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A bulletin board in the Pride Center advertises Safe Zone training

Safe Zone at UT Continues to Expand, Implements Third Tier Workshop

Since the implementation of Safe Zone at UT, the educational workshop series has seen consistent growth in participants, increased support from the university leadership, and the opportunity to take the tier-modeled series to the next level. The sessions are offered as an optional professional development opportunity for students, staff, and faculty who are interested in learning more about how to be an ally and support the LGBTQ+ community.

Safe Zone at UT focuses on language and terminology related to gender and sexuality; awareness and understanding of the intersections of gender, sexuality, and other social identities; and knowledge about LGBTQ+ resources available on UT’s campus.

When Safe Zone was reintroduced in 2018, the first of three tiers focused on awareness of resources as well as basic language and terminology. Tier 2 was established in the fall of 2019 and focused on identifying and applying terminology related to sex assigned at birth, gender expression, gender identity, and participants expressing greater confidence in their knowledge and support of the transgender and nonbinary communities to better serve the LGBTQ+ community.

Tier 3 was introduced in the fall of 2021 and is scenario-based, applying what participants have learned in the previous two tiers into practice. These scenarios mimic potential learning situations with the participant’s colleagues, friends, or family members, and can help the participant find their words and ways to address arguments when in those situations. This tier is about encouraging and promoting the participants to be advocates.

“We were excited to do a three-tiered training series because it’s not done at too many other universities,” said Bonnie Johnson, coordinator of the Pride Center. “Our third tier focuses specifically on empathy and advocacy, building skills through scenario-based roleplay by putting into practice the knowledge and awareness that participants learned in the previous two tiers.”

Safe Zone at UT training has experienced a 224% increase in students, faculty, and staff participants since it began in 2018–19.

With the expansion of the training, the Pride Center was able to acquire assistance from its inaugural faculty fellow, Leia Cain, assistant professor in the evaluation, statistics, and methodology program in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. Cain has primarily conducted research with LGBTQ+ student and faculty experiences in higher education and how researchers engage in ethical reasoning based on their methodological choices and personal identities.

Leia Cain headshot

Leia Cain, assistant professor and Pride Center faculty fellow

“When I was starting at UT in 2020, I reached out to Bonnie to make a connection and see what I could do for UT,” said Cain. “I had previous experience with Safe Zone at the University of South Florida and the University of South Carolina. She reached back out later and let me know that there was an opportunity to work with her as a faculty fellow to help build curriculum and assessments for Tier 3.”

Cain explains that she and Johnson worked with the Safe Zone at UT facilitation team members to create the scenarios to be used in the sessions. “These are real experiences that members of our community have gone through.” This can create a more realistic understanding for participants as they are walking through a student, faculty, or staff member’s real lived experience.

“I have seen the vast impact this training has on participants. The Pride Center has created an incredibly applicable and welcoming workshop series that has invited at least several thousand people to build upon their vocabulary, recognize their own identities, and apply strategies that promote inclusion, safety, and allyship.”

—Safe Zone facilitation team member

In her fellowship with the Pride Center, Cain worked to create an assessment tool that will evaluate and analyze data from participants. This includes conducting focus groups and running the assessment tool by additional experts who also study queer populations and build surveys.

“I think Safe Zone is such a great educational opportunity that students, faculty, and staff can all participate in and learn from,” continued Cain. “Lack of knowledge can create hate and can impact the lives of people who identify in the community. What I love about Safe Zone is that it creates a space that allows for people to ask questions and give them an opportunity to learn.”

In addition to a new tier and new faculty fellow, the Pride Center has created more partnerships with colleges within the university. The UT Institute of Agriculture, the Haslam College of Business, and the College of Social Work have worked with Johnson and the Safe Zone facilitation team to offer training to students, faculty, and staff within each college. Chancellor Donde Plowman also encouraged her cabinet members to participate in this professional development opportunity.

Overall, each tier of Safe Zone at UT has seen an increase each year and semester. Since the program began in 2018–19, there has been a nearly 224 percent increase in students, faculty, and staff who participated in the training. Student participation has increased over the last year, with nearly 100 more students participating in each tier than in the previous year.