Kentucky Wesleyan College makes strides in safe spaces and diversity

by Sophia Harris

Kentucky Wesleyan College is a private Methodist university located in Owensboro, Kentucky. The city has made recent headlines in the LGBTQ+ world over the past few years because it keeps failing to enact a fairness ordnance. They consistently also score very low on the Human Rights Campaign’s equality index. In 2017, they received 18 out of a total 100 points. It’s clear that safe spaces are needed in this city. On April 4, the Kentucky Wesleyan announced the opening of its I. D. E. A. Lounge on campus. The lounge was established as a part of an initiative to create safe spaces for underrepresented and at-risk students to openly express themselves and relax during time between classes. 

I.D.E.A. stands for Inclusion, diversity, empowerment and allyship.

The plan was developed in-part by Wesleyan’s Coordinator of Equity and Inclusion, Andrea Denise Bolden. Last summer, the US Department of Education enforced some new guidelines for K-12 students, as well as higher education (or anyone receiving federal funding), advocating for ALL students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community to be supported in educational spaces. Bolden decided to take charge of the local conversation on inclusion and equity, and this new guideline lit a fire in Bolden’s office. She decided to take it much further than just providing a supportive education space for LGBTQ+ students. Her office now offers several training sessions to enhance D. E. I. (diversity, equity, and inclusion) on campus, in addition to the physical space they’ve added. Prior to opening the lounge, Bolden had noticed that at events, many students were fearful to approach the table, label themselves with pins/stickers, and cited that they did not feel comfortable doing so in front of others. This just empowered her team to expand the space and support, but most importantly, focus on the empowered visibility it brings.

Bolden and most of her team are Safe Zone trained, which hopefully will encourage students to seek out their services. The Safe Zone Project provides training on how to communicate effectively and openly; supportive of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning +) individuals and identities. You can learn more about the Safe Zone Project here. They also do regular D. E. I. training twice a year – with opportunities for in-person or virtual learning experiences. Bolden hopes to continue training more staff members via Safe Zone, which will encourage more and more students to connect, grow, and learn in spaces and with mentors and peers that can understand their needs. 

Bolden’s teams offices are conveniently located in the lounge area, allowing staff and students a good flow of constant support, and making locating services easy for students. Bolden’s office sits adjacent to other staff with student-facing support roles, giving students a hub of support in one easy place. Both offices have been able to make strides in connecting LGBTQ+ students with professors who may need some additional support and communication in order to understand their specific needs. Bolden and her team recognized that many students were not comfortable living as themselves, authentically, and were often not able to find or connect with peers or staff within their community. They’ve actively created spaces and support for students with many diverse needs: connect with themselves on campus, feel safe to “show up” as they are, and close the gap of “being different” on a small campus. This small feat is a big, welcome change. 

The lounge is located in the campus library, which serves as a hub, with a pantry open and available anytime. Inside of the pantry, there are various hygiene products and other crucial items for students who may just need a few extra things but don’t have the time or money to get them.

Items may include laundry detergent, deodorant, body wash, and much more. They have full storage currently and are planning to open two more – one in the athletics department and one in the ministries area. These amenities have been available to students prior to the actual announcement. 

The lounge additionally serves as a space for student groups to get together and organize campus events/initiatives. The center itself plans on hosting events over the summer, including Pride-related events. Bolden’s goal in helping to develop this space was to present DEI as a community-driven, collaborative effort that cannot and should not fall on just one group. Who doesn’t love harmonious collaboration? Currently, Bolden hopes to plan one initiative a month, with respect and coordination to the student activity calendar. Hopefully more students will be encouraged to use this platform to create their own student-led programming, which would allow them campus-wide reach. 

I.D.E.A. Lounge as hit the ground running, and will be having their first drag show very soon! Bolden predicts this will happen during fall Semester, and is focused on planning other Pride-related programming for summer and spring semesters. Bolden attended Western Kentucky University, (in Bowling Green, Kentucky), and was inspired by the drag shows she saw during her time as a student, hoping to bring some of that magic to Wesleyan. Bolden has expressed that she is very grateful for the opportunity and she has jumped at being a part of the Kentucky Wesleyan College staff. She wants to continue to ensure that they are correctly understanding and implementing DEI practices within the campus setting. She has expressed extreme gratitude for the students that she has been able to connect with, and is inspired by the many more she will undoubtedly help to feel safer and more secure on campus.