Tunnel of Opression: VCU hosts an interactive education experience

The national exhibit made it's way to VCU's Commons March 26 - March 29.

VCU’s first “Tunnel of Oppression,” was on display last week on campus in an effort to educate the community about situations marginalized individuals face, particularly in VCU and Richmond.

“(The) ‘Tunnel of Oppression’ is an active simulation where participants go through different rooms to kind of see firsthand some of the oppressions that marginalized identities face,” said VCU Assistant Director of Residential Life for Multicultural Affairs Ashley Gaddy.

Gaddy’s department, as well as the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and several other on-campus organizations sponsored the simulation. Western Illinois University was the first to host a “Tunnel of Oppression” and the concept later spread to other universities.

Hosting events such as tunnel is part of Gaddy’s job description, but she said the event was primarily student-run. Student tour guides led groups through the 30-to-45-minute-long exercise, which featured different rooms addressing race, LGBTQ+ issues, undocumented students, mental health and the media.

“I think it offers a chance for people to see what other people go through in their everyday lives,” said Krystal Hall, a pre-nursing major and gender, sexuality and women’s studies minor who was a member of the volunteers committee for the tunnel. “One person’s life is completely different from yours and you have to take your privilege and step out of that to be able to see the real issues.”

In addition to audio and a slideshow, the media room — which Gaddy said she is most proud of — featured drawings referencing the identities featured throughout the tunnel, screenshots of tweets showing instances of oppression and “gravestones” propped on the ground of notable individuals lost to racial violence.

The remainder of the rooms featured narration dictating instances of oppression. Each script took place in different settings such as bedrooms, a classroom and one on the street. Unlike the other displays, the mental health room featured an actor who accompanied the audio recording.

Gaddy said aspects of the different identities explored throughout the tunnel apply to many of the students, so they used their own experiences to write the audio scripts. For instance, Dianna Voronina, a math and computer science student, said she was inspired by elements of her immigrant background when writing the mental health script.

Participants also completed a brief activity where they bubbled-in the racial, sexual and gender identities that pertained to them upon entering the simulation. Certain categories, like “cisgender” and “white,” were intentionally omitted.

“It’s meant to expose you to what are the major identities and how it feels like to be a person of identity without something to bubble in,” Voronina said.

Voronina said the concept for one of the final elements — the “Tunnel of Hope” — was almost entirely crafted at VCU. While this aspect of the exhibit was also present at other institutions, Veronina said VCU’s rendition was original in design.

The “Tunnel of Hope” featured soft lighting, large bean-bag chairs and was accented by background music. Artificial flowers for students to take with them were placed on tables — an idea Voronina said she came up with to further engage the senses.

“We wanted students to be able to come through it and leave a part of themselves, or leave some hope and get something else from the other students.” Veronica said. “You can talk and see what other students experienced.”

Gaddy said another purpose of the “Tunnel of Hope” was to motivate participants to engage in social change. Information about counseling and health services available to students was placed at the end of the “Tunnel of Hope.”

The tunnel ended with a facilitation and debrief, conducted by a professional staff member with a counselor present. Room monitors were also present throughout the tour because of the emotional nature of the simulations. Hall said she felt the room monitors to be the most important volunteer position.

“I’ve seen some people crying and this has been really heavy-hitting for them,” Hall said. “No one who’s running this tunnel would want them to feel uncomfortable like they had no one to talk to.”

The “Tunnel of Oppression” will return to VCU in March of 2018 with some improvements, according to Gaddy.

“This was more of an audible experience, we’re going to make sure we actually have actors who act out the scenes next year,” Gaddy said.

Georgia Geen, Staff Writer

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