Students fight to save safe spaces

BY JOSIE GERESZEK — gereszekjo@mnstate.edu

Planned renovations to the Comstock Memorial Union have students angry and worried about the future of their meeting spaces.

A proposed Mosaic Center would have multiple spaces eliminated and rehomed in one shared, public area in the basement of the CMU.

The Black Student Union, Rainbow Dragon Center, Women’s Center, and American Indian Research & Resource Center are those set to be relocated. But students who use these facilities think their combination will do more harm than good.

Tuesday saw a silent protest to showcase their frustration. With tape covering their mouths, they stood silently on the CMU’s main staircases, holding signs discussing their student voices.

Protesters said the consolidation will reduce their privacy and compromise their ability to tackle intersectional issues like sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Art senior Nemo Siqueiros works at the Rainbow Dragon Center. He says students haven’t had enough involvement in decisions on the renovation.

“We have no voice,” Siqueiros said. “The administration has decided without us about building this Mosaic Center and getting rid of the individual centers that we have. We have been silenced.”

Both students and faculty say there’s been a lack of effective communication throughout the planning process.

“Unfortunately, due to a lack of transparency in the process on behalf of the administration I think there is a lot of confusion about whether the Women’s Center will indeed be included in the merged Mosaic Center,” said women’s and gender studies director Kandace Creel Falcón. “If it is to be included, I see that as the effective elimination of a space solely dedicated to women on our campus.”

In an interview with the Forum, university spokesperson David Wahlberg said some current students may feel they were not involved in the renovation’s planning because over the course of the 10 years the renovation has been discussed and saved for, students who have been included in the discussion at one point or another have come and gone.

“I have a sense that there’s a group of students now who may not have as much information, and so part of what we’re trying to do is maintain the communication,” he said.

“We may come down to points where there’s honest disagreement,” Wahlberg said, “but that’s what we’re trying to work through right now. What’s the best use of this opportunity?”

But Siqueiros doesn’t see the loss of autonomous spaces as something that can be worked through.

“If something has been planned for that long and current students don’t like the idea, it should be stopped if it doesn’t reflect the ideas of the current time,” he said.

Wahlberg said current student government leaders and other students have still been involved in the planning process.

“We had to beg to be included in the conversation, but in the end, we couldn’t even voice our concerns because it sounded negative in relation to the project,” Siqueiros said. “I was also told that if I had questions, that I could ask, but I also feel that if I asked as others have, that they would be sidestepped to defend this project.”

Women’s and gender studies senior Devon Payne agrees.

“There’s a lot of making discussion about other things that aren’t really our concern at all,” she said. “It just seems like a lot of tactics are being deployed to pacify us and not really take our concerns seriously.”

Not only are students saying the move would strip the organizations of their individuality, but it would also damper the opportunities they currently provide.

“Students lose student study jobs. They lose specialty catering to their resources. It’s not helpful,” criminal justice senior Lauren Starling said in an interview with Fox News. “It takes away from people’s individuality, and that’s what these spaces are for — to celebrate each of the things that makes them unique.”

But administration feels that putting these groups closer together will lead to more collaboration between them.

“It feels like we’re being pushed in these spaces that I don’t even think are going to be large enough to cater to all of the needs,” Starling said.

“In theory it’s a good idea to put people of individual identities together, but you shouldn’t force them to. They should be able to do it on their own.”

Payne said collaboration is beside the point, as it’s already happening. It’s safety that’s a concern for the affected spaces, she said.

“The reason that a lot of these spaces are autonomous is because they’re safe spaces,” Payne said. “There are a lot of people who utilize the space who have experienced things because of their identity, or just have experiences as a woman, where other people may not be as sensitive to those types of things in their language or rhetoric or their behavior, so by putting us all together, that really negates the safety of the space.”

Psychology senior Sara Rundlett sees safe zone training as a necessity for the Mosaic Center to have even a chance at success.

“With no one on campus required to attend safe zone training, this project is deemed to fail and only promote the white, heteronormative, able-bodied, cisgendered privilege that the rest of campus is seeped in,” Rundlett said.

The push for safety in spaces is not students’ alone.

“I’m really inspired by the efforts that our president has made in addressing sexual assault on this campus and I just would hope that she listens to the women students on this campus and others who are really advocating for a space that is theirs and that we can work toward helping to keep the Women’s Center autonomous, and potentially reimagine what that means for the Mosaic Center,” Falcón said.

She said in light of studies which indicate women’s centers as a necessity for women on campuses, it would be unwise for MSUM to eliminate its own.

“Each building should have a space that is safe for women to go to, so I feel like the Women’s Center being in Bridges is already a conciliatory step that we have taken,” Falcón said. “It’s a concession to have this one dedicated space for women on campus, so to eliminate that is a pretty powerful statement coming from a woman-led administration.” 

Last week, Payne and other students distributed a zine to inform other students of their concerns.

“After multiple meetings with administration, I really still felt that my concerns weren’t being heard or respected,” Payne said. “I was looking for a different avenue to bring about my concerns where I felt like maybe they might be validated and heard because they just hadn’t been by the administration.”

The publication’s cover was characterized by the illustration of a raised middle finger. It criticizes the proposition of the Mosaic Center and its supporters’ mention of “casual collisions,” a term intended to establish the fostered collaboration between groups the center would bring.

“When I think of a collision, it’s a violent accident that isn’t supposed to happen,” Payne said. “I don’t want to have a collision of any kind with anybody, especially if I have an intersectional identity with a racist homophobe or someone who’s just overall hateful.”

The zine also argues that should the Women’s Center be relocated to the CMU, fewer students will use it as a result of lost convenience.

Speech-language pathology senior Nora Heilman is also involved with the Women’s Center. She too, says student needs aren’t being met with the proposed renovation.

“The ongoing battle proves that students are not heard during this process — quite the contradiction considering it is their space,” Heilman said. “If students are heard, the Women’s Center will remain autonomous, which is vital to the safety of the students who occupy it.”

The center is unique in its fight against the move in that the space is not only closely affiliated with an academic major, but also the product of years of student activism.

Shortly after the department of women’s and gender studies’ development in 1971, students earning their minor in the program began planning, developing, and cultivating what would become known as the Women’s Center. When the space became a reality, WGS faculty would teach the department’s classes while directing the center’s programming.

By 1988 it had been closed. When the residence hall in which it was located was found to have asbestos, renovations began and the space disappeared. Administration had no plans to bring it back. That’s when three women’s and gender studies minors hosted a press conference to state that significant action was about to be taken, should administration not comply with their demands for the center’s return. That’s all it took, and it came back.

“There have been significant fights about the Women’s Center since then as well,” Falcón said.

She says the center’s origins are reason enough for administration to leave it alone.

“The most distressing aspect of all of this is that this was a product of student activism and it’s clear that students are passionate about their access to that space and their voices have not been heard in the process,” she said. “We have an activism that’s connected with the scholarship that we teach in our classes, but we fear that those connections might be broken in merging the Women’s Center into this different alignment.”

Falcón says faculty, too have been overlooked in decision making.

Wahlberg said the benefit of having the groups in a communal space is “the opportunity for higher visibility on campus and also greater impact” by creating “casual encounter opportunities” between students.

In an interview with Fox News, CMU director Layne Anderson said the proposed center is about showcasing diversity.

“Affirming diversity on our campus is critically important,” he said. “And one way that you can do that is ensuring that there is physical space allocated that pronounces diversity to our students and the importance of that.”

But students say the proposed renovation does not send that message.

“They are strategically making the rest of campus outside the Mosaic Center less diverse,” Rundlett said. “‘Casual collisions’ will only occur now within the Mosaic Center and eliminate the possibility that they will, and do, happen at any of the other safe spaces on campus.”

Siqueiros argues that the merging of spaces hinders addressing intersectional issues. He sees the proposal as a way for the school to benefit from the problems students with marginalized identities endure.

“The idea of the Mosaic Center as this happy get along space is window dressing for something that is potentially bad that this campus is trying to hide by creating this unified space,” he said. “We’re all being tokenized.”

Rundlett agrees.

“Being asked for your opinion because it’s valued and important is very different than being asked because the university wants to appear that they are concerned with the voices of marginalized students,” she said. “The process has been incredibly insulting, hurtful, and exclusionary.”

With the project remaining largely student-funded, hope remains that their demands will be met.

“If that’s where our money is going, then I don’t approve of that, especially if it compromises my safety at this school that I have to come to every day,” Siqueiros said. “If anything, take the money we have so far and put it toward something else that doesn’t create this segregated atmosphere and also an unsafe one.”

But question remains if, and when, that will be.

“At a certain time the administration is going to need be able to speak to student needs,” Falcón said. “If students are saying they don’t want that space, administration has to address what it is that they want.”

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