The Art of Holding “Safe Space” : Why and Where It Matters Most

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November 30, 2021

Writers: Sci Torres & Maria Emcel Mesa
Peer Reviewer: Azie Libanan
Editor: Alvin Joseph Mapoy
Researchers: Sci Torres, Maria Emcel Mesa, Azie Libanan
Creatives: Jacklyn Moral, Klein Xavier Boiser, Krystle Mae Labio
Moderators: Tobey Fhar Isaac Calayo, DG Ramos, Marc John Paul Agbuya, CJ Salvacruz
Spaces: Alvin Joseph Mapoy,  Richardson Mojica, Azie Libanan, and the rest of the #UsapTayo Volunteers

Human beings are social creatures. We are wired, first to connect. Neurobiologically speaking, we all carry `mirror neurons’ that allow us to absorb and leak different emotions from and to each other as often as we breathe.

Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD of the University of Parma first identified mirror neurons. Together with his university colleagues, he found that these neurons help explain how and why we “read” other people’s minds and feel empathy for them. Another psychologist, V.S. Ramachandran, PH.D. has called the discovery of mirror neurons one of the single most important unpublicized stories of the decade. (Winerman, 2005)

While many things are yet arguable and subject to further studies when it comes to our anatomy and chemistry, the human brain, for instance – its intricacy, mechanism, and its endless evolution, it is safe to say that a huge part of being social species is relying on cooperation, adaptation, and working towards a degree of harmony with one another in order to survive and to thrive. 

However, this isn’t the age of awakening to that universal truth. Khan Academy published a study about Homo sapiens and early human migration. The findings were truly astounding as they gave us a glimpse into the early development of human interaction with nature and his species. As attested by the study, “Homo sapiens, the first modern humans, evolved from their early predecessors between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. They developed a capacity for language about 50, 000 years ago. The development of language allowed people to make plans, solve problems, and organize effectively. We can’t be sure of the exact reasons humans first migrated off the African continent. It was likely correlated with a depletion of resources (like food) in their regions and competition for those resources. Once they were able to communicate these concerns and make plans, they could assess together whether the pressures in their current homes outweighed the risk of leaving to find a new one.”

Every generation continuously echoes the poet John Donne’s “No man is an island.” In the context of being, this couldn’t be more agreeable. But it’s necessary to point out also that the environment where we perform and achieve those aforementioned acts is a ubiquitous factor in the level of how much we do them – a prerequisite and in itself a determining variable. They are complex, integral, and interrelated costs of what and how much it takes to be social creatures. 

Most of the environments where we expose ourselves every day are workplaces and schools. Now, understanding the human ability to function properly and find association and connection in these places requires also going through individual assessment of their capacity for safety. It is vital and primal – a basic human instinct. It is always that shared inclination towards our innate need to be safe and to feel safe. However, because many pressing tasks and thoughts can happen in a day and we can only accumulate too much of them, “safe spaces”, as how it is generally known today, often is being reduced into a shrug of the shoulders. For most people it becomes something that is tossed aside for some afterthought in these precarious times instead of it being amongst our top tier exigencies. 

Research shows a scarcity of safe spaces in schools and workplaces. A recent study conducted by Youth Truth Survey Organisation finds “just over half of the students feel safe at school.” The data shows that “59% feel safe at school in general, 66% feel safe in their classes, 54% feel safe in their hallways, bathrooms, and locker rooms, while 55% feel safe in school property outside the school building.” In another 2020 report commissioned by Honeywell International Incorporation and conducted by Wakefield Research, results state that “68% of workers globally do not feel completely safe working in their employer’s building.”

These data could not be more alarming. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health by Carolyn Côté-Lussier of the University of Ottawa and Caroline Fitzpatrick, a researcher affiliated with Concordia’s PERFORM Centre for Preventive Health,”highschoolers who feel less safe at school have decreased learning potential and more emotional problems.”

Findings like these show how features of these physical environments alone play a significant role in a student or an employee’s day-to-day engagement and performance. It remains poignant – each one deserves a safe space as much as each one needs it. It’s especially important for minorities, members of the LGBTQIA community, and other marginalized groups. In a 2019 Healthline article by Megan Yee, she talked of a 2015 fall incident where “a series of student protests over racial tension erupted at the University of Missouri over safe spaces and their impact on freedom of the press.” A noteworthy line in her article says that “safe spaces can provide a break from judgment, unsolicited opinions, and having to explain yourself. It also allows people to feel supported and respected.” Another study states that “due to increased levels of stigma, discrimination and victimization, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning or Intersex (LGBTQI+) youth face particular challenges in society.” (Wilson & Cariola, 2020)

Safe Spaces, An In-Depth Look At the Phrase

Oxford Dictionary defined safe space as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” 

The origins of the term “safe space” have diverse attributions. One of the original concepts can be traced back to the German-American psychologist, Kurt Lewin who founded a social psychology and management theory in the work setting. The objective was “for groups of employees and managers to speak honestly about working conditions and productivity goals without fear of retaliation or retribution” (Quy, 2020). His work invented the “sensitivity training” which is a form of group discussion. “Staff could give honest feedback to each other to allow people to become aware of their assumptions, implicit biases, and behavior that were holding them back as effective leaders.” (Cayton, 2016)

A 2001 book Mapping Gay L.A. by Moira Kenney speaks of the term “safe spaces” used in the mid-1960s when it described gay and lesbian bars as places where allied people movements were able to gather free from attack – a liberation avenue. In the succeeding years, the term was adopted about women gathering together and occupying space in a “communal and safe way”. 

A study conducted by Flensner & der Lippe (2019) suggests the same findings that the concept of safe space originated from the 1970s women’s and LGBT movement, where these people gathered in an environment they considered secure to meet and discuss. One of the historical backgrounds of safe space also indicates that it aims to protect marginalized people from discrimination and offer them that safe space.

By the early 1980s, the term had reached educational institutions. It was used heavily, specifically by students who embodied certain traits (e.g., female students, members of the LGBTQIA community, ethnic minorities, and marginalized groups). 

Author and painter Anthony Fry published his book How To Survive In A Threatening World which called for “safe spaces” in broader and social organizations. His advice was simple but necessary, “Be responsible for your own actions and safety and the safety of those around you.”

Malcolm Harris described the term as “a place where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression.”

As time passed by, “safe spaces” became widely popularised and used as various movements and advocacies strived to make themselves heard and seen in the context of social and racial justice and just basic human rights.

Today, signages, posters, stickers, and placards hold the phrase “safe spaces” in places that provide a welcoming zone to all. But the cases’ reports should not be dismissed. Mental health crises rising on both school campuses and work settings because of lack of safe spaces. This proves time and again our relentless strife to achieve and promote avenues free from any form of harm even amid times when it may feel like we’re fighting a zero-sum ideological war. The irony is that this is a modern age when we’re free from many restraints and constrictions of the past. We’ve come a long way in the sense of revolutionary and active social movements, but not quite. Safe spaces can mean different things now, but the bottom is absolutely certain – we still make unimaginable efforts and put up sacrifices to be heard and seen, to be accepted and respected, to be celebrated and loved just for being.

Then it is crucial to consider asking these loaded questions, “How far can these signages, posters, stickers, etc. fortify a fortress that would ensure a safe space for all?”, “Are they honestly enough?”, “How safe are these “safe spaces”?”

Safe Space Is A Hierarchy Need, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed the now well-known concept of hierarchy of needs. His theory is illustrated in the form of a pyramid. This theory explains that those in the bottom part of the pyramid are the basic needs, while the upper part shows the complex needs. If the person achieves the lower levels, they can progress to the next one (Cherry, 2021). 

Security and Safety Needs. The second to the lower part of the pyramid is the Security and Safety Needs. Cherry (2021) listed examples:

  • financial security – employment can be a form of security and safety needs as it provides the source of basic needs such as food and shelter. 
  • emotional securitythe feeling of safety, confidence, and freedom from apprehension (APA Dictionary of Psychology)
  • social stability – German & Latkin (2012) referred to social stability as the “range of life structure and reliable routine that is protective against further situational hazards and helps maintain connections with social resources and societal expectation.”
  • health and wellness – safety against accidents or injury, it can also include emotional health or wellbeing
  • freedom from fear – the individual can feel safe and secured because of the laws implemented, or it can be in a way that the individual can live in a safer neighborhood.

We can see that Maslow’s Theory implies the safe space concept through the second level of the pyramid. Although security and safety are placed in the second level, it still needs systemic support in order to reach the following levels up to self-actualization. 

Safe Space in the Philippines: At School and Work

According to Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (Saligan) lawyer JC Tejano, the term “safe space” was used to refer to private property. However, when the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act or RA 7877 of 1995 came out, “safe space” meant to include work, educational, and training facilities (Abad, 2019).

One of the safe spaces is school. As schools are diverse, there should be freedom and equality for each student, teachers, non academic personnel, and parents. Flensner & der Lippe (2019) discussed safe space in educational settings:

  • Students can speak openly without being scared of their classmates or teachers – students and teachers are independent individuals. They have different perspectives on anything and they have the right to voice out an opinion without receiving hate or being scared.
  • Fairness from both teachers and students, where all kinds of viewpoints and positions are involved and being discussed – there could be someone who is right or wrong, but all sides must be heard and discussed. This will not only promote fairness but also inclusion because everyone is involved.

To promote safe space in schools here in the Philippines, the Department of Education implemented the “DepEd Child Protection Policy” in 2012, which aims to protect the children from private and public schools from abuse, violence, exploitation, discrimination, bullying, and other forms of abuse. 

Moreover, safe spaces at work should be promulgated. Forbes Coaches Council (2017) recommended 15 ways on how an organization can create a safe space in the workplace:

  • Promote dialogue – your background and perspective differences with your colleagues should be discuss freely or engage in a healthy debate with them instead of being silent about it. 
  • Build trust – according to Stephen M. R. Covey in The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, the foundation of trust includes character, competence and communications.
  • Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable discussions – avoiding conflicts is not equal to solving problems. We have to learn how to converse in these uncomfortable issues without being afraid of being ashamed or punished.
  • Foster a gratitude practice – being grateful or practicing gratitude can positively impact our emotional, psychological, and physical attributes.
  • Promote diversity and inclusion programming – organizations are encouraged to be initiative or proactive in promoting diversity and inclusivity.
  • Go back to basics – uplift empathy in the workplace. Take time to reach out to your colleagues and show them that you care for them.
  • Focus on freedom and individuality – everyone has the right to express themselves freely without being excluded or discriminated.
  • Invest in leadership – Brad Federman of F&H Solutions Group suggested hiring people with good leadership skills – those who can listen and understand people.
  • Focus on your mission – concentrate on your organization’s mission or purpose. It is crucial to make everyone feel and experience inclusivity and security in their workplace.
  • Take a stand for the better – if your people are inharmonious, then it might create conflicts. Always aim for the better and that everyone deserves to prosper.
  • Establish emotional connection – creating good relationships makes people feel appreciated, valued, and included.
  • Start at the top – problems in the workplace should be resolved to avoid more troubles, thus, employers and employees have to eliminate its root cause.
  • Build resilience skills – employers can teach their employees to be resilient. Being resilient, you can bounce back from your hurdles.
  • Listen to the organization’s humanity – employers and employees are the backbones of a workplace. Both sides should listen, understand, and communicate with each other.
  • Give them a safe place to talk – creating a safe space to talk can help the employers and employees to develop connections within the workplace or resolve issues that arise

More Than Just Words, Safe Spaces Now Transformed Into A Law

In 2019, the Philippine Congress enacted Republic Act No. 11313, also known as the Safe Spaces Act or the “Bawal Bastos Act” in response to the gaps in security in both public and private settings.

The “Bawal Bastos Law” or Safe Spaces Act protects Filipinos from physical or online sexual harassment (Abad, 2019). This law recognizes that every man and woman in the country have the right to equality, security, and safety in online platforms and public spaces, including schools, workplace, or even in the streets (Philippine Commission on Women 2021).

Non-government organizations also make sure that safe spaces are promoted in the community-level. Save the Children Philippines encourages private and public schools to make a move about the complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse and violence such as exploitation, discrimination, and bullying, which were reportedly done by school staff (UN OCHA, 2020).

There are various organizations in the Philippines that aim to promote awareness and build safe spaces for women. Usapan session, a behavior change approach that helps midwives demand reproductive health or family planning products and tackle the unmet needs for modern contraceptives. This project allows women to care for their maternal health. Another one is Bicolana Gabriela, which helps women who experienced and survived violence through psychological help or counseling (Biton, 2020).

And of course, #UsapTayo campaign by #MentalHealthPH. An online campaign or regular tweetchat happens every zero of the month (10, 20, 30) because we aim to to ZERO the suicide cases and stigma against mental health. #UsapTayo  is your safe space in Twitter Spaces! 🙂

Inclusivity and Safe Spaces

Everybody wants to be seen and heard. In an often harsh world, having a safe space to go to, to let our guard down and to truly unabashedly be ourselves is important. We can create a safe space for others in our little ways, be it in school or work settings. We are capable of that, and one way is by promoting inclusivity. 

Booth, Ainscow, & Kingston (2006) mentioned that inclusion means reducing all forms of exclusion. We should not put barriers from anyone despite our differences. These similarities and differences are all recognized and valued. We focus on the wholeness of that person and not just one aspect of their life. This simple act may seem like an attempt on a mission of fixing the world. Sometimes we tend to look at its effect as a drop on the vastness of the ocean of what’s needed and required. The ripples create profound, and most times than not, a lasting impact in the lives of others. 

Today as often as we exist in our school campuses or workplaces and feel a sense of inclusion and respect that enables us to learn and grow, the more it makes us aware of the importance of “safe spaces.” Simple things like “How are you today?” or “What do you need now at this moment?” We all crave to be asked these intentional and sincere questions. We must be free to just be but we must also accept from different sides and make sure that the very same needs of others are considered. It’s a form of  understanding one another better- it is sharing and living the very essence of us humans. And when people do that, that’s when our shared humanity shines best – a shared humanity under the disguise of accumulating things in this world. And really, is that not life?

There are many ways to hold time and space for these intimately healthy dialogues that leave no one behind and above all, we feel that we are part of something bigger.

Today, may we be one of them. 

Questions

Pre-session: Why are safe spaces important?

  1. What comes into your mind when you think of a safe space?
  2. How do we create safe spaces in our circles?
  3. How can policies and institutions help create and safeguard safe spaces?


References

Oxford Dictionary. (n.d). Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/safe_space

Abad, M. (2019). Fast Facts: How does the Safe Spaces Act protect you? Rappler. Retrieved November 17, 2011, from https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/things-to-know-about-safe-spaces-act

Forbes Coaches Council. (November 2, 2017). 15 Ways Your Organization Can Create A Safe Space In A Divisive World. Retrieved November 18, 2021 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/11/02/15-ways-your-organization-can-create-a-safe-space-in-a-divisive-world/?sh=7e426d18fcab

Karin K. Flensner & Marie Von der Lippe. (2019). Being safe from what and safe for whom? A critical discussion of the conceptual metaphor of ‘safe space’, Intercultural Education, 30:3, 275-288, DOI: 10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (June 29, 2020). Schools must protect children, youth from sexual abuse and violence – Save the Children Philippines. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://reliefweb.int/report/philippines/schools-must-protect-children-youth-sexual-abuse-and-violence-save-children

Department of Education. (2012). DepEd Child Protection Policy. Retrieved November 18, 2021 from https://www.deped.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/DO_s2012_40.pdf

Philippine Commission on Women. (October 30, 2021). Republic Act 11313: Safe Spaces Act. Retrieved November 19, 2021 from https://pcw.gov.ph/republic-act-11313/

Cherry, K. (2021). The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Verywell Mind.

Retrieved November 19, 2021 from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760

German, D. & Latkin, C. (2012). Social Stability and Health: Exploring Multidimensional Social Disadvantage. Retrieved November 19, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3284598/#:~:text=Measured%20on%20an%20individual%20level,social%20resources%20and%20societal%20expectations.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Retrieved November 19, 2021 from https://dictionary.apa.org/emotional-security

Sarah Jane Arcos Biton (2020) Advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights: An overview of the best practices in the Philippines, Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 26:1,114-127, DOI: 10.1080/12259276.2019.1690778

Booth, T, Ainscow, M and Kingston, D (2006) Index for Inclusion: developing play, learning and participation in early years and childcare.

Lea Winerman. (2005). The mind’s mirror. Retrieved November 29, 2021 from https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror

Khan Academy, Homo sapiens and early human migration. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/origin-humans-early-societies/a/where-did-humans-come-from

Youth Truth Survey. Spotlight on: School Safety. Retrieved November 29, 2021 from https://youthtruthsurvey.org/spotlight-on-school-safety/

Wakefield Research & Honeywell. (January 13, 2021). https://www.honeywell.com/us/en/press

Carolyn Côté-Lussier & Caroline Fitzpatrick. (2016) Feelings of Safety at School, Socioemotional Functioning and Classroom Engagement. Retrieved November 29, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

Megan Yee. (2019) Why “Safe Spaces” Are Important for Mental Health – Especially on College Campuses. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/safe-spaces-college#1

Claire Wilson & Laura A. Cariola (2020) Adolescent Research Review, LGBTQIA+ Youth and Mental Health : A Systematic Review of Qualitative Research. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40894-019-00118-w#citeas

Frank Sonnenberg. (2020) How to have the courage to move into a brave place. Retrieved November 29, 2021 from https://www.franksonnenbergonline.com/blog/how-to-have-the-courage-to-move-into-a-brave-place/ 

Moira Kenney. (2001) Mapping Gay L. A. : The Intersection of Place and Politics 

 

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