Safe Zone Project aims to better prepare LGBTQ allies

safe zone placard

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

When Sharon Beck started her job with the Chief Diversity Office a few years ago, she noticed a placard in a co-worker’s office. It had a rainbow scribble on it and the words “Safe Zone.”

Beck, who was new to the University, inquired about the placard, and the co-worker explained that it was part of the Safe Zone Project—a campuswide program that identifies members of the University community who model support, affirmation, and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals.

“I thought, ‘Here I am, a member of the LGBTQ community, and I didn’t know what it was,’ ” Beck says. “ ’If I don’t know, how is somebody who is struggling with coming-out, classroom, or workplace issues going to know what it is? How are they going to know who to turn to?’ ”

Since then, Beck has become instrumental in the Safe Zone Project at the University, serving as an ally and training facilitator, and now leading a 15-person planning committee on redesigning the training program.

Safe Zone began at the University in the early 1990s as part of a national grassroots push to make campuses more inclusive environments for the LGBTQ community. It was and remains a joint project of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity in the Chief Diversity Office and the LGBT Staff and Faculty Association.

In the past, Safe Zone consisted of a four-hour training session (later condensed to a two-hour session) that prepared individuals to be LGBTQ “allies” by providing them with information and skills needed to serve as a resource for students, faculty, and staff. At the end of training, participants received a Safe Zone ally placard so individuals could identify them as supportive resources.

Beck said that those involved with Safe Zone in the last few years felt that the limited amount of time didn’t allow for individuals to really prepare to be true allies.

“To have an ally who is unprepared to be an ally is worse than not having an ally at all, at times,” Beck says. “We want allies to have the resources and skills that they need to help.”

So, Beck and the planning committee worked to “bring Safe Zone to the 21st century,” she says, by breaking the training up into two separate phases.

“To have an ally who is unprepared to be an ally is worse than not having an ally at all, at times. We want allies to have the resources and skills that they need to help.”
—Sharon Beck

Elizabeth Krause, a University residence hall coordinator, designed the curriculum for Phase 1 of Safe Zone. Krause says Phase 1 introduces basic LGBTQ terms and concepts that help participants understand transphobia/heterosexism and develop an appreciation for some of the experiences of LGBTQ people. Krause says it also allows for participants to examine their own assumptions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity and consider how they can create a more inclusive environment on the UI campus.

“We felt that to adequately prepare participants to be allies, which is the goal of Phase 2, we needed to begin with an initial phase of foundational information,” Krause says.

After participating in Phase 1, individuals can decide if they’d like to move on to Phase 2 and become a Safe Zone ally. According to Beck and Krause, Phase 2 is a case study–based, application-focused session for faculty, staff, and students who want to learn how to be more supportive, inclusive, and affirming for LGBTQ people. They are currently working on building a library of case studies from all different areas of campus so participants can focus on real-life scenarios that they may encounter. Beck says anyone is welcome to submit case studies to the committee, even if it’s just by informally sharing a personal experience.

The redesigned Safe Zone program is gradually rolling out throughout the 2010–11 academic year; a few training sessions already have taken place through departments who have requested it. Late in the fall semester, the theatre arts department teaching assistants took part in a Phase 1 training session.

Kristi Starnes, a graduate student studying acting and a TA in the theatre arts department, says she participated in Safe Zone training because she wanted to learn more about how to handle certain types of situations that can occur in the classroom.

“I teach Basic Acting to nonmajors, so sometimes I give scenes where there are gay or lesbian characters, or in an improv exercise there may be gay couples. I wanted to learn the best way to handle a student if snickering or a negative comment occurred,” Starnes says. “More importantly I wanted to be someone whom students could turn to if they were having a problem at home, with other students, or just struggling within themselves.”

Starnes says she felt the training was beneficial and plans to participate in Phase 2 when it’s available. She recommends the training to everyone in the University community, even those who feel like they are well-equipped to deal with all types of situations.

“You may think your students know that you are there for them, but what about a student who doesn’t know you, but needs someone to turn to? The sign on your door lets them know that you do want to listen to them,” Starnes says. “You may think that you know how to effectively deal with a situation of harassment in class, but having specific ways of going about it, and knowing what’s most effective, can turn a bad situation around.

“I’d rather be trained on the matter as opposed to assuming I know what’s best,” Starnes adds.

For more information about the Safe Zone program or to submit a story or find out how you can become a facilitator, contact or visit the Safe Zone Project web site at

Once the rollout of the new Safe Zone training is complete, Beck says the Chief Diversity Office and the LGBT Staff and Faculty Association would like to offer both phases of the training campuswide through Learning and Development at least three times a semester, as well as by appointment with departments that request it. They currently have a handful of facilitators to lead the sessions, but are looking for more. She also encourages people who have gone through Safe Zone training in the past to participate again. Individuals interested in becoming facilitators should submit their name now to be included in the future training sessions.

In addition to the redesigned training, Safe Zone placards have gotten a new look as well. The rainbow is still a part of the graphic identity, which has been revamped to look more modern and now includes the words “Creating a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQ individuals.” Beck says they also hope to have pins, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia available for individuals who may be very mobile throughout the day or may not have a space to display the placard.

“We want people to see this as an important part of their daily lives,” Beck says. “We are all responsible for making the University a better place, and the more people we have as allies, the better it’s going to be for everyone.”