What is ‘’Safe Space’’ and who is it for?

In today’s Social Justice lecture on intersections Iida Pyy introduced us to the concept of safe space. We found that this was a welcomed intervention and it suited well as a part of this particular session since intersections of privilege and disadvantage such as ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability can so easily be lost in the assumptions present in the classroom. These assumptions are enacted in how the teacher talks and what s/he talks about as well as how the students talk, act and relate to each other. We were left wondering how to make the uni classroom a safer space? And why is it important?

Safe space or safer space refers to an environment that is open to different expressions, cultures, ethics, genders, ethnicities, etc. The concept of safe space, as we understood it, is free from presumptions about “us” as white Finns, heterosexuals, men or women, able-bodied and able-minded. The Coalition for Safer Spaces is a good place to start, if one wants to know more about the subject. And a very important issue, particularly in a university setting, is the question of how to make social justice education more accessible to those, who are not familiar with all the hottest concepts, theories and theorists.

When it comes to creating a mentally and physically safe space by cherishing an engaging and supportive learning environment, it is hard to know whether everyone present is on the same page. Touching is a good example of something that can be done with good intentions (to show kindness) but can be perceived as unpleasant or even threatening. The difficulty is that people have different expectations for situations that require social interaction, such as classroom discussions. There is a difference between a debate (a battle of ideas) and a dialogue based on mutual respect. We see that the latter could be fostered as part of the practice of safe space. Committing to some guidelines for safe space can for example remind us about the importance of asking for consent before touching another person. And it can help us remember that we cannot know one’s gender, religion or socioeconomic status by looking at them.

The division between poor and non-poor in Ricky Lee Allen’s “What About Poor White People?” stirred up discussion in our group. When we talk about the poor, who are we thinking of? Are we assuming that none of the people we are surrounded by are poor? At least in Finland being poor isn’t something you can necessarily see on the outside. Thanks to our (almost) free higher education, people with meager financial means can attend university. Of course, due to the impact of social background on the heritability of educational attainment it is less likely, but not impossible.

As Andrew Smiler writes on unintentional gender lessons, schools provide an important setting for transmitting socially held values including beliefs about gender-appropriate behavior. These beliefs are transmitted informally through school structures, teachers’ comments and students themselves. Safer space aims to create a space where everyone could acknowledge and challenge their assumptions, for example about gender-appropriate, “masculine” or “feminine” behavior and sexuality.

A safe space can also be viewed from the perspective of the teacher. Making mistakes and learning from them should be a natural part of teaching and the overall school context. As Freire also highlights: ’’by struggling I become conscious/aware’’. The teacher can be a committed intellectual, as Gustavo Fischman and Eric Haas suggest in their article on critical pedagogy, even though s/he feels confused in some situations. When a teacher or a student violates the safe space this can be used as a teachable moment. The debate about gender roles (which often arise in everyday situations), may well be used as an example; children and young people who are behaving in breach of certain gender norms, often face discrimination. Safe spaces can also be created through these teachable moments when teachers and students reflect on their thoughts, language or action and become more aware of what is safe and what is not.

The concept of safe space has been criticised in different ways and what some have suggested is that the idea of safe space implicates that the rest of the world is unsafe. Unfortunately, this is in many respects the case. Many spaces in the world are unsafe, which makes it necessary to have safer spaces. A seemingly mundane thing such as segregated bathrooms can create a very unsafe environment for those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or do not fit into the binary. First of all, there is the forced choice of which bathroom you go to and then the possibly excruciating experience of being called out for presumably being in the “wrong one”.

We wrote this blog post in the group study room of the Learning Centre Minerva. Right beside the room are two bathrooms which to our joyous surprise read: Kaikille/För alla/For all. Way to go! This is a good direction towards safer spaces in the university.

Group F


References and further reading:

Allen, R. L. (2008). “What about poor white people”? In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stowall (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education (pp. 209–230). London: Routledge.

Coalition for Safer Spaces. (2010, 4 April). What are, and why support, ‘safer’ spaces (Blog post). Retrieved from here.

Cumming-Potvin, W. & Martino, W. (2014). Teaching about Queer Families: surveillance, censorship, and the schooling of sexualities. Teaching Education, 25(3), 309–333.

Fischman, G. E., & Haas, E. (2008). Critical Pedagogy and Hope in the Context of Neo-Liberal Globalization. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stowall (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education (pp. 565–575). London: Routledge.

Kjaran, J. I. & Jóhannesson, I. Á. (2014). Inclusion, exclusion and the queering of spaces in two Icelandic upper secondary schools. Ethnography and Education, 10(1), 42–59.

Smiler, A. P. (2008). Unintentional Gender Lessons in Schools. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stowall (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education (pp. 358–370). London: Routledge.

Thom, K. C. (2015, 27 September). 9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible. Everyday feminism. Retrieved from here.

One thought on “What is ‘’Safe Space’’ and who is it for?”

  1. I as well found the concept of safer spaces very interesting – but pretty complicated as well. As you said, people have different expectations for certain situations which makes it’s rather hard to evaluate the things that are acceptable and which are not. Many of these things can of course be discussed when creating some common rules in different situations. But then again, you should try to create the space safe for this discussion as well. Interesting topic! Annika/Group D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *