Op-Ed: Brown and Blueprint: Moving forward with a vision for Tufts social life

Content Warning: This op-ed discusses sexual violence.

My response to the Student Life Review Committee report begins with a memory of a Sunday last spring, when Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon invited all the students serving on the committee to her personal home for a homemade breakfast. The committee, charged with evaluating the student social environment and the future of Greek life, began with steadfastly held pre-judgments, nauseating moments of invalidation and a deep-seated distrust between members.

As the seven students on the committee sat around a dining table scooping pancakes and bacon onto our plates, we were asked to share with one another where our names came from. I learned about people’s grandparents, their histories of immigration and how much it hurts when proper pronunciation is denied to them. By the time I was finished with my eggs, I learned about friendships that held someone together during their most broken moments and about feeling erased, unvalued, misrepresented and not even represented by more than three percent of campus.

While I will gladly accept chocolate chip pancakes any day, the breakfast did not lure us into unified agreement about the outcomes we wanted from the committee. But we did all leave with a greater sense of respect and value for one another, a reassurance that when I spoke from my heart, I could trust the others — many of whom did not agree with me policy-wise — to hold my truth.

I share this story because it is one that is not captured anywhere in the introduction, findings or recommendations published in the Student Life Review Committee report.

Regarding the report, I have many disappointments with it. I was public prior to the committee with my belief that a truly inclusive social life cannot be dependent on one’s socio-economic status, gender identity or ability to be rated highly on a 1–5 scale. True brotherhood and sisterhood are powerful and beautiful things, but too often they are co-opted and used to perpetuate sexual assault, silence survivors and impose exclusionary and oppressive gender standards.

I know many Greek life student leaders at Tufts are aware of these modes of oppression and are trying their best to fight against them within their systems. I value and support their efforts to reflect and do better for our community; however, like many others, I am also disappointed that the report did not recommend pathways for building “brotherhoods” and “sisterhoods” independent of the exclusive systems set forth by national Panhellenic and fraternity institutions.

Larger and more significant than the Greek life debate, however, is the fact that physical space and resources have been inequitably distributed and institutionalized for decades at this university. And where there is inequity there is impunity; without a diverse and dynamic social ecosystem, there is no competition between social outlets and therefore no alternatives when abusive behavior becomes normalized where social, economic and physical capital lay.

I know many students are upset with the lack of specificity in the committee’s report — I am too. But what it does provide is a strong foundation upon which to ground our continued activism.

Let’s look at the report’s findings; in a section dedicated entirely to space, the report acknowledges, “the only dedicated social spaces central to campus are controlled by the fraternities. This has concentrated many exclusionary and/or negative student experiences at the center of campus.” It also identifies “equitable access to campus space for a wider variety of student groups and organizations as a means to support a healthier and more vibrant campus life.” These ideas are the foundation for continued action toward a sustainable, more inclusive and, honestly, more fun student social experience. Under our current system, we are all deprived of a social ecosystem that truly allows us to connect with one another’s humanity across interests and across difference; a diverse and more equitable social life is therefore something that all of us — regardless of where we stand on the Greek life debate — should put our work toward.

And work, inspired by the report, is already being done. Take, for example, the opening of nine new social spaces that will be available through EMS booking by the end of the semester. This is not a change listed specifically in the recommendations, nor does it address the systemic roots of spatial inequity, but it is an example of how tangible change can be fueled by the findings within the report. So I encourage us all to ask: Where else in the report can we ground our further activism efforts? How can we leverage this report to fight for systemic change to spatial inequity?

As president of the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, I ran on a platform to continue the work of the committee’s recommendations, and through working with the Office of Campus & Capital Renewal Planning, as well as the TCU Senate Admin & Policy Committee, there are two opportunities for where this report can take us:

  • A themed housing system in the upcoming Capen Village development.

15 wood-framed houses between Winthrop and Fairmount streets are scheduled to be built for junior and senior housing by fall 2019, with five houses in place by fall 2018. This gives us an opportunity to establish a new system for communal, co-responsible, themed living, giving residents access to institutional support and physical space to host social events by theme, across themes, and for the Tufts community.

  • A student-driven comprehensive review of existing physical space needs and spatial inequities.

Spaces like the Group of Six centers have too long been underinvested, undermaintained and pitted against one another in their demands for greater support. Our specialty themed houses offer great opportunities to build community, but can be supported to offer so much more. Students studying in Braker or Eaton are working in cramped, underrenovated, overheated spaces that do not promote collaborative learning. Let’s get together and share how we are interacting with our built environment. In which ways do our physical spaces help us build community, and how might they present challenges to the communities we envision growing?

The TCU Senate is holding a town hall on Monday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Alumnae Lounge to envision together how we can create more equitable social spaces.

We will present a vision for the themed housing system with opportunities to share feedback. We will also launch a new Senate initiative, “Brown & Blueprint,” to tie all these conversations together in a student-led assessment of our interactions with physical space. We will be conducting listening sessions with individual students and student organizations throughout the semester, and are in the process of creating a website for you to submit comments, request a listening session for your student organization and track progress and key takeaways on these conversations.

I know many of us are tired of being asked yet again to pour our emotional energy into this university; believe me, I hear you. But if there’s one thing I learned from my Student Life Review Committee breakfast, it is that we’re all trying to find home here. With the launch of this report, we have an opportune moment to ask ourselves two questions: 1) What do we need to truly find home here? 2) What are we willing to give, to create, to work together on, in order to get there?