News  Engineering students talk equity

Workshops seek to initiate discussion on safe space

In a bid to start a conversation on safe space and equity in the Faculty of Engineering, students in the class Introduction to the Engineering Profession (FACC 100) took part in a workshop on safe space and diversity on February 6 and 7.

The workshop, organized by Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) Equity Commissioner Christopher Tegho, was led by former McGill students Nampande Londe and Fiona Ross. It was included as part of a more general discussion about sustainability in the intro-level course.

The interactive discussion aimed to facilitate conversation in the faculty about creating safer space, an ongoing effort of Tegho, who became Equity Commissioner in Fall 2013.

According to Tegho, the faculty has had equity and inclusivity problems, including problematic event titles and Frosh chants that promote rape culture, as well as social activities that do not include non-drinking options.

The workshop covered topics such as gender identity, racism, microaggressions, and consent, among other issues, and ended with scenarios and classroom discussion. Clicker surveys were also included as part of the presentation, with 79 per cent of students responding that before the presentation they were unfamiliar with the concept of safe space.

Tegho has been working toward an event like this since November. “Students in [FACC 100] are all first-year[s], and I think such an initiative is very important in first year,” he said. “Professors, the dean [of Engineering, Jim Nicell], and EUS executives [all] support this idea. The EUS wants this to happen every year.”

Ross thought that the workshop was a good introduction to the process, and spoke to the difficulty of discussing safe space and other equity issues.

“This [class was] a group of 100 people who [had] no idea what safe space is. But even when people know what it is, people still say shitty things,” said Ross. “In terms of learning new things, you’re never always aware of everything that is out there. We’ve got to do some more easing in.”

Gabriel Veilleux, a U1 Chemical Engineering student, thought the workshop was a positive step.

“You really do have to be careful – you can hurt someone deeply with a comment that you don’t always think about,” Veilleux said. “I think having [these] workshops helps people to realize, ‘Okay, I’m in the public space now, I can hurt someone.’ I think there was a good debate at the end. You’re never going to agree with everything, but it’s good to hear people’s opinions on these things.”

The EUS is currently reviewing its equity policy to make it more proactive, and Tegho was pleased to see that events like this can continue.

“I appreciated that the workshop was with other presentations about sustainability,” he said. “The EUS believes that social equity is part of sustainability.”

“People really tune out of these discussions because they don’t think it’s relevant to them, so we try to make it relevant to them,” said Londe in a debrief after the first workshop.

“In all my years doing workshops, it’s really easy to want everybody to walk out and go, ‘That’s a microaggression!’ or ‘You’re a microaggressor!’ But we forget that all of this learning starts with a seed,” she said. “So, if we went in there, and some people started thinking about this, that’s enough for me.”