When it comes to socializing college students to be successful in diverse environments, few approaches have received as much attention as the “safe space.” There is some deliberation on what qualifies as a safe space, and it is not exactly clear when and where the safe space concept was born. However the underlying logic runs as follows: students get the most out of diverse campus environments when there are clear measures in place to prevent overwhelming and potentially harmful challenges to one’s perspectives, to restrain ideas that are highly offensive to a majority of people (e.g., Holocaust or Sandy Hook deniers), to neutralize power imbalances between participants, and to curb hostility that could undermine a productive exchange of ideas. Proponents have argued that safe spaces are particularly important for students who have experienced trauma, in order to protect them from detrimental flashbacks.
In the last few years, the safe space concept has taken a lot of flak from inside and outside the academy. Some have argued that safe spaces actually contribute to students harboring ideological extremism, while others have expressed concern that safe spaces coddle students by shielding them from ideas they simply don’t like. Opponents also argue that safe spaces hinder students from developing a discipline for engaging with deep difference, reinforce their biases and worldview blind spots, and are a serious threat to their freedom of speech. Still others have noted the impossibility of safe spaces for vulnerable populations in the academy, including people of color and other minoritized groups, and adjunct faculty and staff who do not have the luxury of tenure. Though it may appear that opposition to safe spaces is mostly secluded to the political right, opponents can be found across the political spectrum, and a 2017 poll found that a majority of students are indifferent toward or oppose the idea of safe spaces.
In response to the growing disenchantment toward safe spaces, some have tried to rework the concept by introducing the need for “brave spaces,” where some ground rules are still present, but expectations for the space are more considerate of the need for challenge to maximize learning. Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013), who introduced the distinction in social justice education, found that brave spaces are “more cognizant of our understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, and the challenges inherent in dialogue about these issues in socioculturally diverse groups” (149). They discovered that students with privileged identities actually tend to benefit the most from language about safety and the ground rules typically applied to safe spaces; they use their privilege to opt out of conversations that make them uncomfortable, and redirect notions about their privilege to critiquing the activity rather than facing their peers’ experiences of oppression. They found that as White participants insist on safety as a condition of their participation in dialogues about social justice, “People of color are then expected to constrain their participation and interactions to conform to White expectations of safety–itself an act of racism White resistance and denial” (140).
Despite the growing popularity of the safe space/ brave space interplay, there has been little research on how these two approaches work together to improve students’ attitudes toward one another. Fortunately, a national study of college students and their experiences with worldview diversity on campus collected data demonstrating that a combination of safe and brave spaces is needed to help students to develop appreciative attitudes toward people of different social identity groups. IDEALS measures appreciative attitudes by asking students whether they believe that individuals in each group are ethical people and make positive contributions to society, if students feel they have things in common with members of each identity group, and whether students hold positive attitudes toward people in those groups.
First-year students (7,194) who became more appreciative of other social identity groups affirmed that their campuses provided them with space and support for spiritual expression; meaning, they considered their campuses and classes to be safe places to express their worldview and that faculty and staff were accommodating toward their needs when it came to religious holidays and other important religious observances. Yet, students who became more appreciative of people from other social identity groups also indicated having “provocative encounters with worldview diversity,” or experiences that challenged them to rethink their assumptions of another worldview or made them feel like they did not know enough about their own worldview. Indeed, statistically speaking, the effect of these provocative encounters for increasing appreciation seemed to be far more significant than the effect of providing a safe space — although in the absence of a safe spaces (the “low space for support”), we saw a decrease in appreciation for difference:
These findings suggest that students do need a nurturing and inclusive environment in order to better appreciate people from different social identity groups. Yet they also need brave spaces for exchanges and exploration which are often unsettling and uncomfortable.
However, an important caveat is that not all groups experience the same degree of support, nor the same number of provocative encounters, on campus. For example, IDEALS found that only 77% of nonreligious students felt that there was a place on campus to express their personal worldviews, compared to 84% of worldview majority students identifying with some strand of Christianity and 84% of worldview minority students such as Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Practitioners can use these findings to ask whether spaces exist on their campus to support students of different worldviews and encourage students to have challenging conversations, and whether there are particular worldview identity groups that could use more support. Furthermore, practitioners could use these findings to consider the balance between safe and brave spaces on their campus, and whether there are certain worldview groups that have been challenged more than supported (or vice versa) on campus; are there steps that could be taken to provide better balance for these groups?
In today’s sociopolitical climate, in which incoming college students are more polarized than ever before, it is becoming increasingly important that campus professionals are thinking about how to leverage diversity on campus for good, so that it does not become an engine for division, coercion, and violence. Knowing that a balance of supportive and challenging experiences is necessary to promote growth in students’ appreciative attitudes should help campus professionals to design environments that make campus a welcoming and enlightening place for everyone.
Kevin Singer is a PhD Student at NC State University and Research Associate for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (@kevinsinger0).
Matthew Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University (@MattJMayhewPhD).
Alyssa Rockenbach is a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University (@ANRockenbach).
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