Wellesley lacks safe spaces, but what are safe spaces? The way I have experienced safe spaces may be different from the way other people to experience safe spaces. Part of the problem is that there is little discussion on campus about what a safe space is and who takes part in it. At least I have not heard of many open discussions on what a safe space is, or may mean to others. To me, safe spaces are a way to meet and associate with other dissenting students who are marginalized in their experiences at Wellesley College. It is a way for us to gather and share our experiences, to gain strength in knowing that we are not alone. They are places for us to heal. At Wellesley it is not the administration that creates safe spaces, it is the students. That’s the way it should continue to be. The administration’s job should be to provide the physical space if a group feels that it is integral to their definition of a safe space. It should be students who decide the parameters of the safe space independent of the administration.
Wellesley’s POC Open Mic Night in collaboration with PAC, Ethos and Mezcla is a great example of a student-led safe space, or an effective system where the concerns of students are heard and considered. There is no perfect system, but an effective system would include an adequate response to controversial issues affecting students. Wellesley does not have this, as evidenced by the lack of administrative response to the issues minority students dealt with after Ferguson and the shooting of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. This system can allow students to voice their emotions and struggles without the fear of being labeled radical for experiencing human emotions. In Judith Shuleritz’s article for the New York Times titled “In College and Hiding,” she expresses that safe spaces may actually be harmful for students in higher education. She argues that safe spaces may hinder important discussion such as problems with race and sexual assault on campuses and that by protecting students from possibly re-experiencing trauma they are significantly weakened. However, there are definite problems with her argument. Shulevitz makes vast generalizations on what it means to create a safe space. She characterizes safe spaces as environments where speech is limited to protect students who form thoughts or ideas that may be mentally harmful. She overlooks the experiences and the diversity within top-tier universities, and instead portrays most of the students lacking the capacity to accept dissenting ideas or opinions. She focuses on direct implementation of safe space procedures by school administrations, and overlooks the positivity of student-run safe spaces, instead lumping them together. These are two separate issues, when a school limits ideas out of fear for how students may react and when it limits free speech.
We should be open to different viewpoints, but if those viewpoints are offensive we should be able to speak out and offer a dissenting opinion. What should be discussed? That will vary between people. I know that Wellesley needs a discussion on race and what minorities experience at an elite liberal arts college. We need to discuss the lack of safe spaces for mental health survivors. We also need to address the classicism that is so prevalent on this campus. Now if discussions turn toward delegitimizing the experiences of students here then we should criticize and protest that viewpoint.
As a survivor of physical and mental abuse, and sexual trauma, I am aware that the world has no safe spaces. Before I came to Wellesley I had never heard of a safe space. Now I advocate for them because I am aware that most people don’t have the privilege of feeling safe. Coming to Wellesley was the first time I started feeling safe, which helped me gain confidence and a peace that I had not known even when I was a child. If we demand safe spaces here and now it is because we know how unsafe and unfair the world can be. As college students we should have the choice of dictating how these conversations should be lead. For some a conversation on racial experiences needs a defined physical space. For others it’s the need for support groups that discuss issues of mental health. We need to start discussing what students and groups view as safe spaces and what is needed to create this safe space. Students should make the decisions about what conversations will take place and how they will take place.
I don’t ask for safe spaces because I want to be protected. I ask for safe spaces because as a student here I should have the right to speak freely and to seek a place where I can feel my experiences are shared and accepted. That is how one can gain strength and empathy through collaboration with others.
Photo courtesy of Wellesley Student Latina Advising website