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This past fall semester, Penn’s Seneca International chapter created the initiative Seneca Safe Spaces in order to provide an opportunity for free dialogue among women of color on campus.

Credit: Vanessa Weir

Despite the variety of niche groups on campus, some students discovered a void they felt needed to be filled: the absence of safe spaces that welcome all women across Penn.

In response, Penn’s chapters of Seneca International and Women SPEAK stepped up to the challenge of fulfilling that responsibility. Both groups welcome all genders to attend their events.

Seneca International — a global women’s rights advocacy organization that raises awareness at U.S. universities about international issues affecting women — was established in 2012 at Penn, Stanford and Yale.

However, it was only this past fall semester that Penn’s Seneca International chapter decided to create the Seneca Safe Space initiative in order to provide an opportunity for free dialogue among women of color on campus.

“I felt as though there was not a space on campus for all women of color from different backgrounds to discuss their experiences, both as people of color and as women. The goal of the Seneca Safe Space is to provide precisely that,” College sophomore and former Internal Director of Penn’s Seneca International chapter Meghana Nallajerla said in an email.

While there are existing spaces and resources on campus for minority women, such as Sister Sister and the Vagina Monologues, there was no discussion space that combined women from these different minority groups.

“[Seneca International’s] director of programming and myself were talking about how there are a lot of safe spaces for women of color that are of a specific ethnicity or race, but we thought there was a need for a safe space type of collective on campus that was open to women [of all] ethnicities and races,” said College senior Gloria Huangpu, president of Penn’s Seneca International chapter. “That’s why we thought it would be a good idea to start a safe space where people from diverse backgrounds could find commonality.”

Seneca Safe Spaces are put on two Tuesdays a month. The first is a topical collaboration with another group; the second is an experiential safe space where a Counseling and Psychological Services representative is present to help guide the discussion as students talk about their experiences as women of color or allies of women of color.

Seneca most recently collaborated with Penn Women SPEAK to discuss the experience of women of color in the workplace.

Penn Women SPEAK was founded early last year by College sophomores Sylvia Guan and Claire Huang, who is also a former video producer for The Daily Pennsylvanian. The organization aims to provide a safe space where students are able to discuss issues that women face.

“We thought that there was another organization on campus that had this kind of idea, but it was surprising to us that we didn’t really have this specific club where we talked about everyday things like catcalling. There were other groups that focused on things like sexual assault, but nothing as broad,” Huang said.

Both groups, in creating these safe spaces, were aware of the national controversy concerning “hyper-sensitive” college students.

“The things that we were uncomfortable with, we just never voiced our opinion on. I don’t like the idea of calling college students hyper-sensitive; I would want to say we’ve become more aware of the things that do affect us,” Guan said.

“I know that some people think that college students are too sensitive and that we shouldn’t waste our time trying to be safe, but when you experience societal disadvantages and you’re surrounded by it every day, it’s good to have a place to retreat to to discuss those types of things and to feel like you’re not alone in experiencing them,” added College freshman Denise DeFelice, director of programming for Penn’s Seneca International chapter. “And then, you can go back to your everyday life and not be sheltered in a bubble because that’s not what we want.”

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