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BlogNew Organizing Project (NOP)

NOP3 | What Does ‘Safe Space’ Mean to You?

By July 18, 2012No Comments

By Keish Kim | New Organizing Project blogger



Beginning to create a safe space! (Photo Credit: Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance)

First day, first meeting. Butcher paper and markers. Let’s get this meeting on a roll.

Moderator swiftly writes ‘Ground Rules’ across the white butcher paper with a purple EXPO marker.

Participants around the room shout out many familiar phrases: ‘one mic, one diva,’ ‘land the plane,’ ‘challenge the idea, not the person,’ ‘self-care’…

To finish off, the moderator asks, “what about safe space?” and everyone nods in agreement.

But what does the word ‘safe-space’ really mean? As I think back, I don’t think I ever had any good examples that explained safe space in a proper manner – especially for those new to such a phrase.

Typically in a social justice movement space, the word “safe space” is often introduced as a community agreement. In an immigration movement space, often times, participants will share their immigration status, which may risk their safety.

So one thing is for sure: understanding what safe space means is crucial.

As an undocumented person, safe space to me is a place where I can freely talk about my status, or rather, everything that comes with my undocumented status, with the people in the room without feeling like an outcast. Knowing that I can trust everyone in the room and share my personal stories and that it will be a two way street gives me a sense of comm[unity] with everyone in the room (see what I did there? ^^). Through that we are building relationships with one another and building trust. Or so it seems to me at least.

Okay, now let’s figure out why safe space is crucial.

While working with immigrant youth and undocumented communities, I find myself always searching for more APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) participants. In Georgia, we would have private events where we create a space for undocumented young people and allies to share their stories and frustration, but very rarely, if ever, do we have APIA undocumented youth reaching out. And I have asked so many ‘why?’s. Why is it so difficult to get undocumented youth to come out and meet me? Is my approach too aggressive in any way? Are they just not ready? What does it mean to be ‘ready’ anyway? What am I doing wrong…?

Surrounded by the model minority myth and the deadly whispers an immigration status can spread, there really isn’t much space for our community to reach out for help. Building a safe-space for undocumented APIA young people meant I had to earn their trust step-by-step. Growing up undocumented you are told never to reveal your status because it will endanger your family’s safety. To break that wall they have been building over the years, I had to be patient. We all have to be patient.

Thinking about how dangerous that wall is, being isolated and feeling alone, with all the pressure and burden those undocumented young folks may carry, I cannot help myself from reflecting back on how I internalized self-hate just few years ago for the same reasons.

To earn that trust, to build that relationship, to break those walls, is all worth it in order to provide a space where people can truly express themselves and take a break from feeling so alone and helpless.

To best describe what safe-space is to a new group seems like we just have to offer the space where personal struggles are shared to become one. So in the future, they can define safe-space with their own experiences.

Through safe-space, we will build trust with one another, unified as one, and become a stronger community. And as a community we can take the next step of actions towards change…together!