Stop Saying You Provide a “Safe Space”

14 Mar

Many of us begin discussions and events by telling participants something like, “This is a safe space, free of judgement/hate/other nasty things.” We need to stop saying this and pretending like we offer a 100% safe space for students to interact with each other. At least, we need to modify the way we introduce such a space.

I used to start discussions with the exact same phrase until one of our Sexy Spirit discussions at Agape House involved a panel of women talking about how spirituality played a part, for better or worse, in their healing process after a sexual assault. The Campus Advocacy Network, with whom we hosted the event, raised the concern when they saw a copy of our guidelines and session introduction that stated, “This is a safe space.” They have found that you can never guarantee a safe space, particularly for survivors of sexual assault, because you cannot control what each participant may say, especially when you are trying to invite members of the community who may never have attended an event with your ministry before. There is always a possibility that a participant may, intentionally or not, make a comment that triggers the pain of an assault or perpetuates the culture of victim blaming. They make it a point to let participants know there is no guarantee so that they may opt out if they are not ready to take that risk.

I now use this approach for all discussions and dialogue about controversial subjects whether they address theology, sexuality, or race. I remember reading a blog post about conversations regarding a change in housing policy for same-sex couples at Columbia Theological Seminary. I cannot find that article now, but it was written by a member of the LGBTQQIA Student group there in a self-critical tone addressing concern that conservative students do not feel safe in conversations on a predominantly liberal campus. Without knowing the exact tone of those conversations, imagining the dynamics of this situation might help us understand why we should not pretend to have a 100% safe space for all controversial conversations.

First, all dialogue should encourage respect of each other’s different perspectives avoiding condescending, paternalistic, or malicious exchanges. Beyond this, however, we must be careful to distinguish the difference between feeling safe or in danger, from simply feeling uncomfortable because you are outnumbered. This should hold true whether you are a conservative student on a mostly liberal campus or a liberal student on a mostly conservative campus. Admittedly, there is a fine line between expressing your view, belief, perspective and sometimes being condescending. Nonetheless, we would serve our students better making the attempt to discourage malicious statements rather than discouraging passionate sharing.

We must also keep in mind, that whenever you open the space for someone to make a comment to the effect that, LGBTQQI persons are making a bad choice, they are deviant; they commit sin even in healthy same-gender relationships; “love the sinner but hate the sin,” then your space is not safe for LGBTQQI persons. That perspective is not only exclusionary (including exclusionary perspectives includes exclusion, and is inherently exclusionary), it is also harmful to the emotional and psychological well-being of LGBTQQI persons according to the American Psychological Association, American Association of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, etc. (for a longer list, watch the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So).

This is why I urge you to introduce discussions as I suggested at the beginning of this article, announce that you will endeavor to make the space as safe as possible and encourage respect for different perspectives. But, also admit that you cannot guarantee to silence all participants that might make a comment that is not welcoming, that is condescending, or that is harmful to other participants.


Kurt EsslingerKurt Esslinger is the former director of AGAPE House at the University of Illinois Chicago in Chicago Illinois.  He and his wife will be moving to Korea for Mission work in the coming months.  We wish him the best and love having him as part of the NCMA family.

4 Responses to “Stop Saying You Provide a “Safe Space””

  1. Paul Walley March 14, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Kindly interpret the full meaning of the last three letters of your eight-digit abbreviation for Lesbian/Gays/Bi-Sexual/Transgender/Queer. What is the meaning of QIT? Good article btw and blessings on your new ministry in Korea.

    • Matt Smith March 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

      I understand the QIA part to mean questioning, intersex, and ally.

  2. David Jones March 15, 2013 at 6:22 am #

    Nice work, Kurt. This dynamic reflects not only what happens in our settings for campus ministry, but in our national campus ministry association (NCMA), as well.

  3. Matt Smith March 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Thank you for this important reflection, Kurt. I’ve realized that another factor I cannot control when it comes to creating a “safe space” is the effect that outside structures have on people. As an example, I work in Campus Ministry at a Jesuit university. I have no control over the associations people make between the Church and our department, and how that affects their sense of (not) belonging. I can say that I personally am committed to providing a “safe space,” but I cannot guarantee that from anyone else.

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