Liberated Spaces Instead of “Safe” Spaces

Slapping the words “safe space” on a wall in our classroom or coming up with “rules to make a space safe” don’t actually make a safe space. As a matter of fact, one cannot make a space a safe space. Spaces are either “safe” or they aren’t. We cannot force our way into safety or safeness. Most importantly, we cannot beat “safespace” into anyone that is not willing to enter, inhabit, facilitate and nurture a space space. We enter into safe space because we see the possibilities of being seen for and accepted for all of who we are.

Have you ever been in a space dubbed safe, that was everything but? Yeah….

In this blogpost, I would like to present the idea of facilitating liberated spaces rather than safe spaces, as a starting point for a healthy, fertile and safe learning space in the our school communities. This is (of course) not to say that safe spaces are not needed; to the contrary, they are the most important ingredient in any kind of community. By “safe Space”, I am referring to a specific kind of design; the White Safe Space, rooted in suppressing uncomfortable situations and rooted in keeping the white educator at the center of who says what is allowed in the space (rule makers) and what happens to those who don’t follow the rules (rule breakers.) Again, I deeply believe in safe spaces as ingredient number 1 in interpersonal relationships and community building, (and life itself) but not in one that comes from flexing our muscles as rule makers without doing the transformative and complex work of co-designing and co-living in these spaces with all the folk involved in the community.

White Supremacy.

Whiteness is the dominant culture in America. White Supremacy, oppression and racism have been key elements of this nation; especially when it comes to public education. The public education system, the curriculum, the laws, who gets to climb the ladder in school administration, politics, the socioeconomics of the students and families whom the system serve, and even the teacher training programs for pre service teachers are deeply affected by white supremacy, oppression and racism. We cannot separate those realities from how and what our classroom spaces are. Schools are not vacuums, they are reflections of the communities in which the schools are. If the neighborhood, town, city, country where the school is is not safe, the classroom won’t be a safe space, unless it is consciously and intentionally designed to be, and unless everyone in the room works symbiotically for the well being (self realization) of one another. Add to that, the (real and assumed) power imbalances between traditional teaching and studenting, the power imbalances between teachers and administrators, and the power imbalances between white people and everyone else. And also add the power imbalances between cis gendered men and women. Once we take all those things into consideration, we can think critically about the following questions, as they pertain to designing or forcing white supremacy in the name of “safe spaces”

  1. Who gets to say what happens to those who make our safe spaces no longer safe?
  2. What happens to those who transgress?
  3. Whose voices are we lifting and whose voices are we silencing?
  4. Where is the room for education?
  5. Where is the room for dialogue?
  6. Where is the room for the text (pre-text, con-text and pro-text)?
  7. Where is the room for democracy?
  8. Where is the room for humanity?

In this sense, I view the “safe space” as an act of oppression, superiority, and gatekeeping done upon the very humans the “safe space” aims to keep safe and liberate. In this model of “safety”, not everyone is safe. And because not everyone is safe, none of us are safe. My “safety” (self realization) is bound to yours, and yours is bound to mine.

“If you’re white, keep it light” Most of the time we white folks get to curate our spaces as much as we want. if we want to, we get to set up whatever guidelines we see fit as a shield to protect ourselves and our spaces from conflict and questioning of our (own asserted or systematically asserted) authority. It is much more comfortable (and easy) to tell a student “Get out of MY room” or “In this classroom we DON’T allow that kind of talk/behavior/thing” than to have to dig deeper into what is the root of the behavior. “All behavior has meaning.” (Maslow)

When we demonize and kick out students for breaking our “spaces spaces” we lose the ability to find out what’s the meaning behind the behavior, we lose the opportunity to be human with one another; to have a conversation about what is happening, and we lose the ability to teach; and thus do the jobs we are collecting a paycheck. I know, it is way too tiny of a paycheck, but it is a paycheck nonetheless.

Because whiteness is the dominant culture in America, and whiteness loves comfort, when a situation is uncomfortable, we try to enforce safety no matter at what cost, as long as we are not the ones paying for it. We a) don’t know how to handle being uncomfortable, b) don’t really want to sit with the feeling of being uncomfortable enough to struggle trough it and c) don’t believe we SHOULD have to deal with being uncomfortable because someone else did/said something we told them not to do/say. Too often (and way more often than not for students of color ) the punishment for doing so is exclusion. Don’t believe me? Here is the proof:

Analysis Finds Higher Expulsion Rates for Black Students

Black students nearly 4x as likely to be suspended

“Get Out of MY Classroom Syndrome” In the safe space model, someone say/does “the wrong” thing & we demonize them for making the space “unsafe”. When done this way, “Safe Spaces” continue the cycle of violence and oppression that our youth experience due to systematic oppression on a daily basis. Youth, especially youth of color are used to feeling expendable by the very people who are supposed to love them. They have learned to expect their teachers/administrators to kick them out of class/school for erring or transgressing. They have gotten used to feel like they are not worthy of belonging, and of love.

Story Time With @mrmartinisays:

A few years ago a student and I got in a power struggle over the student not doing a task I assign. After a few back and forth “do task X; No I won’t” the student said “Fuck this, Suck My Dick” And I said: “Let’s Talk About This”. She looked at me confused and said: “Mr. Aren’t you gonna kick me out?” I told the student that although I was hurt by her answer, I wouldn’t kick her out of her classroom, because it is not for me to kick anyone out. It is not MY classroom, it is OUR classroom, and everyone in the community is valuable. I also told her that if I kicked her out, I don’t get to have a conversation about why our interactions got to that level, something that I very much wanted to have. She laughed and went back to her seat. I asked her that when she felt ready to talk about it, she could come see me and we’d talk privately about it. Nobody taught me to do this. I didn’t learn it in teacher training school (I actually was advised to kick kids like that out to the dean in order to keep the learning environment safe for everyone else). What I did, felt ethical and right, so I trusted my gut. I deeply believe that interactions like this one, helped our whole classroom environment become strong and wholesome. This all happened in front of other students, and so everyone got to see that even if they tell me to suck their dicks, (impulsive behavior is pain based behavior AKA Trauma) they will not be kicked out, that even in them being “bad” they still matter, and I still care.

Towards A Liberated Space.

A liberated space is a space grounded in community and love. It is a space where we are free (libre) to be human along one another. And since to be human is to err, a Liberated Space is a space where a mistake, or a transgression will not cost us our freedom. That being said, in a Liberated Space, we will process whatever intentional and unintentional hurt/pain is caused by our words/actions and that is coused upon us. A Liberated Space is a space in which everyone works as a team to restore that which has been broken. We all play a part in doing so. In a Liberated Space, we all hold each other accountable for doing so. We protect each other.

A liberated space is fertile ground. Things grow wildly! People grow in ways they cannot grow when they are not free to be. In liberated spaces we struggle together. we are committed to one another. we mess up, we process, we apologize, we learn, we live together.

In the Liberated Space model of community, we all come up with a covenant (not a rule for rules are to be broken.) This covenant is made with love at the center. Whatever agreements we will enter on, we will do so a) consensually and not under duress, b) enthusiastically and c) because those agreements will be help pave the road for making our hopes and our dreams come though. If there is a bump along the road, we will stop and talk about it always keeping in mind “How does this affect my community? How does this relate to the hopes and dreams of my community? What is MY part in this story?” Setting up a “covenant”, or community guidelines will reflect what the whole community values as fair, just, and theirs . When students feel like ownership over what they can do/say, and when they feel those things rooted in fairness, justice and love, students will go above and beyond in order to keep themselves, each other and their teachers accountable for the well being of the covenant. I speak this from first hand experience. I also have more than enough first hand experience with communities of students disregarding and not knowing the “rules”. I am sure you do too. We all do.

In liberated spaces, there’s room for saying: “ouch” that which you did/said hurt me. let’s talk about why you said that and how that affected me.

Let’s talk about how when we call another human being a “faggot” we are not only using our words as a weapon of mass destruction, but we are upholding the very violence that was done upon us. Homophobia is an act of violence done by the patriarchy not only on the LGBTQ folks, but onto men; because the patriarchy steals men of their own ability to feel feelings (I’m paraphrasing bell hooks)

Let’s talk about how when we call another student a “pussy” not only are we using our words as a weapon of mass destruction but we are upholding misogynistic oppression. Let’s talk about it and let’s have open an honest and caring conversations about how we relate to one another and most importantly how we heal; how we restore that which has been broken by our words/actions.

This is complex to do, but it is not hard. This takes work and time and commitment and patience and love love love love and more love. Restorative Peace Circles are an amazing tool for doing this kind of work. Learning about Trauma and Trauma Crisis Intervention Systems I believe is paramount to do this work. These types of trainings are available all over the U.S.A and most districts will send teachers to them for professional development. For white teachers, it is essential to look at what race has to do with the way we relate to one another in education. The People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond offers a training called “Undoing Racism” where much of what I am writing comes from. Big props to them for transforming me into a better and healthier educator and change maker. The work of Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Dr. Christopher Emdin has also helped me immensely in processing, and synthesizing my thoughts and ideas around Liberated Spaces in ways that I feel ethical, loving and doable for me, in my practice. I believe they’ll help yours as well. I wish that upon all educators!

In liberated spaces we can say “oops” that came out wrong, I didn’t mean to say that. Or oops, I said something messed up; i wanna explain myself/restate myself or I wanna heal that which my words or actions have broken. Liberated spaces allow students to reflect as individuals and as community members about what they do and say not only inside the classroom but most importantly outside, in their real world. If there is one skill that I find is extremely hard for me to make part of my life is Accountability. Being accountable for my actions is so hard for me. And I know it is hard for the youth I serve. And so, bathing in the opportunities to practicing saying “Oops” I’ve messed up, I am sorry about X. I strongly believe that taking every opportunity to dive deeper into dialogue about how my (our) words and actions are perceived by my (our) community is and act of self love.

Finally, in Liberated Spaces we can say “yea you rite”, validate one another for the things we learn with and from each other and from the things we have in common with one another. We can look at a friend in the eyes and say “thank you for teaching me how to X” We can say “I was afraid to say I like Y and Z but when I heard you say you also like Y and Z, then I felt empowered to speak up.” This kind of liberty can only come when we feel like we belong and like we matter and like we are not alone in feeling the ways we feel. This kind of magic cannot happen if we are afraid that someone will call us a name or kick us to the curb for doing/saying something, unintentionally or intentionally because of trauma. In liberated spaces we can look back at the growth we’ve ALL done together, because of each other and we can celebrate each other for doing so.

In conclusion , I think the idea of “Safe Spaces” although it might come from well intentioned places, upholds white supremacist values, and is violent and oppressive towards all of our students, especially and disproportionally to our students of color.

In comparison, Liberated Spaces uphold values of caring, commitment, compassion, self reflection and self esteem. Liberated Spaces are fertile grounds for celebration, freedom, love and self realization.

My liberation is bound to the liberation of my students. I am because They are. The more I get to facilitate liberated spaces in and out the classroom, the freer I feel and so I have a blueprint for what freedom can look like, and so I can help inscribe freedom into the landscape of this country. (Thanks Dr. Jamila Lyiscott for the palabra and inspiration at the #HipHopEd conference!) I have grown to love and to look forward to walking in my classroom, knowing full and deeply that my students know that they won’t be dismissed and/or thrown away if they transgress (themselves or their ideas) and equally as important, I love knowing that they will in return fully hold me accountable to be the best I can be, and that will accept me and my ideas fully, regardless of whether of not I err.