While today’s generation of college students may not remember Matthew Shepard, his tragic death in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo., resulted in a program that has served the Illinois State University campus for over 10 years.
During a rally that fall, a commitment was made to ensure that Illinois State’s commitment to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community was demonstrated, and that the acts leading to Shepard’s death would not be tolerated here. The Safe Zone program was launched the following spring and has been serving the campus ever since.
Jill Benson, associate dean of students, has been involved with the program from the beginning and remembers that even though there were a few models to follow, Illinois State’s program is unique to the campus. While an effort like this could have been met with some trepidation by the campus community, Benson recalls being pleased that the campus-wide announcement about the program and call for participants was met so favorably.
When asked what she believes the Safe Zone program provided for the campus when it was introduced, Benson replied that “It provided a visible statement about the value of the GLBT community to the campus.”
The Safe Zone program is coordinated through the Diversity Advocacy unit of the Dean of Students Office under the leadership of Angela Davenport, coordinator for diversity advocacy. Angela said, “The Safe Zone program helps faculty and staff make a better environment for students so they feel safe and welcome.”
The Safe Zone program is offered four times per year and is geared for faculty and staff. Key students have also been invited to participate in the program over the years. It is a two-hour orientation program that focuses on raising awareness about the GLBT community in an effort to serve as an ally.
Those that complete the program are offered the opportunity to sign a statement committing to serving as an ally and, if signed, they receive a sticker and button to post and/or wear to demonstrate their commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment.
Davenport invites past participants to attend sessions every few years. “While the focus has remained the same since its inception, students have changed” she said. “More students arrive on campus being out to family and/or friends than when the program first started.” Benson echoes this and adds, “Students are also dealing developmentally with intersecting identities.” As a result, these topics have been added to the Safe Zone program and continuing educational opportunities, including topical brown bag lunch discussions for participants.
In addition to the staff in the Dean of Students office, there are five to six staff members from other departments who serve as Safe Zone facilitators. Davenport would like to expand this group and invites those that have completed the program to consider the next level of participation. Benson has taken it a step further as she spends time helping other colleges launch similar programs by visiting their campuses and providing a train-the-trainer workshop to prepare them to begin what began for this campus more than a decade ago.
Davenport is pleased to unveil the new logo that was redesigned with student input to be more inclusive. Past participants who would like to display the new logo can contact Davenport for a replacement sticker.