September 12, 2013

Understanding Safe Zone Programs

An LGBT American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsyl...
An LGBT American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I want to take up the topic of the Secular Student Alliance's recent announcement that they are launching a Secular Safe Zone program once again because I think it is important and because I've noted some misconceptions about what such a program entails. Since their announcement indicated that they are basing their program on LGBT safe zone programs and since I have been involved in an LGBT safe zone program at the university level, I thought I'd share some of my experiences to help people unfamiliar with these programs understand them a little better.

I realize that a few of my readers have a negative visceral reaction to "safe zone" because they have heard this term thrown about by the Atheism+ crowd as part of their efforts to police what others say on the Internet. This has next to nothing with what the LGBT safe zone programs are about and what I expect the Secular Safe Zone program will be about. I know the term may have negative connotations for some of you, but please recognize that we are talking about something quite different here.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, the idea behind the LGBT safe zone program in which I participate involves identifying adults (university staff and faculty) who are willing to provide LGBT students with "a friendly ear, support navigating a system which is often hostile to them, or just a safe environment in which they can be themselves." While this brief description may have captured one part of the program, I did not adequately convey the rest of it. So I'd like to try again.

First, participation in the LGBT safe zone program is entirely voluntary. I wanted to do it, and nobody pressured me to do it. In fact, I think I'm the only one in my academic department who participates. I will admit that I found this somewhat disappointing, but so be it.

Second, participation in the program is formalized in that those of us who participate go through training and receive a ton of useful information about the experience of LGBT students at our university. The training sessions I attended included staff from Student Affairs, counselors from the counseling center on campus, and student members of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance as speakers. We learned about the challenges facing LGBT students, available campus resources, and how to effectively support these students. At the end of the training, we received safe zone cards we could post in our offices to communicate our involvement in the program to students. Once again, this was optional. I chose to do so.

Third, this program in no way seeks to turn the entire campus into a safe zone or change the manner in which those not participating in the program interact with students. It is not about political correctness at all. What it means concretely is that I have chosen to identify myself as a point person who can be safely approached by LGBT students seeking assistance or support. It means that I will seek to interact with them non judgmentally and that my individual faculty office is a "safe space" from the sort of crap with which many of them deal on a daily basis here in the bible belt. I won't threaten them with hell, tell them their lifestyles are unnatural, call them names, or anything of the sort. It also means, from the training I received, that I might not be quite as clueless about some of what they face as others on campus.

This is what the LGBT safe zone program in which I participate is about, and I imagine that an adapted version of the program aimed at secular students would be similar in most respects. From what I have seen of the program developed by the Secular Student Alliance, this seems to be the case. The primary difference, at least so far, is that the training materials are available online and few on my particular campus are likely know such a thing exists. Perhaps the day will come when campus personnel organize trainings for this program much like they now do for the LGBT version. The main advantage of that over a completely online sort of thing would be the ability to inform participants about local resources. In my opinion, that is a significant advantage.

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