Resettling Safe (Third) Spaces
Safe spaces are not the problem. They do not limit learning outcomes, as their critics suggest. On the contrary, it is the way in which higher education practices community that undermines learning outcomes. Safe spaces create learning opportunities despite the limitations of how we practice community.
Over the years, I have inhabited and fought for safe spaces as a student, implemented safe spaces as an administrator, and now advocate for their growth and development by grounding these spaces in a polycultural community of practice.
A polycultural community of practice promotes both intersectionality and affirmation of identity to leverage the many spaces (classrooms, athletics teams, Greek-letter organizations, identity-affirming organizations, etc.) that we create to enact shared values, passions, and concerns for positive transformation in our communities and the world. The connection between safe spaces and polycultural communities of practice is a crucial one and clarifying that relationship may contribute to a broader and more accurate understanding of the former. It is within and between such spaces where freedom and growth occur, and lifelong exploration and the pursuit of truth are encouraged.
Safe spaces are one of the countless forms of polycultural communities of practice, which have been a key characteristic of human society for ages. Many campuses promote polycultural communities of practice, but far too many do not. Without this grounding, safe spaces cannot reach their full potential and will continue to be misunderstood, namely being accused unfairly of exclusion and undermining open expression.
From a polycultural perspective, all safe spaces, including those that focus on race, are inherently diverse in the sense that no identity group is monolithic. The idea that groups inhabiting safe spaces are monolithic stems from the ideology of multiculturalism. Racial identities, among others, are socially constructed. Multiculturalism tends to create cultural boxes where individuals are grouped together based on a discrete set of characteristics. This is despite the heterogeneity in experience and thought within the cultural group and the deep intersections with other identity groups.
Moreover, safe spaces are rarely exclusive; the students who inhabit these spaces host programs open to the entire community and partner with other organizations to fulfill their mission to provide advising, leadership development, advocacy, and social and cultural programming.
Second, contrary to the arguments of many critics, safe spaces do not discourage open expression. In fact, they often cultivate and enhance it. Safe spaces create opportunities for students to freely express their authentic selves, even when such expression differs from the dominant norms of the campus community or larger society. Safe spaces help students think critically by enabling them to fully exercise their own access to open expression.
In today’s higher education environment, the term safe space, as generally understood, may not accurately capture the intent or impact of the concept. They are liberating spaces that do not seek to protect students from ideas. Instead, they attempt to create an environment free of discrimination and harassment, allowing students to have “impossible conversations.”
In this way, safe spaces are third spaces, a concept developed by cultural theorist Homi Bhabha. Applied to my definition of safe spaces, a third (or safe) space develops in the “in-between” space of colliding cultures, giving birth to “a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”
Safe spaces then constantly negotiate identity by drawing from tensions and desires that live throughout spaces in the campus community. The third space recognizes the fluidity of cultures and moves beyond the multicultural framing of culture as static. These third spaces become important sites (or safe spaces) of conflict negotiation and knowledge production.
I offer five characteristics of safe, or third, spaces that can help ensure students are able to freely express their authentic selves and enhance their learning experiences. These characteristics are from my personal perspective and within the context of a polycultural community of practice, with the hope of illuminating the intent and aspirations associated with the concept of safe spaces. Here, I use the term “third” spaces to move away from the rhetorical baggage of safe spaces.
1. Third spaces enable a greater understanding of one’s interests and values, especially as these relate to students’ capacity to provide leadership for social change.
2. Third spaces provide social and intellectual mobility to students by providing them with access to the study of race, religion, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender, sexuality, class, disability, citizenship, and ideology, among other facets of identity, as well as their intersections.
3. Third spaces allow students to express concerns or disagreements with honesty and respect without fear of being condemned for them, with the understanding that they are seeking positive transformation in the community.
4. Third spaces attempt to provide solace from discrimination against or harassment of individuals or groups based upon their identities – and to empower students to engage more fully in the academic and social experiences that higher education offers.
5. Third spaces help students think critically by enabling them to fully exercise their own access to open expression.
Some may label these characteristics as lofty and idealistic. However, in my experience, all of them can be incorporated into third spaces and many already do. The ability to realize these characteristics is dependent on how we practice community. That said, I understand that no space can be completely free of oppressive actions or ideologies. Power and privilege manifest in myriad ways, no matter where or with whom we are.
Third spaces that provide solace from discrimination and harassment and promote intellectual risk-taking – spaces that are justice-oriented and ultimately enable students to traverse cultural boundaries – are important tools to foster polycultural communities of practice.
As a colleague reminded me, we cultivate polycultural communities of practice to work toward a day when acts of racism and other destructive “isms” are aberrations rather than routine occurrences. Until then, we need third spaces to help us build inclusive and socially just communities.
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