As potential theme houses filled out paperwork and asked for signatures to make their houses realities for next year, Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich sent out two emails asking Queer and Ally (Q&A) House and Harambee House if they wanted to become permanent cultural houses. Both houses, though surprised, said yes.
Q&A House has been a theme house since 2009 and in those eight years has tried to be a resource on campus. The house is a 24/7 safe space where people who need to get away from an unsafe environment can go.
“People don’t have to be in contact with us. If they need to get away from a toxic living situation or anything, they can come to our house and stay there. They don’t have to talk to us about it, they can crash on the couch because we have blankets and pillows that people can have,” senior Rashika Bahl said. Bahl was the coordinator for the house’s application process this year.
Two of the house’s residents for next year have taken the IDIS 220: Social Justice Dialogue Facilitator training, which Bahl said would help assist people who need to have difficult conversations.
The house has also worked with other groups, including having a computer in their common area in collaboration with the Success Program.
Theme houses are required to host two events a term open to the wider community. As a safe space though, Bahl explained that events like parties were not ideal for the house. Instead, they focus on destressors like movie nights.
“We do social events, but they’re more low-key, like a movie night. More relaxing, because that’s what our mission is, although we don’t really have a mission statement so I feel weird saying that word,” Bahl said.
Harambee House has had a less consistent history according to junior Stephanie Ten Cate who lived there her sophomore year. She was also co-president of Harambee Club that year and was the one who filed the initial paperwork as they went through the theme house application process again this year.
“I was just constantly emailing the club trying to get people to live in the house, and I was also informing the club about how important it is for all of us to table to get people to sign the [petition] that they want the house,” Ten Cate said.
Harambee House had been a house before the 2014-15 school year, but then lost the house for that school year. According to senior Zair Zahid, who was friends with many of the residents his freshman year, the house members thought they had permanent status and therefore did not reapply for a theme house.
The house returned for the 2015-16 school year and this school year, but moved in between the years from 265 S. Academy to 247 W. Knox, which is next to Q&A House. The houses will remain neighbors next year as permanent houses.
“The house itself: beautiful. Beautiful people living in the house; we had events at the house,” senior Hajah Turpin said. “It was very homey. It was always nice to come home.”
This year Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz noticed the club spending large amounts of time on the theme house application. According to Ten Cate, he sent an email to faculty asking for help in making Harambee a permanent house as a way for Knox to show a commitment to promoting African cultures on campus.
Ten Cate said that Ehrlich then emailed her asking if they wanted to have a permanent house as a cultural center and detailed what would be required from the club and house.
“[Ehrlich] sent me an email saying she’s ready to make me an offer, which was rewarding Harambee House a culture center status on the condition that we agree that we will fulfill our responsibilities as an academic building by providing education to the campus about all things African and Harambee,” Ten Cate said.
Part of the plans for education include the club and house members learning about the club’s history. Ten Cate said they plan to use the Knox archives and alumni contacts to build a better sense of continuity in the club.
For Ten Cate, the permanent house also has an increased importance in today’s political climate. Harambee Club, which focuses on African cultures, includes many international students, including Ten Cate who is from Ghana. Trump’s election has some of them worried about their future in the country after graduation.
“I was tense before coming [to Knox] because I was thinking, ‘Okay, what is going to happen to me after school?’ Because I’m in Trump’s land right now, and it was already freaking difficult for international students to get jobs in this country after school, now it’s going to be even more freaking difficult,” Ten Cate said.
More pressing for Ten Cate though was the difficulty of the process to get a permanent house. Further, she worried that not all the students living in the house would be completely comfortable with the building being for education and not just living.
Bahl said that feeling unsafe was not new among Queer and Ally students with Trump’s election. From Bahl’s view, the house predates the political advances for LGBTQ+ people in the last two years of the Obama administration and the need for a space for those students has not diminished since 2009. However, Bahl emphasized that Q&A House was not just a resource for LGBTQ+ students.“I feel like a lot of people on this campus feel unsafe, and I feel unsafe. I think it isn’t just open to LGBTQA+ folk, but it’s open to everybody who needs it, it’s what we kind of hope and kind of want it to be used as,” Bahl said.