Safe Spaces

Sharing this post I made from Facebook:

I hear this phrase from some Trump supporters. It usually looks like this: “Awww, this too much for you? Sounds like you need a safe space.”

Let me explain to you what “safe space” means in my professional and academic experience. Then, let me challenge anyone who uses this phrase in a flippant, shitty way to rethink their strategies.

JAIL SPACE: I worked directly with inmates for a couple of years. I co-facilitated creative writing workshops where inmates would meet weekly and write poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Here are some things I’ve learned about that experience. First, that the majority of inmates, both male and female, have been physically abused. Many sexually abused. Around 35% of those males have experienced what they describe as “very severe violence.” Most of my inmates wrote nonfiction. We never asked them questions about abuse specifically, or about their crimes, or about past mistakes and incidents. But these were common themes they chose to bring into the writing workshop. The number of men and women who shared violence in their writing is pretty on point with national statistics.

During my work, one of the biggest challenges that I personally faced was proving to the inmates that they were, in fact, in a safe space. What this meant in my experience was that they were out of the “pod,” and could avoid harassment or unwelcome company. That they could write and share their work without judgment. This meant proving to them that I wasn’t there to mark up their words with my red pen, to tell them they are “stupid,” to tell them they are “awful writers.” (Which is what many experienced in school, having shared those experiences with the group as well.)

In one session, a young woman wrote a poem about her abuse. Her father leaving welts meant she had to wear turtleneck sweaters in 80-degree weather. The belt. Her father’s friends sexually abusing her. The verbal abuse. I remember this woman being afraid to read this poem during the workshop. Her hands were shaking. But she did and by the end of that poem, a heavy quiet fell over the room. I cried. Many cried. Then, one after another, the other woman began to share their stories—all similar, all speaking to the untold violence they’d experienced. It was one of the most remarkable moments I’ve witnessed. Later, that same woman who spoke of her father’s belt would read that poem in front of an audience. As she sat waiting, before the reading, she started to cry, rocking back and forth in her chair. “I can’t believe I really get to read this. That I get to say these things out loud. I can’t believe it….”

That is what “safe space” meant to her and to the hundreds and hundreds of other inmates I was able to work with. Safe space meant they could say what happened. They could talk about the beatings, being burnt with cigarettes, being kicked and punched. And worse. Much worse. Writing is cathartic. I know many writers on my FB feed will understand this. They will understand it deep inside of them. They know. I don’t have to explain this to them.

DOMESTIC ABUSE: This is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of “safe space.” I’ve known women in my life who have had to flee their homes, finally reaching a breaking point where they can’t take it anymore. Sneaking out in the middle of the night, during the day, hell, some have even planned their escape for weeks. Where do they go? Where do you go at 3 a.m. when you are carrying a toddler in your arms (or two), and you grab whatever you can on the way out. The doll. The plushy toy. Something to normalize what’s happening. Where DO you go? You go to a safe space. You go to a shelter, to a friend or family’s house. You go somewhere that you know is safe. And for many, they can’t imagine being in this situation. They can’t imagine what “safe space” means to a mother who wants to protect herself and her kids from violence. To a teen child who fears abuse from parents or family. They cannot imagine. But I’m asking you to try. I’m asking you to imagine. Say it out loud. “Safe Space.”

VETERANS: I don’t need to articulate how many men and women who have served in the military suffer from PTSD. Stop and consider what “safe space” means to them. Beyond a safe place to sleep without fear of gunfire.

I once had a student in my creative writing class who was a Navy Seal. He never outwardly spoke about what he experienced in Iraq, in Afghanistan. He was clean cut, sharp, smartest student I’ve ever had. For an exercise in class, I was teaching my students about writing a “fight scene.” Seems simple, right? It’s actually difficult. It’s one of the most difficult things to do well in fiction.

So, I had them write a “fight scene.” They wrote for 10 minutes. Many struggled, realizing that it wasn’t as easy as they imagined. Some write about verbal arguments. Some about martial arts encounters. My veteran wrote about being pinned down behind a half blown-up vehicle as bullets whizzed past his head.

Part 2 of the exercise went like this: “Write for another 10 minutes. Now, I want you to start with, “What most people don’t know about being in a martial arts/fist/sword/fire fight is _____.” I wanted them to dig deeper, to get to what is often unsaid during these huge, dramatic, physical, overt scenes.

My veteran read his out loud. I wish I still had it. I wish I had asked for a copy. But, in short he described these things that people don’t know about being in a fire fight in Iraq: that when people die, it’s not like in the movies. It’s a POP POP and they’re gone. That he’d wished he “closed his friend’s eyes sooner because later, the eyelids wouldn’t stay shut.” That when he’d taken a bullet in the thigh, he didn’t even know he’d been shot until he felt the blood soaking his fatigues. That during that fire fight, he thought he was going to die. That he shit his pants and pissed himself. That he tried to remember what his wife’s face looked like, or that he wished more than anything that he could remember what fresh cut grass smelled like out in the middle of dust and rock and smoke and sweat. That the driver of the jeep had been cut in two and it took him a few minutes to figure out that the two “leg like” camo-covered lumps on the ground about 10 feet in front of him weren’t leg-like; they were actual legs. One was missing a boot.

The class fell silent. This man was quiet in his reading of it and looked around. He said, “I couldn’t write about this if I hadn’t gotten help when I got home. I had good people who helped me.”

Imagine what “safe space” meant to him. To many veterans who come back in need of help: counseling, group work. To the men and women who put their lives on the line for their country, for MY country. Think about that. Think about “safe space.”

Now that you’ve thought about it, is it really a “cute” way of mocking others? Do you still think it’s “cool” to tag that phrase (safe space) onto what you may perceive as someone being weak? Because they are voicing their worries over the president elect and the questionable decisions he’s already made since being voted in? Is that what you equate with the female inmate who spoke about her abuse? The woman fleeing from violence? Rape victims? Soldiers with PTSD?

Or are you being purposely hyperbolic in hopes of taking a jab at people who give a shit about non-whites, folks from the LGBT community, non-Christians, women, children, and anyone who has been placed on the “hit list” of the president elect and his more radical followers?

Here’s my bottom line; if you use the term, “safe space” as a jab toward people discussing (DISCUSSING) the things that are worrisome to them in an online forum, on social media, in the comment sections of news sites, then consider what you have read above. (If you have actually gotten through it all.) Consider all the damage you can potentially do to those who really do need a safe space.

Reappropriation: the process by which a group reclaims terms or artifacts that were previously used…… in a way disparaging of that group (or used against that group).

The “groups” in which you are disparaging contain people you know and love: veterans, rape survivors, abuse survivors, survivors of hate crimes. You know at least one person from one of these groups. Statistics say you do. You may be one of these people yourself.

My friend, Lahoma (who suggested I turn this into a blog), also posted something that I want to address. She said that as a sociology professor, she makes it known that her classroom is a safe space. She doesn’t do this to shield college students from the “horrors of the world,” but to give them a place to discuss all the terrible things they have been through without fearing judgment, or being called a “pussy,” or being told that they are lesser, weaker, stupid, or unworthy. These college kids have been through more than people realize. Millennials are not the “coddled, entitled” individuals that so many paint them to be. Take time to understand them.

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11 2016

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