First event in Safe Spaces series centers on mascot racism

Cameron Gorman

The Speaker Series titled “Safe Spaces,” started its run at Kent State with its first event: “Are You Entertained?: The Politics of Discriminatory Sports Mascots Thursday night.

“Focusing on sports mascots was an interesting way to get to the discourse of racism”, said Julie Mazzei, one of the co-directors of the program. “We want to be able to give a space for marginalized voices to be heard and expressed in a safe place, where we’re doing critical thinking, but we’re doing it in a respectful, progressive way.”

The event began with the introduction of the other faculty members and speakers involved in the event, as well as a preface of its values for the assembled. Topics ranged from the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” to the history of oppression in Native American culture.

“We want to start a long-term discourse that doesn’t just end in this room. We want to broaden the communities that are engaged in this conversation. As individuals, you have the capacity to change the way we talk about things,” Mazzei said.

The speakers at the event included Cynthia Connolly of Policy Matters Ohio, Dave Zirin, a sports analyst who regularly covers the intersection between sports and politics, and and Marjorie Villafane, a chairperson of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.

Connolly spoke first and discussed her heritage as a Native American, and her personal feelings towards the mascot usage.

“This country has a serious problem with situating Native American people in the historic past,” she said. “It’s hard to advocate for your people when the majority of America doesn’t know who you are. The mascot issue is one part of a very large systemic problem.”

The mascots, she argued, generate apathy towards the issues facing Native Americans.

“We need to place the pressure on those with the authority”, Connolly said. “It’s time to do what is right, and that’s to change the mascot.”

Dave Zirin utilized his background in sports to explain the importance of the issue. He questioned how the Washington Redskins mascot is still present, through nearly every Native American nation calling for its retirement.

“Our most serious, open discussions happen through the lens of what’s happening in the NFL, so it absolutely matters that a mascot promoted by the NFL is a dictionary defined racial slur,” Zirin said. “If it’s so universally recognized as something hurtful, why does it remain? The answer is because it only exists because the Native Americans were subject to genocide. Period.”

Lastly, Villafane overviewed the mission of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.

“We’ve been demonstrating at the stadium every opening day”, she said of the committee. “I became involved because I’m concerned about the future of our grandchildren facing this racism day after day.”

The event was open to both students and interested community members, and a Question and Answer session was also open to the attendees after each speaker made their points.

“In some ways, a public event like this is almost a better (environment) than a classroom”, said Patrick Gallagher, another faculty event organizer and the night’s moderator. “The opportunity to have discussion and debate can be something we all can learn from, in terms of how to discuss in a somewhat civil manner.”

Interpersonal dialogue such as the opportunity to ask the speakers questions was an important value from which the faculty organizers built the program’s purpose.

“Discourse is the foundation of the decisions we make”, Mazzei said. “When we don’t give validity to (marginalized) voices in everyday conversation, or in the symbolism that we use, then how do those voices have validation in policy circles?”

Attendees shared personal experiences and feelings toward the issue, and received advice and feedback from the panelists. “Stand firm with your identity”, Connolly said to one audience member. “Assert who you are. Be proud of that heritage.”

“One thing that you hear a lot is that it actually honors Native American culture”, Zirin said about those in support of the names. “When we give teams Native American names it’s not about honoring Native Americans. It’s about honoring our ability to conquer Native Americans.”

The next Safe Spaces event will take place on October 13 at 7:00 p.m.  and will center around discussion on the “Black Lives Matter social movement.

For more information, visit the group’s facebook page or their page on

Students interested in becoming involved with the movement may consider visiting the website for The Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.

Contact Cameron Gorman at [email protected].