by Chandler Esslinger
Change is brewing on campus.
The imminent renovation of the Comstock Memorial Union is a great chance to give MSUM a much-needed update and will also provide the student body with increased support, space and opportunity on campus.
But proposed concurrently with the CMU renovations is the creation of the Mosaic Center, a location that would serve as a combined community area for all safe spaces on campus.
This center for the diverse student population would consolidate the Women’s Center and Rainbow Dragon Center (our LGBTQIA+ space), as well as integrate the international student population. The center would also house director’s offices for such entities like the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Women’s Center, the Rainbow Dragon Center and other diversity offices on campus.
On paper, providing a community space for the diverse student population sounds like a great idea, and in many ways, it is. It appears that the goal of the Mosaic Center is to champion diversity on our campus, while also fostering community, understanding and collaboration amongst diverse students, campus organizations, faculty and staff.
However, the caveat to the creation of this Mosaic Center is that it would eliminate the few purposefully autonomous safe spaces available on our campus, notably the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Dragon Center.
Let me be clear in saying that I am NOT anti-Mosaic Center. I believe this space is necessary to support diverse students on campus and promote inclusivity, understanding and fellowship amongst the entire student body. However, my contention is this space would not provide diverse students with the safe, autonomous spaces they need in order to feel secure and supported at a university that can be hostile toward diversity.
The administration argues the Women’s Center and Rainbow Dragon Center would endure because of the existence of their director’s offices within the Mosaic Center; however, the safe autonomous spaces in and of themselves would not be present within the center. This, in effect, abolishes any kind of safe space available to students, faculty and staff at MSUM.
To paraphrase my favorite professor, when a single, autonomous drop of water falls from the sky and lands in the ocean, it is no longer an autonomous drop of water, it has become consumed by the ocean. It can no longer be identified or separated from the ocean since it has lost all autonomy.
This idea is evocative of the way the safe spaces will be integrated into our campus; the intentional autonomy and safety of these spaces will be taken away and consumed by the ocean. I cannot and will not agree with the elimination of these spaces.
I have had patience. I have had faith. I have had dialogues, discussions and “casual collisions.” I have spoken. I have listened. I have tried to understand every point of view. But I can no longer, in good conscience, wait idly for the university to recognize the deleterious effects the consequences of their actions will have on students.
But before I get to that, let’s discuss what I mean when I refer to the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Dragon Center as safe spaces on campus.
“Safe space” refers to the centers available to students with marginalized identities, be it race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion, etc. Each space has an intentional purpose. For example, the Women’s Center provides support, resources and community to women specifically, but also to those of all genders, sexual orientations, etc. who wish to be free from patriarchal oppression, if only for a moment throughout their day.
The Women’s Center is a purposefully feminist space that works to dismantle everyday sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, body-shaming, ableism, ageism, victim-blaming and general hatefulness that exists (yes, it exists) on our campus. It provides diverse students the opportunity to unapologetically be themselves without the fear of derision, prejudice, judgment, microaggressions or violence. The Women’s Center provides resources, community and support to those affected by sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women, which occur every single day (yes, it does) in our community.
This kind of identity security can only be fostered in a safe, autonomous space like the Women’s Center or the Rainbow Dragon Center. These necessities cannot be recreated in a collaborative student space like the Mosaic Center, and the rest of campus cannot possibly provide these same resources due to its lack of intentional focus on these issues. Trying to do so would fail our student’s needs.
This denial of our specific needs in favor of a larger community space does not reaffirm our identities. It relegates us the same, it silences our voices, and it renders us invisible. It would allow individuals to slip through the cracks, to drop out of school, to tumble into depression, to sacrifice their lives.
If these claims sound melodramatic to you, then you do not understand the lived realities of the students on our campus. The strength it takes them to get out of bed everyday and face a world of hostility toward their identities is incredible. To navigate a society that may never truly appreciate them the way they are is difficult. To live to fight another day when it would be much easier not to is a real temptation. I hear it, I see it, I feel it every day at MSUM.
I hear it from the students who have such horrific interactions with other students and faculty who do not respect their identity that they descend into pits of anguish, despair and self-hate.
I see it in the side-glances, the double takes, the smirks, the laughs, the crude gestures, the casual objectification and the outright harassment of men, women and non-binary individuals in the hallways.
I feel it in the constant reminders from administration that I don’t know what is best for my peers and myself, even though we embody their theories, their rhetoric and their diversity goals every single day of our lives.
We are not your numbers, we are not your graduation rates, we are not your tuition fees, we are not your diversity check boxes. We are human beings with lives that intersect with each other, that intertwine with our experiences on and off campus, and that inform our self-worth.
Instead of merely acknowledging the differences that inform our identity and “celebrating” those differences in the name of championing diversity, we need support for those differences and the specific needs that come along with them. We need our autonomous spaces, our chosen families and our safe communities.
With all of this in mind, I ask for your support. You can be our biggest ally, our fiercest support system, and we desperately crave that relationship with you. We know you want what is best for us —to support our differences, and provide us “the opportunity to discover [our] passions, the rigor to develop intellectually and the versatility to shape a changing world.” We have the motivation, the ambition and the fearless desire to give every student at MSUM the tools to thrive.
But in order to do that we need you to acknowledge our need for autonomous safe spaces, relentless support and pride.
So please, reflect and decide what is more important to you. Is it to listen to, support and care for the lived realities of the diverse students on our campus? Or is it to relegate us the same under the banner of diversity, to silence our voices and to render us invisible?
Until then, I will continue to have patience and faith. I will continue to relentlessly fight. And I will not be silent.