Organizer asked to be discreet about safe space at university frosh festival

Volunteers who organized the first designated safe space at a University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU) event were initially told not to promote their efforts "too much," because the concept made the event seem unsafe, according to one U of M student.

'That's rape culture at its finest,' University of Manitoba student organizer says of request

Aly Raposo (second from left) and some of the safe space volunteers at the 2016 UMSU Frosh Music Festival. (Submitted by Aly Raposo)

Volunteers who organized the first designated safe space at a University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU) event were initially told not to promote their efforts "too much," because the concept made the event seem unsafe, according to one U of M student.

"Originally, we were asked not to promote the event too heavily to make frosh seem unsafe," safe space organizer Aly Raposo said. "However, it started a bit of an uproar."

Raposo goes to the University of Manitoba and is a mental health advocate. She said she was approached by UMSU a few weeks ago. They wanted her to put together a safe space for mental health purposes during the UMSU Frosh Music Festival, an annual back-to-school party attended by thousands that took place Sunday.

As she started organizing, Raposo said she realized the space needed to be a welcoming place for people who had been sexually assaulted, felt uncomfortable or who were dealing with mental health issues.

Asked to keep discreet 

The day before the festival, Raposo said she was approached by a different UMSU member, who asked her not to promote the space too much because it would create the idea that frosh was an unsafe event to begin with.

"I was livid," Raposo said. "That's rape culture at its finest. It's saying sexual assaults do not happen at these things, or that drug use isn't apparent at these things. That homophobia isn't real, bullying isn't real or mental illness isn't real. It's completely devaluing every single person and their right to have that space."

Raposo fought back, writing about the situation on every social media page she ran. She said people were upset and began sending UMSU messages about their own mental health issues or reasons why having a safe space was important.

"A lot of people were completely angered about this," Raposo said.

UMSU calls it a miscommunication

Tanjit Nagra, UMSU president, said the request to keep the safe space discreet was a miscommunication.

"There was nothing in regards of not being able to promote it," Nagra said. "It was just a matter of not knowing the details. At UMSU, we offer our own advocacy campaign, one of them being consent culture. We were handing out materials ourselves, so we just wanted to make sure everything worked together."

Raposo, however, said she believes the UMSU executive was clear in the discreet request since that person eventually apologized to her and the team of volunteers. The final resolve was a Facebook post, promoting the safe space on the UMSU Frosh Music Festival Facebook page.

Both Nagra and Raposo said the event went well. With more than 3,000 people at the festival, Raposo said she and the safe space team were busy at all times.

Volunteers saw everything from intoxicated to suicidal students, Raposo said. The team gave those students a chance to talk about their problems without judgment, help them through whatever drug-induced high they were experiencing or find a safe way home.

"I really had a bond with a lot of girls who had anxiety attacks because I have that myself," Raposo said. "Helping them at that time, I thought if I had this on campus when I was in my first year, things would be so different."

Permanent safe space on campus

Raposo said she's interested in creating a permanent safe space for all University of Manitoba students on campus. Right now, there are safe spaces for women, members of the LGBT community, Indigenous people and those living with a disability — but not a universal space.

Before making a permanent safe space, however, Raposo said other students might need to learn just what that means.

"Safe spaces don't create the idea that something isn't safe," she said.

"These sexual assaults on campuses that are happening are all across Canada. The drug abuse that's happening across Canada, the homophobia, the transphobia that's happening ... we need these spaces. If people educate themselves a bit more on it, I think they'd be a lot more accepting of it."