No Safe Space

Northeastern forum tried to exclude those who are not minority women and after administrators intervened, charges started flying.
November 2, 2005

“Breaking bread” isn’t usually synonymous with conflict. However, a September 24 forum, sponsored by the women’s studies programs at Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled “Breaking Bread: Women of Color Dialogue,” proves that it can be.

Hate-filled e-mails, allegations of libel and the possibility of lawsuits have all resulted not from the actual forum, but from advertising leading up to the event and reactions after it passed. The organizers -- minority women -- have found themselves accused of discrimination, and they in turn say that their critics don’t understand the nature of bias.

The morning portion of the event was initially advertised as being open to “women of color only,” while all members of the general public were invited to attend the afternoon session.  

"The forum was set up precisely this way in order to provide a safe and supportive environment for a discussion of the issues relevant to women of color,” according to Robin Chandler, director of women’s studies at Northeastern and an organizer of the forum. One such topic focused on ways that women of color could reach out to children of color. “This type of program hasn’t really been done before in this area,” she added.

When members of the Student Government Association learned about the morning proviso, they requested that the early meeting be open to everyone as well. “We weren’t trying to discourage any group from meeting or having these kinds of discussions,” said Ashley R. Adams, president of the student group. “We acted because the event was publicized it in a mass way [via leaflets on campus] -- and we felt that the morning session violated university policy.”

After they brought the matter to Provost Ahmed Abdelal, he agreed with the group’s position, directing that both parts of the forum be opened to all. Discussion of the event continued at Northeastern over the last month. President Richard M. Freeland said in an October 25 statement to students and faculty members that he was proud of the students “for stepping forward forcefully on this issue.”

“I recognize that some groups feel it is important at times to meet to discuss issues specifically relevant to them,” the president stated. “Private meetings of this character frequently occur and play a constructive role. However, limiting attendance at a university-sponsored event based on race, gender or other protected class status is simply not consistent with the university’s equal opportunity policy. It is also antithetical to our values and to what Northeastern stands for.”

“Beyond the letter of the law of our equal opportunity policy, there is also the spirit of the law,” he continued.  “That spirit and what I hope is the spirit of our community is one of inclusion.... No Northeastern student should ever be made to feel unwelcome at a university event based on their status as a member of a protected group or, indeed, because of any other personal characteristic.”

Since the decision, several student readers of the Northeastern News student paper have written in, largely expressing their agreement with the university. Others disagree.

Delia Saenz, director of the Arizona State University Intergroup Relations Center, offered her outside opinion on the controversy. According to her, individuals who are well-versed in understanding social structure and how oppression plays out in reality would “certainly have understood the need for safe place.”

“Institutions often do very little in terms of having systematic training for faculty, staff or students,” said Saenz. “I obviously was not involved in Northeastern’s specific situation, but it seems to me that administrators were unwilling or unable to understand the purpose of the forum.”

“Had [organizers] only scheduled the morning event for women of color and nothing else, I could see that as violating an anti-discrimination policy,” added Saenz. “You also have to recognize that events get sponsored by universities on a daily basis all across the country that are limited to certain groups, sometimes based on discipline, sometimes on interest, but no one is invoking the anti-discrimination policies in those cases.”

According to organizers of the event, of the approximately 80 participants at both sessions, one white woman attended the event. While unwilling to disclose the student’s identity, Adams indicated that there was a comment made at the beginning of the first session, which implied that the student was “unwelcome.”  

In an interview Tuesday, Chandler called that allegation “untrue,” adding that many officials affiliated with the university have made her feel unwelcome on campus since the event. “There’s now been a period of harassment and a lot of internal activity going on within the university regarding this,” she said. The university press office did not wish to comment on her accusation.

Chandler also said Tuesday that she has an inbox full of what she calls “vulgar and graphic hate mail resulting from news coverage of the event.” Fox News posted a column by Wendy McElroy, which Chandler said may have fostered some of the e-mails. University police have interviewed Chandler and made copies of the files for their records. Because of the graphic nature of the e-mails, they’ve offered Chandler a police escort service to and from her car while on university grounds.  

Chandler says she has contacted her lawyer regarding both harassment and libel issues.

Andi Sutton, a coordinator with MIT’s Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies, said that the institution’s board is currently discussing whether to sponsor a similar event in years to come at other universities. “To tell you the truth, the board is taking this controversy into consideration,” she said. “They want to be appropriate and considerate of individual university needs and people.”

Chandler wouldn’t offer a guess on whether the event would occur again next year at Northeastern. Other university officials would not comment. “It’s a sad situation,” said Chandler. “Ultimately, women of color will suffer, and that was not the intent of our work.”


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