At the recent Gender360 Summit I was introduced by my former boss and beloved colleague Feyi Rodway to the concept of creating ‘brave spaces’. This term seems to have surfaced during discussion groups and research she conducted in Ghana and indicated a move away from the notion of ‘safe spaces’ to a space that inspires one to speak out. This being a new term for me, which nonetheless resonated deeply, i decided to do some digging and figure out where this idea came from and what it sets out to accomplish.
As we know all great journeys begin with a google search, and I quickly found what appears to be a seminal 2013 piece titled ‘from safe spaces to brave spaces’ by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. In this article they explore the notion of safe spaces which arose out of facilitating social justice discussions with students at NY University. they spend some time discussing what a safe space actually is which pretty much does what it says on the can, and through a series of agreed guidelines sets basic ‘rules of engagement’ that ensure people’s views won’t be attacked, belittled, ridiculed or dismissed. they quickly realized that their students were conflating ‘safety’ with ‘comfort’, and the moment a discussion moved from ‘political to provocative’ students invoked the rules of safe space to essentially shut down the conversation.
Democracy rests on the belief that freedom of speech, even when it is painful, difficult, aggravating or hurtful, is necessary for the protection of everyone’s rights. as the famous saying goes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Yet this notion of listening to and giving space to views that challenge our established beliefs, seems to have been undermined by the idea that a safe space means avoiding discomfort at all times. Arao and Clemens felt that students were not adequately prepared to deal with controversial or politicized issues since the expectation of being challenged was removed in the notion of creating ‘safety’ which led students to ‘discount, deflect and retreat’ the moment they felt ‘unsafe’, that is, uncomfortable.
Their solution, is to replace the unhelpful idea of safety with that of bravery, which would ‘help students rise to the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues’. The article doesn’t go far enough to my mind as it stays in the realm of discussion guidelines for facilitators by setting out new common rules for creating a brave space. this assumes too much a level playing field of values and language, and background and geography. Their articulation of ‘brave spaces’ doesn’t travel well.
However, if we think of the basic tenet of the move from safety (comfort) to bravery (meeting challenges) this works very well in the context of effective advocacy. Much of the work that I’ve led to build young people’s capacity to be effective advocates, to speak truth to power, is about building their self efficacy and agency. The basic premise of this work rests on the assumption that the space these youth advocates are entering is not safe, that they will be a minority in an adult arena where their views are most likely to be dismissed due to their age, and where they will most likely meet with hostility by those in power who they are holding to account.
This means that creating a brave space becomes an act of conscious and deliberate actions that go beyond agreed behavior guidelines, to building the capacity of youth advocates to meet challenges, and in turn, work with those in power to become open to being challenged. In other words, creating a brave space requires working with those about to enter this space before they even get there and it requires an active intervention of facilitators that work against power imbalances in any way they can (this could include changing discussion format or even language).
for me the move from safe spaces to brave spaces can best be summed up as the move from ‘hearing’ to ‘listening’. and when we finally listen to those who we don’t usually hear from, a whole world of possibilities opens up.