“There is No Such Thing as a Safe Space”

This week, two horrific videos were released to the public: the first, bodycam footage showing the violent hammer attack on Paul Pelosi – husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi – in his home; the second, the violent beating by police of 29 year-old Tyre Nichols during a routine traffic stop, resulting in his death three days later. (Full disclosure: I have chosen not to watch either video, and chose not to link to them here either.) Over the same timeframe, the NPR show This American Life ran a story on Teresa Hill, a former Arizona Principal-of-the-Year award recipient who resigned from her post after receiving dozens of violent death threats and abusive messages after upholding Covid mandates and quarantine guidelines for her students. The three incidents are all very different in nature, and are sadly emblematic of hundreds, if not thousands like them; they are not unique. Noticably, for the victims involved they all violate some essence of a “safe space.”

In the midst of all this, I took part in a group call for a course of which I am a faculty member. In reflecting on the time we’re in, one of the other faculty members quoted a poem titled “An Invitation to Brave Space”:

Together we will create brave space.
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” —
We exist in the real world.
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

[Note of correction: This post originally incorrectly attributed this poem to Micky ScottBey Jones, whose name is widely affiliated with it; thankfully, one of you pointed me to this article discussing the plagiarism of this piece from an almost verbatim from an earlier untitled poem by Beth Strano. I am using the latter version with tweaks by Jones here because of the context given; visit Facing History and Ourselves for the original poem.]

The poem was written in support of The People’s Supper, a grassroots initiative equipping people to host a meal and facilitate intentional conversation with a small group of people with diverse life experiences and viewpoints (my family and I took part in one of these a few years back, which was wonderful). The aim is that people leave with broadened perspectives and understanding of “the other.” I wonder if this poem – and in particular the notion of “no such thing as a safe space” challenges you in similar ways as it has for me. I’ve written a lot about safe spaces in the past; now I’m reconsidering my use of that term. On a personal level, I used to consider myself a ‘safe person’ for others until I – in the words of the poem – “caused wounds” to a friend a few years ago; I was challenged by people who knew me well to consider that as a white male (and possibly just as a human being) it was a mistake to ever think of myself as being a ‘safe person’ for others.

So where does that leave us? As the title – and first line – of the poem suggest, we have a role to play:

We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be.
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

How might these ideas – and maybe this poem – be helpful in your team this week?

This Week’s Tips:

  • Read An Invitation to Brave Space or the original untitled poem by Beth Strano. Sit with it and reflect on a few questions for yourself, perhaps in writing. What parts of this poem resonate with you? What does brave space mean to you? What’s an example of a time when you have chosen to be brave? What do you find easy about discussing race or religion with others  –  and where do you need to challenge yourself?
  • Consider that the spaces you think of as “safe spaces” are instead spaces you can be brave. What would that look like?
  • If you consider yourself to be a “safe person” for others, consider that you are capable of causing – and have almost certainly caused – wounds to others. What does that mean for you?
  • Consider reading An Invitation to Brave Space in an upcoming team meeting if the topics of the world outside your organization are talked about. You could ask the same reflection questions above, and give space for people to keep their thoughts private or share them if they would like to.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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