Youth Leadership Reflection

 Joshua Kogut

Creating a Safe and Welcoming Space by Joshua Kogut

“In order for any discussion to be productive, you must create an open and relaxed atmosphere.”

-Anti-Oppression discussion guidelines

The idea of creating a “safe space” has increasingly come up in our social culture. People want to create spaces that are inclusive, welcoming, kind and accessible to everyone, because everyone deserves those kinds of spaces. I think more people have accessed spaces that do not feel good to them, and are trying to create spaces that don't mirror those experiences. This is a great thing! Before we get into the how to do that, let's get into talking about what a safe and inclusive space is.

A space and inclusive space, is a place where anyone can access, regardless of whatever identities they hold. It sounds simple, but often doesn't play out that way in the world. For example, if your space doesn't have a ramp, it automatically excludes anyone who needs a ramp to access the space. This makes a space unwelcoming and emotionally unsafe for a disabled person to access. Another example is if a trans person tries to access a space and is made to feel uncomfortable because of their gender identity. This excludes trans people who want and need to access the space.

Questions to ponder:  When have you felt unsafe or excluded in a space? What did it look, sound, and feel like? How did you know you were unwelcome?

Making a safe space is an effort, but well worth it. One idea to building a safe space, is having community input. Think about the participants in your safe space, who are they made up of? Having a community meeting where you create group agreements that everyone can agree to is one idea. You can also ask questions like, “What does a safe space feel like to you?”, “When you enter here, do you have to hide or let go of any bits of yourself? Why is that, and how can we support you in letting those bits out?”.

There are some general best practices in creating safe and welcoming space for different groups of more vulnerable people, which are listed below:

LGBTQ People:

  • Educate yourself and others in the space on LGBTQ issues and identities. Learn from movies, books, flyers, and hired people in the LGBTQ community to find out what specific needs are. Commit yourself to continual growth, and respect when an LGBTQ person might ask you to further your knowledge on a specific issue.
  • Have one or more gender-neutral bathrooms available so that trans people can have a safe space to use the bathroom. Many trans people are met with distrust or even violence in bathrooms. By having a gender-neutral bathroom, you are committing to the idea that bathrooms should be safe for all.
  • Have appropriate signage. This is applicable for any community you are trying to serve. If an LGBTQ person passing by sees a “safe zone” sign, they can have some trust that the people inside are trying to create a space with them in mind. It makes a huge difference!

People with Disabilities:

  • Physical accessibility is a huge one. How can people get into your building or space? Can people with wheelchairs, crutches, canes, rollators, power scooter, sight canes, or service dogs get inside? If not, advocating for that to happen, to the building, or even the city are some options. While that is happening, you can reach out to local disability organizations (there are many Centers for Independent Living around the country that may be able to offer a lot of ideas) for information, and individually ask participants with disabilities about what they might need to access the space.
  • Making a space scent free is vital for people with many different disabilities or physical conditions. It supports people with Migraines, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Mast Cell Disorders, and more. Chemicals in perfumes and air fresheners are very prohibitive for many people. By getting rid of them, you are creating a space that more people can access.
  • Having your literature in many different variations is a huge help. Examples of this would be springing for vital information to be printed in braille, or extra large print. Another good idea is printing things in the font “dyslexy”, which is a font specifically created to help people experiencing even extreme dyslexia to read.
  • If you are having an event, hiring an ASL or Spanish (or other most common second language) interpreter makes a huge difference. It’s the difference between someone not coming or sitting alone not being able to understand what’s going on, and having an engaging and understandable event.

People of Color (POC):

  • Ask people of color/support people of color in their decision to be on the board or in leadership roles. If people of color aren't directly in leadership positions, it is impossible to create a fully safe space. It’s worth looking at who are the leaders in your space or organization, and creating tangible ways to increase diversity. With that, examine how members get recognition. Look for paternalism and tokenism.
  • When you are doing activities, make sure to be highlighting the variations of cultures that exist. For example, if you have a monthly movie night, make sure to show movies that are a majority POC as well as other things.
  • Treat everyone as an individual and not a representative of any specific group. Often POC are made to be a representative of their entire ethnic group. It’s important not to replicate that in your space.
  • Ask POC what they want out of the space. This is important for every group. Really ask what people want, and listen and implement. If POC are saying that a certain TV show everyone is watching is racist and makes them uncomfortable, listen to them.

These are only a few groups of people.  There are many more! Think of the safe space that you want to be creating and the people who are or who are going to be accessing it. What does it mean to be fully welcoming of them? Brainstorming with other people is a great way to check yourself on this.

The last thing to note is to be patient. Safe spaces aren't built overnight and are an act of trust manifesting in a physical space. Be prepared for bumps and mistakes to happen. The commitment to creating a safe space means rolling with the punches and approaching the concept and practice with love and kindness. And remember: make it fun!