‘You are not alone’: Students become allies at annual Safe Zone training

Armon Siadat

A group of 22 students gathered in Carter Hall early Saturday morning to receive training for the Tri-State Area Safe Zone Initiative.

The training, led by Stephanie Young, assistant professor of communication studies, and Amie McKibban, assistant professor of psychology, provided participants with the basic skills they need to become an ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Amie McKibban talks to a resident assistant during Safe Zone training Saturday.  Armon Siadat/The Shield
Amie McKibban talks to a resident assistant during Safe Zone training Saturday. Armon Siadat/The Shield

What does it mean to be Safe Zone trained?

The workshop was split into two sessions.

During the first, Young and McKibban cleared the air of misconceptions by defining common terminology associated with members of the LGBT community, such as “butch,” “lipstick” and “toaster.” Participants were taught how and when or when not to use such words.

“We’re giving you basic resources, basic vocabulary (and) a better understanding of what is an ally, right? Just networking,” Stephanie Young said.

After that, participants were taught how to combat stereotypes, counteract homophobia and end heterosexism.

“(Because we were trained), we can start to openly communicate about the issues within the LGBT community and speak up with and for them,” said Danesha Shelton, sophomore social work major and resident assistant. “(Being trained) clarified a lot of misconceptions I had and allowed me to have the correct knowledge to communicate with those in the LGBT community.”

During the second session, Young and McKibban walked participants through the steps of becoming an ally. Participants were then challeneged to put their knowledge to the test by participating in role-playing exercises and group scenarios.

Personal stories, question and answer sessions and videos throughout the seminar further illustrated points made by the instructors.

“For me, something that stood out was a video we watched at the end of the training that went over various statistics of struggles that members of the LGBT community face – ranging from attempts at suicide to not having support from their families,” said Courtney Dressler, a sophomore occupational therapy assistant major. “That information alone should make someone stop and think about how they can help others.”

At the end of the training, participants signed a contract pledging to be active allies for the LGBT community. Once participants give their consent, their names and email addresses are added to the Safe Zone registry. This, along with displaying the Safe Zone decal on the trainee’s car or laptop, allows those in the LGBT community who need to talk to someone know who their allies are.

Participants were also given a Tri-State Area Safe Zone Initiative Resource Manual to take home, which provides additional information not covered during the training.

“The most important thing I learned was to make your voice heard. It is one thing to be supportive of the LGBT community, but it is another to be proactive,” Dressler said.

Dressler attended the Safe Zone training because she has a family member who is part of the LGBT community.

“I have seen many of the struggles and triumphs she has went through,” she said.

Dressler wanted to better educate herself on how she can help people going through similar situations as her family member.

It doesn’t end here

“The purpose of Safe Zone training is to mobilize allies in the region. Safe Zone is not a group or an organization but an initiative,” McKibban said.

Safe Zone training is a lifelong process, not a means to an end, she said. As life on campus changes, so does the training.

“We used to not cover this in the training, but this word is being thrown around a lot on this campus: ‘cisgender,’” McKibban said.

Cisgender refers to people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

While USI offers Safe Zone training, the university still has a long way to go before becoming an all-inclusive campus – especially with housing, Young said.

“How do we accommodate the needs of our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students?” she asked. “How do we accommodate them without publicly outing them when they’re not ready to be out publicly? How do we accommodate two folks who are in transitioning in terms of bathrooms on campus?”

Allies seek solutions

A group of resident assistants suggested making a change to housing applications that would give students the option to let Housing and Residence Life know he or she is gay.

It would allow students to be paired with a roommate that is an ally, which would create a “safe zone,” Stephanie Young said.

The more safe zones that are established on campus, the less chance there would be of a hate crime.

McKibban advised the trainees to contact the Dean of Student’s Office (DOSO) before calling the Office of Public Safety if students need to file a report regarding a hate crime.

“That office is sensitive to the matter,” McKibban said. “The dean of students has been trained and knows what to do.”

The trainees were also advised to contact the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office as opposed to the Evansville Police Department off campus.

“In the Sheriff’s Office, there tends to be USI alum,” McKibban said. “They tend to be more sensitive to the matter.”

‘You are not alone’

Safe Zone training takes place once a year and  lasts three hours.

“We’re almost doing a lot of breadth, not always depth,” Stephanie Young said. “There is just so much to cover in three hours.”

As opposed to turning Safe Zone training into an all-day workshop, Young and McKibban have discussed the idea of adding refresher workshops to the calendar.

“We would love to do refresher workshops and focus more on transgender issues,” Young said. “Transphobia would be a great way to do a more focused workshop on trans issues.”

Young and McKibban started the Safe Zone trainings in 2010.

“When we started off, our first training was only for students,” Young said.

Since then, Young and McKibban have provided Safe Zone training to USI faculty, campus security, local communities in Evansville and to students and faculty at the University of Evansville.

“(The most important thing) is recognizing that there is a network of people here at USI, and in the larger community, (made up) of students, faculty and staff that really want to make our campus a warm, inviting place – a place of respect and diversity, specifically for our LGBT students and faculty,” Young said about one of Safe Zone’s major goals for USI. “If anything, recognize that this is something we are trying to do here at USI – creating a sense of visibility, a voice and recognizing that you’re not alone – especially our students that identify as LGBT – you are not alone.”

Fast Facts:

439 people have been Safe Zone trained

302 allies are listed in the Safe Zone registry

Up next:

Tri-State Area Safe Zone Initiative Training for Faculty and Staff

9 a.m. April 30, in Carter Hall

Register @ http://www.usi.edu/opra/Surveys/safezone14.htm