The Oberlin Review

Touring Poets Work to Create Safer Space at the Cat

Nora Kipnis

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“We have an uncensored microphone and if you come up here, you can say whatever you want because it’s freedom of speech. But if you say something that hurts somebody, then please be prepared to have a non-defensive conversation with them.”

 

This is how Greg McKillop began the slam poetry session of the Safer Space Tour on Oct. 14 at the Cat in the Cream. The Safer Space Tour was organized by College senior Alyssa Civian and sponsored by Lambda Union, a safe space for LGBTQ students at Oberlin. Three poets from the organization, Gregory McKillop, Arwyn Sherman and Matthew Wellman, came to Oberlin on their way to a poetry slam in Spokane, WA, to run a workshop and performance.

 

The Safer Space Tour is an offshoot of Rhythmic Cypher, a Portland, Maine, slam poetry association that offers creative face-to-face conversations and performance art collaboration in order to help young people connect not only to their own words but also to their voices.

 

“Slam poetry has this ability to convey in very sharp light strong issues, and also with the art of your poetry add other content that is important to your point,” said Civian, giving the example of rhyme schemes that link concepts that would otherwise be difficult to convey.

 

For Rhythmic Cypher, safe space is defined as an open, uncensored dialogue in which one should feel secure in their expression, and gentle confrontation is expected if someone is offended by what’s said. This dedication to noncensorship is different from many other definitions of safe spaces here at Oberlin and elsewhere.

 

 “It was a formula that could do a lot for Oberlin,” said Civian, who is still an advocate for all other kinds of safe spaces, which are as pluralistic as the many ways in which people can feel safe.

 

The poets from the Safer Space Tour have been performing for a year, and part of their goal is to bridge the gap between performer and audience.

 

 “I like to think that the impact that I’m able to make on a community when I perform is to let them know that I’m just some guy. And everyone else is just some person, and anyone can perform,” said McKillop.

 

To encourage expression, the group held a workshop beforehand in which students and community members had the opportunity to write, perform and critique difficult stories from their past.

 

 “It was an attempt to empower students and open up dialogue, give people more resources to express themselves, particularly when they’re dealing with material that could render them unsafe from the inside,” said Civian.

 

The slam poetry event was an opportunity to open up the lines of communication about safe spaces and make safe spaces a part of the artistic community at Oberlin. Civian said she thought the Tour was a great idea for Oberlin.

 

“Dialogues around safe space still need to happen here,” she said.

 

For McKillop, who has performed here in the past, Oberlin feels like a safer space than other places he’s performed, though he noted, “a safer space for me doesn’t necessarily mean a safer space for someone else,”

 

While safe space is a buzzword on campus, many who aren’t directly involved with one find it hard to understand what a safe space is and how it functions. Even among individuals in safe spaces, there is some debate as to what makes a space safe.

 

However, there is at least one link between all the different definitions of safe spaces: They are often discussion groups or physical spaces in which individuals who identify with some kind of characteristic can autonomously address certain dangers of oppression and set ground rules within the space for preventing said dangers. Jan Cooper, John C. Reid associate professor of Rhetoric and Composition and advisor for Lambda, said that a definition of a safe space usually includes an aspect of why people need to feel safe.

 

“People who feel marginalized feel that there’s a lot to be gained from working and talking together, away from people who don’t share their experience,” she said. Alyssa Civian mentioned a controversy in Fairchild co-op about making it a safe space for vegans, and whether or not the safe space rhetoric can apply to groups not subject to systemic oppression.

 

For Rhythmic Cipher, safe space is defined as an open, uncensored dialogue in which it’s safe to say whatever you want, and gentle confrontation is expected if someone is offended by what’s said. This dedication to noncensorship is different from many other definitions of safe spaces here at Oberlin and elsewhere.

 

 “It was a formula that could do a lot for Oberlin,” said Civian, who is still an advocate for all other kinds of safe spaces, which are as pluralistic as the many ways in which people can feel safe.

 

Internal conflict about what it means to be in a safe space was also expressed at the event. According to College junior Pauline Schwartzman, the treasurer of the Lambda Union and an attendee of the Safer Space Tour, “one of the people on stage made a really good point about how they feel like the safest space for them is on the stage performing, but also it can be the unsafest as well depending on what kind of reaction they’re getting from their listeners. That, I think, was a really interesting concept of a safe space.”

 

Essential to the creation of a safe space is the establishment of ground rules. While the Safer Space Tour had an uncensored approach with an expectation of open dialogue in the case of a trigger — many safe spaces ban individuals or speech that may trigger others to feel unsafe.

 

“Whether or not it’s a safe space is determined by the trigger as well as the response to the trigger,” said Dio Aldridge, another Community Coordinator at the MRC. “It should never be assumed that if you call something a safe space that you might not be triggered,” added Gomez.

 

Exclusion does comes up in safe spaces, and is often a reason why some people might disapprove of them. However, there are many reasons why exclusion might be necessary.

 

“It’s a more productive place in which to have conversations,” said Schwartzman.

 

To go even further, exclusion might be necessary to keep a safe space safe.

 

“If it’s really open and welcoming then sometimes people can target it,” said Cooper, giving the example of the microaggressions that were reported last year in Afrikan Heritage House.

 

Even in safe spaces, it’s possible to feel unsafe. Civian said of her experience living in Baldwin, “I don’t feel like the idea of safety was critically engaged with quite enough to live up to the commitment of a safe space for me.”

 

Adherence to ground rules as well as continual engagement with changing ideas of safety and oppression is essential in creating effective safe spaces. Both mob mentality and approbation of triggers by a group can make an individual feel uncomfortable. Civian recalled being in a poetry safe space similar to Rhythmic Cypher in which the poet based a piece on a metaphor that identified gender categories with biological sex, a rhetoric that made her uncomfortable. She thought she could mention it in private conversation with the poet, but at the end of the piece, the audience was on its feet in applause.

 

 “I was the only one sitting,” remembered Civian. “There was this moment of unsafety that became magnified.”

 

Despite the issues that sometimes arise around safe spaces, many people find them necessary. For those who want to show their support, Gomez recommended working on building community across the boundaries of identity and culture.

 

“Showing support in ways that’s allowed… [and] going to events that you’ve never gone to — those are the best ways to support those groups,” he said.

 

And he urges patience on the part of those who are in a position to educate others about safe spaces. “Every student who does know what a safe space is or thinks they know should always be open with compassionate language or with compassion in their heart to be able to talk about it,” he said. 

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