Opening of the Multicultural Resource Room: A Review of St. Mary’s Safe Spaces

From left to right: Vera Damanka, Adriane Azucena, Imani Staton-McCrimmon, Demilade Adebayo, Taylor Fogg, Ashantee Barnwell, Yonah Zeitz, and Donavin Bunn. Photo courtesy of Scott Zimmerman

Friday, Oct. 21 saw the opening (or rather, the reopening) of the Multiculturalism, Advocacy, and Partnership for Progress Resource Room, located in the back of the Leadership Lab in Campus Center. St. Mary’s had seen a similar room in years past before it was shut down in 2013. After an increase in racial tensions on campus and a subsequent reimagining of the MAPP program by Dean Leonard Brown and Professor Sybol Anderson, plans started to reopen the resource room. The room was a topic of conversation at last year’s “Moment to Pause” forum led by President Tuajuanda Jordan. The resource room was “designed to be a safe space for students of color, advocates, and allies to relax, do work, and have conversations about current events- both on campus and worldwide,” according to MAPP Coordinator and Student Trustee Vera Damanka.

Damanka said that one of the most heartbreaking things she hears “from many students of color is that they do not feel safe on this campus,” and felt it was “imperative that we find — or create — a space that could be a safe haven for those students.” The SGA, Office of Student Services and MAPP coordinated the effort to create that space, moving into what was the former Point News office. The opening on Friday was a festive occasion with pizza, snacks and balloons out for visiting students, who could come by from 3 pm to 7 pm to meet the MAPP mentors and explore the new Multicultural Room. Damanka said that “This room is, and will be, a good start to fostering a welcoming environment for all people.”

In addition to the newly reopened Multicultural Resource Room, the LGBT-Student-Services-led Rainbow Room began its second year of operation this fall. The Rainbow Room is located just across the hall from the Leadership Lab and Multicultural Room; it shares similar goals directed at the LGBT+ community on campus. Clint Neill, Asst. Director of Student Activities who oversees LGBT Student Services and the Rainbow Room, said that his goal for the lounge has always been for it to be a gathering place for members of the St. Mary’s LGBT+ community. “There are students on this campus that can’t be themselves,” Neill said, adding that the room should be “a resource for students, a place for folks to hang out, have fun, be themselves, network with other people.” He hopes that the Rainbow Room is identity-affirming for students who, either on or off campus, feel isolated and underrepresented.

Both Damanka and Neill were asked to address the perspective that the creation of safe spaces on college campuses is actually a form of “coddling” students. This year the University of Chicago Dean of Students sent out a letter to first years including the statement, “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Neill said that this statement could only come from a place of privilege; that if you can criticize something like a safe space, then and you have “never had to deal with these issues where you don’t feel safe, or your identity is reflected so much everywhere else in the world [that you don’t see the need].” He said furthermore, “We’re not coddling people; we’re affirming people.”

Damanka also disagreed with the notion of coddling. “Coddling implies that such a resource is not giving students room to grow and develop as community members and leaders,” she said. “None of us plan to make the room a clubhouse for minorities. Instead, we want it to be a think tank of sorts; a place where we can foster and develop ideas, create programs and begin to effect change.”

Hopefully both the Multicultural Resource Room and the Rainbow Room can continue to exist as spaces where students feel safe and encouraged to celebrate and learn more about their own cultures and identities, as well as to collaborate in order to enact the changes they see as necessary for the benefit of the St. Mary’s Community. To see more information on both resource rooms, as well as upcoming events and hours of operation, visit the Facebook pages “SMCM Lgbtq Student Services” and “SMCM MAPP- Multiculturalism, Advocacy, and Partnership for Progress.”