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What it Really Means When We Call Someplace a ‘Safe Space’

Akilah Cadet

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Photo: Getty Images/filadendron

Many urgent matters are reaching an inflection point, with COVID-19 cases rising, women’s rights being legislated against, health disparities being rampant, and Black people fighting for humanity—to, you know, name just a few. While for the sake of progress and change, it’s good news that issues of grave importance are at the forefront of thought and discussion, in practice, addressing each issue can feel overwhelming, leading to a sensation of not knowing what to say or where to start. As a diversity consultant, one area where I’ve noticed “not knowing” in practice is in how to create a safe space, especially for BIPOC in the workplace.

From Zoom and Slack to real life-meetings and beyond, safe spaces are crucial for the wellness of BIPOC employees. The good news is that I have a three-step guiding plan to offer for how to create a safe space that will help clear up confusion.

1. Know your boundaries to create a personal safe space while companies work to create institutional safe spaces

Sometimes you must create your own safe space rather than wait for your company or organization to do so first. To do this, you must first grant yourself permission to walk away. Never feel like you have to sit through or hear anything that does not serve you or makes you feel less than. If you feel gaslighted, walk away. If there is white centering, walk away. If there is overt racism, walk away. It is especially important for Black people to know we do not have to educate others or put ourselves in harm’s way.

Never feel like you have to sit through or hear anything that does not serve you or makes you feel less than.

In the mix of learning, advocacy, and unlearning, pleasant conversations can quickly turn into intense standoffs—at work and elsewhere. So, beyond knowing it’s okay to walk away, know what you personally need in order to feel safe. This is crucial for ensuring you don’t feel unwanted, undervalued, discriminated against, or unheard. For example, I will only say one thing to a person who says “All Lives Matter,” which is “Black Lives Matter is not a sensitive or political issue, it’s a humanity issue.” If they can’t see the need for my humanity as a Black woman, it’s the end of the conversation, because it’s clear to me that the conversation is not a safe space for me. I either will announce that I can no longer talk to the person who made the racist statement, or remove myself from the situation, or both.

As boundaries pertain to safe spaces at work, it’s key to know how to protect yourself in all forms of connection, including virtual chat groups, DMs, video conferences, and (socially distant) in-person meetings. Usually you can accomplish this by being comfortable with voicing your decision to walk away because you don’t feel like the conversation in question is a safe space for you.

2. Know the ground rules for creating a safe space at work

Ground rules are crucial for work gatherings and chat channels to be deemed safe spaces. Let’s start with Zoom. Virtual meetings can be tricky for creating a safe space at work, because they minimize the ability to see or hear or certain cues we take away from in-person meetings, like a leader’s nod of approval or side conversations with co-workers. Without daily shared-space interactions, Black employees may feel increasingly isolated and/or disenfranchised, and that does not make for a safe space. Because it’s so hard if not impossible to determine the digital workplace’s vibe, workers and leaders have to make a concerted effort to connect with one another effectively.

Furthermore, when meetings start with “how was everyone’s weekend?” or with casual conversations about travel, spending time with friends, or brunch—as they often do—it’s clear the space is not a safe one for Black employees right now. It is offensive to pretend things are normal, when they most certainly are not for us. So instead, start meetings with, “what have you learned about or done to advocate for Black people” or “how are you connecting to joy?” This shows that the team and/or leader cares about anti-racism and creating a safe space.

If discussions are intentional about discussing Black Lives Matter, BIPOC roles in the workplace, or anything about racial injustices, set the rules to guide who speaks when. It is important to have someone who knows how to facilitate this, like a Chief of People and Culture. Start by sharing that Black people speak first, followed by people of color. This is important because Black people are fighting for their rights, and that needs to be respected and validated in the workplace. White people speak last, and everyone listens to whomever is speaking. A timer can be used for comments and thoughts, followed by a timer for responses. Be mindful that the responses may be rife with microaggressions, anger, lack of understanding, and disappointment, and that the facilitator should address each instance of these. Make sure to end with possible next steps or action points so no one leaves feeling as though they didn’t contribute to change or have nothing to look forward to.

The same guidelines stand for Slack and any other group-chat space. If there are open channels for discussing diversity or anti-racism, someone needs to monitor the conversation to control harm for those who are learning and BIPOC people. For example, share a theme for the week, like a diversity term, moments in history, like Seneca Village, or encourage people to watch a documentary, like Disclosure, and discuss via the channel. If chat groups are not monitored, hate speech, racism, and discrimination can move about freely.

Safe spaces cannot be safe if and when people feel they can share things like “All Lives Matter,” support for policing, or any form of overt racism.

Monitoring chat spaces should start with a process for calling in, meaning someone who said something hurtful to another person or the group is given the tools privately to do the work. This may be a link to an article, podcast, or webinar to learn how they were hurtful along with a conversation about how to demonstrate learning moving forward in the chat. Monitoring also means following the human resources policies for employee safety. If people are making comments that suggest violence or threat of violence, it can become a safety issue. It is important to remove those comments, communicate how they do not follow guidelines, and report that individual to HR. Safe spaces cannot be safe if and when people feel they can share things like “All Lives Matter,” support for policing, or any form of overt racism.

3. Check your privilege

Almost all of us benefit from some of the many different forms of privilege. In workplace settings, leaders (of any ethnicity, gender, or identification) and white people have the most power with their privilege. Leaders have the power to set the tone for an anti-racist culture. White people of any level have the power to advocate for BIPOC team members and acknowledge how they have benefited from values of white supremacy (companies with predominately white leadership use the same structure of slavery). It is important for people in positions of privilege in the workplace to assure spaces are safe for BIPOC and all staff.

This means some employees will need to take the time to learn more about systemic and institutional racism, oppression, and forms of advocacy to better understand personal and professional lived experiences of BIPOC. It is of utmost importance that leaders and white employees are open to learning, as well as apologizing for mistakes, because modeling the behaviors of responsibility and accountability in group settings creates safe spaces.

Ultimately, a safe space is created when everyone feels valued and respected. Having personal boundaries, setting ground rules, and understanding privilege to be able to use it for maximum benefit are three measures that will assure that a space is safe. The best way to have a safe space for Black people and communities of color is to have humanity and equality for all.

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