By Felicia Blow
Safe space is the subject of a lot of debate lately. Some see it as a prime example of Millennials – the generation everyone loves to hate – being coddled and overly sensitive. For others, it’s the common sense notion of being able to bring your full self to each part of your world, especially those geared toward learning and undoing oppression. It’s both a physical reality and an ideology, and for me Creating Change served as a sort of case study in this idea of safe space – why and how it is created, where and for whom it exists.
For a young Black woman, Asheville is largely not a safe space. It is not comfortable, and it is certainly not somewhere you can bring your whole self. I’ve constantly had my identities compartmentalized and erased, by myself, admittedly, and by others who don’t share my experience. Despite Asheville’s clean mountain air, I breathe easier in bigger cities, the smoggy surroundings seemingly cancelled out by the energy of the place and the beauty of the natural landscape replaced by the range of human expression.
We all know the feeling of joy and ease that comes with being in our element. Being around our people, doing our thing. Even with all the chaos and excitement, Creating Change felt easy for me. I spent most of the five days in POC-only (people of color) spaces getting replenished and recharged, opportunities I rarely have in Asheville. On top of merely having the space to convene, the content was enlivening. So often folks with marginalized identities only get to come together to talk about our oppression, and of course there was discussion of that, but there was also talk about love, resilience, desire, healing, and wholeness. I left feeling energized by the ideas others had shared, the new activities and styles the facilitators brought, and the sense of unity among everyone in the room. I felt lighter.
I know, though, that this feeling was not universal. Some people came and left bearing the burden of a space that was not created with them in mind.
I know this because there was endless conversation, debate, and protest surrounding the conference related to this very topic ¬– who is the space really for? Who is it by? Whose voices are being valued and brought to bear and why?
We’re at a critical moment in social justice movements and in society as a whole. Shouts of Black Lives Matter are ringing out, but those voices are still being muted by the ones invoking All Lives. Visibility for trans and gender non-conforming folks is at an all-time high, but with that visibility comes violence and vitriol. How do we move forward when oppressive ideologies have infiltrated our movements? When claiming to stand for immigrant rights means inviting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to have their equal say? When creating a panel of men to discuss loving trans women of color means inviting a known abuser of this community to speak on their behalf – and demonizing the women’s strength when they stand up to confront this injustice?
It’s more than oversight. It’s more than lack of understanding. It’s not enough to say we want our work to be intersectional and inclusive, yet we won’t inform ourselves or listen to the voices of the people we say we’re working for when they tell us “this is what we need”. It’s a privilege to not be worried about a safe space and to label these calls entitled, whiny, exclusive. It means that you’ve never known what it means to truly need one, to rely on a few days each year to find your community, only to find yourself forgotten. And it’s a privilege to get to decide whose lives are represented in these spaces, knowing for some of our people, they may never find truly safe spaces in their lifetime.
There is a great cultural shift happening, and we have to move with it or be left on the other side of the chasm. We can’t let our blind desire for innovation and inclusion have the opposite effects. If we want to create change together, we need to allow ourselves and each other the time to heal. If we want to create change, we need to first create space.