The Sparks Fitness Center at Willamette University has long been the hub for community members to gather and train. Its many resources offer opportunities for people to expand their physical horizons, work on specific fitness goals and consult certified experts on nutrition and health. However, many of these benefits are largely unknown or unused by members of the Willamette community who aren’t student-athletes.
Many people in the Willamette community may currently feel uncomfortable in, or intimidated by, the gym space and avoid using its resources, but the staff at the Sparks Fitness Center is anxious to fix the feelings of discomfort students may feel. Sarah Grahn (‘21), assistant coordinator of personal training at Sparks, attributes the discomfort she hears about to a few main problems. The first is that the current hours that Sparks is open makes it hard for people who don’t regularly use the gym to feel comfortable coming in and working out alongside a large group of people.
Grahn said: “This is the biggest issue we’ve been hearing about and the one that has really sparked this change. We’re trying to get some sort of extended hours so that people who might be minorities in the space have a time to come in and not have to feel vulnerable.”
The second problem is that the placement of equipment in the gym can sometimes create a space in which people feel exposed or vulnerable. Grahn uses the example of the air runners, like treadmills, and their placement in the middle of the room. “They attract a lot of attention because they’re right in the middle of the space and they’re really loud when you run on them. I know a lot of my [women] friends don’t want to be working out, dead center, in a high traffic area on a super loud piece of equipment… We’re working on figuring out if there’s a way to rearrange the equipment in the space so that people can get familiar with the gym and not feel like they’re on display.”
Besides the general intimidation people might feel when they approach Sparks, Grahn said the current lack of accessibility in Sparks is also a big part of the disparity. Currently, the Sparks building is wheelchair accessible, but the fitness center inside is not.
Grahn said: “Right now, people have to come and ask us to open the door for them, which shouldn’t be how you go about getting into the gym. We’re trying to get, possibly through a Community Action Fund for Equity and Sustainability (CAFES) grant, funding for automatic buttons. Unfortunately, they’re extremely expensive, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to do something that’s affordable and timely.”
Grahn also talked about trying to create a better space for the LGBTQ+ community at Willamette in Sparks: “We want to bring in personal trainers from an outside source that have experience working with trans [people and] people from the LGBTQ+ community.”
One of the biggest issues Grahn has noticed in the gym is how often athletic teams will use the same equipment together, which may make the space feel unwelcoming to outsiders. Fortunately, there are clear rules for conduct in Sparks that target this problem. Grahn said that the biggest rule is this that teams cannot monopolize equipment. If they are using a space, it must be clear to other users that they are welcome in that space and that they have access to equipment in that space as well. “We’re trying to have a clear and appropriate set of consequences for when teams break the rules. Something we’re really trying to work on this year is having equal access, equal opportunity and equal accountability for everyone in the space,” Grahn said.
These changes have been happening at a slow and steady pace, as evidenced by one of the recent rule changes in Sparks regarding open hours. Athletic teams used to have 24-hour access to Sparks while other students did not. This rule has since been changed and the open hours have been made the same for everyone.
The Sparks staff is looking for input and advice from the Willamette community. Grahn said: “It’s hard to figure out where the weak spots are on your own. When we get out the advertising for [a Sparks inclusivity] event, we’re going to open it up to everyone to approach us and say, ‘This is a problem we have in this space,’ or ‘This is something we would like to see,’ giving [everyone] the opportunity to tell us what they need, instead of trying to guess what they need.”
“We want this to be successful,” Grahn continued. “We want to be able to show people that this is something that really works and helps people in the community so we want it to be a success the first time. And knowing that this can be a sensitive topic, we’re trying to go slowly, just so that our intentions are clear. Everyone has a right to work on their own physical fitness, whatever that means for them.”