Safe Spaces Aren’t Enough

In this time of unprecedented challenge to the norms of society, I have been thinking of how to create space in my classroom for discussions about social justice and equity.  Is creating a “safe space” enough?  I think it’s not.  Safe spaces are great in that they allow marginalized students to share their experiences without the fear of being ridiculed or socially punished, but they don’t allow us to have difficult conversations which push us to the edge of our comfort zones in order to grow.  

Authentic learning about issues of social justice is uncomfortable.  It requires risk, discomfort, controversy, and exposure.  For those of us in non-marginalized groups, hearing challenges to our world view can bring emotions such as fear, sorrow, guilt and anger.  In a safe space there may not be room to explore these feelings and the historic genesis of them which can lead to resistance or denial.  Where’s the transformative power in that?

Can we, instead, talk about brave spaces?  These are classrooms where we expect to feel some discomfort; we expect to be challenged; we expect to feel supported.  In brave spaces, the teachers and students collaborate on ground rules and then abide by those rules in discussions.  Students are empowered to pointedly challenge each other and the teacher when topics are difficult; they own both their intentions and their impact on others; conversations are civil and the respect that this civility demands is one generated from mindfulness.

In brave space classrooms, students feel emboldened to leap into discussions with their own perspectives, knowing that the teacher and their classmates will provide them a safe place to land.  Lines of communication flow both from teacher to student and from student to teacher.  We are still in the “driver’s seat” of the class, but the difference is that we allow our students to take the wheel too – we give them the power to learn from each other’s experiences and teach them the value of their own narrative.  In this scenario, we will all have opportunities to feel the breaking of personal viewpoints, but we will also see the power of regeneration as we knit new information and perspective into a more complete version of the truth.

Maybe our classrooms can be both safe AND brave.  In this way we can honor and protect all of our students.


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