Signs. Buildings. Artwork. The university’s landscape speaks to students, faculty and staff. However, much of the communication is limited to the ones who first built it: white middle-class males.
Twenty-three people gathered in the comfort of the Women’s Center on Friday morning to hear Bender’s presentation of her liberal arts masters thesis titled, “The Impact of Landscape in a University Setting: A Look at Selected Spaces at MSUM.”
After taking a class in 2006 called Reading Landscape, the topic ignited her thesis of dissecting the ins and outs of the Women’s Center, the Rainbow Dragon Center, the TOCAR landscape initiative and the CMU renovations and what these spaces communicate to people.
Bender is the director of the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Dragon Center, the program coordinator of TOCAR (Training Our Campus Against Racism) and an adjunct professor of women’s and gender studies at MSUM. Bender clarified her point of view of analyzing landscape before delving into the specifics.
“I would say my perspective of this certainly comes from a student affairs perspective because of my work with students, and that’s what I’m looking at most,” she said. “But, I think this is also very pertinent to faculty and staff as well. I consider myself an activist, and I pay attention to issues of power and oppression, so that certainly informs how I view this.”
Seven concepts Bender uses to analyze the spaces and projects are reflexivity, communication, sense of place, identity, community, place-making and power. Once these concepts are used to analyze a part of landscape, people can begin talking about it and advocate for change.
Characteristics of a space that may easily be overlooked such as the location, the name and whether people can make it feel like their own and impact students, faculty and staff consciously or unconsciously. People constantly shape and change the landscapes they move through as the landscape shapes them.
The Rainbow Dragon Center is an example of students and staff thinking greatly about the location, name and place-making. Originally there were two spots available in the CMU, one was on the first floor around the corner in the back and the other one was off the lobby.
“There was a lot of debate about that space,” Bender said. “Some people felt like having it be in the back was safer for students to go to, because they wouldn’t be as visible off the lobby if they’re questioning or unsure. But also, other students felt it being located around the corner compared to being hidden actually didn’t make it safer. If it communicates as the university wanting it hidden, then that does not make it safe in the long run for students.”
The center was then chosen to be off the lobby in the CMU, and it was successful there – students created a space that is safe and feels like home.
Throughout the TOCAR landscape project, students, faculty and staff collaborated to create a mural, which depicts all the diversity and backgrounds of people at MSUM because it is lacking across campus.
“We recognized that except for places like the CMU and the library, which has been very intentional about the art and artifacts that they display to intentionally be more diverse, that the campus reflects much more of this dominant society and has very little representation of people of color, LGBTQI people or identities other than what is viewed as mainstream society,” Bender said.
The artist Faron Blakely was involved in the process of creating the mural, which now adds to the landscape of MSUM and welcomes people of all backgrounds. The mural is now hanging next to the main office in the CMU.
Bender concluded her thesis with suggestions for an improved university landscape.
“I think it’s imperative MSUM notices and understands what its landscape is communicating, so we can identify where it is in discord and where it is in concurrence with our current vision and values,” she said. “The landscape of universities are often designed to reflect the ideologies of those it was originally designed, and that all universities and colleges, including MSUM, have a physical environment that is embedded with institutional ideology and we have to be conscious of it.”
Change can be made with the help of students, faculty, staff, the community and strong leaders who are skilled at facilitating and value an inclusive process. The more people who recognize landscape as an important aspect of shaping people and the more people who discuss the impact landscape has, the more welcomed and accepted those of all diversities will feel.
BY JESSICA JASPERSON