THE BLOG
08/20/2013 01:35 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Safe Space Is Not Safer

As a higher education staff member with my work focusing on intersectional identities, I am often asked about "Safe Space" workshops: Do I lead them? Do we have them on campus? I also encounter people starting off workshops, etc., saying, "This is a safe space to..." Every time I hear the phrase it makes me cringe.

No one can declare a space "safe" for everyone, or anyone, except for themselves.

I am flabbergasted that the times this phrase is used most is in discussions about sexual assault and trauma. Flabbergasted, because people working to create safer space for survivors should know that many things trigger survivors and that survivors have very different triggers.

A trigger is something that brings back a memory, or a sense memory, of something that happened in the past. For example, if you were assaulted at a florist shop, the smell of flowers might trigger you. A song or movie might bring back a flood of memories as well. There are some fairly common triggers, many trauma survivors are triggered when someone comes up behind them without announcing themselves, or touches them without asking permission first.

Often, in higher ed, we use the phrase "safe space" when we come to an agreement as a group on a set of guidelines for a discussion or gathering. These agreements are often written on a board and typically include things such as:

"Step up, step back": If you struggle speaking in groups, challenge yourself to verbally contribute at some point in the conversation -- "step up". Also, if you talk a lot, like me, be aware so that others can get a chance to contribute to the conversation -- "step back."

"What is said here stays here": Vegas rule of confidentiality

Use "I" statements: Speak for yourself and of your own experiences -- not for, about, or on behalf of others

"Don't yuck my yum": If you hear something that you are not interested in but I clearly like, just keep your disgust to yourself.

These agreements, if everyone agrees, are great! However, no matter what you do, the space is still not "safe" for everyone.

If you manage a campus space, or any space anywhere for that matter, and have some odd desire to put up a sign that says "Safe Space," I encourage you to think twice. You cannot declare a space safe for anyone except yourself. I am thrilled that you have been able to find spaces of refuge, however, your sanctuary might be another persons dungeon. In fact, if you are into BDSM, your dungeon might be your safe space!

When we declare general physical spaces safe we risk compounding trauma for others. If you walk into a lovingly decorated space in a campus center with a cute sign or sticker that says "Safe Space" and you see that on the shelf they have the same hummel doll as your evil grandmother, you might think to yourself something like, "See, no space is safe for me, even the 'safe zone.'" Also, If you are not in the space 24/7, you have no clue what is truly happening there. It might be a place that many white dudes feel safe in but by their collective presence in the space that might make it seem unwelcoming to a Latina woman.

As a white ally, I challenge myself to internally recognize my race when I enter a space, and acknowledge that I have power and privilege by the mere fact that I am white. That said, I often mess up. I say messed up stuff and those words can make the space unsafe for people of color.

As a survivor of sexual assault I am very aware of triggers and I rarely touch people without asking their permission. That said, sometimes, I get so excited to see someone that I run up and squeeze their shoulders in a friendly way. When people do that to me, I often want to slug them; however, my brain takes a vacay at times and I make space triggering for others.

As we get ready to begin another year of trainings and workshops at schools around the world, I'd like to challenge everyone to create safer spaces. How do we do that?

- We keep making the lists at the beginning of workshops, but we acknowledge that the list is a set of guidelines not a recipe for safety.
- Every time you want to say "safe space" or "safe zone," hold your roll and if you must, say "safer space" instead.
- When you make your lists, make sure to remind everyone that there are little things that are triggering and people might not be ready to share. If people want to add to the list, encourage them to do so at anytime.
- Remind folks that we will never know another person's full list of triggers, or what they need to feel safe.
- ASK. Encourage people to ask, each time, before touching someone -- that includes touching their hair and shoulders.

In my utopian little world inside my head, I dream of a day when the climate on our campuses, and in our workplaces, is safe for everyone. However, we do not live in my little utopia and until that day, we all need to continue to work together to make folks feel welcome and supported wherever we go. I hope this wee rant takes us one step closer to that goal.