The Case for Space: an exploration of healing and placemaking


The following was a final assignment for the “Communication in Context” course in the MFA in Community Practice program at Moore College.

Introduction

In my journey through the MFA in Community Practice program I am attempting to determine my path as an artist and activist. For several years I have been yearning to meld these two aspects of myself into a long-term artistic project to raise awareness about Gender-Based Violence (GBV). In recent years I’m continually drawn to the vision of a community space that brings art, technology, and activism together. I see this space as one of healing and education for myself and fellow citizens interested in taking the journey. Through conversations with faculty at Moore I have been guided on ways of creating a meaningful artistic project that is true to myself as a maker. This has led me to zoom in on what exactly draws me to my current vision of a community space. Through the mentioned guidance, I realize that the idea of creating a permanent physical space is of great value to me. I can do my work as an artist and activist without creating a space, yet I keep returning to the need for one. Whether I crunch the data, pray, or mediate I keep coming to the same answer. So I plan to push forward to make this vision come true. And as I create business plans, consult with experts, and hunt for funding, I continue my artistic process of creating my masterpiece.Th first step of the process is to explore space and its meaning to me as an artist, activist, and survivor of Gender-Based Violence (GBV).

Academic Definitions of Space

During my initial meditation on space, I started with a simple word map to see what came to the surface.  It became apparent that for me space meant many things, with a theme toward healing. As a feminist the idea of healing space is one I work with constantly. I attempt to create such spaces through the events I hold, the workshops I lead, and the outreach I participate in. Within the activist community such spaces are called by many names, including:

• Safe Space
• Brave Space
• Safer Space
• Healing Space
• Safe House
• Refuge
• Sanctuary
• Shelter
• Retreat

Of these terms “safe space” is the most widely used and well-known. The origins of the term come from the 1960’s and 70’s women’s movement and gay rights movement (Harris 2015). Though the name was not given until this time, the concept was in use well before from the civil rights movement to the Salem witch trials. Anywhere that people gathered for sanctuary to communicate, safe space existed. In the past few decades this term has become mainstream and a topic of controversy in media and on college campuses. Putting the disagreements aside, I first want to delve into the definition and implied meanings of the term safe space. A quick search online yields many definitions of the term including the following:

A place where everyone can feel comfortable about expressing their identity without fear of discrimination or attack.  A situation or place where a person can feel comfortable and secure.” (Macmillan Dictionary 2016)

A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. (Oxford Living Dictionaries 2016)

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.  A place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others. (Safe Space Network 2016)

The definition can be summed up as a place where one is safe to express their true self in a respectful and comfortable environment. This expression leads to open communication and an attempt to dismantle the oppressions we face. But recently the term “safe” has been called into question and replaced with “brave” by some (Arao, Clemens 2013). Facilitators of social justice work are seeing a pushback from participants who avoid dealing with difficult conversations such as racism in the name of “safety.” Others see the term safe as something no one can guarantee. The nature of social justice conversations is to take a risk and confront oppression. This inherent risk makes the use of the word safe questionable both for the entitled and the oppressed. Because there is a subjective quality to the concept of safety, one must question if it is the right word to use. Deconstructing words can be a slippery slope and eventually a word must be chosen, flaws and all. After reflection, I realize that “healing space” most closely defines what I work to create as an artist and activist. In order to heal one must create a space for comfort and safety, while at the same time being brave in participation and conversation. Healing takes great risk, and with time will lead to a safer and braver space in our soul.

Artistic Definitions of Space

In visual art the definition of space is:

An element of art, space refers to distances or areas around, between or within components of a piece. Space can be positive (white or light) or negative (black or dark), open or closed, shallow or deep and two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Sometimes space isn’t actually within a piece, but the illusion of it. (Esaak 2016)

I reflected on the visual meaning of space and decided to create a piece in a medium outside my comfort zone. I was inspired by Professor Lodwick’s suggestion to create a documentary. I have been taking her “Communication in Context” course this semester at Moore College and have learned the importance of using an array of communication tools. This was an opportunity to practice video editing and get familiar with what is accessible through the Creative Commons. To my surprise and delight there was a vast array of videos and photos available for free use that met my aesthetic goals. It was a little harder to find music that fit my needs, but I eventually settled on a song. This medium gave me the opportunity to meld my love of prose with visual art. The process helped me reflect on the ethereal and sublime aspects of space.

Link to Film: https://youtu.be/n1xLWVCaOxA

The Practical Case for Safe Space

Note: For the remainder of the text I will continue to use the term safe space instead of healing space. Because safe space is the mainstream term used, I find it more conducive to conversation to continue with this term.

The ultimate goal of a safe space is exactly what the name and definitions imply – a frame that allows people to feel safe as themselves. Safe spaces emerged as a response to oppression and the lack of safety in public spaces. Women who were facing misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism created spaces meant to heal, educate, and enlighten. LGBTQ people who were facing homophobia and transphobia created spaces where they could express their sexual orientation and gender identity without physical harm. To some extent we can see safe space elements in any meeting space that has been created for oppressed groups dating back possibly since the start of formalized societies. As an activist I regularly work to create safe spaces for people to talk about Gender-Based Violence (GBV). I understand the importance and need for a place where oppressed people can gather and heal. The difficulty though is that each space I create is temporary, only lasting for hours. The energy and interest created in those few hours dissipates after people separate. There is a power in being able to return again and again to the same place to work on an issue. The energy created through the work begins to permeate in the space and grow. It eventually seeps out into its neighboring environment. Longterm connections can be formed. Longterm projects can be realized. Activists can have a place to call home, outside of the events and protests. The coffee house meetings can be replaced with round table discussions. Archives of information can be collected and made accessible. Resources and tools can be shared with regularity. Physical space has a vast number of positive outcomes. I could continue on with the practical need for space and cite an enumerable number of experts who agree. But this would not answer why space holds a place in my soul. To understand why space is valuable to me as an individual I have to dig deeper into my own story.

The Spiritual and Emotional Case for Safe Space

Through further meditation, analysis and personal reflection I am uncovering the many layers that make up my desire to create safe spaces. This process has been so powerful and transformative for me as an artist, an activist, and a survivor of trauma. Under the practical, rational, and logical reasons is something deeper. I have a spiritual and emotional calling to create this space. And I begin to see my desire for safe space is as much for myself as it is for the community.

Safe space was something I wouldn’t experience physically until the age of 26. The journey to this feeling was long and complex. I grew up in an abusive household with a violent mother and an alcoholic father. The extended family that I knew was filled with sexual abusers and traumatized victims of assault. Feeling safe was an unknown concept to me and those around me. My earliest memories are filled with the feelings of anxiety, fear, and dread. I learned quickly that my life depended on following the unspoken rules of the the adults around me. Much of my upbringing felt like walking across an icy lake. Each step was filled with trepidation, wondering when the ground below me would crack; wondering when I would be swallowed whole by my mother’s rage, my father’s addiction, my deepening depression. Staying vigilant while simultaneously existing in a dissociated state became my baseline. Like so many others facing trauma, my adrenaline was always pumping, yet I felt numb and disconnected. The only connection with reality left was my art. I would draw and write poetry for hours, and only in those moments would my mind clear. It was in these moments I found hope and strength.

I was lucky enough to separate from my abusers around the age of 22. My lifeline came in the form of a marriage that gave me the strength to move away from my family. But my wounds would not allow me to participate in a healthy relationship or even accept my sexual identity, and soon I was divorced. With no family or partner left to distract me, I finally was forced to turn my gaze inward. I started the difficult work of therapy. After several months I started to uncover the wounds I desperately covered for years. With these wounds opened, I experienced a severe flare-up in physical and psychological ailments. The impact started to wear on me and I was struggling to keep my job. Due to my stubborn nature and denial I kept trying to push through and hold on. After all, I had survived this long. I moved into a studio apartment a short distance from work, eliminating my longer commute. But even this wasn’t enough to hold onto employment. I eventually went onto long-term disability and continued working intensely on my recovery.

 

One night as I was laying in bed I was looking at my apartment and this unknown feeling washed over me. It was then that I realized this feeling was safety. From my bed I could see every corner of my home, from the bathroom to the kitchen to the front door. Nighttime has always been a hard time for me because I have always struggled to sleep. My mind is always plagued with anxious thoughts racing around, never letting me rest. Through therapy I started to uncover some vague memories of trauma I faced while sleeping as a child. The feeling of safety evoked by the full visibility of my surroundings was directly linked to the past dangers I faced in dark rooms as a child. I remember in that moment I started sobbing uncontrollably. Everything came together and I understood for the first time that I was never safe before. With further self-care I realized that I was learning what safety meant and creating a safe space where I could finally start to let my guard down. I also began to understand the difference between escape and safe space; I started to let go of dissociation and move toward building a space where I could be present and safe from the inside out. I started to meditate and strengthen my spiritual practice. I connected with my artistic practice once again and channeled my emotions through paint and poetry. I saw then that art was always my tool for healing; my reason to push on. Both my spiritual and artistic practice showed me that safe space is not just about a physical place but also a mental state.

The Subversion of Safe Spaces

As I more fully understand why safe space is a value to me, I am also painfully aware others see it differently. The recent election is a reminder to those outside of the activist community that we live in a country with deeply divided ethics. Years of oppressed people rising up has led to an all-time high of denial and minimization by those in power. Human rights for so many are under attack with the recent election of Donald Trump as president. Most recently the concept of safe spaces is being subverted. Authorities in educational institutions such as University of Chicago paint “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as propaganda against “academic freedom” ( Goins-Phillips 2016). The response to protests at institutions such as Mizzou, Georgetown, and Yale point to further minimization of the experiences of oppressed groups (Cooper 2015). Even actor Adam Carolla is working on a documentary entitled, “No More Safe Spaces.” He plans to invade and dismantle such spaces all to reassert his fundamental “beliefs”: “When did everyone become such a colossal pussy? Having your beliefs challenged is as American as apple pie.” (Ernst 2016). This statement shows the gross misunderstanding of safe spaces by entitled individuals and those in power. Sometimes I wonder under all the posturing, just how broken Carolla and the likes really are. They are so disconnected from their own feelings that they can’t even understand the pain others endure. Because they have decided to be cut off from empathy, they feel the same should go for everyone.

Conclusion

Even when others deny suffering, those of us on the side of safe space will fight back for our right to heal. We will fight for our right to be brave and take on the difficult conversations of violence, oppression, and entitlement. We will fight for our right to dignity, respect, and empathy from our fellow human beings. We will fight for our right to healing and placemaking: to create spaces that say we are here and we are strong.

This is why now more than ever I know I must create a healing community arts space that teaches others empathy and advocacy. From time immemorial we have followed a model of violence that is infused in every fiber of our society. This lack of empathy and denial is a natural byproduct of a violent culture. We have learned to dissociate on a macro level in order to survive. Its time for us to be present as a whole and do the difficult work of dismantling oppression. I know creating my one space won’t change the world. It won’t even change a city. If I’m lucky I will be able to have an impact on a handful of people and plant the seeds of future collaborations between artist, activist, and citizen.

 

Vision of Community Arts Center

 

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References:
Brian Arao and Kristin Clemens, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”, The Art of Effective Facilitation, 2013, http://ssw.umich.edu/sites/default/files/documents/events/colc/from-safe-spaces-to-brave-spaces.pdf

Brittney Cooper, “Stop mocking “safe spaces”: What the Mizzou & Yale backlash is really about”, Salon, November 18, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/11/18/what_the_mizzou_yale_backlash_is_really_about_the_right_of_white_people_to_engage_in_racial_recklessness/

Douglas Ernst. “Carolla documentary to invade ‘safe spaces’: ‘When did everyone become such a colossal p–y?’”, The Washington Times, November 30, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/nov/30/adam-carolla-documentary-to-invade-safe-spaces-whe/

Shelley Esaak, “Space” definition search, About.com, Accessed December 1, 2016, http://arthistory.about.com/cs/glossaries/g/s_space.htm

Tre Goins-Phillips, “Students Slam UChicago’s ‘No Safe Spaces’ Warning As Attacking ‘Academic Freedom’”, The Blaze, August 26, 2016, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2016/08/26/students-slam-uchicagos-no-safe-spaces-warning-as-attacking-academic-freedom/

Malcolm Harris, “What’s a ‘safe space’? A look at the phrase’s 50-year history”, Fusion, November 11, 2015, http://fusion.net/story/231089/safe-space-history/

“Safe Space” definition search, Macmillan Dictionary, Accessed December 1, 2016, http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/safe-space

“Safe Space” definition search, Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed December 1, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/safe_space

“What is a Safe Space?”, Safe Space Network, Accessed December 1, 2016, http://safespacenetwork.tumblr.com/Safespace

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