Brown University has maintained a high level of ethnic and racial diversity in comparison to its peer institutions, with its most recently admitted class reaching “a record-high level of ethnic diversity, with 46 percent of students identifying as students of color.” Nonetheless, while Brown’s rate of diversity may be commendably high, white students are both in the majority and remain the largest plurality. For this reason, Brown can be classified as a Predominately White Institution (PWI).
In addition to Brown’s current demographics, the university’s legacy is a story of an institution catering almost exclusively to the white elite. While Brown was established in 1764, the first known African American graduates, Inman Page and George Washington Milford, were not allowed into the university until 113 years later in the class of 1877. This was also the class year in which Brown admitted its first Asian student, Sau-Ahbrah, from Burma. Moreover, Brown’s construction is inextricably linked to violence towards communities of color and ethnic minority groups. Both in its control over indigenous land and its existence as a product of profit from the transatlantic slave trade, Brown cannot escape its history of structural violence and racial exploitation. Additionally, expansion of Brown has led to the gentrification of Fox Point and the displacement of Providence’s large Cape Verdean communities from areas on the peripheries of the campus.
Given this history, it came as no surprise that many students of color feel decidedly unsafe on Brown’s campus. They have, in the course of their four years, developed relationships in communities that offer them safety, or at least support them. Still, much of the campus remains inaccessible to them. These students seem to self-organize around many of the same proclaimed “safe spaces” and actively avoid many of the same “unsafe” ones. When I approached students of color on this campus- notably I am one myself- they spoke of a need to provide underclassmen with resources about where on campus they could find help if they needed it. They also spoke of a need to alert administrators and the general student body to the unique struggles of communities of color as they navigate Brown’s campus or that of any elite institution.
I suggested mapping geographies of safety on Brown’s campus.
I initially reached out to communities of color on campus through the Brown Center for Students of Color and the Women of Color Collective to determine community needs and anticipated goals. I then created and distributed (via social media and email) a Google Form to student groups catering exclusively or predominantly to ethnic and racial minorities. After compiling my results in an anonymous responses form, I used Google Maps to create my participatory map. The Google Map of safe spaces for students of color at Brown can be viewed here. Click over pinned locations to read student commentary.
There are three layers to the map. The first is a light blue polygon outlining Brown’s campus. The second layer is a combination of mostly markers and a few polygons, all green. These markers indicate the areas students identified as “safe,” with students’ reasons included in the description for the marker or the polygon. The second layer indicates “unsafe” spaces, and both the markers and the polygons are red. Both the “safe” and “unsafe” spaces layers include a polygon of some spaces that could not be classified to a specific location on the map. These two “unclassified” polygons can be viewed to the right of the polygon outlining Brown’s campus. All three layers can be hidden to highlight specific features of the map, such as just “safe” spaces or just the polygon that defines Brown campus.
I want to note that I did not change the names of the spaces students deemed “safe” or “unsafe.” Though this made points less categorizable, it is truer to students’ perceived nature of campus spaces. The LGBTQ Center, for example, was referred to by students as the “LGBTQ Center,” the “LGBTQ Resource Center,” and as the “QRC.”
Because this project is intended as a resource for underclassmen and is an easy visualization for administration to see why students of color feel unsafe in certain areas and safer in others, it is something I will continue updating and adding to throughout the course of the semester. Yet even in the responses I have received so far in what has been just a week of committed data collection, I have already noticed patterns emerging both in geographical locations and the reasons for self-organization in those locations.
Many participants have urged me to send the map to University Council of Students and to the Diversity Advisory Board. These students do not merely want this map to be used as a tool for underclassmen to find the spaces where students of color congregate; they want to instrumentalize the map as a tool of change.
Because Brown is currently under federal investigation for sexual violence, and because people of color are most likely to be assaulted and to underreport assault, it means something that the fraternity houses were most consistently listed as “unsafe” spaces with the accompanying allegations that they are sexualized. Because administrators are meant to serve the entire campus community, it means something that University Hall can be seen as “unsafe,” as well. Student aversion to buildings housing STEM programs illuminates the perceived inaccessibility of this field to minorities, and the resulting underrepresentation that occurs.
On the other hand, looking at students’ reasons for listing the Brown Center for Students of Color or Sarah Doyle Women’s Center as “safe” spaces could provide the administration with concrete ideas as to make these less safe spaces ultimately more welcome and accessible. Examining how intersectionality of identities plays into safety could be valuable as well- many students referenced affronts to their identities other than race, such as instances of classism, sexism, and heterosexism.
For students of color, navigating a PWI like Brown can be a difficult and intimidating experience. Organizing themselves around identity is one way of facing that experience with stronger support than if they did so alone. This map does not say that such organization is insufficient, but rather points to the ways currently inaccessible spaces on campus can emulate the kind of support and community that have been fostered in more welcoming spaces.
The map is an ongoing effort to give voice to communities that feel marginalized on this campus, and I hope that with its publication in an online forum such as this one, more students provide testimonials that demonstrate the ways in which safety operates at Brown. A handful of responses are illuminating, but they are not comprehensive. A handful of voices are meaningful, but collective voice is crucial.
Editor’s note (11/16): In response to recent conversations surrounding this map, the author has requested the addition of a three part addendum clarifying the map’s conception, methodology, and limitations, which we have included below: