“Safe Space”

So often, educators throw out this sentence to students, colleagues, families, and other stakeholders in education:

“You are in a safe space.”

What IS a “safe space”?

What does it mean to be in a “safe space”?

According to Crockett (2016), the history of the term “safe space” stems from the LGBTQ+ community:

“A ‘safe space’ is a place where LGBTQ people don’t have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It’s the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in mediaclassroomsboardroomspolitics, and everyday life.”

When I first started my teaching career, I thought a safe space was a place where students felt safe to learn – physically. As long as no one was hurting each other, and all students were able to sit quietly, listen to me when I spoke or gave directions, then we must have been in a safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks.”

After a few years, I started to learn about “feeling safe to take risks”. How could I encourage this in my classroom? Maybe if I just narrated “do not be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are part of the process”, students would feel safer. According to Harvard Politics, this attempt could be labeled as working towards an “academic safe space”:

“The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, ‘safety’ protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.” (Ho, 2017).

So I adjusted my narration. I encouraged students to have what I thought were critical discussion points, and to explore disagreements in music and the music-making processes – all while respecting each other’s opinion by having politically correct and careful conversations. One student could express their thought, and as long as another student responded by starting with “I disagree because” in a mild-mannered, polite way, students could express their free speech and meet that specific end goal of having valuable, open dialogue. I was convinced that this was enough for intellectual safety because with this shift in my narration, students could be in a physically AND intellectually safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks and express your emotions.”

Just because my students were “nicely” (read: calmly, tracking the speaker, not being disruptive) disagreeing, does not mean they were able to express their emotions behind their words. According to the New York Times,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” (Shulevitz, 2015).

So my next adjustment was to ensure that students would agree to a set of behavioral norms in order to have productive conversation. Upon reflection, perhaps it was even less of an adjustment and more of a restatement of being politically correct in order to avoid discomfort.

Thus emerged a tension between academic and emotional “safety”. Ho (2017) wrote,

People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations… But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?

In a recent discussion with Juliet Hess, Hess named that she did not believe there could be a truly safe space; rather the question is:

“How can we be as safe as possible?”

We can NEVER assume the space we are in safe, and it is up to each of us to ensure that the space is made as safe as possible by those of us within the space. As we continue to walk the fine line of encouraging safety while also upholding the norms we (ideally collaboratively with stakeholders) may set in order to have discussions that are productive, can a “safe space” truly be inclusive of the physical, intellectual, AND emotional? Are we taking on too much with this one term? Is this term meant to take on so much?

In our continued attempts to define what a “safe space” in our work, with our peers, our families, and everyone else we interact with in life is, I wonder how many of us can/will/reject the following questions:

“When I say “you are in a safe space”, what does that mean to you?”

“What should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?” (Ho, 2017).

“How can I help create space a space as safe as possible for us both?”

“What do you need in order for the space to be as safe as possible?”

Some words of advice from #44:

“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” (Obama, 2016).

Crockett (2016) concluded,

“Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.”

I can learn from my mistakes, but can I truly create a safe space? Can you?

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