Nurturing Safe Spaces: What You Need to Know in 2024
We live our lives through the spaces we inhabit, from a Zoom meeting to a pub quiz. In the best cases these spaces, physical or virtual, allow us to be ourselves, to feel accepted, and to feel connected, in community with others. When a space is unsafe the opposite is true: we can feel judged, bullied, and for marginalized groups or individuals unsafe spaces can be harmful.
The term ‘safe space’ found its origin in the mid-1960s as a way of describing venues dedicated to marginalized people who needed safety from attack, discrimination, and harassment so they could communicate and associate safely. The early use of the term was associated with the LGBTQIA+ community. However, subsequent social justice movements have also adopted the term and expanded its use broadly to include places intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.
In essence, regardless of one’s minority status, safe spaces are now seen as critical for promoting mental health, fostering inclusivity, and protecting individuals from harm. Their creation plays a vital role in building a more understanding and accepting society beneficial to all of its members.
Why Have Safe Spaces
Safe spaces offer numerous benefits for marginalized groups by protecting individuals from harm, serving as environments where people can feel protected from criticism, harassment, emotional and physical harm or other forms of discrimination. Safe places can support one’s mental health by providing environments where they can feel valued, respected and supported, they can serve as a refuge from intolerance and can exist in both the physical and virtual world. They can serve as an oasis where one can refresh and feel listened to, understood and accepted. They can also serve as a neutral ground offering a space for individuals from multiple groups to communicate in respectful inclusive and empathetic ways which can foster healing at both the community and individual levels. They play a vital role in creating a more understanding and accepting society.
How to Make Spaces Safe
Planning for safety and inclusion can be an intimidating process. People often worry about getting things wrong, offending others or causing harm. Begin by taking a deep breath and embracing the fact that no one is perfect. Part of creating safety is being able to address issues that come up in real time with compassion and empathy. The list of points below can serve as a starting place for fostering safety, either in the school workplace or social setting.
- Take steps to invite a diverse range of participants to the space. Even if the space is being designed for a specific group, consider how you can include other diverse genders, ages, races, religions, sexualities and political viewpoints so that a wide variety of experiences can be shared and acknowledged.
- Take care when choosing the physical space for in-person gatherings. The location should be accessible, comfortable, and appropriate for the type of discussions being held.
- Make sure that all participants are made to feel equally welcome. Be sure to extend greetings, ask questions, and share gratitude equally among all participants.
- Respect the identities of all the participants by inviting everyone to introduce themselves, including pronouns and personal backgrounds.
- Establish and model ground rules for participants from the start, such as respecting physical and emotional boundaries, using preferred pronouns, respecting confidentiality of what is shared in the space, and asking participants to consider how what they do and say within the space might impact others. Let participants know that disrespect and intolerance will not be allowed within the space.
- Assume good intentions. If a participant crosses a boundary by using outdated language, politely let them know, but do not accuse or shame them.
- Encourage equal participation gently, ask questions of quieter members without raising your voice. Avoid interrupting or talking over participants.
- Be considerate when broaching uncomfortable topics. Though open discussions of difficult subjects can be both helpful and healing, keep in mind that individual participants are the owners of their own stories and experiences. Be respectful and do not demand that everyone share details of their lives.
- Encourage and model respectful disagreement, such as asking open questions rather than making definitive statements. Give participants time to process and respond in ways that encourage understanding.
Challenges to Nurturing Safe Spaces
A key factor in organizing a safe space is holding empathy for its participants. It is important to be aware of and acknowledge what we are asking of others. Showing up in specific group spaces can mean acknowledging parts of one’s identity that may be painful. By asking others to engage with topics which have caused distress in the past, we are asking them to show a great deal of vulnerability. This can be uncomfortable and even frightening for many people.
We must also consider that power dynamics are at play in all social interactions. Differences in participants’ ages, socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, and professional roles can communicate risks both real and perceived, and limit participants’ willingness to engage in the space.
Finally, microaggressions, subtle and indirect verbal, behavioral or environmental cues which communicate disrespect towards marginalized peoples, can often go under the radar, but if left unaddressed can undercut the safety of a space.
These challenges highlight the complexity of creating safe spaces and the need for ongoing effort and commitment to maintain them. Though this can seem like a daunting project, acknowledge that what you are asking participants to do is difficult and that you may not get everything right. Reiterate that you would like help in creating and improving the space as an ongoing project, and remain open to participant’s input and suggestions.