what are, and why support, ‘safer’ spaces

A safer space is a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety. It is a space that is critical of the power structures that affect our everyday lives, and where power dynamics, backgrounds, and the effects of our behavior on others are prioritized. It’s a space that strives to respect and understand survivors’ specific needs. Everyone who enters a safer space has a responsibility to uphold the values of the space.

We say ‘safer’ realizing that not everyone experiences spaces in the same way as others, so any one set of guidelines established to create safety may not meet the requirements of everyone and there may be complications or lapses in fulfilling those guidelines in practice.

Generally, safer spaces are welcoming, engaging and supportive.  Establishing guidelines for conditions that are not acceptable in a space, and action plan(s) for what one will do if those conditions arise, is part of being proactive in creating a safer space.  Issues like hurtful language and behavior (both within the space itself, and in patterns extending beyond activities of the space), violence, touching people without their consent, intolerance of someone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, and just straight-up being creepy, sleazy, racist, ageist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, ablebodiest, classist, sizist, or exhibiting any other behavior or language that may perpetuate oppression, may be addressed with a safer space policy.

Why are ‘safer’ spaces valuable?

If we profess to be concerned about issues of race, gender and sexuality, etc, we need to live our lives in way that proactively seeks to subvert oppression, to undermine the very possibility that someone will feel discriminated against.  We need to recognize that assault and abuse are also perpetrated by people who we know and love and share similar anti-oppression ideologies with.  We need to have a way to address this amongst ourselves in a way that promotes transformation without involving the [police] state or criminal [in]justice system.

Doesn’t this approach create more conflict, division or even ostracization?

It is inevitable that there will be conflict in the time we are learning together. This can be an incredibly valuable thing if it is managed in a constructive manner.  Organizations within the safer spaces coalition hold a basic process for dealing with conflict, based around the principle that a resolution deemed positive to all parties involved should always be sought first.  Any conflict arising in the space that at least one party feels cannot be resolved without some additional help, may seek the assistance of one of the members of the coalition.

One of the foundations of the work we all do is transformational through conflict resolution, mediation and accountability processes.  Provided that a perpetrator or person who has caused harm engages in one of more of these and follows through with the work, we see no reason why the problematic, oppressive or abusive behavior would continue to preclude them from participation in ‘safer’ spaces.  Ultimately, this is a decision that would need to be made by the group of people working with them on these issues.  Furthermore, the temporary exclusion of people who have exhibited abusive or oppressive language or behavior is a measure to protect the safety of survivors and others in the community.  Often, the result of abusive or oppressive acts is the self-directed exclusion of survivor(s) and their allies, and a temporary exclusion of the perpetrator may prevent the more permanent loss of these people.

For a more complete representation of how safer space policies may be applied in common situations, take a look at our list of models for safer space policies for a home, event, convergence or business on this site.