Opinion: Safe Spaces: They’re All the Rage

I used to proudly say that I create safe spaces in academia.

In fact, the Sexuality and Gender Diversity Committee that I co-chair worked for 2 years to bring the new LGBTQ2S Safe Space Training to Laurentian. I have now provided that training to well over 100 administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

Lately I feel as though I should be saying this using hushed tones in a back ally “Psssst, you want some safe space training?”

Safe spaces in the academic setting are being condemned more and more on social media as well as in the Canadian Association for University Teacher’s publication citing that they are ‘squashing academic freedom’.

After reading these articles and comments, the more I realize that many of these individuals don’t seem to know what safe space training actually provides.

My goal in this article is to provide information to those who are raging against safe spaces, so that you can either 1) rage in a slightly more informed manner or 2) begin to understand that this training actually is academic in nature.

I’ll focus here on two main themes of my safe space training: 1) Listen and 2) Question. I know, these sound terrifying….but bare with me.

LISTEN: Many of us (including myself) make assumptions about people before they even speak. For example, I can’t count the number of times that people have asked me what my ‘husband does’. Spoiler alert: I have a wife not a husband. I understand that given the statistics 90% of the time that you ask someone about their spouse (or significant other) that you will be correct that the person is of the opposite sex. So your odds are pretty good. However, on my end people are wrong 100% of the time when they make that assumption. So I go through my life correcting people who speak as if they know me before I’ve had a chance to tell them who I am.

So what would it look like if you, instead of assuming you have information about people, waited and listened to them to tell you who they are?

This may mean using non-gendered language for a few minutes, which isn’t much of a cost on your part. What about the impact on me? Well, by you taking those few minutes to listen, you have made a safer space for me to actually say who I am on my own instead of having to either ‘correct your assumption’ or ‘hide because you may be someone who is homophobic and perhaps it isn’t safe for me to tell you who I am ’.

The example I’m giving is that of sexuality, but this is generalizable to most ‘identities’ including religion, ability, ethnicity, gender.

QUESTION: A lot of safe space training discusses being an ally. What we are hoping for is that people will feel empowered to speak up for all human rights, whether they fall into any of the ‘marginalized populations’ or not. In fact, people who identify as allies tend to have even more impact on listeners than the individuals who have traditionally been marginalized. This is what we call ‘privilege’….yes another bad word!

Whether you’d like to admit it or not, we tend to listen to those who have power, and in this society, that still typically means white, middle/upper class, straight, and male.

I know that many of you are recoiling at this, but I’m not bashing anyone who may fall into that category. What I am saying is that those who fall into that category have a strong voice to add, if so inclined. That means that if you hear someone saying ‘that’s so gay’ (which I still hear constantly outside my office door) then you can do something.

Here is where the really academic part comes in…I don’t want you to yell at that person saying those words… I want you to question them by saying “Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

Often people don’t even think through what they are saying…and yes we all know that you “didn’t mean it that way.”

Asking you to simply clarify what you mean may make you think twice about the impact that it could be having. This is especially true when the person questioning you doesn’t fall into the category of the group that you may be affecting.

I’ve seen the impact of a simple question first hand, in fact it is something I have the opportunity to do almost daily. We often speak as if our assumptions of people and groups are absolute truth but a simple question about why you are making that assumption can help us shift our perspective.

So to summarize, the safe space training that I provide suggests that you listen, question, and consider different perspectives. These all sound like practical academic activities to me.

By Dr. Joël Dickinson, 

Academic AND Safe Space Advocate