Building a Safer Future Together
CLA alumni and students are making a difference on campus
Founded in the fall of 1996 as a response to the loss of several local young women, Safer is Cal Poly’s resource for support with gender- and power-based violence. A program within Student Affairs’ Campus Health and Wellbeing department, Safer has expanded to both advocacy and prevention work, serving the campus with a holistic emphasis on building community support and restorative justice.
As the largest such team in the CSU, Safer initiated approximately 21,000 educational touchpoints with the community, including 36 hosted events; it also participated in other events with 33 booths during the 2022-23 academic year. Safer’s five full-time staffers and 10 student assistants are positions in majority held by CLA alumni and students from programs including psychology; sociology; and women’s, gender and queer studies. These alumni and students are working toward both a safer campus and careers in social services and public health.
Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center student assistant
Melissa Toussimehr and Cheryl Flores, Native American and Indigenous
Cultural Coordinator, speak at Safer's annual Take Back the Night event.
“Why and how our program exists comes from very difficult and traumatic reasons,” said Kara Samaniego, who manages the program as the assistant director of wellbeing for Campus Health and Wellbeing. “So much of what this team does involves holding pain for people on this campus. They come to us at their most difficult time of life, and they talk about their deep issues.”
Samaniego has a unique perspective on the program’s evolution, as she worked with Safer while earning a bachelor of science degree in psychology with a minor in women’s and gender studies (’11). She would later return for her master of business administration degree at Cal Poly (’18) and become a permanent staff member at Safer before rising to her current director role.
“When I started as a student, Title IX as we know it and systemic support for survivors wasn’t happening yet,” said Samaniego. “The work was very grassroots, but when I came back in 2015, we were already past the Title IX Dear Colleague letter, so the work was seen as more credible and important. We saw permanent staffing positions and a robust student team. I came back to this whole other world that I had dreamed of when I was a student.”
In addition to changing public perception, Samaniego attributes Safer’s successes to continued support from the university. As for her own success, she was highly impacted by faculty in both the Psychology and Child Development Department and the Women’s, Gender and Queer Studies Department.
MacMartin and Samaniego
Similarly, Jennifer MacMartin (Sociology, ’17, minor in women’s and gender studies) learned how to address public health issues during her time as a student and applies her expertise as a prevention specialist.
“My WGQS classes taught me about community organizing, history and this work, which has situated us as a part of a legacy of activists pursuing a safer future,” said MacMartin. Studying sociology was an experience in learning about what’s not going well in our world and understanding the systems that don’t serve us. “I have conceptualized public health as a solution, so my work with Safer has been a blend of deconstructing systems that don’t serve us and building a future where we take care of each other,” she said.
As part of the addition of MacMartin’s position as a prevention specialist, Safer has been recentering the conversation around their work to prevention and restorative practices.
“In our educational outreach, we rarely use ‘perpetrator,’ but talk about ‘people who have caused harm’ because they are from the same culture that we are, and that is fundamentally the issue,” said Samaniego. “We need to focus on what drives people to cause harm and to address the issue from a standpoint of community care.”
Students participate in Safer's Denim Day Craft Circle
While creating lasting change is an uphill battle, Safer’s staff work hard to build trust in order to have difficult conversations.
“There is always pushback of people not wanting to change the status quo,” said MacMartin. “We’re committed to pushing through that by naming harmful behavior, which requires people to be accountable for when they have caused harm. Our team has a passion for restorative education, not in spite of those experiences, but including those experiences and making sure those people feel comfortable in unlearning the status quo. Many times, people isolate when people cause harm, but being brought back into community opens the door for education.”
While specific cases regarding gender-based violence, such as the 2022 Kristin Smart murder trial, have garnered more attention for their work, the staff at Safer are recentering the discussions around communities, rather than specific individuals’ stories.
“We’ve always had strong social justice ties, but over the years we have incorporated additional frameworks, such as public health, to talk about how our work intersects with identities, privilege and access to care,” said Samaniego. “When white women go missing, that is often the top headline, and we ignore other marginalized communities. Safer has shifted to center marginalized communities’ experiences. We also have to be sensitive to when people’s individual names are being used around a topic. It can become tokenizing and, in centering that, it implies that there was something they could have done differently.”
As Safer and its mission adapted over the years, the team has increased partnerships with students to expand offerings and give students valuable hands-on experience for their careers.
Safer student assistants Claire McCord, Kallie Kidder and Anthony Benitez
work together to make a positive impact in our community.
“From my first experience with Safer at the SLO Days Open House as an incoming first-year student, I knew I wanted to work with them because everyone was welcoming and because of the holistic approach they take to discussing gender and power-based violence,” said sociology student and prevention education intern Claire McCord. “At its core, gender- and power-based violence impacts all people and areas of life. Tackling these issues may seem like an insurmountable task, but Safer makes it approachable and inspires students to take action with creative programming that meets them where they are and curriculum that all students can see themselves reflected in.”
McCord is pursuing Cal Poly’s teaching credential program to become an elementary school teacher. “Working at Safer has not only prepared me to be a teacher, it inspired me to be a teacher,” she said. “Teaching children that their voices are valued and how to respect others’ boundaries is primary prevention. I hope to help generations of students recognize that they are powerful agents of change in making the world safe from violence.”
For her senior project, Kallie Kidder (Psychology and Journalism double major, ’23) worked with Safer to create a faculty/staff toolkit for supporting student survivors. “This project helped me to feel much more connected to the work Safer does for/with faculty and staff. My professors have told me that this is an area they lack knowledge about, and I’m so grateful Safer’s professional staff emphasizes education and support for faculty,” Kidder said. “Furthermore, I have found some of my closest friends through Safer. Every single Safer event, from Take Back the Night to craft circles, fosters community.”
Kidder plans to pursue a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and will apply her experience as a Safer student intern to her future practice. “One day, regardless of what population I choose to work with, I know I will be supporting survivors in some capacity,” she said. “Gender- and power-based violence is, unfortunately, a very prevalent issue. Safer ultimately supports survivors and upholds a trauma-informed approach, all of which I plan to take with me into my future career.”
As programming continues to grow with an emphasis on prevention, staff at Safer hope to build a more robust infrastructure. While student interest has increased, more staffing will be needed to provide more students with quality mentorship and guidance. “Prevention is the future here,” said Samaniego, explaining why she hopes to add another prevention specialist position. Additionally, increased private support for the program could provide more paid internships for students. Currently, half of Safer’s student positions are unpaid, which can prevent lower-income students from participating.
While there is still room for growth, staff at Safer have already witnessed major shifts in the way campus community members approach these issues. “Anecdotally, the conversations with students have changed,” said MacMartin. “There used to be defensiveness as if people thought they would be in trouble. Now, we’ve had more students than ever come to us and say that their friends or people close to them have caused harm. They want to know, ‘What can we do to help?’”
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