The Subjectivity of Safe Spaces

A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things.>/blockquote> – Grace Murray Hopper
As an educator and trainer, I can’t tell you how often I hear the term “safe space.” Although much of the foundation of the term is associated with the LGBTQ community, educators and leaders love to apply it to diversity, cultural competency and equity work. Folks are always referring to creating, establishing, or protecting safe spaces in the interest of those considered marginalized, underserved, disadvantaged or any other term that conveys deficiency. I am a proponent of cultivating unapologetic community and belonging in my classrooms or any other teaching/training space I facilitiate. However, what I think some fail to realize and even worse accept and endure, is that safe space for those you serve (whether students, community, peers, whatever) means a willingness to feel unsafe yourself. Of course I don’t mean subject to violence or any form of blatant disrespect. I do, however, mean that if we really take the time to unpack this concept of a space in which safety is expected and defended on behalf of the collective, there is an inherent assumption of interdependency. As such, the leader, be it teacher, CEO, or otherwise connects, responds to and is driven by the rest of the group. There is a sharing of power; a leveling of authority. And this is where safe space can either be a bridge for transformation and authenticity, or another cruel ruse in leadership. Real safety results in folks bringing their whole selves – slang, physical expressions like dap and laughter, body language like sitting on the floor or looking down, and best of all THEIR specific truth; truths that often contradict or agitate the reality of the facilitator. In response, leaders can rush through an important moment, tipping point, or point of clarification to preserve their own comfort levels. This infuriates me to no end because it turns the educator/leader from a gardener to a gatekeeper. Rather than trusting the nature and knowledge of the group, the scared leader shuts it down, and redirects the conversation to a less scary, more familiar place. The hardest demonstrations of his misstep occur when facilitator or professor brush over or discount a student’s dissenting voice: a life experience that disputes statistics, an expression of offense, or my favorite…the raised voice of a Black student.
Safe spaces should be quiet sometimes. Individuals and groups need to marinate, think and reflect to reach or maintain differing conclusions, take in difficult info, or thoughtfully develop their perspective on an issue. Silence is key to inviting every one in to contribute in their way and time. The pressure to fill the silence robs this so called safe space of truth. Truth, especially a truth that has been suppressed or silenced, is not often arrived at quickly or with force. Therefore whoever is up front must be willing to 1) weather the discomfort of a slow, sometimes very quiet process; and 2) face the sting that safety and subsequent input of others can bring.
If, as an educator or leader, you merely exist to ensure peace is maintained, or to present your take on a topic, without a commitment to invite the voice of others (many of whom might just have relevant insights to deepen the discussion) then you are party to a major downfall of today’s discourse: one-sided pontificating that perpetuates a canon the denies the credibility, and sometimes very existence of the “others.” I’m getting a bit worked up because the current tragedies and protests have generated another round of talks of allyship and what those in power can do. This is always a good conversation to have but I think folks have to understand that safe space is a subjective term. What feels safe for you just might be terrifying for others, and a great way to model your commitment to listening is to be willing to be clueless, vulnerable and downright scared. Settiling in to the discomfort sends a message that your service to the whole outweighs your determination to be right or remain outside the need for safety. If you don’t know how to shut up and take in the hard truths, you ain’t about safe space. I want to say that I’m not writing this for White folks…but that would dishonor the safe space I’ve just asserted was critical to authentic discourse.

You diminish the validity and meaning of “safe space” if no one feels safe but you.

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