Geographies of Safety: Mapping Safe Spaces for Students of Color at Brown University

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.

Brown students can contribute to the map project here.

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:

Conception: Participatory mapping is defined by production — that means that the more members of a community that participate in the map, the more beneficial it will be to the entire community. It is not defined by compliance with formal cartography or mapping conventions, and it is a tool for community engagement and involvement, rather than for outsiders from a community to appropriate or define. Lastly, those concerned about inherent bias in participatory mapping — all maps have bias. In fact, maps have historically been used as tools of empire and conquest. Participatory maps are not free of bias, but that is not the point. They are intended to give voice to communities that have been silenced by dominant forms of mapping and cartographic visualization.


Methodology: The article notes that testimonials were the thoughts of individuals, and thus, markers are not intended to classify entire spaces under categories of safe or unsafe, or essentialize all the inhabitants or visitors of that space. To that point, I have included in the map all the testimonials I have received outside of the few so far that were very clearly not intended to contribute to the map, but rather, to attack communities of color. The platform is one to exhibit experience and perception, again intended for the use of students of color in vocalizing their concerns or celebrations. Individual experiences do not determine a space’s value, but an individual’s perception of that space. Constructing definitive categorizations of a space as safe or unsafe is fruitless — rather, analyzing why students feel “safe” in some places over others is far more valuable, because it may lead to tangible solutions. Students will have conflicting views on the same locations, and investigating that difference is valuable.


Limitations: As it is already clear, this map does have its limits. There is no way to verify demographics, and in its openness there have been responses that toe or entirely cross the line between satirical and earnest. It does not quantify or define safety, but leaves definition and intensity entirely up to the respondent — this was intentional, but is nonetheless limiting in creating an inability to compare spaces. I’d venture to say that comparing safety of spaces is again, not useful, but reading the opinions of students within those spaces regardless of their absent “rating” is. Lastly, respondents are self selecting, but as more people participate, the less influential that self selection bias will become.
  1. I have a hard time seeing the value of this map (even if it were actually made using legitimate methodology) as a resource for incoming students. If the end-goal was to present such a map to the Corporation to promote policy-level action to help make Brown a safer space for all of its students, then I could get behind that, 100%. But using this map as a resource for incoming first years will prime them to think that there are places on campus that are unsafe environments for people of color. First off, this would lead those students to avoid certain places (that they have yet had the chance to form an opinion of for themselves), but more importantly, it’s entirely likely that confirmation bias would lead them to (perhaps mis-) characterize such places (and the people associated with them) as being hostile toward people of color. Not only is this an inappropriate way to judge a group of individuals, it also fosters and promotes segregation within our community. Given that we try so hard break down harmful stereotypes, it seems antithetical to our core ideals to then go ahead and map out the campus landscape in either/or terms of safe-ness.

  2. I am confused why many of the pin descriptions seem are a few repeated descriptions of unsafe places that say nothing about the pinned place in particular.

  3. Your argument about greek life at Brown is entirely subjective and presents as bias:

    “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”

    For starters, you make a wildly inappropriate logical leap to suggest that greek life is synonymous with sexual assault. You cannot simply use “it means something” as your transition between a very powerful accusation [“sexual assault”] and an entire community of students who range in socio-economic and racial background. Based upon your own map, there is only one allegation that addresses a sexualize environment on Wriston Quad [“and all frat houses and program houses, even ones like Phi Psi. I feel they’re all very sexualized (to various degrees) and I don’t feel I can enter them if I’m not cool or desirable, which I feel I’m not.”] Further, that comment happens to be addressing greek life as a whole, even though it is arbitrarily geo-tagged to Olney House AND double tagged as a description of Wriston Quad/ Patriot’s Court as a whole. In this case, you have entirely misrepresented your data. And this does mean something:

    It is not only disingenuous to characterize a significant portion of the community [“all frat houses and program houses”] as “unsafe” (indicated by a red polygon) based upon a single comment. But worse, it also demonstrates a significant bias (and hints at targeted agenda) to characterize an entire region of campus (where THOUSANDS of sophomores and juniors live). This bias does MEAN SOMETHING because it reduces the accuracy of your product and misinforms your target audience about housing-related issues that may significantly impact their time at Brown.

    1. I think you’ve misinterpreted the map. It’s crowd-sourced, meaning that there are many authors of this map. There is no misrepresentation of data because these are posts that people are freely allowed to add to the map. It is in no way characterizing entire spaces as “safe” and “unsafe”. I agree that would be arbitrary. What it is doing however, is showing where some individuals feel “safe” and “unsafe”. Anyone can add to the map as long as they have a brown email address. The quote that you mentioned above is explaining why someone may have added that location to the map as “unsafe”. The data represented here is in no way attempting to be an unbiased characterization of “safe” and “unsafe” spaces. Please read the addendum and learn more about the methodology of participatory mapping.

      1. Having read the addendum and considered the methodology, I still believe that this map and, more importantly, the author’s description of it is biased. Having a red polygon around an entire section of campus does in fact characterize it as unsafe [“The second layer indicates “unsafe” spaces, and both the markers and the polygons are red.”] I mention the original quote because it is used as both a description of one program house (tagged on Olney House, where DTau and Sigma are) on campus and the entirety of program housing (the red polygon). As such, this singular characterization of greek houses as promoting a sexualized atmosphere is amplified and not sufficient evidence for the author to dangerously characterize an entire community as the perpetrators of sexual assault. Further, the quote itself does not actually reference fraternities, but rather all “frat houses and program houses”. Simply put, while the map is “not intended to classify entire spaces under categories of safe or unsafe, or essentialize all the inhabitants or visitors of that space”, the author’s presentation of the data does indeed attempt to do just that: “fraternity houses were most consistently listed as “unsafe” spaces with the accompanying allegations that they are sexualized.” This is simply a biased representation of the author’s data in that fraternity houses are only once accused of being sexualized (and in conjunction with the entirety of program housing at Brown) and are clearly not the most consistently listed as “unsafe” — that distinction clearly belongs to academic buildings (and, ironically, Hillel — designed as a safe space for a community that is marginalized and persecuted across the globe).

        There is no doubt that this map evidences bias and that this is a consequence of the methodology. I also would never argue that this bias is inappropriate; rather, it is a byproduct of a completely legitimate methodology. The argument about bias, instead, is in the author’s portrayal of the data, which can reflect bias in an attempt to “give voice to communities that have been silenced by dominant forms of mapping and cartographic visualization.” The map being crowd-sourced does not diminish the author’s responsibility to accurately characterize her data. Even though anyone at Brown can make suggestions to it, only one person or small community of people is provided the opportunity to actually plot the data points on the map and the platform to discuss it. This is where bias is unacceptable and is fundamentally distinct from the map’s status as crowd-sourced; when the author misrepresents appropriately biased submissions, phe inserts their own bias.

        1. What I don’t understand is why you would suggest that the map’s participation is so limited. Since it doesn’t currently have many data points, the map’s goal is important here. When sharing the map through this article, the author is trying to encourage participation that was previously limited while it was being developed. There is a link above where you can, in fact, add to the map. Data points are collected every day.

          Also, in the author’s article, it seems to explain why people MAY have labeled places unsafe rather than the author characterizing the location as unsafe herself. It is true that many people on the campus would say that the fraternities are ‘sexualized’ spaces and the allegations with Sears House highlighted that.

          In addition, you mention Hillel, however it is also true that when creating specifically “safe” spaces for certain groups, you isolate others. For example, some people on the map claimed they felt the BCSC was “unsafe”, although you didn’t mention in that in your comment, however many don’t shy away from talking about this space being exclusionary in the BDH or elsewhere. Since the CSREA is located inside Hillel, many do feel uncomfortable walking through a space that has not been created for them, especially if they physically stand out while doing so. It’s not ridiculous at all. Although the map doesn’t say, I’m guessing some of the people who claimed Hillel was “unsafe” are also part of groups that are globally marginalized.

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