K-State’s Safe Zone program trains faculty, students to help others with identity-based struggles

Logo for the Safe Zone program.

When walking through a dorm hallway or by a Kansas State faculty member’s office, it is not uncommon to see purple decorations. But one particular purple symbol — a circle with illustrated hills in shades of violet, reading “SAFE ZONE, Open Minds. Open Doors.” — signifies that person is part of the Safe Zone program at K-State.

According to Safe Zone’s webpage, the program is designed to “create allies for oppressed, marginalized and silenced groups.”

Kodee Walls, staff psychologist for Counseling Services and Safe Zone program coordinator, said K-State’s Safe Zone program started in the ’80s as a collaboration between Counseling Services and the Women’s Center (now known as the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education) to develop and create allies for the LGBTQ community.

“That’s actually pretty consistent with what Safe Zone programs across the country and at universities look like,” Walls said.

Walls said Safe Zone’s programming fell under the umbrella for the Campaign for Nonviolence at K-State, and the program’s focus changed in the early 2000s.

“It shifted to try to be more inclusive to all marginalized and oppressed minorities in the population,” Walls said. “So that it wasn’t just queer folks but also racial-ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, even international students coming to the states who maybe don’t have as many opportunities.”

Safe Zone aligns well with the Principles of Community, Walls said, and Safe Zone’s goal is to create a safe place for all people at K-State.

“It’s really easy being members of dominant culture, like this is a predominantly white campus, so when we go to class and we see people who look like us, we don’t inherently feel misunderstood or unsafe,” Walls said. “But that might be the experience for students of color. When we don’t have to worry about holding hands with our partner on campus, we may feel safer versus maybe a lesbian or gay couple who don’t feel comfortable showing that type of interaction.”

Walls said increased awareness of the issues faced by those of marginalized identities can change campus’ community culture to allow everyone to feel safe.

Safe Zone operates as a network of allies who have attended the program’s Basic Ally Training, which Walls said covers a lot of broad content, including power dynamics, privilege and oppression, social justice and introductions to partner offices that can be resources for allies themselves or can be places for allies to direct students in need of additional support.

Safe Zone’s partner offices include the Student Access Center, International Student and Scholar Services, Office of Student Life, LGBT Resource Center and the CARE Office.

These offices also offer advanced training sessions for Safe Zone allies on particular topics and issues that affect certain groups of people, like people with disabilities, veterans and transgender and gender queer individuals.

“So if you have an area that you’re not quite confident about your understanding, you can go to presentations for more details, and they all sort of align with what the basic ally training starts with,” Walls said.

At the basic training, allies are given stickers and buttons that display the Safe Zone logo so they can show their students and peers that they are part of the program. When people come to a Safe Zone ally for help, Walls said the main role of an ally is to listen and refer them to the service that best fits their concerns.

“It’s really easy to get into a helping relationship and get way over our head,” Walls said. “The basic thing is to listen and refer. … It’s not the ally’s job to justify, defend or investigate something; it’s sort of to be with the person as they need it.”

Walls added that training attendees do not have to become Safe Zone allies.

“You can just come [to trainings] because it’s important for you to maybe be introduced to some of these ideas and concepts that students in a class might be talking about, for faculty and staff,” Walls said. “With students specifically, I think it’s a great resource to have the knowledge of how to refer your friends or your roommate or your classmate or whatever if you know something is coming up for them that relates to one of their identities that are non-dominant.”

Lindsay Kubina, access adviser and outreach coordinator for the Student Access Center, said she has facilitated advanced trainings with Safe Zone on how to interact with people with disabilities and intersectionality, which is the idea that people with multiple marginalized identities do not suffer identity-based injustice with one isolated identity.

“The intersectionality presentation focused on working with fibers of sexual assault, sexual trauma, stalking, harassment, to consider that there may be different backgrounds there,” Kubina said. “So you may have a person who is an international student who also has a disability, so there’s different things to keep in mind.”

Kubina said her advice for potential or current Safe Zone allies is to attend as many trainings as possible.

“You don’t know what student is going to walk through the door, what kind of issues they might be having, and it can be really helpful to have a diverse amount of trainings — not that you’d be expected to directly help that student with that specific problem, but to know the resources that are available,” Kubina said.

More information about the Safe Zone program, including dates for basic and advanced training sessions, can be found at k-state.edu/safezone.

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.