Ma(r)king Time +72 Safe Space

Road to Bordeaux. Thinking about safe space

My experience in creating safer spaces–or what might better be termed inclusive spaces–comes from gathered knowledge working in many activist and dance/somatic spaces. Much has been written and explored around the topic; this is what I personally have learned.

Some of those strategies have included but are not limited to, nor necessarily include, the following:

– ask everyone’s preferred pronoun along with name and short introduction to establish everyone’s voice in the circle ahead of any discussion. It also establishes the expectation that no one’s gender can be read from their appearance.

– each person has special needs. Ahead of meeting, work to establish what each person’s special needs are and continue to remain flexible as new members join the group. With that information, think seriously about the architecture of the building, architecture of the group, location and timing: sitting in circle, using amplification devices, making sure that the space is accessible to all bodies, choosing a place that does not require expensive consumption, that’s located in a “familiar” location (this may have to be traded off to suit everyone’s needs over time), choosing time that takes into account childcare needs (or providing childcare) and needs of those who travel by public transportation).

– create DIY simultaneous translation systems with at least three language groups so that most people can use their preferred language to express themselves. This requires a simple headphone/spider system (one group who does this is … And volunteer interpreters)

– Allocate some times when white people, cis people, Western people or other groups (depending on the topic) are asked to refrain from speaking or refrain from taking seats in the front.

– develop strategies for arriving at consensus

– utilize a facilitator in combination with a time keeper and a name taker. The facilitator calls on people to speak, the time keeper keeps track of time, per speaker and per topic, and the name taker insures that people don’t speak twice (or three times) without everyone who wants to speak speaking first.

– utilize physically embodied stances of active listening, ie, touching everyone in the circle, making eye contact with the speaker, passing an object, touching the speaker, sitting in a uniform, alert position.

– work in small groups to insure that everyone contributes an opinion or going around the circle so that everyone responds or passes.

– create awareness groups who pay attention to specific group power dyamics that arise within a group and develop strategies to counteract those hierarchies.

These are just a few gathered tactics but I would love to hear more.

I attended a recent DiEM25 meeting recently in which “safe space” was raised as a topic of some skepticism; an idea I’d heard before but never with this particular reasoning.

A panelist and a member pointed out that for their generation and background, the idea of Safe Space recalled the use of “safe space” as a refuge from direct violence during the violence in Northern Ireland.

As I understood their line of reasoning, the use of the term now, used by younger generations, as spaces of different forms of dialogue, feels somehow distant from the gravity of its original use. Thus, it’s hard for them to look beyond the appropriation of the term in order to understand what safe space actually means today. Unfortunately this misunderstanding only seems to contribute to echoes of disgruntlement, accusations that those who request safe space are overly-sensitive “snowflakes” who cant handle conflict of any kind or conversation that includes disagreement.

I feel like these kinds of misunderstandings and tired arguments need to be met head on and nipped in the bud where-ever they are encountered.

It is not true that the drive to create safe space is one born out of a fear of conflict or disagreement or inability to handle differing viewpoints. Or even that those of us who would like to create safe space have convinced ourselves into believing that any space in life can be fully “safe” for all people. At least speaking for myself, I support safe space but I don’t think safe space is a place where you already know everything that will happen, that peace and ease are guaranteed. And I don’t want that out of my safe space, either.

Despite my firm belief in the need for safe space–and moreover the conviction that they will be created despite any pushback (created in isolation perhaps but created nonetheless)–Rosemary’s comments did make me think, however. She made me think that perhaps, tactically speaking, its not a good idea to appropriate such a loaded term around direct violence. The name may undermine our own goals while also unintentionally offending would-be allies.

Simultaneously it seems that large organizations like big leftist movements need to get hip–and quick–to radical organizing: to poc, queer and feminist organizing strategies that are looking at their own methodologies–methodologies around who gets to talk and how. While this could be called “making spaces more safe,” it could also be called incorporating active listening strategies, adjustment of hierarchies and perhaps there are other better ideas out there.

What seems clear is that the left will fail if it can’t form coalition that actively integrates more radical organizing strategies instead of attacking young organizers as so-called politically correct “snowflakes” afraid of conflict. Didn’t older generations struggle and fight against terrible oppression that took the form of direct violence so that, in part, the next generations wouldn’t have the same direct violence to struggle against? So that we could struggle against the causes of direct violence, the micro-agressions, the structural violence that lead to direct violence?

If we can sit at a table together, ie, share space, there is a good chance that we won’t kill each other. But that doesn’t mean it can be just any “table”, any space. Taking into account the tactics I listed at the top of this essay, the architecture, location and timing of such a meeting must be taken into account to suit all guests. And many other considerations must come into play in order for a table to genuinely feel like a place all guests would like to sit at in order to even begin a dialogue. But that’s a hell of a lot better than killing each other and never getting to the negotiation stage in the first place, isn’t it?

But those who want to sit at such a table, or to create these spaces, or who wish to represent their views at more diverse tables, also maybe have some responsibility in rethinking their language. Perhaps there is something in that. We might consider asking ourselves if we really need to appropriate military language. Even the ubiquitous use of the term triggering–is it accurate? As though we were all just “loaded guns” waiting to go off? Or that our triggers are similar to those of veterans who suffer from PTSD and might “erupt”–presumably into violence. Is that the kind of imagery we really want to employ?

Are our safe spaces really tantamount to the very basic need of getting away from direct violence? No–I would argue that today’s safe spaces are just as essential but much more nuanced.

Perhaps we do need to use terms that better fit what happens in these spaces. Empowered spaces. Active Listening Spaces. Lifting Up Spaces. Spaces of Joy. Friendly Spaces. Inclusive spaces. Open to more.