Us Space: Promoting real conversations on campus
By Sabrina Jammy & Emily Briggs
Topics such as race, religion, sexuality and politics are often avoided at universities and workplaces. Even among friends, discussing such topics can provoke tension and anxiety. However, there is too much happening in the world around us for these matters not to not affect us in our everyday lives. The examples are endless: mass shootings based on color or religious beliefs, countries in constant warfare, impoverished people constantly searching for a new place to start their lives. Isn’t time we start opening these topics up for a dialogue at the places where we spend most of our days, the university or the workplace?
This is exactly what two students at the Erasmus University, Hana Taher and Milly Ssebudde thought when they set up their on-campus organization called the Us Space. After attending an event at the university concerning mental health, I had the pleasure of talking to the founders of the Us Space. This is where I realized that since the first time since I began university there had never been a place at the university to talk about adversity faced by students, especially as a result of their race, religion or sexuality. Inspired by our conversation and their work I decided to set up an interview to gain a deeper understanding of their motivation and to spread awareness of their concepts.
What is The Us Space?
Hana mentions that it’s a space to further encourage people to talk about taboo topics when these shouldn’t be taboo topics. Different cultures, religion politics and even sex. The Us Space is also located at an actual physical space at the university in the Tinbergen building. The place where they organize events and where someone from the Us Space is available is known as the Living Room and is a designated space for people to wind down and relax.
‘’What the difference is between us and other organizations talking about taboo topics is that we do not simply offer room for a surface level discussion… we aim to push our participants to reach a level of discomfort so they can learn from each other and grow,’’ Milly adds on. Everyone leaves the conversation with something, ideally a change of perspective. Looking through someone else’s’ eyes is to identify what someone else observes and why they see it that way. This can have a profound impact and that is what we see as growth.
“ We started The Us Space not to teach people, but to develop ourselves and to grow” – Milly
To better understand how these topics are discussed, I asked the girls to describe one of their events. Milly and Hana immediately mention ‘Real Talks’, speaking faster and getting more passionate as they elaborate upon the concept. As they explain, ‘Real Talks’ are discussion panels in which a topic is chosen beforehand and intends to attract a diverse audience. During this panel the spectrum is determined by the participants themselves in how far they like to take a topic. The participants discuss their own view on it and elaborate on it. Moderation or structured discussion points at such an event could cause opinions to be stifled or participants to feel obligated to discuss only one part of their thoughts. Instead, the direction the topic takes a natural flow, deviating on the spot, encouraging tangents and organic conversation.
For example, when choosing a topic about feminism, participants would mostly be people who already hold an opinion regarding feminism and intend to share it. By allowing the spectrum to which the topic is talked about to be decided on the spot they noticed a more diverse group and thus more diverse perspectives to layer on top of one another. Hana notes, “this sometimes led to such heated discussion that Milly and I just look at each other in joy that we get people to dive into the topic so deep and so fast’’. Seeing the facial expressions when the participants beliefs are challenged increases the duo’s motivation to keep continuing with the Us Space.
’That’s when we get real for real’’
Proudest moment up until now
The proudest moment that they consider The Us Space to have contributed is the availability of counselors at the university campus. Any problem concerning racism, sexism or general discomfort or harassment can be brought to not just these counselors, but now to a physical, tangible place on campus. Together with external organizations these two ladies made sure that students at the Erasmus University now have the Living Room, a place to go when experiencing these unwanted behaviors where they can find companionship, proper guidance and a community of open-minded, talented people like Hana and Milly.
Where is The Us Space headed?
‘’The main change I wanted to do was in this university, because I felt like I committed to this university and I expect to get what I signed up for, a safe and welcoming environment.’’ – Milly. For now, Milly would like to keep it small because she thinks that starting small and fixing what needs fixing here is the main purpose. Hana, on the other hand dreams big and believes that the problems and topics that need to be discussed are not only relevant at the university, but also in the outside world. She notes, “I’m from Egypt and we have a lot of class differences over there that is affects people their daily lives, that is why I think a concept such as The Us Space would really help the country to grow and to change the world.”
Final words from me
As an adult, entrepreneur, student, and citizen of this world, I hope other companies and universities will initiate their own dialogue just like Hana and Milly initiated the dialogue here at Erasmus University. The more we admit that we are human and that these events do affect us, the easier it will be to understand each other, to collaborate on solutions and to create the type of environment in which our children can live and thrive.
Thank you for taking your time out today to read this blog and I hope you are inspired to be part of the change.