Just because Abby Meinen and Marcus Robinson are different people with different experiences, that doesn’t mean they can’t talk about sensitive and controversial topics together.
But when they do, Meinen said, they need to respect each other — something she didn’t see at Milo Yiannopoulos’ talk on campus Monday night.
There, she said, she saw students harass and put down other students for their opinions and identities.
So in response, she and Robinson, representatives of Campus Women’s Organization and Rainbow Alliance, respectively, along with the Black Action Society, hosted Pitt’s first formal “safe space” event Thursday in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room.
Thursday’s event served as a place where about 100 students could share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in response to the lecture Yiannopoulos, a conservative writer and provocateur, gave in the same room.
Meinen said just because she isn’t a person of color doesn’t mean there isn’t a space for her in a discussion about people of color.
“It doesn’t mean I’m getting kicked out,” Meinen said. “It just means I’m going to take a backseat in this discussion. I can’t speak for someone else’s experiences.”
That, Meinen said, was a key part of a safe space, which is any place where people can discuss ideas and experiences without feeling disrespected or in danger.
According to the Safe Space Network, a website dedicated to promoting respectful discussion, a safe space is “a place where [a person] can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe,” on account of their personal identity or experiences.
Yiannopoulos, who the Pitt College Republicans invited to speak on campus Monday night, gave a lecture on his views of freedom of speech, which included controversial comments about women, people of color and members of the LBGT+ community.
The campus-wide outcry and debate that followed Monday’s event raised questions about whether or not Yiannopoulos’ lecture was free speech or hate speech, what role Pitt should or should not play when controversial speakers like Yiannopoulos come to campus and if Student Government Board’s “viewpoint neutral” stance on partially funding the talk was appropriate.
At the event Thursday, Meinen and Robinson briefed students about safe spaces with presentations before breaking them up into small groups to discuss Monday’s talk. They designated the groups safe spaces, where students could talk without feeling invalidated or attacked.
Because the event’s organizers deemed it a safe space for students, The Pitt News agreed not to quote or take photos of students who spoke in the small discussion groups or shared their feelings or experiences within the safe space.
For Robinson, Monday’s talk showed Pitt wasn’t protecting its students.
“As someone who is queer and black, it’s hard enough not seeing yourself reflected in this University,” Robinson said.
Robinson said students who attended Yiannopoulos’ talk felt abandoned afterward and didn’t know where to turn. He said Pitt should have arranged to have counselors available to students.
“We went there and were left on our own after. There was a failure on that front, there was no follow-up,” he said.
At Thursday’s event, Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students, and Steve Anderson, associate dean of students and director of residence life, made counselors and Student Affairs staff available to students who wanted to talk with them after the event.
As part of the dialogue, Meinen stressed that safe spaces are meant to do what they say — keep students safe.
“Safe spaces aren’t just set up to protect people’s feelings,” Meinen said. “That’s important, of course, but they’re meant to protect people’s physical, emotional and mental well-being.”
For Bonner, events like Thursday’s are important because they promote dialogue on campus.
To the questions about neutrality, Bonner said though SGB was legally bound to be “viewpoint neutral” when it allocated money to student groups, Pitt as an institution is not.
“The University is not neutral as to who we are and what we do. We are very serious about diversity and inclusion,” Bonner said. “We’re not where we want to be, but we know where we want to be. No one can come to this community and change who we are.”
Addressing the students after the large group discussion, Bonner acknowledged that controversial speakers were likely to come to campus again, but students should now be better prepared to deal with them because they know how to react and start a dialogue.
Calling on SGB to reverse its neutral allocations process is unproductive, Bonner said.
“To react in a way that undos what our country was based on, isn’t the right way to react,” he said. “All of the voices in this room have the same power as the one who was here Monday, maybe more so.”