Fear and anger have been frequent emotions as of late. A group of Keene State College individuals have been specifically trained to help others and, if need be, provide additional resources to keep them out of harm’s way. Anyone can be trained for or helped by the cooperative program known as Safe Space. It first started in the 2011/2012 academic year and has since seen a boost of support.
According to the KSC website, Safe Space’s mission “is to increase awareness through education about issues related to sexual and gender minorities. Faculty, staff, students and community members are given resources to be active voices for understanding and acceptance.”
Over 350 have signed on as of 2012, according to Program Support Assistant for LGBTQ Students in the Office of Multicultural Student Support Hunter Kirschner. Kirshner helps run the program, but it isn’t under the Office of Multicultural Student Support. It’s a separate organization within the college. The training is volunteer-based. “It’s folks who are taking time out of their job to help out,” he said.
Kirschner said that a recent undergoing was getting professors and faculty who work in the Science Center trained. “We had students saying that there were a lot of faculty who hadn’t been trained and so we made an effort to train a bunch of these folks, so now the Science Center has a bunch of Safe Space trainees,” he said.
Kirschner said there’s a difference between Safe Space training and then the general ideology of a safe space. “Safe space is also just a concept of being in a space that seems a safe place not only to exist, but a safe place to make mistakes and learn and grow…safe spaces aren’t just for the LGBTQ community, but also for allies and to continue their education,” he explained.
More than just a place to talk
Kirschner said that while no one is perfect, even with training, it’s just the idea of going out and doing something to help. “I find safe spaces to be a comforting reminder that in the face of systemic injustices and inequities there are people who care and are invested in doing the work to balance the scales a bit,” he said. “The first step in doing any kind of anti-oppression work is to make folks aware that there is injustice [and] just that awareness can change a lot about how people behave and interact.”
He said that anyone is welcomed to go to a safe space, but if the issue is more severe, recommendations to people in other departments will be made. “We know the lines of reporting and making sure that gets to Jeff Maher, the Title IX coordinator… we don’t have specific training, but there are rites in place to support our students,” he said.
Maher was contacted to answer questions, but was unavailable to do so.
The Safe Space trainings last three and a half hours, however Kirshner said that doesn’t mean they learn everything since things are always changing. “It’s important to keep up with appropriate terminology, experiences [and] things to be aware of,” he said.
Kirschner continued and said that often, they use certain forms of identity, such as gay or queer, as umbrella terms, which can make individuals feel invisible. “There’s a lot of different experiences for a lot of different populations,” he explained, going on to affirm that safe spaces are intended to be for anyone, regardless of their experiences.
He compared the KSC organization Common Ground Multicultural Club as similar to safe spaces. Common Ground works to find mutual areas of interest with all sorts of individuals, ranging from different races, religions and orientations.
KSC senior and member of Common Ground Sandra Kayira said similar to safe spaces, Common Ground also provides a confidential place of support and acceptance for anyone who needs it. The difference is that their safe space is an office, while the safe spaces can be found anywhere on campus. However, Kayira said there is almost always someone in their office throughout the day. “We like to have open discussions and learn about each other and our different experiences,” she said. Kayira said she likes the idea of there being safe spaces around campus. “As a woman of color, I like that there are options just in case,” she said.
KSC first-year Emily Sweet said she thinks the college is doing a great thing in providing these options for people on campus. “It’s for people to know specifically which people are there for them,” she said. While Sweet said she personally hasn’t had to go to one, she feels like they really could help anyone. “I think they’re mostly there for people in minority groups, but everyone should feel like they can benefit from it, even if they’re not in a ‘targeted’ group,” she said.
One of these people offering options is KSC senior Karen Carrien. Carrien has been a Safe Space trainer since last fall. She said she felt it helped her in her own circle of friends, as well as helping others she doesn’t know as well. “I have a good friend who is transgender, and there’s been times where he’ll feel uncomfortable or people won’t know how to act around him, so I can help guide them,” she said.
KSC first-year Jenna Hall said the best thing a person can do is ask if they don’t know what to say or how to act. She said she plans to get Safe Space trained in a few weeks. “Generally, someone knows their life better than you do. It sounds so basic, sarcastic even, but people often forget. No one knows what’s best for everyone,” she said.
Hall said that while safe spaces do focus on individuals in the LGBTQ community, the skills acquired can help anyone. “It’s really about taking away assumptions. You don’t know someone based on how they dress or act, so it’s really about learning how to stop and ask and listen,” she said.
Hall, herself, identifies as a transgender woman. She said she’s lucky to feel accepted for who she is, especially at Keene State. Hall said she feels like New England is a comparatively more accepting and open-minded place than other locations in the United States. “In a way, we are in this little bubble, but also this bubble exists because of the people here,” she said. “If I can be here and be myself, then maybe I can take and build a bubble elsewhere until there’s a bubble around the whole world.”
Dorothy England can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org