Over the past two weeks, K and I have spent 8 hours training to become safe zone allies. A safe zone ally is a person who supports and advocates for minority populations whose voices may not be otherwise heard. This includes supporting students or colleagues who find themselves underrepresented because of their gender, sexual, religious, ethnic, racial, ability, or cultural status.
From my perspective, the training had two main foci:
First, we discussed various ways that classroom or university settings might be difficult for people in any of those identity categories mentioned above. We discussed the ways that classroom settings can be tough for people with hidden difficulties (physical, mental, or cultural) that they may not want to discuss with faculty or staff. We were challenged to think about how to make classroom and university events more inclusive of these diverse abilities and strengths. This might include allowing students to express themselves in a variety of ways or allowing students to leave the room if they need to do so. This also includes communicating with students and helping them understand that we are willing to adapt course requirements to meet their needs.
Secondly, the training included role plays and conversations about how to help students if they come to us one-on-one with specific concerns. The main goal of these conversations is to make the student feel heard and respected, and to ensure that the student is referred to other support services (at Counseling Services or elsewhere) if they might benefit from that additional support. These conversations should occur in private and should follow certain guidelines of active listening and reflection.
These two aspects of the training both seems to emphasize compassion, respect for diversity, and empowerment of marginalized groups. I support these emphases whole heartedly, and I had no reservations signing the ally pledge.
There were, however, a few complexities that arose during the training that I think are worth addressing and contemplating further.
Regarding the goal of ensuring that classroom and university events are inclusive, I feel that there is some ambiguity about how flexible a professor can be with regard to course assignments, particularly if the needs of the student are not documented by official university services. It seems that over-flexibility undermines the rigor of the course, but under-flexibility undermines the pledge of the ally. If the need of the student is formally addressed by university services then this is not a problem. But with hidden needs, more subtle needs, or needs that the student does not want to communicate about, faculty might be left not knowing how to help students in need without letting students who are not in need take advantage of that flexibility.
Regarding the goals of conversations with individual students, the complexity of this issue came to light in a role play where a student came to an ally because she has learned that her roommate is a lesbian and she feels that lesbianism is a sin. The complexity is that you want to be an ally for the student who came to you, making her feel heard and respected, but you also want to be an ally for the roommate, an underrepresented and marginalized voice. Furthermore, someone in the training insightfully brought up that the student may actually be talking about herself, only using the roommate to distance herself from the issue during the conversation. Because the student coming to talk and the roommate may in fact be the same person, an ally is even more compelled to be supportive to both perspectives. This is a very complicated situation for me because I would want to challenge the student to be more accepting of the roommate's sexuality, but the job of an ally is not to challenge so much as to make someone feel heard and respected. But how can I not challenge someone if their views are hurting others? What if the issue were race instead of sexuality? How could I be an ally to someone who doesn't want to have a roommate from another race? Put more starkly, how can I be an ally to an oppressor?
These two issues were not completely resolved for me.... but maybe they can't be resolved or maybe they don't need to be resolved. Maybe the goal is simply to let people know that they are valued for who they are and maybe that is already a sufficiently precise guiding principle.
Anyway, having completed the training and having signed the pledge, I will now have a safe zone sticker to display that identifies me as someone who can be approached about these issues. (Where I will display that sticker is still being negotiated, but it will be displayed somewhere!) I'm definitely glad that I participated in this program and would highly recommend it to others.
I'd love to hear your thoughts:
Have you ever done a training like this? Was it a positive experience for you?
Do you have any suggestions for me about these two complexities I've mentioned?
How would you handle the situation above about the lesbian roommate?