Celebrating Small Steps in HE, Higher Education

Safe spaces for EDI – ft. John Brindle

This blog and the idea of doing a video as part of the Celebrating Small Steps in HE Video Series emanated from a comment from someone that safe spaces were not a priority for meetings on antiracism. Shocking right? Now, this is not a statement that I would expect from an antiracist. I had to obviously get some information out and educate my peers about safe spaces.

This post specifically highlights why safe spaces are needed when working around EDI and how they can be implemented. This blog features:

  • What are safe spaces and why safe spaces?
  • An interview with John Brindle highlighting the importance of amplifying voices and safe spaces and planning the vision for post-pandemic in terms of EDI in online spaces
  • How to implement safe spaces for EDI – both for students & staff

@Tee_Nadan interviews @johnbrindletel on the importance of amplifying voices and safe spaces for #EDI #diversity #higherEd

What are safe spaces and why safe spaces?

What are safe spaces?

Safe spaces are spaces where people, particularly marginalised people, can feel empowered to speak up and share their experiences and stories, without the fear of discrimination, harassment, subsequent repercussion, and most importantly without any physical and emotional harm.

Before implementing safe spaces, one needs to understand why safe spaces are needed and their importance when addressing EDI. Psychological safety is a must for various reasons, for the marginalised group to share emotional stories and for the others to hear stories on topics that could make them uncomfortable.

Why safe spaces?

  1. It is important for the marginalised to feel safe and not be scared of potential repercussions at work. When working on EDI, bravery often comes with a price, that is, harassment and victimisation, particularly at work, due to the power dynamics. Recently, a POC shared a situation where a White peer took up a non-work event occurrence to their common line manager as a grievance. This is sadly a common occurrence in the lives of many people of colour.
  2. A safe space encourages an honest and trustworthy space for people to open up and be authentic and call out on discrimination. In an antiracism context, this is important both for POC peers who need to share their stories, so that their perspectives can be understood, but also for White peers to hear of lived experiences that they have never encountered.
  3. Listening to life stories of people within a safe space encourages empathy, however, one needs to be careful not to confuse pity and empathy; empathy does not necessarily translate into an aspiration to allyship, which starts with empathy but yet transgresses it to go deeper into tackling the problem at hand.

Amplifying voices and safe spaces

In contrast to tone policing, where one would drown the voices of others, amplifying voices takes the form and shape of being the voice of others without adding one’s own rhetorical perspectives. It is about using one’s priviledge to be the voice of the marginalised.

In the video below, John Brindle, Educational Developer at the University of Liverpool and Ph.D. researcher at the University of Lancaster, discusses three key aspects:

  1. Amplifying voices and taking actions
  2. Safe spaces for honesty, safety for students to be their authentic selves, not feel threatened and judged
  3. Creating safety in both face-to-face and online spaces

John also gives an example of how the positioning of seats in a face-to-face classroom can be a cause of concern and people tend to think that they are not accountable in online spaces.

“Celebrating small steps in HE” – Safe spaces for EDI projects ft. John Brindle

How to implement safe spaces

When implementing safe spaces, there are a few key aspects to be considered:

Are the needs of the marginalised group for a safe space constitutes being taken into consideration?

  • Who is defining the safe space?
  • Who sets the boundaries and parameters of the safe space?
  • How is the safe space implemented?

For example, in an antiracism group, who defines what constitutes a safe space – POC peers or White peers? Most White people are uncomfortable with topics around racism, and many unconsciously impede open discussion around the topic for fear of feeling guilty of having been racist in the past. Racism due to skin colour often suscitate the same reactions not only from White peers but also from POC of lighter colour. It is therefore important to understand the What and Why of safe spaces, in order to set the correct boundaries and parameters and to improve the psychological safety of the marginalised group.

The Reflect – Improve cycle

The reflect-improve cycle is a key aspect of implementing safe spaces. You need to take time to listen, gather feedback, reflect on the feedback (e.g. separate the antiracism and non-racism feedback) and improve the implementation of safe spaces.

This is a process that takes time and sometimes several trials and errors to accommodate the needs of the group.

Group size for safe spaces

While safe spaces are important, the way they are implemented defines their success or failure.

Small groups are the most ideal for safe spaces. It encourages not only sharing of authentic stories but also learning for the whole group. Large groups however limit sharing of authentic stories, subsequently limiting learning. One-to-one limits learning as there are inadequate stories/perspectives to learn from.

Sometimes, despite having the What and Why of safe spaces, boundaries and parameters, implementation, and group sizes right, marginalised people would still be unwilling to share in safe spaces.

Encouraging ethnically diverse colleagues to participate in safe spaces.

Building trust is a difficult and time-consuming process, so how does one encourage ethnic diverse peers to participate in safe spaces? This can be achieved through a combination of the following:

  • Effective communication – which also includes active listening
  • Small group discussions, such as focus groups
  • Sharing with colleagues what is being done and why is being done – when people feel that they have a voice they feel more empowered to speak up and contribute
  • Make activities as interactive as possible – that is – two-way
  • Show the diverse group that they are being listened to and actions are being done

Safe spaces are so important, that I feel the need here to refer to additional information that people can use to educate themselves on the What and Why of safe spaces.

If you are a line manager, this article is worth a read:


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