Why Safe Spaces Are The Wrong Spaces

We all strive to create spaces that promote productive discourse and educational opportunities. We look to create spaces that help people say whatever is on their mind without fear of judgment or repercussions. When we think of leadership, and our roles to create and promote change, that’s the first place that our minds go to.

But are these spaces really what is needed?

I have come to know the term “brave space” in three different opportunities in the past year. First, during the NGF this summer from a dear friend. The next, was while reading “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown, and the last was during our most recent JewV’Nation retreat. This term might just be one my favorite ways to look at the work that we do. The Invitation to Brave Space poem by Mickey Scott Bey Jones reads:

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side

I think it’s safe to say that this poem changed my whole perspective on life and the work that we do. I am a Social Worker, so I always looked to create a safe space for my clients when creating a therapeutic environment. Or when I worked on leadership development, the main goal was to make my students and colleagues feel safe in the room and encourage them to speak up. But after reading this poem, and looking back at everything I accomplished during 2019, It all started to make sense.

The world today is plagued with the same arguments of should we/shouldn’t we discuss certain issues in order to avoid confrontation. Just yesterday, as we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr’s work to promote love and equality, you could scroll through social media to find quote after quote about ending hate and promoting peace. However, for most of the people posting these, I noticed that this is the only “political” statement they make throughout the year. I applaud everyone who chooses to share MLK Jr’s message of hope, as it is words to live by, but why *just* yesterday?. The answer is that yesterday was a “safe” date, or a “safe” space. Although appropriate (and I am grateful to all who choose to share the message), many people did it yesterday because they would not be questioned or confronted for their political opinions; because the day was designed to be a day where we celebrate equality. Whereas, the rest of the year, we must mind what kind of political message we share as to not engage in confrontation that will most likely result in circling around one topic, probably plagued with insults due to lack of arguments left.

For full-disclosure purposes: I belong to a Facebook group with a bunch of my friends where we discuss politics, mainly because I myself fear confrontation as if it was the bubonic plague coming to end my life. I even remember a situation this summer when, during a conversation about American politics, I got so anxious about the subject that I started shaking and feeling tears filling my eyes when there were signs of confrontation starting (and I take this opportunity to thank Stuart for being the real MVP and running to the kitchen to grab plastic cups for our wine). What would have happened if those same messages from yesterday, or those conversations we would rather have with like-minded friends about difficult topics in order to be safe from confrontation, were to be had in the open? What would happen if we challenged ourselves and made ourselves vulnerable to confrontation for the sake of education?

In June, as I was about to leave for Israel, I had an embarrassingly long panic attack. The thought of going away to a place I had never been to, with people I had never met, to dive deep into Identity development felt like an impossible task. I am blessed to have a Rabbi and mentors who were kind and patient during my daily “oh my gosh I cannot do this what was I thinking!” rants. I had to do a lot of very uncomfortable personal work in order to find my seat at the table; not only did I accomplish that, but I made invaluable friendships along the way.
 Following that experience, I finally found my footing and decided to get my NYS Social Work License reinstated, which included 55 Continuing Education credits; 55 hours that would keep me disconnected from family and friends, challenging my comfort zone yet again. And then came the JewV’Nation fellowship and the retreat at the end of November. That weekend included some of the most uncomfortable conversations I have ever engaged in. Three days deep diving into racism, homophobia, and any and all other forms of hate that you can think of. We shared our own stories of implicit bias, of challenges, of times that we have fallen and found the way to get back up, all with one specific purpose: to change the world (or at least our local congregations or programs, you have to start somewhere!).

When I Iook back, I see one common thread: I didn’t need to feel safe, I needed to feel BRAVE. We exist in the real world, we all carry scars, and we have all caused wounds. We don’t grow by ignoring our short fallings, we grow by learning why we fail, and embracing it. To me, safe spaces enable the flawed thought that nothing can go wrong regardless of what we say; but if speak without leaving space for challenge, for growth, how do we really learn? We call each other to more truth and love; how do we love ourselves when we don’t let ourselves get uncomfortable?

As we beginning this new year, my wish is that you make yourself as uncomfortable as you can. Create a space for you to challenge your own views and grow from them. Get out of the safe space and be brave.


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