We feminist types talk about safe spaces a lot. Creating safe spaces for women and girls etc, and I was sitting with a bunch of girls the other day, aged around 11/12 trying to explain to them what a safe space was and how that translated into real life. It was an interesting situation as most of these girls came from safe, supporting families and the idea of not having a safe space was entirely foreign to them, but at the same time they would all have had experiences of not feeling safe in various spaces. Whether because of teasing or bullying at school or feeling isolated or unsafe even in their own homes perhaps after being left alone. How do you discuss the concepts of safe spaces with young women like this who may well recognise the feeling of being unsafe, but not label it as such.
In my programs I always try to bring in the concept of a safe space. A space within which private matters are kept private and personal information kept personal. A space where everyone has the right to speak and be heard and that everyone should be supported and encouraged if they find that challenging. But the idea of safe spaces goes far beyond that and it’s a question I come up against in my work time and time again.
Sometimes, actually often, in my work I partner with a circus trainer who works with the girls and teaches them circus arts like acro-balance, juggling, hula-hooping and sometimes stilts and roller-boller. We also play games and of course warm up and stretch. This can both present challenges for creating a safe space AND introduce an effective way of introducing the concept without getting too academic. The circus we do, especially the acro-balance, can really challenge the girls to live below the neck ie: get in touch with their bodies, in ways they may not have done for some years. This means that we have to create a space in which the girls feel comfortable and confident in their friends, us and their own bodies AND safe in the space. Before we start, my head trainer will often try to tell the girls that while she will put some pressure on them to try the new and different things that she is recommending, they shouldn’t take that pressure as negative or enforced, but encouraging and supportive. The trainer just wants the girls to have the opportunity to experience the various balances, even if they might at first be unsure or uncertain about the safety or their ability.
SO, how do we, as facilitators, reconcile pressure, support, encouragement, the sharing of personal information, the attempting of frightening and unfamiliar physical challenges and diverse groups of young women to create safe spaces?
Hmmm, after setting that question, I’m not entirely sure if I have the answer. I think we do it through a variety of means.
1st. We ensure that the girls respect us as peers, not teacher or superiors. We are mentors, facilitators and guides, and yes we enforce rules and expect respect, but we are not there to tell them what is what or force them to participate in activities they’re uncomfortable with. We want them to participate fully and engage with all the content but there is no punishment if they don’t, except perhaps exclusion in the most extreme of circumstances.
2nd. We include them in the decision making. We ask them about their lives, their positives and negatives and challenges and we ask for their feedback on our performance and the content of the program.
3rd. We work and play with them, not beside them. We run and jump and giggle and complain with them and for them. The more that they see we are just young women with passion and drive like them, the more they see us as peers rather than “adults”.
And through this we create a safe space. A space where opinions are valued and ridiculed in equal measure, where standing on your friends is normal and fun and dropping the ball is part of the process of learning. The feedback we get is that the girls appreciate it. They feel valued and included, they may not always like it but they respect our respect and appreciate our efforts. A safe space isn’t always about privacy or protection. Sometimes it’s about recognising the similarities in all of us and feeling confident enough to try something new.
I want to thank ALL the fabulous young women that I’ve worked with over the years who have taught me about safe spaces.
The image “Alone” is taken from the website Word Soup