Whether you are managing a team in your company, a committee in a non-profit organization, a classroom, or an online space, we have all heard about how important it is to have safe spaces. There is, however, a common misconception that spaces are safe, just because we say that they are. While it is crucial that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in any given space are announced, it is not enough to state the safety of a space alone to warrant it as such.
Safe spaces are, in fact, carefully and ruthlessly curated.
It might surprise some folks to hear this but I learned this fairly recently from a community member in a space I had built as part of an interfaith circle I co-facilitate. I think it is important for us to mark these turning points because too much of community organizing rhetoric is immersed in people just “needing to know” rather than reflecting the actual (often challenging) process of learning as we go.
At the beginning of the event, I proclaimed that this was a safe space for everyone to feel free to share their experiences, speak their minds, and be vulnerable – and I meant that. What I naively hadn’t taken into consideration was the other people in the space (it was a public event) and that they might not share my acceptance of others or the parameters of what I feel constitutes safety.
In fact, the community member who pointed this out to me made it very clear that her non-binary child would be unlikely to feel safe in a space dominated by members of conservative and orthodox religious communities who were fairly likely to shun them or worse. And she was right. Her kid would not have been safe there, because as soon as she said that, I looked around the room and I did note people who I remembered to be openly discriminatory and hateful towards such folks.
I was in a compassion bubble.
And it was, mercifully, popped. I suspect it has something to do with me never really having good boundaries as a kid and a tendency I have had my whole life to project myself and my worldview onto people around me. I thought I had gotten better at dealing with that but I was wrong.
Since that time, I have paid more attention to spaces I know are also considered “safe” and have taken note of how such a label came to be placed there. Several feminist groups on Facebook, in particular, have a long list of rules to follow and hurtful terms that are prohibited – and every new member of the group is supposed to read through this pinned post and then comment on it as acknowledgment of their having read and understood its terms. It is a social contract that is put front and center. When respected, the rules allow for authentic and vulnerable interactions to take place in a way that might otherwise be challenging or impossible.
It made me realize that not only was I assuming that everyone is as willing to accept other ways of being in the world as I do, but I also had no safety plan in the event that something went wrong.
A safety plan is essentially a series of actions based on hazardous “what ifs” in any given scenario. This, of course, is based on what we deem to be unacceptable words or behaviours in a space, whether that be in person or online. And ultimately, the plan is in place in order to prescribe our reactions and, I would think, in order to overcome any fear paralysis or inability to act in the event that something very disturbing occurs.
I remember at the first Black Lives Matter – Edmonton town hall meeting, a young Black woman was voicing her opinion about the topic at hand and an old white man from the back of the room started yelling in a degrading manner that she ought to raise her voice and speak up when she’s talking to us. Everyone froze. You could feel how uncomfortable the room was. And without skipping a beat or a moment’s hesitation, one of the co-founders of what would become Black Women United YEG stood up and told that man to keep quiet or get out. She interrupted his very abusive tone and manner with such a fierceness, my mouth literally hung open. She then called out the folks who began apologizing for him, even as he showed zero remorse.
She knew what to do when the contract of the room was violated.
She had seen it countless times before. She could guess where this might be going and she knew that if she didn’t interrupt it, it might escalate. She knew that the first trespass is a violation of the sacred safety of a space. And she had zero tolerance for that.
I was in awe because I had grown up in a state of bewilderment that had gotten me into some pretty scary scenarios. I, like many others, had been socialized to diminish my intuitive voice, to ignore blatant red flags, and other such concerning self-permeability in the name of not making things awkward. The result was consent and boundary violations to my personhood, again and again. And I was never taught why this was happening or how to defend myself against it. I was confused and let down every time it happened.
Later, I was fortunate enough to take violence de-escalation training with the same amazing woman and one exercise in particular jumped out at me as memorable for the same reasons. We were instructed to put our hand on the leg of the person next to us and they were supposed to tell us to take it off in an assertive and vocal tone. As we went around the circle, all of us were laughing awkwardly and weren’t exactly as assertive as we should have been.
It was our social conditioning showing – the kind of conditioning that doesn’t keep people safe.
Rather than just doing the exercise as we were taught that it can be effective in stopping unwanted behaviour, we shrugged things off, unable to assert autonomy over our own bodies. That is, until it came to her turn. I put my hand on her knee and, again, without skipping a beat, she put the fear of God in me, growling for me to take my damn hand off her knee.
I wanted to applaud. I was in awe again.
But honestly, it just made me realize how let down we all are by what we have been taught and what has been deemed more important for the public school curriculum or for our households. Why isn’t it mandatory to teach folks about behavioural patterns of narcissistic predators and how they groom vulnerable people? Why aren’t we taught the typical behaviours of people with implicit bias or who are overtly racist? Why isn’t economic or labour exploitation taught in school so we can recognize it when it happens? Why aren’t we taught that our safety and that of our children and our colleagues and our community members is more important than anything else? More important than the customer always being right or the benefit of the doubt being awarded to one who just rubs us the wrong way. More important than the reputation of an organization in the event that it needs to cancel a meeting to keep its personnel safe. More important than the feelings of a sorry abuser whose behaviour never changes.
Why have we been taught to put our safety last? Everything comes before it: money, love, the feelings of the ones who harm us – even if they lack basic human empathy.
The answer to these questions is simple: systems that exploit are designed to be exploitative and they are upheld by those who benefit from them.
I have noticed, since drawing up rules and safety plans for the business I run and the committees I chair, that people tend to breathe a sigh of collective relief when the plans are brought out. They know how important these things are preemptively.
And the ones who huff and puff about them? I have my eye on you.
Next time, we will discuss practical steps to creating social safety plans, particularly in community organizing settings.
Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.