Noor Ali, the assistant director for Multicultural Student Affairs at Northwestern, speaks of safe spaces.
Ali was hired last winter by Northwestern to create more collaboration among the four departments within MSA: African American Student Affairs, Asian/Asian American Student Affairs, Hispanic/Latino Student Affairs and the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.
One of Ali’s jobs is to help create settings where students can talk about complex issues like race, as MSA coordinates with other offices to form educational programs on topics like identity and difference. Ali is also taking on more responsibility for administrators to be on the forefront of making these spaces — spaces where people can question stereotypical ideas and engage in a constructive dialogue to better their environments — rather than expecting students to find or make them independently.
But the complexity does not end there. The key component for these kinds of settings is a balancing act. This is where the terms “safe” and “brave” come in: Participants must feel secure enough to challenge the status quo but unafraid of being challenged themselves.
“Many times when I talk about a ‘safe space,’” Ali, “I’m also thinking about creating ‘brave spaces’ as well.”
But here at Northwestern?
“I think I’m still struggling to find a brave space on our campus,” she says.
Sustained Dialogue may be one such space. Beginning at Northwestern in the aftermath of a collection of racist events on campus in 2012, Sustained Dialogue is part of a national network spanning more than 50 college campuses. It was founded by a government official who used its strategies in foreign policy peacemaking.
Weinberg junior Justin Marquez is a Sustained Dialogue moderator. He co-leads discussions for groups of about 10 people who take on topics like ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, ability and religion. He says the group of students stays the same throughout the quarter to build trust over time.
Trust also comes from a few ground rules. Weinberg senior Amina Dreessen, whose involvement with Sustained Dialogue started with community talks in response to the events of 2012, is both a discussion moderator and the director of community engagement for the Sustained Dialogue Leadership Team.
In an email, Dreessen explained that each group creates its own rules, but moderators make sure that some basic ones are covered. These include using only in “I,” not “we statements,” speaking from experience — not assumptions — and criticizing ideas, not the person who is expressing them.
In his experience as a moderator, Marquez says that ground rules like these are fundamental to Sustained Dialogue.
“It’s supposed to be a space where we can find people of various identities, and how we can navigate a conversation that might put these identities in conflict, but without putting them combatively against each other,” he says.
While some criticize Sustained Dialogue for not leading to any action, Marquez says he understands, but says that the first step to creating understanding is the willingness to learn and listen to others.
Dreessen also points out that groups in Sustained Dialogue can come up with action plans. NU Threads, an organization that provides professional apparel for job interviews for students who can’t afford it, started through an action plan.
Sustained Dialogue has grown from its beginnings, and Marquez says current discussions include identities that were missing from ones last year. Weinberg sophomore Joyce Long is in her second quarter of participating in Sustained Dialogue and feels as though it’s “still trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be.”
There’s more emphasis on dialogue as the end goal rather than dialogue as a means to get somewhere. This fall during the first meeting of her Sustained Dialogue group, Long’s moderators said “literally, ‘dialogue can be the end goal.’ They framed it in that way, and it made sense,” she says.
So exactly what happened here in 2012?
Tonantzin Carmona (WCAS ‘12), a Latina student, was taunted by drunken students (“Why are you being so rude? No habla inglés?” ) on her way home from the library in January.
In April the Northwestern Ski Team hosted what’s since been dubbed the “Racist Olympics,” a party where attendees played beer pong in culturally insensitive costumes. A few weeks later, Asian students were egged and subjected to racially charged insults (“Fuck you, Asians!”) on the tennis courts near Colfax Street. In December, Michael Collins, a black warehouse associate at Northwestern, came to his desk one morning to find a stuffed teddy bear hoisted up with a rope around its neck — lynched.
Some underclassmen may recall the events of last spring when Project Wildcat leaders apologized after some members wore what was described as “war paint” while harassing students of color one evening.
Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever heard of these incidents. Many students involved in the events of 2012 have already graduated, and there seems to be so much bigotry that it can be hard to keep a running tally. Not to mention that talking about these incidents can be difficult — not as difficult as being the target of racism, but certainly hard to confront.
That difficulty to confront has to do with a concept called “learning edges.” Ali says that everybody has a comfort zone, a place where nobody is being challenged. People can mentally leave conversations that aren’t challenging by mutually agreeing to disagree. Things are left as they are. But Ali says people need to push beyond that space, because that’s where “we actually have change happen.”
For most, seeking out opportunities to feel discomfort isn’t appealing, but this is crucial to learning and changing. After all, it’s past the comfort zone where the learning edge lies.
From here, a new space can be explored — a space that, perhaps, you’ve never even thought to think about before. Asking “Why do I feel uncomfortable?” could be the first step. Identifying your triggers by asking, “‘What is this reminding me of?’” Ali says. “‘Why is this threatening my sense of self in this way?’”
Marquez has a rule for his discussions: “If someone says something that might offend you,” he says, or “makes you uncomfortable, we want that to be an opportunity for you to educate.”
Amrit Trewn (WCAS ‘14) holds degrees in statistics, African American studies and critical theory, but he began his college career as a math major. Trewn calls his own journey a “transformation brought on by a series of events,” which started by taking African American studies classes in his sophomore year.
They were no longer talking about closed-off stories, because literature reflected the world. Trewn hadn’t been pushed to think critically about privilege and power before he came to college. As a college freshman, he never consciously uttered words like power, privilege, difference or inequality — they were only mentioned implicitly.
“I don’t know everyone’s experience in high school, but…for my experience, we weren’t taught to speak about race outside of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We weren’t taught to think about class outside of, you know, Gatsby,” Trewn says.
There are classes that could be key to shaping Northwestern’s campus awareness. In February 2013 the University Diversity Council proposed a Social Inequalities and Diversity requirement for all incoming students. The council, formerly known as the Faculty Diversity Committee, was renamed and broadened in 2012. Shortly afterward, the Ski Team played beer pong in headdresses, bastardized bindis and other offensive makeshift cultural apparel, showing how much work the committee had left to do.
At the end of April 2012 Northwestern released “Diversity and Inclusion,” a faculty diversity report from 2010. Students petitioned for its release the beginning of that Spring Quarter, and, students could only look at it by appointment before it made it public. The report outlined recommendations for the University, one being “Every student in order to graduate must take and pass two diversity courses, one in their major and one as a distribution requirement.”
Nearly a year later in February 2013, the “Curricular/Co-curricular Requirement Proposal” was published by the Academics/Education working group, a subgroup of the University Diversity Council. It outlined goals for a potential Social Inequalities and Diversities requirement to be implemented by Fall 2015: “One academic course and one co-curricular component for all undergraduate students, to be completed within a student’s first two years at Northwestern.”
The 2013 proposal also outlines how Northwestern’s curriculum regarding a “diversity requirement” compares to those at other peer institutions. Northwestern does not fare well stacked up against schools like Michigan State University and Purdue University, which have multiple-course requirements, nor to schools like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, which have single-course requirements.
“The question is: Are [diversity requirements] doing what they’re supposed to do? And the evidence is out on that,” says Mary Finn, the associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “This concerted effort to think about the requirement in the context of this larger effort that begins with the Council on Diversity and Inclusion, I think, makes it more feasible that this will actually accomplish what it’s meant to accomplish.”
One challenge is scaling up the amount of courses in order to be able to make such a requirement. For now, since Weinberg is between deans, the requirement would not go into place in Fall 2015 as the proposal initially outlined.
Finn says the requirement could look different from how it was first characterized, but in the event it is voted on and passed, it will be effective no earlier than 2016 for Weinberg. She is optimistic that there will be some kind of requirement.
But Finn’s point — about how difficult it is to determine whether or not a diversity requirement would achieve what it is meant to — is critical. Do the messages from these kinds of courses linger after a student graduates?
“There’s a real value in a lot of classes at Northwestern … a place where you can frankly and on a relatively intellectual level talk about race,” says Stephen Rees (WCAS ‘14). Rees took classes on race relations during his time as a student, and one was Professor Barnor Hesse’s African American studies class, “Unsettling Whiteness,” which focused on whiteness throughout history in western culture and politics.
“We did spend a lot of time talking about what a safe space should be,” Rees says.
Since the class, what Rees has thought about most is how things have changed for him.
After graduating, he realized that it’s difficult to reconcile his liberal arts education with what his reality is. The college education that he chose for himself taught him what gentrification is.
“I live in Cincinnati, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” he says, “but now there’s very stark racial and class difference in the neighborhood. I’m participating in the gentrification...[in] pushing out an entire demographic.”