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The Importance of “Safe Spaces”: Interview Narrative

It's important to hear first-hand stories when talking about highly politicized issues such as college campus free speech and state-funded Pride Centers. Read Thomas's story below.


Author’s Note: Below is a piece written for a public writing class in Spring 2016. At the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, much controversy stemmed from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. I sat down with a student named Thomas Cortez to talk about how he felt knowing the office could be (and eventually was) defunded by the Tennessee State Legislature for the 2016–2017 fiscal year. This is his story.

As the smell of fried chicken engulfed the small dorm room, current University of Tennessee student, Thomas Cortez, plopped his Cane’s bag on the ground, sat down in his button-down banana shirt, and smiled warmly. Thomas was an openly gay student in his high school class and has gone on to advocate for UT organizations like Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, the Pride Center, and Student Government Association. He told me about the current issues facing the controversy over the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on campus. “There’s a misunderstanding between the students and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion lately,” he said. He went on to say, “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed diversity more than I’ve ever seen in my life. Even I was a little overwhelmed. The office does a great job making sure students are immersed in a real-world university. But we have to realize, at a certain point in time, doing this — defunding diversity on campus — will hurt us.”

After two controversial articles published by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Tennessee legislation moved to defund diversity. “What people don’t discuss is that this will defund veteran outreach programs, many tutoring sites on campus, and multiculturalism scholarships. That’s where the majority of diversity money goes. Money goes toward bringing those underprivileged minorities to a collegiate setting. Without the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, that all goes away.”

Outside the Pride Center on UT’s campus after its flag was vandalized

When asked how defunding diversity and inclusion would affect students, Thomas responded that “So many people at the Pride Center have told me that the Pride Center was the reason they’re alive today. They found acceptance within the LGBTQIA+ community here that they wouldn’t have found elsewhere. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion keeps students here. Many have told me they’d probably just leave and go somewhere else without the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. I don’t feel like I would have a place here without it either.”

Even with the powerful influence the Pride Center shows, the Tennessee State Legislature has made it clear that state funding should not go to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion or any programs under it. “Legislators should not be trying to control the university. That’s not how it should work. They are not promoting diversity. They do not represent their constituents. I am a constituent. You’re a constituent. Everyone who lives here is a constituent. They are not promoting us or those at the Pride Center or the Frieson Black Cultural Center or any students of color or different sexuality. Honestly, diversity is everyone. They are not promoting anyone by doing this.”

Jimmy Cheek and Ricky Hall, former Chancellor and former Vice Chancellor for Diversity, meet with students about diversity and inclusion on campus

When asked how UT administrators play a role in this issue, Thomas laughed. “There’s a quote… it’s uh, like ‘People who do nothing in the face of oppression take the side of the oppressor’ and that’s really what I feel the administration is doing right now. They are not doing anything… Yet they must take a stand.”

Even though legislators may not listen to campus constituents’ requests, UT administrators have adamantly said they support the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Thomas went on to say that he disagrees. “We were all having a sit-in at [ex-Chancellor] Jimmy Cheek’s office and instead of holding the press conference, he ended up putting a meeting in a very small room to make sure only a few students could come in and ask questions. When that happened, the administration wasn’t promoting a diverse climate where people felt like their opinions were respected. They seemed more like they were trying to quiet us down more than they were trying to support us. That’s really where the problems lie because this wouldn’t be happening right now on campus if they would just say ‘We support the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We support our students regardless of race, sexuality, or religion.’ And they just haven’t.”

Thomas also discussed the loss of identity he feels when diversity is not understood on campus. “Most of the time, I’m looked at as the quote unquote ‘gay friend,’ not just the friend. I don’t like that people will call me their ‘gay friend’ because they want me to be the stereotypical gay person. They want me to be the person to go shopping with them, or the person to check out their outfit. I want you to be my friend because of my personality, but not because of the personality you want me to have. I do get smaller oppressions that aren’t always out there on the table. Most people don’t say faggot to my face or queer to my face. You see it in the stares and the smaller things that need to be tackled and looked at. Those things are still big to people like me. That’s why diversity programs matter.”

Official VOL OUT organization logo

Even though legislative actions make it seem nearly impossible, Thomas described what a perfect campus would look like to him. “The University needs to listen to the students, and the legislation needs to back off. We need more money for diversity. We need more programs. We need VOLOUT, mentor programs, the Pride Center.”

“People need to see that UT is making strides through administration speaking out. Our campus culture needs to believe that a diverse campus is a safe campus. In a perfect world, that’s where we would stand.”

“After a certain point, you just have to do what’s right. Take a stand, and put yourself out on the line. You can’t just do what’s smart for you, but you must do what’s right.”

Thomas Cortez is a first year student at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and can be reached at [email protected].

Author’s note: Thomas is no longer a first year student and is now a rising third year. He can still be reached at the above email address. Mickayla Stogsdill is the author and can be reached at [email protected]. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is planned to regain funding during the 2017–2018 fiscal year. None of the pictures featured in this article are my own and are from local newspaper articles.

Originally published at medium.com

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