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Concentric Circles

Campus | April 23, 2018

There are dumplings on the table and paintings of cis and trans-women of color line the walls of a room in the Tufts Women’s Center. It is a Thursday at 7 p.m., and for one hour, students of color sit together to talk about their racial, gender, and sexual identities, and how these identities intersect to form who they are. Discussions are themed and have included “Complicating Religion” and “Politics of Attraction.” During these weekly meetings, POC Circle makes a conscious effort to create a space where students do not have to isolate their identities. POC Circle is one of many initiatives held in the Group of Six houses that aim to create a safe space of intersectional community.

POC Circle, created by senior Made Bacchus, junior Natasha Karunaratne, and Women’s Center graduate assistant Koko Li, materialized from student demand and initiative. Bacchus identifies as a queer, multiracial immigrant who wanted “somewhere where [she could] be all those identities at once.” Two years ago, Bacchus and senior Priyanka Padidam held an event titled Women of Color and Feminism where women of color panelists discussed their personal interactions with feminism on the Tufts campus. This event made Bacchus realize that she was not the only one who wanted spaces that reflected all parts of themselves, explaining that, “overwhelmingly there were a lot of women of color in the room who were asking why this isn’t a regular thing.” The racial and gender intersections of the event made audience members feel “held and validated in their experiences.” Motivated by the event and apparent need, with the support of K Martinez, the former Director of the Women’s Center, the POC Circle was formed.

The Women’s Center is not the only center to hold events intended to address the multi-faceted identities of the students they represent. The LGBT Center houses student-led programs, like Loving Ourselves as Queer Students of Color in Action (LOQSOCA) and Black+Queer (BlaQ), that address the intersection of queer identities and marginalized racial identities. Hope Freeman, Director of the LGBT Center, values these two groups because they refocus the LGBT narrative on queer POC. Freeman, a queer Black woman, talks about the importance of this intersectionality, saying, “The LGBT Center is not a monolith and we intend to make sure that folks who come here can see themselves in the center.”

LOQSOCA’s goal, according to co-facilitator Chanel Richardson, is to “provide a space for students of color to voice their concerns about being queer, to celebrate being queer, to talk about their experiences on campus—whether that be through dating or how they feel as they present themselves every day.” She co-facilitates LOQSOCA with Tufts sophomore Adaeze O. Dikko. Richardson also sees value in the conversations even if their identities are not directly addressed because “it can just be comforting to be in that space” where students share similar life experiences. Sophomore Anéya Sousa, a co-facilitator and co-creator of BlaQ with junior fs, shares the same sentiments of comfort in the creation of BlaQ. BlaQ has not formally begun, but Sousa already has a clear vision for the program. She views BlaQ as space where queer Black people can escape from the feeling “very separated in terms of who can and can’t operate in what are deemed as Black spaces and queer spaces on this campus and how just in general the queer spaces are supposed to be seen as White, and the Black spaces are supposed to be seen as straight.” She talks about how Black Queer students feel as if they have to choose one identity or the other, as there seemed to be no overlap according to these generalizations. Sousa sees the mission of BlaQ to counteract this thinking, by breaking “that mold and mak[ing] it clear that people who are Black and queer exist.” Freeman sees BlaQ as a space necessary for just Black queer people because, “there are specific complexities that are directly related to anti-blackness and homoantagonism.”

Both Martinez and Freeman have also created events to make their centers more inclusive to students with multi-faceted identities. Martinez talks about how they, in collaboration and conversation with Freeman, have collaborated to create events supporting students’ multiple identities that were previously lacking in the centers. These events have ranged from showing the documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman activist, during LGBT history month, to hosting workshops, and recently bringing in world famous Black activist Demita Frazier to speak on the day of the Women’s March. They also talk about how they changed the mission of the Women’s Center as a whole to, “make sure we are intersectional, trans-inclusive, and that we have values of inclusivity.”

These initiatives were created to support multifaceted identities of students, but also to counter the current Whiteness of the LGBT and Women’s Center. Directors Martinez and Freeman both recognize this Whiteness on campus and connect it to the broader problem of White dominance in queer and feminist communities. Martinez points out how in the US, attention on women’s movements “is focused on White women” specifically, White cis-straight women. Freeman emphasizes the burdens queer POC bear, saying, “It is important to know how various oppressions shift how we are received and perceived as people of color particularly within larger LGBTQ communities, which tend to be predominately White.” Karunaratne recognizes the importance of POC leaders in the centers because with Martinez, the Women’s Center first director of color, it has been “easier to have more POC interns and more programming.”

The programming, specifically the POC Circle, has received backlash from White women on campus. Bacchus says that their complaints are, “claiming that [the Women’s Center] is racist against White people and the Women’s Center as a whole is not welcoming towards White women anymore,” and adds, “Just one hour out of the week we ask for people of color only and we get attacked for it.” Heresa Laforce, a Black woman and intern for the Women’s Center, in response to the pushback, talks about how she finds value in a space where her race is central, saying, “so much about being on campus, being a person of color is on the side.”

Despite the challenges, the POC Circle has been successful with its intentions. Martinez highlights the impact of the program on students, saying, “students are finding support in ways they haven’t before, they’re building communities in ways they haven’t before, they are sharing trauma, they are sharing experiences that aren’t great, and they are also sharing experiences that are great and building experiences that are great together.”

Student leaders of these initiatives, above all, have a clear vision for the future of their respective programming. Looking towards the next steps of LOQSOCA, Richardson wants to widen the scope of the program, and will step down because, “the space is a predominantly Black space. In the future, I’d like it to become this POC space again and see somebody else get other people there.” For Karunaratne she envisions different communities of color coming together in the POC Circle as a “space that could be healing together.” And although BlaQ technically hasn’t started, Sousa is confident in the space’s empowerment. She says, “We are being intentional about making this space just for us and coming collectively to talk about things that specifically pertain to us and having that shared identity without having to worry about encroachment by others who do not share these ideas concurrently.”