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Safe and Brave Spaces Whitepaper Release: A Note from the Author

October 12, 2017 Diana Ali NASPA

The resurgence of race-based protests on campus have paralleled a rising conversation around free speech. On one side is an argument that the rising calls to protect free speech create an intentional diversion from addressing anti-oppression efforts. Another argument, however, states that the First Amendment is integral in protecting marginalized individuals. Connected to this conversation is one around the use of safe and brave spaces on campus and whether or not these spaces conflict with the First Amendment, the advancement of marginalized students, or both. After conducting extensive research around the role of safe and brave spaces as campus protests and the free speech debate intensify, the NASPA Policy and Advocacy Team identified a missing piece in the conversation—a clear understanding of the etymology and history of safe and brave spaces within the campus climate. NASPA’s October release of the whitepaper “Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals” explores the history of safe and brave spaces to create a better understanding of how and why they are used differently within the campus environment.

A core part of the whitepaper begins by acknowledging the rise of the term “brave space,” as described by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) in their book The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators, and the importance of the creation of a challenging environment that encourages equal participation across representative identities within the classroom. As Arao and Clemens describe in Chapter Eight, a “brave space” is one that contains the following elements:

  • “Controversy with civility,” (144) where varying opinions are accepted
  • “Owning intentions and impacts,” (145) in which students acknowledge and discuss instances where a dialogue has affected the emotional well-being of another person
  • “Challenge by choice,”(146) where students have an option to step in and out of challenging conversations
  • “Respect,” (147) where students show respect for one another’s basic personhood
  • “No attacks,”(148) where students agree not to intentionally inflict harm on one another

Recognizing that the term “safe space” has origins in social protest and movement-building, the paper moves on to discuss the use and evolution of both safe and brave spaces in movement-building, academic theory, student support services, and the classroom. This post with provide a brief primer and highlight from the paper on the contexts of movement-building and student support services.

In regards to movement-building, “safe space” connects first with LGBTQIA activism in the early 60s and with issue-based advocacy through the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s. Freedom Riders created literal safe spaces on their inter-state commutes, packed together on buses. These tight-knit communities were places to foster actionable political strategies and propel the movement forward. In the 80s and 90s, liberation movements as described in Tony Vellela’s book, “New Voices: Student Activist of the in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” continued to use safe spaces as a way to exchange ideas and plan protests. Students accessed resources within student-run organizations to encourage campuses to divest from companies supporting Apartheid and to build growing awareness concerning HIV and AIDS and the LGBTQIA community. Today gender and identity-based activism continues to utilize safe spaces to foster dialogues that value intersectionality, along with other key social justice movements of our time.

Safe spaces are used in student support services to provide marginalized students with supplementary resources and tools in order to thrive. In a January 2016 Atlantic article, students expressed that they were placed in positions where they have to combat systemic racism while simultaneously working to educate their peers, ultimately impacting their socio-emotional well-being. Support services can combat negative impacts through the creation of environments specifically targeted for the needs of marginalized individuals, exemplified through the work of centers for first generation, undocumented, and multicultural students.

The whitepaper concludes with recommendations for student affairs professionals to create both safe and brave spaces in support of student learning and wellness, summarized below: 

  • Adopt the use of the term brave spaces. Administrators, faculty, and staff can replace use of the term safe space, as it pertains to classroom-based dialogues, with that of brave space. By using the term brave space, faculty are able to distinguish an inclusive classroom discussion from programming on campus that commonly provides respite space for traditionally marginalized communities.
  • Encourage intersectional conversations about movement-building, advocacy, and the role of campus environments to better understand the evolution of safe spaces over time. Administrators, faculty, and staff should become educated on the history of movement-building and why lending voice to the once-voiceless on college campuses has become an integral part of our nation’s progress.
  • Refer to campus activities—including multicultural, LGBTQIA, and women’s rights organizations—that likely have working definitions regarding safe spaces on college campuses. Administrators should consult with students engaged in campus activities for marginalized students as well as work with the department of campus activities in order to begin a collaborative dialogue on how to ensure that brave and safe spaces continue to enhance freedom of expression on campus.

To learn more, please check out “Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals,” and feel free to reach out to author and NASPA Policy Analyst, Diana Ali, ([email protected]) regarding thoughts on how this topic relates to a larger conversation around free speech within the campus climate.