Wide open safe spaces: Moving on in the Women’s and Pride centres

The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union offers support and services through campus centres, but with increasing apathy on the volunteer front, these resources aren’t living up to their full potential.

The USSU Women’s Centre and Pride Centre both offer incredibly valuable services to students on campus, so why is it that nearly every time you walk into one of these spaces, there are only a handful of the same faces? Why don’t more people go out to events like Sexhibition? Why, oh why, are the centres so intimidating?

I had a conversation with a former longstanding volunteer to try to understand some concerns and issues that might be plaguing these spaces. Progress, after all, entails learning.

While perhaps not visible to anyone beyond those on the front lines, the past year at the Women’s and Pride centres has been hectic. A lot of issues were raised, and in the opinions of many students involved and invested in the centres, none of these issues have been successfully resolved.

One regularly contested problem throughout the year, which some believe is a catalyst for further debate, has been the issue of men in the Women’s Centre. The truth of the matter is that the space is designed to be a resource for women. While it should and does operate as a social space, complaints from volunteers have too often concerned men who may only respect its social aspect.

It’s still undeniable that men take space away from women and non-binary people who don’t have the same access to literally everything and everywhere else in the world.

Critiques have also been raised about the two centres’ co-ordinators, particularly regarding their social media conduct. Leadership requires professionalism, and some would argue that the centres have seen less of it this year with the standing coordinators.

An important piece of the puzzle for these centres is a healthy relationship with volunteers, as it is true that the centres could not function without them. When those relationships go sour, the centres and everyone who relies on their services suffer.

If we’re to start at the potential source, there is room to improve. If it seems like fellow volunteers are leaving the Women’s Centre, because the space is too often filled with men, we can ask to change the rules. In response, co-ordinators should ensure open discussion.

In fact, there was a group of volunteers who took on the task of addressing this particular problem with the co-ordinator, but many others simply stopped volunteering without bringing up the issue as a potential reason.

Spaces and conversations are different, when there are men in them. Studies have shown that women talk less, more quietly and with less confidence when men are in the conversation — because men often talk more, louder and more aggressively.

In spite of these difficulties, the year hasn’t been a write-off, and successes have amounted. A particular highlight has been extra training for volunteers. This year, an extra training session was set up specifically for those volunteers in the Arts Tunnel during Pro-Choice Awareness Week. In the past, this has been a stressful volunteer activity due to the potential for conflict and attacks, which are known to happen when groups of differing ideologies clash.

However, for many volunteers, these successes have been overshadowed by unresolved concerns. The bottom line is that the co-ordinators need to take volunteer concerns seriously, or the position should be filled by someone who will. If the centres cannot prove their necessity through their efficacy and frequency of use, they could be lost. This would be a real shame, because the services they provide are vital.

As the issue stands, a group of former volunteers have approached the coordinators and the USSU general manager with several ideas, such as increased coordinator training, volunteer workshops and bystander intervention training.

Graphic: Laura Underwood / Layout Manager