreed that it would be a dry party. Sometime that night, though, someone came outside and asked ‘Hey, does anyone mind if we violate the HRC constitution and go buy a case of beer?’ I said I did mind, and he said that we just had to find a way to get people to come. I said again that I minded and pointed out that we had agreed this would be a dry party. He seemed respectful of that and agreed to keep it dry. About twenty minutes later as I was leaving, I saw people walking into the HRC with a case, met by cheering from many of the people who had originally agreed to keep it dry.”

Paz quoted Poley’s article because of its relation to what he said in Senate during the theme housing arguments. Goodman-Williams also mentioned him in her e-mail when she said, “It was recently stated by an HRC task force member that the Q&A House and the Feminist House didn’t need to exist to create a safe space because the HRC meets that need. I have a problem with this on a number of levels, but especially as I hear talk of the HRC being a party space. The so-called ‘safe party’ earlier this year did not feel safe and that’s no surprise. At least for women, a ‘safe space’ is not often synonymous with alcohol and low lights.” Paz was the person she referred to in her email.

Paz said, “My talk in Senate is still being twisted. [The makers of the Q&A and Feminist Houses] didn’t think ahead in time enough to think about how [these new houses] would affect the HRC. The taskforce didn’t approach them and they didn’t approach the taskforce. It was not attacking. It was taking it back to the drawing board.”

To Paz’s original statement, sophomore Amelia Garcia said, “I really feel strongly that it’s unfair for people who aren’t part of a group like the queer community on campus to define what is a safe space for that community […] I think it was a really valid concern.”

Paz thought that there was a chance that the programs of these houses might detract from the HRC. Others, like Goodman-Williams, thought that the party at the HRC (of which Paz called himself the monitor) during fall term of this year also detracted from the HRC.

Paz said he is a strong opponent of trying to host a party at the HRC again, and he said the reason it failed was that he left the party unmonitored. Post-baccalaureate student Brittany Alsot said at the forum she thought it was a problem that the party needed to be monitored at all.

Junior Ashley Atkinson said, “[The HRC] would serve as a full-time safe space. I don’t think I, or anyone who applied for a house, thought they would stop using the HRC.”

Concern also centered around how to use the HRC: as a social space, a party space, or a meeting space. After the main debate about the fall term party, attention turned to who has and who should have access to the HRC, and how it can be expanded.

Sophomore Tim Lovett said, “This weekend, I was looking for a place to go that wasn’t [about] drinking. I was thinking, ‘I need to go somewhere to do homework.’ It could add so much to [the HRC’s] integrity if it was a place that could be open on a Friday or Saturday.” At the forum, there was mention of possibly implementing a new system for keys to the HRC. Instead of there being eight key holders to the building, there would be a way to register Knox ID cards and then swipe them in a machine for entry. This technology could hold information for up to 2,000 ID cards and would cost only $400.

Senior Michael Leon said, “I think we kind of see the HRC as a place to house club meetings and it could be more than that.” Leon brought a proposal to the meeting of HRC improvement ideas. Leon said that to make a more significant contribution to campus, the HRC needs to have more significant funding. Leon proposed that the HRC have general open hours, which it has had before with mediocre attendance, a website, pamphlets available to students, a newsletter to be sent out each term, support groups, and human rights-oriented parties on Fridays and Saturdays or “alternatives to substances” activities.

Paz, the planner of the forum, said afterward, “What’s not excusable is the lack of focus the group tended to have. It was a talk about the Human Rights Center and I feel like we touched on so many other things. It puts me in a awkward place; here I’ve been prompted to make change but [I] am being held up in indecisiveness, […] clashing definitions, scattered thoughts, and ultimately a sense of defeatism which continues this cycle of do-nothingness.” Paz said he has heard mention of other concerns that were not brought up at the forum. “I plan to take on a much stricter role as moderator in terms of sticking to an agenda, staying on topic and being progressive and not regressive in our conversations,” he said.

Annie Zak

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