Students seek safe spaces, dialogue after election

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
University of Michigan students expressed frustrations on the steps of Angell Hall last week.

East Lansing— One week after President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, students gathered at Michigan State University’s student union to eat pizza, write about how they felt and talk about what happened.

“It was hard, and I felt very alone,” said Allison Bell, a freshman from Chicago. “I have extended family nearby and I was going to stay with them. But due to differing political views, it is kind of hard to find comfort with them even though there is a lot of love.”

A few days later, University of Michigan students walked out of classes and spilled onto streets, demanding the campus be made more of a “sanctuary” as they protested classism, sexism, discrimination and ethnic intimidation.

A few weeks before, Eastern Michigan University students gathered to talk about racist graffiti that emerged on campus buildings.

Students and sometimes university staff are creating areas — sometimes known as safe spaces — to work through issues that are reverberating through college campuses in Michigan and nationwide. From the outcome of the presidential election, to racist and violent incidents on campus, students are creating places to process, protest, organize and find ways to move on.

Some colleges, such as Brown University, have set aside safe spaces with coloring books, cookies and Play-Doh.

And while they’re not necessarily new, safe spaces have become a lightning rod for critics who say college students are overly sensitive and ill-equipped to face different or opposing views.

“Safe spaces make sense for physical safety but they are used to protect students from ‘uncomfortable’ ideas or emotions,” said Canadian activist and author Wendy McElroy. “Safe spaces also infantilize adult students who must learn how to handle the inevitable tension and discomfort of the real world; it leaves them unprepared for life.”

But others counter that just the opposite happens: these environments create places for students to learn to cope with their own struggles and appreciate others’ differences.

From the presidential election outcome, to incidents on campus, students are creating places to process, protest and move on.

“It’s the only way we’re going to learn ... and move forward on issues,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. “There is greater desire, some days, to avoid difficult discussions whether it’s around race, gender, environment justice, political beliefs or values.”

Even though some have belittled safe spaces, Granberry Russell said the criticism flies in the face of what a learning environment is all about.

“It’s as though you want to discourage individuals who have been impacted by something from discussing it, from processing that, from engaging with others ... to come to a better understanding of their side, the positions they take and potentially a way of compromise,” she said.

“This is negotiating life. If you don’t have these skills, what do you have? You have potentially chaos. You have people who potentially become rigid in their thinking, who are inflexible, who are immovable, who are unable to embrace differences that create innovation, provoke us to think creatively about our lives. That’s what this is about.”

At UM, a space that was created last week for students to express frustrations could have been called a protest or a space for dialogue. Students4Justice called it a “walk out” when they met on the Diag and then marched through many campus buildings before ending on the steps of Angell Hall.

Among the students who spoke was Alyiah al-Bonijim, a sophomore from Dearborn who was upset by the recent campus incident when a man threatened a fellow Muslim student that he would burn her alive if she didn’t remove her hijab. Al-Bonijim, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, told the crowd that the university may have portrayed the incident as ethnic intimidation, but it was more than that.

“We believe it to be sexual assault because it’s the equivalent of telling someone to strip,” al-Bonijim said. “We believe it to be a felony, a hate crime. There need to be bigger repercussions, more done to keep minorities safe, not just Muslims.”

Afterward, many students wearing hijabs approached al-Bonijim and hugged her.

“I really want to thank you for speaking for us,” Shaima Abdullah, a freshman from Coldwater, told al-Bonijim.

While some believed the event was a protest against President-elect Trump, one of the organizers said it was much more.

“We wanted to center the voices of those who have been on this campus and been facing so much hatred in the form of policy and in the form of student discrimination, ethnic intimation, racism, xenophobia, classism, misogyny,” said Vik Rant, a 20-year-old student who declined to give his hometown. “We wanted to center the students who have been directly affected here and their voices were the most impactful. It was nice to see the students here that were supporting them.”

Some campus administrators have pushed back against safe spaces, including John Ellison, University of Chicago dean of students. He wrote a letter in August to incoming freshmen, telling them the hallmark of the university is an allegiance to freedom of speech and to not expect safe spaces on the campus, among other things.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means ... we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison wrote.

Safe spaces emerged as part of the women’s movement in consciousness-raising groups and to combat homophobia directed at the gay community, according to Moira Kenney, author of “Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics.”

They are more than places that are free from crime or harassment, Kenney wrote.

“The notion of a safe space implies a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength and generate strategies for resistance,” Kenney wrote, adding that it is not therapy, but a place to analyze the situation of a collective group.

After racist graffiti appeared on an Eastern Michigan University building recently, Katie Bulzan, a white EMU student, attended the meeting to see if there was something she could be involved with to help.

“I don’t know what it feels like to be targeted,” Bulzan said. “People started discussing it, they talked about how they don’t feel safe walking out of their homes, anywhere, because things happen all the time, and I wasn’t aware of that. It really hurt me to know that people I care about are scared for their lives. As I was explaining my hurt to them, I broke down and started crying just hearing how they feel. Those are my classmates.”

Jayden McDonald, an African-American freshman, was also at the the meeting because she was disturbed that someone had vandalized a building with racial slurs and symbols to offend and perhaps intimidate her and some of her friends. She wouldn’t call a campus escort at night, trusting instead only a friend. She even decided to reach out for counseling.

After attending the meeting and talking about how she felt and listening to others who were trying to make sense of it, McDonald said one of the most poignant and powerful moments was when she saw Bulzan cry.

“This was the first time in my life I saw a white person cry over black lives,” McDonald said afterward. “First time in my life. And I am 18. First time I experienced sympathy for us from someone outside our community. It made me feel like black lives matter to other people, too.”