Safer Spaces

Also available as a pamphlet. See the resources page).

Before we start our discussions and workshops, we create a Safe(r) Space in order to make spaces accessible to everyone in various ways – this includes creating spaces where we can have emotionally charged conversations. We start with a general understanding that it’s OK to feel and express emotions. Another objective is to facilitate building of empathy and mutual understanding among participants.

These spaces are created by laying down a set of basic guidelines that can increase our levels of self-awareness, as well as comfort and ease with the people with whom we are sharing intimate thoughts and issues, and sometimes matters in which we strongly believe.

In our discussions, while the facilitators bring forth some basic elements of safer space practices, the space is open for participants to contribute additional practices to make the space safer for sharing delicate and emotionally charged matters.

The term safer is used to indicate that we cannot guarantee an absolutely safe space; the comparative term suggests that a space can become more safe if we collectively try to adhere to these basic (and other relevant) guidelines. The facilitator’s role includes reminding people of the guidelines but, more importantly, it is a collective responsibility to maintain a safer space.

Below is a set of main elements that constitute safer space practices. Please note that it’s a work in progress, not an exhaustive list. Your comments and suggestions are very welcome.

Respect. First and foremost, a simple reminder that, in all cases, respect for self and others is essential and paramount to a discussion. Respect people for who they are and where they are at. Respect people’s beliefs, opinions, viewpoints, and experiences; we all took different roads to get here. Use non-violent communication to express your own views (also see “Criticize Ideas, Not People”). Respect people’s identity, background, names, and pronouns; do not assume anyone’s gender identity. Also, respect people’s economic status. We commit to not reproducing systemic oppressions, such as racism (in all its forms, including horizontal racism), sexism, patriarchy, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on.

Critique Ideas, not People. Don’t make things personal. Also, make sure you recognize your positionality, even as you critique ideas. This guideline creates a space where people feel comfortable contributing without feeling like they themselves will be attacked for their views.

Avoid Judgment. Diverse groups have lots to offer, including different opinions. When group members share their likes and dislikes, respect their personal opinions and preferences. Adopt a non-judgemental approach.

 (Active) Listening. Try to hear people out, recognize their emotions and understand their perspectives, rather than being defensive and protecting dominant narratives.

Take Perspective and Empathize. Recognize that people’s perspective is their truth. Respect it and refrain from judging (also see Respect and Avoid Judgement points above).

Recognize your Privilege and Positionality. Be aware of your prejudices and privileges. If you’re coming from a privileged background (socio-economic, cultural, immigration status, and so on), recognize it along with your position, social standing and social capital, and consider how they may affect your way of thinking and being.

Confidentiality. People share matters that are personal and delicate, so it’s important to commit to maintaining confidentiality. Consider everything that’s said to be private, unless specified otherwise. What’s said in the room remains in the room is a good adage to remember. If you would like to share someone’s story or comment, please ask them first. Exercise discretion outside of the space.

Careful & Attentive Space. As we share, we commit to being careful with each other, and to not say harmful/hurtful things. Be aware of how others are feeling.

One Mic, One Voice/Don’t Interrupt People. Only one person speaks at a time. Raise hands, take turns; give preference to those who haven’t spoken (much).

Be Self-aware: Take Space, Make Space/Step up, Step back. Be aware of how much space you are taking/how much you are speaking. If you feel you are speaking a lot, you should step back and let others take that space; if someone hasn’t taken that space/hasn’t expressed much, they might consider stepping up to contribute.

No Obligation to Speak or Share. Allow for silence/reflection. (This point, in particular, goes with the previous one.)

 “I” and “my” Experience. Everyone should speak from his/her/hir own experiences, and avoid “we” statements, either to represent people present in the group, or folks who are not among us. In short, don’t speak for others.

Avoid Making Generalizations. Don’t make blanket statements about any group of people. (In addition to members of a particular community, this also includes political parties, religious groups, socio-economic classes, age ranges, etc.) If you’re not sure that something you want to say is factually correct, phrase it as a question.

Don’t Make Assumptions. People should not assume other people’s experiences or intentions. If you have questions, clarify. Don’t simply assume.

Intention vs. Impact. Good intentions are not enough. We all need to be responsible for our own speech and actions. Be aware that our actions have an effect on others, despite good intentions. The impact of what’s said/done could be very different or even starkly opposite to the intention. It is important to understand and listen to impacted folks and change our behaviour. Do not judge the reaction of those who are impacted; our frames of reference can be very different, based on our experiences, privilege, and positionality. Thus, do not minimize the magnitude of the impact. Apologize as needed.

Contradicting Ideas are Ok. The aim is to create a space where contradicting ideas can coexist, without feeling challenged. Consider replacing “I disagree” with “I would like to understand” (allowing space and openness to learning).

Commit to De-escalate* Together. A safer space is not a policing space. If issues do arise, we commit to addressing them together. Sometimes, in the end, we may want to settle on “agreeing to disagree.”

Accountable Space. Hand-in-hand with the above, if we are accountable for our speech and actions, and cognizant of our power, privilege, and positionality, we can commit ourselves to making this an open and welcoming space. We strive to “call in” those who need to be held accountable for their oppressive behaviour and such; this is more compassionate than calling someone out in an attempt to correct their behaviour**.

Amend and Adjust Gently. If a someone says something that is offensive or inaccurate, bring it up politely. Letting comments slip by only makes the space less safe and increases the difficulty of building a trusting environment.

Lean into Discomfort. Meetings and topics can sometimes be challenging. Be willing to experience some discomfort in discussions, particularly if you’re coming from a privileged position, and learn from it as a team!

Also, please feel free to do what you need to be comfortable – stretch, go drink water, draw, doodle, etc.

Adapted from: Guidelines for Respectful Discussion
Bluestockings Bookstore, NYC: Safer Space Policy
Other resources:
Berkeley Student Cooperative: Safe Spaces
Brené Brown on Empathy: video
Womenwin: Creating Safe Spaces
*Taylor Bennett, 5 Ways to Deescalate a Conflict.
**Ngọc Loan Trần in Black Girl Dangerous. Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable

Drafted by R. Mehreen

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