Mount Olympus in a Basement: A Case for Space

The administration’s indifference towards the Spiritual Life Office reflects a broader disregard for marginalized communities.

By Nur Banu Simsek and Salma Elkhaoudi

When students trek to Ida Noyes Hall, it’s usually for Pub Trivia, meetings with Career Advancement, or free movie screenings at Doc. But if you were to walk down the creaky stairs into the basement, go down the hall (past the dance studio and the Pub), turn right, then left, and continue straight ahead—you’d see the Spiritual Life Office (SLO). Sandwiched between a small prayer room, and an even smaller meditation room, the SLO is the umbrella office managing 80 different student groups and community organizations on campus. From Atheist to Zoroastrian, students from every tradition, every religious background, and every philosophical conviction can find a network here for their spiritual needs. 

However, the SLO doesn’t just cater to the spiritual needs of students. According to the University’s Health and Wellness Promotion office, there are seven facets of wellness: spiritual, emotional, social, intellectual, mental, physical, and financial. For some students, the SLO is primarily a space where they can find their community in weekly meetings, dinners, and workshops. For others, the SLO most importantly serves as a place of constant learning and curiosity, fostering honest dialogues and discussions. Whether it is through office hour meetings with religious advisors or regular yoga and meditation sessions, the SLO tends to a variety of student needs.

To this extent, the SLO is a haven for many, particularly on a campus that often idealizes struggle and glorifies unhealthy habits. However, you couldn’t tell by walking into the space that the SLO sustains several hundred students and dozens of student groups. Beyond three shoebox-sized openings near the ceiling, allowing for a few rays of natural light here and there, and one plant—recently deceased, RIP Wilfred—the tiny office feels mostly divorced from nature. A space meant for wellness should have, at the very least, some natural sources of happiness. One of the saddest scenes in the Spiritual Life Office is that of a group of students seeking meditative calm, huddled around the office’s infamous Happy Light in the dead of summer. Don’t get us wrong, Happy Lights are important, but they are no substitute for a simple window in an office meant to provide spiritual solace.

Of course, the SLO is not a haven for all students, and we are not arguing that it does or should serve that role. But given the University’s seemingly endless space for new dormitories and other campus expansions, there’s little justification for relegating an important office with such a broad mission to the depths of a basement—or forcing the inclusion of every campus minority under the roof of a single three-story Hyde Park home, known fondly as the Center for Identity and Inclusion (CI+I). In both cases, it seems that the administration is pushing minority communities and their practices to the fringes when it comes to asset-based support.

As such, our “case for space” is one that compels the administration to provide more: more room for spiritual activity and more room for cultural and racial safe spaces, particularly for minority communities on campus.

As most marginalized students know, we’d be lucky if diversity and inclusion issues started and ended in the lecture hall. The issue (read: lack) of inclusivity is somehow a harder pill to swallow outside of the classroom, in the social sphere, at frat parties and at graduate mixers. If you’re worried about anti-Blackness as a Black student, or the lack of vegetarian options as a Muslim or Hindu student, or sexual assault as a female student—or all of the above as a Black Muslim woman, for example—our campus has failed to be socially inclusive.

The things that force us all under the umbrella of CI+I are not the things that make us unique and worthy of celebration; they’re the things that make us marginalized and politicized. We don’t need a space to remind us that we are not cisgender, heterosexual white men. And the administration’s haphazard designation of space, like the SLO and CI+I, feels like a political strategy more than an earnest attempt to ensure marginalized students have the ability to thrive on campus. When one group protests, the administration is quick to point to the spaces already designated, in an attempt to say, “We have already done our part for the sake of diversity and inclusion.”

Queer and Black? CI+I. Brown and Poor? CI+I. Latinx? CI+I. Trans? CI+I. Undocumented and First Generation? CI+I. Confucian? Hindu? Pagan? Muslim? Try the basement of Ida Noyes.

Here we are, stuck in a cycle of dismissal and erasure because we seem ungrateful and aggressive when we want our own spaces, ones where we can focus on the vibrancy and variety of our own identities. We want spaces that focus on the pluralistic notion of identities, not on the singular concept of identity and inclusion. We want to feel included and at peace within our communities, so that we may then feel confident and understood outside of them. This is a conversation that many—both peers and administrators—are reluctant to have with those of us who need it most. The nuances of our practices, our backgrounds, and our values are erased, and the only space we have is a space that does nothing but remind us that we are simply tokens, mostly here to pose for marketing materials for the University, to showcase its diversity and inclusion on alumni weekend or during prospie events.

When groups in pursuit of their own spaces on campus meet with administrators, the answer has always been the same: “Why don’t [insert name of marginalized community] students just fundraise from their alumni networks to build their own spaces?” Responses like these presume that all groups are equally capable of leveraging enough resources to finance and construct their own spaces, but marginalized groups necessarily have less access to affluent alumni networks and national support systems. That’s why campus has well-established spaces like DU or Calvert House; the communities these spaces serve benefit from a legacy of wealth and representation, both on and off campus.

Black feminists have argued for years that you have to look no further than those individuals nestled at the intersection of oppressions—historically poor Black women—to see the manifestations of (and solutions to) institutional inequality. We argue there is a similar case here, on our campus, at the intersection of race, culture, and spirituality; a case that begs administrative support in the form of a social impact investment for sizable social impact returns. The University has the means to provide cultural and religious groups with spaces to build community—so, why doesn't it?

Nur Banu Simsek and Salma Elkhaoudi are fourth-years in the College.