On safe spaces

& Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice.

In the fall of 1963, as a relatively naïve 19-year-old, I left my largely white environment and entered my sophomore year at Morehouse College, an historically Black college. I had prepared the best I knew how by reading mostly African American writers, especially novelists, and through conversations with people such as Dr. Vincent Harding. These efforts gave me some insight into this (for me) new world but nothing could really prepare me for the cultural, personal and identity challenges I would face. And really, nothing but an immersion in an environment where I was one of a very few white students in an otherwise Black student body could teach me the lessons about myself, my assumptions and the world of my Morehouse brothers I needed to learn. They were lessons that continued to shape my life and outlook long after I graduated.

Was it “safe?” Physically, not entirely. Emotionally, definitely not. It was difficult in many ways but it was one of the most important and formative experiences of my life. I have never regretted it.

I am increasingly concerned when I hear phrases like “I don’t feel safe here” as an excuse for opting out of difficult dialogues. This is especially true when those of us who are white use it to opt out of conversations about race. Such dialogues will inevitably be difficult for us. They often challenge some of our basic assumptions about ourselves and our world. But deep learning experiences are rarely safe; indeed, I would argue that the most profound learning often occurs in uncomfortable, even threatening, situations.

And if these contexts don’t feel safe for us, as white folks, imagine what daily life must be like for people of color! An ongoing reality of “unsafety” – psychologically as well as physically – is a factor of daily life for many of our sisters and brothers.

In our restorative justice work, we often talk about the need to create safe spaces for those who journey through the often-frightening valleys of dialogue and confrontation. It is true that we must create a context of care and protection for these participants. Yet the dialogues are inevitably difficult, and the most transformative experiences often involve conversations that could be termed “unsafe” because of the challenges they provide.

There are times when it is legitimate to avoid situations because they feel unsafe, of course. But let’s be careful not to use this excuse to avoid the hard work that we must do if we are to become the “beloved community.”

-Howard Zehr