Retreat explores creation of safe spaces for discussion

Last Saturday the Campus Life and Diversity Office sponsored a Social Justice Dialogue Retreat held in the College Center. The event was publicized as an afternoon to explore the use of critical dialogue across differences through restorative healing and community action.

As described on the posters, the event was created and facilitated to build the capacity for tackling tough issues through dialogue. The discussion topics focused on the need for space where students could talk freely about topics that they weren’t comfortable discussing in other spaces, and how to create such spaces at Vassar.

In attendance were a variety of representatives and members of the Vassar community including Campus Life interns from the ALANA Center, International Services, the LGBTQ Center, the Religious and Spiritual Life department, the Women’s Center and administrators from Campus Life.

Amongst the attendees was Edward Pitmann, Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity. Pitmann is a trained facilitator in dialogue processes and was heavily involved in the planning of the event.

Pitmann was joined by 23 students who entered into the space that he helped create. They were invited to engage in the five-hour dialogue and share their perspectives.

“We focused on how to build that space so that participants feel ‘brave’ enough to be honest and share opinions that may be different than others,” said Pitmann.

Gabriel Dunsmith ’15, an Environmental Studies Major, was in attendance at the event and was available to comment on his experience. He is also a campus life intern with the office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Dunsmith also assisted Pittman in helping to organize and set up the event.

“I was on the small committee that brainstormed various topics and then organized the event and planned it. The dialogue was put on by the campus life office and they drew various interns from the campus life office to be a part of the committee,” Dunsmith said.

The space was designed for students and partially by students. Dunsmith believes this was important considering the sensitive nature of the the topics the dialogue aimed to address on Vassar’s campus.

“My personal opinion is that students can find comradery in places where they can share their grievances and feel heard.” Said Dunsmith. “I feel like discussions such as the one on Saturday are important in order to come to a place of understanding.”

The dialogue began with the participants spliting up into several smaller groups. Though all the groups discussed how to create safe spaces, their individual topics varied.

“We chose to speak about which issues we felt are hidden or deterred from conversation. A lot of what people spoke about were issues of mental health, religion & spirituality and trans students on campus.” Dunsmith said.

After awhile, the smaller groups congregated to share what they had talked about individually. Dunsmith believes that the smaller groups were more productive.

“Toward the end there were longer periods of silence and people felt like they could not speak as much.” Said Dunsmith.

Pittman thinks that these silences can be eliminated through creation of the appropriate spaces the dialogues discussed, as well as through student efforts to build trust between one another.

“One promising outcome is that participants committed to re-connecting to extend dialogues and make connections with others who might be interested.” Said Pittman.  “Also, new relationships were started and this is always an important outcome.”

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