Safety and Safe Spaces: Are They Possible?

By Jeff Levy

News reports, radio, and the internet have been highlighting a recent letter sent to incoming undergraduates from the administration at The University of Chicago (U of C). Among other things, the letter states that the University does “not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” It may be useful for all of us to further consider the concepts of safety and safe spaces as they manifest in the world, in therapy and in the classroom.

I am an enormous proponent of safety. In fact, it’s at the foundation of my work as a social worker, psychotherapist and as an educator. I believe that growth can only occur when enough safety has been established to allow us to experience discomfort. And sitting with the tension of discomfort is what challenges us to examine ideas, thoughts, feelings, and ways we have been moving through the world. If we don’t feel safe, our energy is diverted away from change and toward self-protection. It’s virtually impossible to change when we are afraid.

Safety is Subjective

For many years I facilitated groups for survivors of childhood trauma where safety was a major theme both inside and outside the groups. During the first sessions in particular, we spent a great deal of time discussing safety.

One of the activities in which we engaged was a guided imagery exercise where each person was asked to close their eyes and imagine a place in which they felt safe. For those people who said they had no such space, I invited them to create a space in which they believed they would feel safe. As much as possible, I asked people to experience this space visually, as well as through their four other senses; taking in the smells, sounds, textures, and tastes.

When the exercise was completed, we came together and discussed the spaces people identified. The variations of places in which people felt safe were infinite. Some people felt safe being on the beach in the sunshine, while others felt safe being in a dark room alone. For some it was being with friends and not family, while for others it was being with family and not friends. Some people felt safe walking down a wide-open street while others found safety in their homes. Some wanted to watch a sunrise while others wanted to watch a sunset. Complete quiet felt safe for some people but listening to loud music felt safe to others….and the disparities grew and grew.

What became evident very quickly: what was considered safe for one person was drastically different than what was considered safe for another person. And in some instances, these differences were incompatible. How could I foster safety in a group when safety was so subjective?

Safety is Not Binary

Char came to see me after she had been drugged at a party and sexually assaulted. She didn’t remember a lot about the party or about the assault, but because she had experienced another assault several years earlier, her fear was magnified. She also shared she’d been unable to return to work or to leave her home since the assault, with the exception of coming to see me.

We met for several years and I learned she had been sexually abused by a relative when she was a child. Her mother didn’t believe Char when she told her, and Char was forced to be in the same room with this relative for family functions until she left for college.

During one of our later sessions, Char left her chair and ran out of my office. When I stood to follow her, she had already gone down the stairs and out of the building. I telephoned her several times to check in but got her voicemail. The fourth time I called, she answered, but said she didn’t want to talk on the phone and would see me at our next scheduled session.

“When I saw your face at one point in our last session, I had an impulse to run away,” she explained. When I asked if she could say more, she continued: “You looked like you were smiling at me when I was telling you how angry and betrayed I felt by my mother. I remember thinking ‘he’s not safe anymore.’ “

After the years we had spent together, I was surprised at Char’s reaction, and also wasn’t aware I was smiling. “When you saw a smile on my face, you thought I was doubting you or I was another person who didn’t believe what you were saying?” I asked. “Exactly,” she said and tried to make eye contact with me.

We talked more about her reactions and I tried to validate how and why it would feel so reminiscent of her past if she saw me smiling at something she experienced as painful. I also invited her to consider the difference between an absolute lack of safety and the possibility of safety being compromised. She looked at me quizzically, so I continued.

“We’ve known each other for a long time and I’m guessing that through our work together, you’ve found me to be a pretty safe person and for this space to be safe.” She nodded. “So is it possible that if or when I do something that is reminiscent of past experiences and people, you experience me and this space as being less safe rather than unsafe? Might our experiences of safety move along a continuum rather that between safe and unsafe?”

Safety Takes Time

There is an exercise I typically do on the first day of class when I am teaching an “Introduction to Trauma Informed Practice” course to graduate social work students. The activity explores ideas around identity and trauma and usually it is a powerful introduction to the course.

One year I was engaging students in this activity and I was surprised by the intensity of the reactions. Rather than finding the activity thought provoking, several students experienced it as insensitive and intrusive. I tried to listen to the comments in class, but realized that I, too, was struggling.

Toward the end of the quarter, I received an email from one of my students who referenced the intense reactions to the activity the first week of class. He also said he thought the activity would have been received very differently if we tried it several weeks into the class, or even toward the end of the quarter when more safety had been established.

A variation of this theme arose when I was meeting with Chuck for the first time. He was seeing me because he’d heard I worked with male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. After he sat down in my office, he began speaking before I could offer any additional introduction. “So,” he began. “I want to tell you everything! I trust you and I feel completely safe in here.”

Chuck is not the first person who has begun a session with me like this. Much earlier in my career, I’d feel flattered and take these kinds of statements at face value. Now, I know that there are times people are so anxious that saying everything feels like a relief. The urge to tell me is less about me and more about “getting it all out” before fear takes over.

I’ve also found that when this happens, people are more likely to struggle with coming back. This was Chuck’s experience and he told me, at our second session, that he almost didn’t return. “I was so embarrassed that I’d said so much,” he explained. “And I realized that I hardly know you!” How could I feel safe with someone I hardly know?

Safety is About Who We Are, Where We Are, and When We Are

After the shooting in Orlando, many people talked about how especially tragic the killings were because they happened in a place that was supposed to be safe; that gay bars were places where LGBTQ people could connect with like-minded and like-spirited others without fear of judgment.

It’s true that bars such as Pulse in Orlando, have been a refuge for many queer people. As a young gay man in Chicago, I remember going to some of the gay bars in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. These were definitely spaces I experienced as accepting and where I could be totally myself.

Earlier in time, however, gay bars weren’t safe at all. In fact, they could be raided by police and people inside arrested. Police and newspapers made some people’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity public at a time when non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming identities were condemned or illegal. Such public humiliation might end with familial rejection, loss of employment and, in some cases, murder or suicide.

Even today though, the same people finding comfort and safety in bars like Pulse, might walk down a street several blocks away and be victimized and beaten. While not a frequent occurrence, there are still articles in the paper in Chicago about queer people walking home late at night after being at the bars who are beaten and robbed. Trans women of color face devastating degrees of violence and murder. And for some queer people still struggling with acknowledging their identities, the prospect of even coming near a nightclub like Pulse might be mortifying.

Pete also experienced variations in safety based on “who he was, where he was, and when he was.” He was in one of my groups for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Both Pete’s parents were born in Arizona, as were he and his siblings, but all of his grandparents were born in Mexico. Pete’s skin color was light brown, and although he spoke no Spanish, he said that often people walked up to him and started speaking Spanish based on his appearance. They made assumptions of likeness and I am sure, felt more safe to approach him.

One evening Pete arrived at group with his arm in a sling and his face badly bruised. He told the group he had parked his car several blocks from his home, which was in a very diverse area on Chicago’s southwest side. As he walked home, he was jumped by a group of teenagers, mugged, beaten, and called a host of insults based on their assumptions about his race and immigration status. Sadly, Pete told the group this was not the first time he’d had such an experience but it was the first time while living in a neighborhood in which he felt relatively safe.

Safety is Related to Our Identities and Their Intersections

I live in a neighborhood that is not as diverse as Pete’s. I can walk down the street and see many people whose skin color is the same or close to the same color as mine. When I am walking my dogs, I am sure that people who see me and don’t know me, make assumptions about my identity. And based on those assumptions, they also decide the extent to which they feel safe. I also make assumptions about the people I see and assumptions about my own safety.

In that same neighborhood, however, when I am walking with my partner and my dogs, there may be those same assumptions made about my skin color, but the assumptions about my sexual orientation might change. I notice that when I pass people I don’t know, my skin color becomes secondary to my awareness of my sexual orientation and the extent to which others notice and make judgments based on their assumptions. I feel less safe.

During one quarter of teaching, I had two students who self-identified as queer, sharing early in the quarter that they each identified outside a gender binary. Both also said they preferred pronouns of they, them, and theirs. They were both students of color. I made a mental note about their pronoun preference, as did many of their classmates.

In a subsequent class discussion, I was talking about the impact of trauma on development and I made a statement about sons and daughters. I immediately saw one of my queer identified students squirm slightly in their chair. I don’t think anyone else noticed, but I made a decision to check in with this student after class. When I did, they shared that my use of the words sons and daughters brought up old feelings of isolation and shame; that their gender identity fit neither “son” nor “daughter.” “I didn’t feel safe,” they said.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I was thinking about the identity of “child” when I spoke about the impact of trauma on development. I used “sons and daughters” as a point of reference. For my student who identified as queer and non-binary, my use of words such as sons and daughters felt dismissive and insensitive. I reduced their sense of safety in the process.

When we think about identity, all of us hold multiple identities concurrently. Some of these identities are visible while some are invisible. Some are congruent while others are less congruent. Some are geographic and some are temporal. At points of intersection, especially between identities that hold some degree of marginalization, our sense of safety is much more easily compromised.

Absolute Safety and Safe Spaces May Not Exist

I mentioned earlier that I value safety and safe spaces. This is true both personally and professionally. I strive to build safety with my friends, my family, in my work with clients, in my work with colleagues, and in my work with students. What has become clearer and clearer, is that safety is incredibly complicated—probably more complicated than we often realize.

I’ve discussed some of the factors that influence safety as though they were discrete variables. Truth be told however, they overlap, circumnavigate, magnify, eclipse, and complement one another. We can feel safe in situations and with people where others feel less safe. Rarely do we feel completely safe or completely unsafe; we are forever moving along a continuum where our safety is either enhanced, or compromised. We might think we feel immediately safe, though building safety usually takes time and effort. Safety is inextricably linked to where we are and when we are. And our multiple identities and their intersection influence the way we understand and experience safety.

Maybe the best we can do is to understand as many variables as we can that influence safety and safe spaces. Despite our best efforts, the quixotic nature of safety makes it elusive. More than ever though, in a world where we are increasingly aware of danger, the quest for increased safety and safer spaces can’t be minimized.

I’m entering my 16th academic year teaching at U of C’s School of Social Service Administration. I consistently work toward creating a classroom environment that fosters safety; where it is possible to hold the tension of different and sometimes-conflicting ideas and opinions. Even with enhanced safety as a goal for my students, that is not always possible. And as an instructor, my sense of safety is also sometimes compromised by my experiences in the classroom.

The people at the University of Chicago who wrote the letter to incoming students have ideas about safety and safe spaces that come as a result of all the variables we’ve been considering. I may understand and define safety both similarly to and differently from the way it was conveyed or received in that letter.

If I was sitting in a room with the people who wrote that letter however, with those of us who support the letter, and with those of us who challenge the letter, I think we would agree: working toward safety and safe spaces enhances intellectual discourse, improves learning, and creates a more compassionate world. It’s just important for all of us to remember that universal, absolute and objective safety is impossible.

When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept…Once you are real, you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.—Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on January 8, 2018