Suzette Grillot — a tenured international and area studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, mother, co-worker, friend, academic and business partner — sits in a wooden chair on a brisk Thursday morning.
Dangling pink triangles painted on the back wall and warm rays from a window overlooking Campus Corner adorn the background as she shares the story of her previous year, fraught with contention at the University of Oklahoma, and the space she created for people like herself to find a safe, inclusive and supportive community.
Grillot opened The Third Space, an off-campus coworking space intended to foster community and inclusivity, with her business partner and friend, Jacque Braun, in September in the former offices of Harold’s clothing store at 331 W. Boyd St.
The Third Space is Norman’s only coworking co-op after the closure of The Coop, a former coworking space for local businesswomen on Main Street, in 2018. The Coop closed after operating from June 2016 to March 2018 due to financial and personal reasons, said former owner Kylie Hill-Hubbard.
The closure of The Coop left Norman without a coworking office for a year and a half, until The Third Space opened and filled an unmet need.
Complete with a color-coded library, an all-gender bathroom, community office spaces, a recording studio and a cozy living room-style hangout space with comfortable chairs, games and coffee — The Third Space offers a safe haven for many students and faculty in higher education.
The idea of a “third space” is commonly discussed in higher education and communities with fast-paced lifestyles. Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his 1991 book “The Great Good Place,” the term “third space” follows the idea that humans have three spaces of importance in their daily lives: the first space, the home; the second space, the workplace; and the third space — a neutral, supportive space where people can gather and connect without agendas or hierarchies.
“Third spaces are really important in any kind of social environment to just be the place where you can be yourself,” Grillot said. “(Where) you can let things go, you can find the support that you need.”
For marginalized groups of people, supportive and inclusive community spaces are not always easy to find in established, hierarchical social systems such as higher education.
The first American university, Harvard, was founded in 1636 by Puritan colonists as an exclusive institution of knowledge for Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upperclass men to be educated in civil responsibility and religion. With succeeding American universities founded on similar premises, those from other backgrounds, genders or beliefs often find it difficult to integrate into a system that was not built with them in mind.
“Creating a nontoxic work environment, that is what I wish I'd had for years,” Grillot said. “And there's no reason why we shouldn't have supportive, empowering, nontoxic work environments — in our secondary spaces, our work spaces and our school spaces.”
Friends and co-workers for more than a decade, Grillot and Braun met while working in OU’s Department of International and Area Studies — Grillot as a professor and former dean, and Braun as a marketing and public relations specialist.
Both feminists and academic professionals without an inclusive and safe space to create community around their passions, the friends discussed the need for an off-campus community space for years. In September 2019, after a year of Grillot battling the Gallogly administration at OU and being fired from her position as dean of the College of International Studies, the duo finally decided to create what they lacked.
For Grillot, creating The Third Space came directly from her experiences in higher education, as well as being the face of dissent against the university’s administration, which ultimately branded her as a controversial figure on campus.
“I firmly believe that what you allow will continue, and what I’ve seen happen at the university is not something that I think I can allow, and therefore I have to do something about it,” Grillot said. “And doing something about it makes you the noisy person around, and you become a little toxic, and people kind of run from you.”
But for Grillot, it comes from a place of love and respect for higher education, and a necessary reform to the system she believes needs to take place.
“This is a project where I'm literally putting my money — and all my money — where my mouth is, but I believe in it. I believe in this community. I believe that we all deserve better. And I believe we can do better, and so I'm going to try to be a part of that solution,” Grillot said. “I’m in it. I’m not going anywhere.”
While Grillot is still a professor at the university, in June 2019 Braun quit her full-time position of 13 years to be the creative and operational director of the co-op.
“I loved working (at OU), but I've never been the kind of person who can go to work, do my job, and go home and leave my work at work — I give 100 percent to whatever I do,” Braun said. “So I wanted to do something that I have ownership in and something I believe in, and something that's meaningful and that makes a difference. And that's what this is.”
Braun is the creative mind behind all of the art and decorations in The Third Space, making it the inviting and homey space that members know it to be. As Grillot still works at OU, she spends her days on campus teaching and visiting the space in her off-time, while Braun runs the day-to-day operations.
The co-op is intended to create an accessible and affordable space for students and locals to work, whether for school or professional tasks, as well as to foster a community for those in need, Grillot said.
Use of the space requires a membership, but the membership comes at no cost.
When the space opened in September, the plan was for paid memberships to begin in the second month of operation. However, Braun and Grillot altered their business plan to be more accessible to the community, Braun said.
“We’ve actually changed our business plan because we want to make this space available forever to everyone,” Braun said. “So anyone can come in here and use the space for free to just hang out or study or work.”
To date, 55 people have acquired memberships at The Third Space, and while members filter in throughout the day, the atmosphere remains generally quiet and an intimate space to work or get to know other members, Braun said.
“(Fifty-five) people don't come in here a day. It's not crowded — it's still quiet and it's still intimate, but we have people coming through,” Braun said.
Those interested can sign up for a free membership online or at The Third Space’s front desk. Members receive free access to The Third Space’s common areas, coffee, water and Wi-Fi, with printing for 10 cents per page.
Use of the recording studio and private office rooms or exclusive rental of any space comes with a fee, as well as the workshops and events hosted at the space, unless otherwise stated.
Because of the educational background of Grillot and Braun, the space offers quite a few events and workshops catered to broadening the mind, as well as social justice and self-care. Upcoming events include a workshop discussion about immigration in Oklahoma, a Harry Potter trivia night, a collaborative art project and more.
The Third Space has an alternative option to membership for those more interested in attending workshops through the workshop package. The package costs $30 per month and includes access to two workshops or lunch events each month. Individuals can purchase the package online or at The Third Space.
“I think, in any job, it’s important that you work with people you love because that can make or break your experience,” Braun said. “So for me, this is my job, and working with Suzette is amazing because we’ve been friends for over a decade. But also people who come in here ... studying or working with their friends ... I think that connection is really important.”
Miles Francisco, a political science and African and African American studies senior at OU, is one of The Third Space’s 55 members.
Francisco, an international and area studies minor, was familiar with Grillot through their shared college, and he heard about The Third Space over the summer while he was at an internship in Washington, D.C.
“I was really excited that it opened, so I went to check it out and immediately became a member after seeing the space and seeing how cozy it was, how close to campus it was, how beautiful it was,” Francisco said. “(I) immediately thought about ways that I could utilize the space for my organizations.”
Francisco is the co-founder and vice president of Foundations for Liberating Minds, a group that strives to liberate those who are discriminated against through education. Through Francisco’s membership at The Third Space, the group plans to start a men’s accountability group for men to discuss toxic masculinity, patriarchy and ways to work toward “a more nurturing masculinity,” Francisco said.
Francisco said he also plans to use The Third Space’s recording studio to start a podcast for his group, as well as using the space to do homework, hold team meetings and build community in an intentionally inclusive place away from campus.
“It’s not necessarily that campus isn’t a safe place — (it’s) that all of campus isn’t always intentionally inclusive,” Francisco said. “Being at a campus as large as OU that is a predominantly white institution, there aren’t always those spaces where marginalized students feel safe and welcome.”
Francisco said he looks forward to building an inclusive community in Norman through The Third Space because that can be hard to find outside of big cities.
“It’s just a really cool, innovative and unique space that Oklahoma doesn’t have, period — and it’s really cool that it’s here in Norman,” Francisco said. “To have this space that is in walking distance with campus, that’s really vibrant and colorful, and it’s centered around creativity and justice — it’s just something to definitely take advantage of because a lot of places don’t have something like this.”