Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

Do We Need Safe or Brave Spaces?

An often daunting aspect of navigating the world of higher education and social justice is attempting to keep up with the ever-changing terminology. We’re committed to the work of being constant learners (and unlearners) - recognizing social justice is a process and goal. But as we work to maintain pace with changing structures and semantics, we must remain both critical and thoughtful in our follow through.

In recent years, we’ve seen the intentional shift within student and academic affairs to advocate for creating brave spaces over safe spaces. There is an arguable difference, considering the implications of each term:

  • A safe space is ideally one that doesn’t incite judgment based on identity or experience - where the expression of both can exist and be affirmed without fear of repercussion and without the pressure to educate. While learning may occur in these spaces, the ultimate goal is to provide support.
  • A brave space encourages dialogue. Recognizing difference and holding each person accountable to do the work of sharing experiences and coming to new understandings - a feat that’s often hard, and typically uncomfortable.

We’d be remiss to simply hear the new term brave space and throw the old one out like a mistake we’d like to quickly forget. The reality is: they’re different spaces, providing different outcomes. And on alternative breaks, we should be balancing both.

Expecting people to only expose their identity and face what may be traumatic for the sake of their own progress (and more often, the progress of others) is unfair, and a poor practice. But on the flipside - for an authentic and impactful experience - there’s a level of discomfort and vulnerability that is necessary. Here, the facilitator plays an important role: to 1) preemptively consider the experience of all participants, and 2) understand how to create both safe and brave spaces to validate and challenge one another.

With that in mind, recall the last time you were in a space where you felt both supported and challenged - where you were both teaching and learning? What did it take to create that experience and how can you do it (or do it better) for others?

Of The Earth: Reimagining Nature as Community | Grand Canyon ABCs

When humankind first began to traverse the planet, people and the natural environment were practically inseparable, symbiotic even. This “spiritual interdependence”, as articulated in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit’s Principles of Environmental Justice, was simply the natural state of things.

But as humans evolved, we began to forge deep divides between us and Mother Earth. With the emergence of capitalism in the late 18th century, we began to commodify - whittling every product, every service, down to its potential profit. In the same way, we began to profitize and dominate the natural environment - putting a price on lumber, oil & natural gas, even water. We distorted what was once a cyclical, reciprocal system of existence, into what is now an imbalanced, linear cycle of take→make→use→dispose.

Indeed, this commodification of Nature had disastrous consequences for the Earth, and eventually for its inhabitants. Years of oil spills, hazardous gas leaks, and toxic industrial waste sites have made the call for environmental justice ever more compelling. Recognizing this indivisible relationship between Human and Earth, Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide, says:

“All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of Earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

So, what now? At the Grand Canyon ABCs, Minimizing Human Impact in a Changing Climate, participants made an individualized eco-friendly commitment - eating vegan or vegetarian for the week, recycling and composting, or even simply monitoring their trash output for the days to come. In this way, students began to explore and expand their understanding of the root of active citizenship - community - to include more than just human beings, but all other aspects of the Earth: soils, water, plants, animals… the land. We acknowledged that if the path toward environmental justice is active citizenship, it must be forged with an understanding that, “when we [also] see land as a community to which we belong [as opposed to a commodity belonging to us], we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold 1949).

Improving the trajectory of our natural environment goes beyond conscious consumerism, which, supports our approach to take→make→use→dispose. Instead, we must also address systems and structures that contribute to environmental degradation: we must reinvest in a circular economy -  one which mimics the natural cycle, thereby realigning humans with the land and all other living beings. By taking our time, our votes, and our dollars away from the profit-motivated economy that industrializes land, and by reimagining our relationship to community as one that incorporates and, even originates, from the natural environment, we may be able to save ourselves and our community from, well… ourselves.

Finding the Power | Keene ABCs

Conscientious Citizenship, on the Active Citizen Continuum, is defined by the examination of the root causes of social issues - here, we quickly find out that 1) the roots run deep - historically and systemically, and 2) many of them are connected. This can become a dark stage for people: while knowledge is power, it can also be a heavy burden; and in the work of social change, the feeling of powerlessness is an easy place to get trapped, but a dangerous one to remain.

At the Keene ABCs, we acknowledged that food systems are influenced by larger economic and political forces and, and in turn, the functions (or dysfunctions) of food systems impact four broad categories: communities, the Earth, producers, and consumers. Corporate consolidation is a common thread which affects each of these. Large companies are generally trying to gain as much capital as possible, as quickly as possible, with as few expenditures as possible - affecting the aforementioned categories in negative ways (for example, unjust wages and working conditions for farm workers).

Corporations are informed by millions of consumers, so as a single individual trying to resist something so large, that familiar sense of powerlessness begins to creep back in and we find ourselves frozen into inaction in the face of such an immense problem.

In the world of alternative breaks, we know stagnancy isn’t an option, and we believe, deeply, in the power of small groups. Like many social movements before our time, the food justice movement calls for individual, institutional, and societal changes in the way we produce, process, distribute, consume, and discard food. While expanding our own awareness of conscious consumption and "voting with our dollar" can be a start, individualistic approaches to fighting a broken food system will not create a lasting, structural difference.

In order to mobilize, we must find where we hold power in communities. On college campuses with dining facilities, the power we hold as consumers is much stronger, campus organizing is streamlined, and students’ voice and dollar directly influence the institution. The fraction of one in millions in the corporate world turns into an optimistic one in thousands (or less!) on a college campus.

To make the seemingly impossible task of resisting large forces that dominate our food systems and harm our communities, workers, and land - we looked to our friends at the Real Food Challenge (RFC) for realistic action steps to take on college campuses. If you're interested in creating a structural shift on your campus, we’d recommend you look to RFC to take meaningful action toward justice for the land and hands that caretake our food - from seed to plate and everything in between.

Beyond a Fix | Spartanburg ABCs

“The ‘DIS’ prefix is not only ‘un’ and ‘not’ but also has a Latin and Greek derivative meaning ‘duo’ and ‘two’ hence another way of doing and being” - Heather Watkins.

In our society, disability is viewed as something to fix or cure - the prefix of ‘un’ or ‘not’ is unfortunately too often the sole association. Disability is focused on the individual, asking: how can we make one’s life fit the norm? We are taught to anxiously attend to disability that is visible and dismiss what is not. Representation in media is limited, and when it does exist, it typically manifests as one of a few stereotypes: pitiful or pathetic, perpetually sad or angry, superhero - or more commonly, as a source of inspiration for non-Disabled people.

The world focuses inward, on Disabled people and what can be done to improve their lived experience. Many of us have internalized this perspective - leading us to presume that individuals with impairments need help or are somehow incompetent. Because of the medical focus on disability - as something to fix - Disability as identity is often left out of the larger conversations of justice and, as a result, forming distinct minority community membership has been a challenge.

The reality is - one in five individuals in America are disabled. There's a resounding need to discuss the realities and societal misconceptions, and to bring a justice-based approach to service work alongside Disabled communities.

At our second ABCs in Spartanburg, South Carolina - instead of examining impairments or shortfalls, we looked outward. We worked, as Disabled people and allies, to retrain our thinking to include physical, environmental, and social barriers in our understanding of mental and physical Disability (in short, Disability = Person + Impairments + Barriers); to reconsider the language we’re using; and to acknowledge the many unintended consequences of good intentions. More than anything, we deepened our belief in a society of active citizens - made up of individuals who make their own decisions and determine the needs and path of their participation in community.

Self-determination - or the belief that all people (particularly Disabled people) must have opportunities and experiences that enable them to have control in their own lives and advocate on their own behalf - was the focal point at the ABCs. When all individuals are granted the right to self-determination, we may finally experience communities of true interdependence.

If a society of active citizens requires everyone, then we must look at the spaces we inhabit - our campus, our programs, our advocacy - and work on building radically accessible versions of those spaces. We must acknowledge that our current world already meets the access needs of some, and it’s our responsibility to shift structures to meet the access needs of all.

Interested in making your program a radically inclusive space? Let us know - we’ll be thrilled to support your efforts!