What Is A Safe Space And How Do You Create It?


Thursday, 6.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. – Ruth Benedict

I’ve been thinking about differences for some time now. It’s probably because of the media. The choices I’m making about what to watch are conditioned by what appears and there is clearly a shift in content that’s on offer. Take “The Good Doctor” which addresses themes of neurodiversity and colour really quite well.

When you start being aware of differences you also think about how you can create a situation where they don’t matter or don’t make a difference. The characteristics people have, whether protected or not, may impact their observable behaviour and interactions with each other. From a systems point of view these interactions overlaid with activities create the day-to-day experience we have. If that experience isn’t working how do we approach the problem – what can we do to have an informed discussion about what’s going on and what can be done?

I think this is a problematic area and a solution within a group seems unlikely – and this also dents one of the tenets of the research area I’m interested in. Action Research is a way of carrying out research where you engage with a group and try to create change as a process. But what if it’s not possible to create change in certain situations by entering the group – what if the only way to do it is to work away from the group itself. How would that work?

The obvious starting point is to look at what some papers say. “Fragile subjectivities: constructing queer safespaces” by Gilly Hartal (2017) talks about how frame theory might help by showing what is important in a particular context. The paper argues that five frames can help to understand what “safe” looks like, and these are captured in the picture that starts this post. First, the space needs to be separate, fortified. Then, within the space people must be able to speak and know that they will remain anonymous. Next, it needs to be inclusive but also needs to be able to separate people with very different identities. And finally it needs to be protected from unpredictable happenings.

Now, in any group that’s trying to fix itself you have the problems of anonymity and identity and the challenges of saying what you really think and feel. If the problem is really the situation then you can get on and talk about what’s going on. But if the problem is the people then how can you ever get started?

If we look for models of dealing with people problems we come across an old one – the confessional – and a newish one – therapy. The confessional is fortified, a box, it’s anonymous – you’re hidden and whatever you say is secret and will never be revealed. The therapist’s practice tries to recreate that experience. In both situations you probably have everything you need to construct the safe space model in Hartal’s paper.

The approach to these sorts of questions in the Systems Thinking space appear to be related to critical systems thinking although I’m not entirely sure if what I think of as the approach that is needed and the approach that is actually described in the literature are the same. In fact I’m pretty certain they’re not.

So I better get on and study that a bit more.


Karthik Suresh

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