The Women’s Center is no ordinary office space.Visitors are not greeted by white boards, desks and hard-backed chairs, but by overflowing bookshelves, wall paintings and memory foam bean bags.
On the last evening of January, almost two dozen students, faculty and staff gathered inside to discuss online harassment during an event entitled ‘Weathering the Trollstorm.’
Brittany Oliver, a community activist and employee of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, led the workshop. She discussed issues such as bystander intervention, free speech and online security.
Throughout the evening, Oliver emphasized that trolls exist simply to take up space. She said that the internet is a shared space and that if someone feels upset or unnerved by an online interaction, those feelings are valid.
“The internet itself is not the problem,” she said.
Because many people in attendance had experienced or witnessed online harassment, Oliver encouraged participants to follow up with friends that they witness being harassed. She also suggested taking heated conversations offline if one is comfortable doing so.
Attendees of the talk extended beyond the UMBC community. Ka-Lyn Coghill, an organizational communications student at Bowie State University, attended at the recommendation of her thesis advisor. Her project, ‘A Seat at the Table: A Repetitive Narrative of Abuse’ was inspired in part by her experiences of harassment online.
Coghill is an active Twitter user and podcaster who speaks out about community issues. “The more outspoken you are, the more they try to shut you up,” she said. “Being a black woman online is a weird experience.”
In addition to its regular programs (such as Between Women and Spectrum), the Women’s Center schedules additional events based on the needs of the community. “We try to be flexible with whatever’s happening in the world,” said Women’s Center director Jess Myers.
Myers described recent offerings as a “What now?” series in response to the tumultuous political climate and recent presidential election. Last December, representatives from Planned Parenthood came to discuss reproductive rights. Guest presenters are from within the university as well: UMBC Police will be presenting on Feb. 15 for a program entitled ‘Free Speech, Hate Speech and Knowing Your Rights.’
The Women’s Center strives to educate students on relevant issues and connect them to organizations that align with their mission, such as the ACLU.
Oliver, a seasoned activist, structured the cyber harassment event more as a discussion than a lecture. She addressed many of the issues attendees raised as they introduced themselves at the beginning of the program.
The issues discussed had a personal impact for several participants and allowed them to express their feelings in a safe space. Environmental studies major and adult learner Katrina Kelly shared a personal narrative and pondered the long-lasting impacts of online harassment, “When does the online go offline and begin to affect your life?”