Mike is the kind of kid who likes to get things done. In a room full of poets and talkers, he’s the one keeping an eye on his watch, keeping us on task. He tells us it is 8:30 p.m. Outside, winter’s first snow is mercilessly whitewashing our campus and here, in this basement classroom, I’m sitting at the head of the table, and Mike is sitting to my right. This is a weekly editorial board meeting for Quarto Literary Magazine and we have a lot to get through tonight.
At a glance, this is a bright and quirky group—lots of glasses, lots of scarves, lots of cheer. Upon closer inspection, however, this is a tired group. These are, after all, Columbia students. It is, after all, a school night. So, in my head, I begin to list the ground rules that I will lay out to make us kind, respectful, and efficient.
We will specify an amount of time to devote to each topic, and we will not veer from it. We will attack each other’s opinions; not each other. We will keep our comments succinct. We will raise our hands when we wish to speak. We will speak one at a time. We will remain attentive. We will not interrupt one another. We will snap to show agreement. We will not repeat ourselves.
I clear my throat and the chatter dies down. I bring up the first item on my list.
“Let’s decide on a time-limit to discuss each submission we’ve received.”
Argument fills the air.
“We should really decide on a piece-by-piece basis.”
“I feel like 10 minutes is too long, but five is too short.”
“How about three for poetry, five for prose?”
“What if we don’t know if it’s poetry or prose?”
“How much time we spend on them should depend on the length, no?”
After some debate, we agree on five minutes. To my right, I notice Mike getting impatient. Someone asks if we should take a break at some point in the night. We all agree that we should. We begin to talk about when.
“9:30 might be too early. How about 10?”
“Isn’t 10 too late? I plan to be out of here by 10:30.”
“How about we take a break whenever we feel like we’re getting tired?”
“Should we vote on it?”
To my right, Mike raises his hand and patiently waits his turn. I ask the room to quiet down and I nod at him.
“I’m sorry,” Mike begins. He speaks softly and respectfully, as always. “I just think we’d get a lot more done if we spent less time talking about talking.”
It’s Friday night and Josh Lin, a senior in CC, has a birthday party to be at. Nonetheless, he agrees to sit down and explain some things to me.
“I’ve been called a faggot, and I’ve been called a chink and, I have no idea why, but I get catcalled all the time.”
Josh is a member of Radical C.U.N.T.S. (College Undergraduates Not Tolerating Sexism), a facilitator for ROOTEd (Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Education), and a resident of Queer House.
“Of course I’m not thinking about those instances every single time I walk down College Walk, but still. Little experiences like that build up and feed into why I don’t always feel comfortable in mainstream spaces.”
Josh is a firm believer in safe spaces and in ground rules. Unlike Mike, Josh is a firm believer in “talking about talking.” I’m keeping Josh from the birthday party because I want, desperately, to know why.
“At the bottom of my heart, it’s because I wish people would interact with more respect for one another in everyday conversations. But at Columbia and in the world, we are rewarded for being competitive. Classes, for instance, are competitive spaces. People feel like they need to talk more than each other to prove that they did the reading. Habits and incentives like that ruin the possibility of mutual respect. On the other hand, in spaces like Q-House, ROOTEd, Radical C.U.N.T.S., and the IRC (the Intercultural Resource Center), by agreeing to follow certain community ground rules, we are promising each other mutual respect.”
Josh and I met through mutual friends late last semester, and in every interaction we’ve had since, I have understood him as soft-spoken. The sort of person who speaks so rarely and so quietly that I am always leaning in when I am around him, making sure I don’t miss a single word. Now, however, Josh is anything but quiet. Now, Josh has a lot to say. I just haven’t been asking the right questions.
“So, what exactly are these ground rules?” I ask him.
“Just fundamental and basic rules to ensure that everyone in the conversation feels respected and can always say what’s on their mind.”
He explains that every participant in the space explicitly agrees upon these principles. In some spaces, they are agreed upon once and applied permanently. The IRC, for instance, establishes the guidelines that make their house a “safe space” during a retreat at the beginning of the school year. In other spaces, like in Radical C.U.N.T.S., the rules are reset at every meeting, Josh explains, “even though they usually end up being the same.”
It’s a long list, but Josh is patient as he walks me through it. Use “I” statements “so that you are speaking to your own experiences and not to the perceived experiences of others.” Be a participant in the conversation even when you aren’t the person speaking by listening critically and through body language. “We call this rule ‘step up, step up,’ and it speaks to the participation that comes with listening, which is critical but often devalued.” Maintain confidentiality. “What’s said here stays here. What’s learned here leaves here.” Be aware of the space you are occupying by being conscious of how much you are speaking. “Even when you feel like you have a lot to say, even if you consider yourself an expert on the subject, remind yourself that everyone’s voice is as important as your own.”
Josh lists several more, and as I scramble to write them all down, I remember one of the arguments I heard made by the Columbia University College Republicans in their campaign against safe spaces two years ago. I bring it up.
“Josh, how do you feel about the criticism that by creating such precise guidelines for what a ‘safe space’ is and what a ‘safe space’ means, you’re reinforcing the understanding that the rest of campus is an unsafe space?”
Josh is quiet for a beat.
“The important thing a lot of people don’t remember when they criticize safe spaces is that these spaces aren’t about political agendas. I wasn’t driven to these spaces because I wanted to make a political statement. I was driven to these spaces because I grew up in the closet all through high school and couldn’t talk about my sexual desires—or any desires, period—even with my closest friends and family. I couldn’t be honest in any space except one in which I was alone. But human beings are social creatures. We need spaces to discuss the things we feel like we can’t discuss anywhere else. That’s what these spaces are for.”
He takes a deep breath.
“To be honest, I use the term ‘safe space’ a lot, but I hate it. It isn’t like we’re creating a safe haven from a dirty, evil world outside. We’re just creating a space that we can feel good in. We are just creating social interactions that aren’t violent, in which we are trying our hardest not to hurt each other.”
I am on my way to Liz’s Place to grab a coffee between classes when I run into JungHee Hyun, a senior at Barnard, friend, residential adviser, and president of Barnard’s Student Government Association. I ask her how she feels, as an RA, a student activist, a student advocate, and SGA president, about the rules of discourse on our campus. “You know, it’s funny,” she begins, “I was thinking about this at my RA staff meeting on Wednesday night. I realized that the conversations that happen when I’m in meetings with other RAs are conversations that wouldn’t ever take place in SGA meetings.” She pauses. “It’s just a different culture of discussion.”
I know, from being an RA myself, that Residential Programs is a space very much centered around specific conversational guidelines. As Ashley Shaw, a senior at CC, Community Adviser for McBain, summarizes in an email, “In our roles as residential hall policy upholders, we must use language that would hold up in a court of law.” We don’t write people up; we document them. It is not weed, it is marijuana. Vomit, not throw-up. Our residents—not our neighbors—are intoxicated, not drunk. Sound policy. Wellness. Community building. Safe space. Bias incident. Policy violation. De-escalation. Terms that, outside of Residential Programs, mean little or nothing take on widely understood and institutionalized connotations. Becoming a member of Residential Programs, then, comes with a steep learning curve in jargon.
“R.A.s work very hard to maintain political correctness and to avoid language or phrases that would betray any -isms in the presence of one another,” Ashley explains. “Any language that may make others uncomfortable in any way is usually called out at the scene, and so I think that generally, members of the student staff think long and hard about carefully choosing words in the presence of one another.”
The institutionalized attention to diction, social sensitivity, and extreme self-awareness that Ashley emphasizes is not, according to JungHee, present in SGA meetings. Will Hughes, a senior in CC and Vice President of Policy for Columbia College Student Council, says in an email that the same is true for CCSC: “There aren’t explicit institutional rules about discourse on CCSC. We rely more on the tacit understanding of mutual respect.” Karishma Habbu, a senior in CC and President of CCSC, writes over email that “what is being discussed [in CCSC meetings] is generally not controversial or sensitive in the traditional sense,” which renders detailed ground rules unnecessary. “Generally, in CCSC meetings, most discussions we have are to find resolutions to what are generally widely accepted issues, like lack of space, lack of money for student groups, internal bureaucratic procedures … The diversity in opinion we deal with is not so much housed under discussions of privilege, race, religion, and ethnicity, but differences amongst SGB, ABC, administration, and the other councils,” she adds.
Sarah Darville, Editor in Chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator and a senior in CC, faces a similar situation. “Most of the chances we have at Spectator for discussion are meetings that are centered around decision-making,” she says. “There’s very little discussion about, or for the sake of, discussion itself. We’re used to talking about what needs to get done, and everybody is expected to be an advocate for themselves. The expectation of the space is that when anybody has anything to say, they will raise their voice and say it.”
CCSC and SGA are given eight months to effect real change on our campuses. Spectator functions on daily deadlines. It is easy to understand why, in the battle between efficiency and ground rules, the leaders in these spaces have their hands tied to put efficiency first. That said, by coincidence or consequence, these are the spaces that come under fire most often for their lack of diversity. Another such organization, as Bwog commenters are quick to point out, is the Varsity Show. The 118th Varsity Show, while perfectly entertaining, was performed by an all-white cast and created by a mostly-white creative team. One plausible explanation for this is that if creating the show itself requires over 20 hours per week from creators and performers, it becomes difficult to set aside any extra time for anything not directly related to that task. Or, as Chris Silverberg, CC’13, (actor in V117 and director of V119) puts it, “When you’re that busy writing a show, it is difficult to create a culture that goes beyond the basic level of respect.”
Rakhi Agrawal, a junior at Barnard and a student of color who is involved with Alice!, Barnard Student Life, the Student Wellness Project, Take Back the Night, Peer Health Exchance, CU Feel Good, and Spectator (amongst several other student groups), sees that weakness, too. “Maybe minority populations just aren’t interested in those spaces,” she says, “but, more likely, they are alienated because those spaces don’t have explicit ground rules that make them safe and accepting.”
I ask JungHee how she manages to straddle the vastly different worlds of SGA and Residential Programs. She says they aren’t at odds with one another, but rather, they complement one another. “Because I, as an RA, am mindful of the rules of discourse that lend themselves to sensitivity and respect, hopefully I am leading my organization in a sensitive and respectful way,” she says. “I think that’s what people mean by responsible leadership. That a leader should hold their organization accountable for its words and actions, even if that isn’t always efficient.”
That night, I call Josh on the phone, and I present him with the efficiency vs. ground-rules conundrum.
“I think it’s irresponsible to look at discussions that way,” he says. “Especially when it comes to governing boards and student councils, groups that plan events for the entire student body. They have to think critically about the messages they are sending out as a whole, and think about whether those messages are making people feel included or excluded.”
Suddenly, I am aware of a rift that divides our campus in half. It isn’t one that is easy to articulate. It isn’t pro-safe spaces and anti-safe spaces. It isn’t social-justice-oriented and social-justice-ignorant. It is based much less on jargon, and much more on practice. Our campus has two groups: those who think “talking about talking” is essential, and those like Mike, for whom it hinders the ability to get concrete work done. The question is: What do these two camps do for one another? How do they interact? How do they affect each other? How, I can’t help but wonder, do they impact the bystanders?
When I call Sherill Marie Henriquez, a senior in CC, she is in a car with her sister and her brother-in-law, driving home from dinner. They are in Florida, where Sherill-Marie is visiting her sister for fall break. I ask her if she can chat for ten minutes, and she says yes.
Sherill-Marie is the RA of the IRC. We met at the beginning of the school year during RA training. I remember being struck by her confidence as she explained to a room full of strangers what the term “microaggression” meant. I want to know, now, how she does it. How does she live in and oversee the IRC, a space with such nuanced expectations and understandings, yet carry herself so naturally and self-assuredly even outside of that space, when those understandings are taken away?
“See, I know that the rules that exist within the IRC don’t exist everywhere,” she begins. “But I still take them with me when I leave the house. I still follow them. To be honest, I couldn’t break out of them even if I wanted to.”
Sherill-Marie’s friends make fun of her. They call her a loudmouth because when they’re out at bars or walking down the street and men make disrespectful comments towards any of them, Sherill-Marie doesn’t let it slide like most girls do. Sherill-Marie confronts the man in question, asks him to explain himself, and holds him accountable for his words, like she’s been taught to do in the IRC.
“Sometimes it’s difficult,” she says. “Sometimes it’s exhausting. For instance, one of our guidelines in the house is to assume goodwill on everyone’s part in every conversation. That’s hard to do in the outside world because, let’s be real, everybody doesn’t always have good intentions. But I still try. It’s frustrating to live so aware of all the micro and macro-aggressions that are going on around you, which other people aren’t necessarily aware of. But I still try.”
As I thank her for taking the time to talk to me and hang up, I want to thank Sherill-Marie for a lot more. By devoting endless time and thought to conversational habits and perspectives and privileges, individuals like Josh and Ashley and Sherill-Marie hold the rest of this campus accountable for its words and its actions. We are all better for it. They bring their awareness and their habits to classes and club meetings and, gently, they rub off on the rest of us. Sometimes it’s exhausting. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But they still try.
Nnaemeka Ekwelum, a 2012 CC alumni, has just finished his workweek, and when I get him on the phone, he’s just about to head out to grab a drink with some friends. Five days a week, he is a teacher, an Admissions Associate, and a Community Diversity Adviser at the Belmont Hill School, an independent high school for boys in Belmont, Mass. I met Nnaemeka two years ago, when we were both new RAs undergoing training. During his senior year at Columbia, which ended this past May, Nnaemeka was RA of the IRC.
“I’m starting to understand the impact of spaces like the IRC internally, and even on our campus,” I tell him. “But what about the real world, man? What’s that like?”
“I think about this all the time,” he admits, before launching into his response. “Living in the house has informed how I understand people, and interpersonal dynamics, whether it’s at work as a teacher and an adviser, or when I’m out with friends. Living there taught me that the smallest things you say can trigger reactions you didn’t expect, or can permanently impact your environment. That’s something I’m especially glad I learned, now that I’m in charge of a classroom.”
“What about relationships? What about friends?”
“See, the political energy in college allows you to maintain your personal politics and still have friends whose values and belief systems are drastically different from yours, because you’re all in an environment where the understanding is that you’re there to learn. But in the real world, people don’t like when you challenge their privilege. People don’t like when you challenge their perspectives. Not gonna lie, it’s been difficult to maintain those habits that I picked up at the house, and to maintain my own values, and to find new friends.”
All the talking about talking happens in closed rooms: On our campus, in Morningside Heights, in the so-called Columbia Bubble. Small pocket communities, within our own small pocket community, adopt the ground rules these conversations formulate. It is possible to go through a Columbia education without once stepping foot in any of these spaces, without once engaging in one of these conversations. Yet, as I learned from Josh, from JungHee, from Ashley, from Sherill-Marie, and from Nnaemeka, we are interacting with these discourse-activists on a daily basis. They’re in our classes. They’re in our dorms. As a result, we are being held accountable to their standards, intentionally or otherwise. In other words, as Tyler Bonnen, GS’13, (a ROOTEd facilitator and a Men’s Peer Educator) explained it to me, “Whether or not we are intentional about it, there are very codified rules that govern our interactions on campus.”
These rules come from the living rooms of Q-House and the IRC. They come from Residential Programs. They come from the countless individuals on campus who have devoted hours, days and, in some cases, years to “talking about talking,” just to ensure a little more mutual respect in our larger community. They can be written off and they can be ignored, but the individuals within them cannot.
“Something that all these groups have in common is that they are all preparing people to go out and engage with the real world,” Tyler explains. “We’re learning how to engage with the part of the world we want to identify with. We need to talk about talk because there are more than just words here. There are cultures and values. There are expectations and privileges.”
Whether or not a catcaller knows what “IRC” stands for, he has no choice but to stop and listen when Sherill-Marie walks up to him and asks that he explain himself. Whether or not Spectator columnists or Bwog writers have ever been to a BSO meeting, they have no choice but to pay attention when comments fill their screens, asking that they “check their privilege.” Whether or not you have the time or the inclination to “talk about talking,” chances are some of your classmates, your neighbors, and your friends have devoted their lives to it. For that alone, we are a safer community. A more careful community. A more respectful community.