Don’t Be an Ass: A Look into Safe Spaces at Milton Academy
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Marianna Dione ’17
On Monday, November 14, 2016, all Milton Academy Upper School students and faculty gathered in the ACC to listen to a panel of community members reacting to the recent presidential election results. The assembly was extended past the usual fifteen-minute time slot to allow for various teachers and students to share fears, concerns, emotions, and perspectives surrounding Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Emotions were still raw throughout the crowd, as the speakers shared concerns from the LQBTQ+ community, women, Muslims, blacks, as well as the sole representative of the conservative community. One theme ran through everyone’s speeches: Milton Academy needs to be a safe space.
These days, the phrase ‘safe space’ is thrown around in classrooms, dorms, and the campus at large. When sensitive topics or dissenting opinions arise within my friend group in the Student Center, my friends often joke, “Hey, this is a safe space!” If you ask around for just a basic definition of a safe space, which I did, the overwhelming majority of people, adults and students, say that it is simply a place in which everyone feels emotionally and physically safe. And Milton agrees that the members of the community deserve this right. The Student Handbook reads, “All members of the Milton Academy community must feel and be safe at all times” and that “the School community expects its members to treat one another with respect…[and] will not tolerate threatening, intimidating, or demeaning behavior or language on any basis.”
I sat on the uncomfortable bleachers of our packed school gym for over an hour, listening to a stream of students speak, watching a call for safety—a call, that to me at least, is completely justifiable in the face of election rhetoric that many viewed as racist, sexist, and bigoted. However, safe spaces are heated with controversy. No two people agree on the definition, their purpose, or their existence. There are teachers and students alike who agree that safe spaces create echo chambers for assenting opinions and limit dialogue. Yet many others agree that safe spaces are essential for emotional stability of students who are historically targeting or face more challenges than the average adolescent. So, where do we draw the line between discourse and feeling unsafe? When are we seeking safety, and when are we hiding from discomfort?
* * *
I raced to Ms. Flewelling’s office on a Friday morning; I didn’t want to be late. My hair was falling out of my bun and I didn’t look all that put together walking into her deceptively large office in the basement of Wigg Hall. Heather Flewelling is the Director of Multiculturalism and Community Development for the Upper School at Milton Academy. She was the first person I reached out to when delving into the challenges of safe spaces, as she is an advocate for diversity and safety.
Her door was wide open, and I tentatively knocked. She stood up from her desk chair and shared her charismatic smile with me, inviting me in with her warm presence—my nerves vanished. Her dark, dreadlocked hair was up in a ponytail, and her green and brown, earth toned wardrobe confirmed her warm presence. I sat on a plush sofa and she sat at a diagonal from me in a chair made of the same fabric. Fidgets and puzzle toys littered the desks, tables, and shelves of her office—like a therapist’s room, comfortable and accepting. I got out my notebook and recorder, ready to dive in. The first thing I asked was for her to give me Milton’s definition of safe spaces.
“I’m actually not sure we have a school definition at this point. And there are features for me rather than a full well-crafted definition.” She paused in thought, and she began to cough, so she took the opportunity while she pondered to get up and grab a couple cough drops from her desk. “I’d say that safe space to me is recognizing that the intention or a gathering in a community is to be mindful that the perspectives of one person may have an impact on another. And that while learning often happens when there is discomfort, at the core, one should not feel like one’s identity or personal safety is at threat.”
People often confuse comfort with safety, she argues. The phrase “safe space” often implies, “I don’t want to be uncomfortable.” In a very clear, poignant tone, she emphasizes that being uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. Do we overuse safe spaces to dismiss discomfort?
As Ms. Flewelling pointed out, the overwhelming majority of students do not seek out safe spaces. There are 12 to 15 culture clubs on campus whose aim is to drive a conversation with the larger community about the named group. To my surprise, though, I learned that there are only 3 to 5 affinity groups and safe spaces on campus that meet regularly. These affinity spaces are historically targeted towards minorities who often face microaggressions, students who struggle with mental illness or disabilities, and those who need extra support due to emotional instability or volatility. Culture clubs serve the purpose of educating the community; affinity groups do not educate, but rather create empathy and sanctuary.
“Affinity spaces are generally considered closed spaces, and participation in them should come from an ‘I’ statement. This is an identity that is true for me. There is no intention of it being an educational space for people outside of that group.”
“But there are times,” Ms. Flewelling added, leaning more forward in her chair and resting her elbows on her knees, “when other groups have wished for more of an established affinity space, especially now surrounding political identity.”
I wanted to ask about safe spaces and their connection to political correctness. But, she interjected what I found was a more important thread to the conversation: the connection between having a diverse community and the necessity for safe spaces.
“There is nothing wrong with how any of us were born. What is the point of living in a community of diversity if we don’t have conversations?” She leaned back in the chair, crossing her legs and arms. “And there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort. It’s when people feel threatened that learning is negatively impacted, and that’s when targeted groups require more support.”
I believe, and I’m positive that the majority of people agree, that everyone deserves to feel safe. That is your right as a student, as a teacher, as a human. However, I also believe in the power of conversation and education. You cannot possibly broaden your perceptions or empathy without communicating with people who do not share your view or your struggles. So here lies the fundamental controversy of safe spaces in today’s society: how do we balance our actual need for safety with our fears of discomfort?
Within the last five years, safe spaces have been more and more present at institutions both at the secondary and college level. Safe spaces really began at Milton within the last three to five years, or at least that is the consensus from various teachers and administrators. If you roam around the school, you’ll notice safe space stickers on approximately a third of classroom doors. Conversations have increased surrounding personal identity in my four years here, and I’ve noticed a continuous trend towards being more politically correct as a means to make Milton a safer environment. There is this mentality that we should always avoid language and actions that have the potential to offend or disadvantage members of a society. I agree with this statement—no language should intentionally harm another group or individual. But, to me, this ideological assumption that being politically correct will make everyone emotionally stable is inherently flawed. The connection makes sense: respecting the individual and his or her identity is pertinent. However, it feels as though we sacrifice the ability to learn about someone’s identity when all we try to do is label them with the “correct” term.
Safe spaces are not at all a new concept. According to Moira Rachel Kenney in her book Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics, safe spaces began in the 1960s and 1970s as a strategy to cope with homophobia and sexism. They were “a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but a space created by the coming together in searching for community.” But what have safe spaces become within the last 50 years? I feel I cannot even define what a safe space looks like, because it doesn’t even feel like a physical space anymore.
During my conversation with Ms. Flewelling, she brought up the difference between high school and college with regards to safe spaces. She believes it is more important in high school for the school itself to facilitate content and spaces where conversations can happen within a sanctuary of security. College is a different story, she believes. Many colleges, including the University of Chicago, have rebelled against the safe space. Over this past summer, the University of Chicago posted a letter to incoming freshmen stating that their “commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Basically, the university feels as though safe spaces inhibit students’ ability to solve problems and face real world adversity. And, to further support this perspective on safe spaces and trigger warnings, the National Coalition Against Censorship found that out of 800 college educators across the U.S., 62% said safe spaces and trigger warnings will have a negative impact on academic freedom and the ability for students to cope with real world situations of discomfort. This feels like an extreme reaction, yet many colleges across the nation have equivalent concerns regarding safe spaces. But does this apparent lack of safe spaces on the college campus deny the students who seek safe spaces on a day-to-day basis an opportunity for support? The University’s letter only forbids intellectual safe spaces, but what is the distinction between intellectual safety and emotional safety? In an intellectual setting or a learning environment, there is always the possibility of students not feeling emotionally secure, which can hinder learning. Again, the concern of where to draw the line between safety and discomfort, between intellect and emotion, seems blurred.
* * *
“A space in which, um, there are guidelines for speaking…” Sarah Miller-Bartley trailed off, not sure how to express what a safe space means to her.
I sat cross-legged on the floor in a corner of the upper floor of the Student Center with Sarah and Hannah Congdon, the co-heads of GASP, Milton’s club for Gender and Sexuality Perspectives. It was during a busy lunch period and I could only manage to talk to both of them for about ten minutes before we all had to rush to class, but I desperately wanted to touch base with both Hannah and Sarah on their thoughts regarding safe spaces.
They sat on the floor as well with their backs against the window. Sarah, with her gray, blue, blonde dyed hair tied in a topknot, smiled meekly and picked at her chipping nail polish as an uneasy laugh crept out. Hannah, on the other hand, sat with more leisure, with an elbow on her knee, propping her temple against her hand. She ran her other hand through her short, brown hair.
“It’s a place in which we all start with the same baseline understanding that we will respect each other’s’ identities and who they are as a human being,” Hannah jumped in, making Sarah relax a little more into the window behind her. Sarah mumbled that Hannah’s definition was a good one, and that she couldn’t think of a definition because she’s never really thought about it before.
Their definition surprised me. I read an article from Brown University in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz, who believes “safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions.” Yet Hannah and Sarah’s definition was pretty moderate and reasonable. I was expecting them to praise safe spaces, and be in a position that completely contrasts Shulevitz, but they simply want the respect that safe spaces can allow.
“Milton is not a safe space in itself,” Sarah asserted, “but I think it does a good job of allowing us to create these safe spaces.” She paused for a moment, fumbling over some words.
Hannah agreed and added, “Some people, in the end, don’t respect the identities of other people, and that’s just going to be the case. But if we consider the entirety of Milton a safe space, those people are never going to get the opportunity to learn about those communities or gain a more educated and less abrasive position on those sorts of identities.”
Milton has no mention of safe spaces in its Student Handbook. Yet, it does mention that the “community expects its members to treat one another with respect” and that we should respect “individual’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, disability, or any other legally protected class.” Milton strives for the baseline of respect, but might not always meet these expectations.
My final question seemed to me like it would have a more complicated answer than I received. I asked both Sarah and Hannah if a community could be safe without safe space. Both immediately answered no.
“If there is nowhere you can go in a community to feel safe,” Sarah adds to her resounding no, “like, yeah, that shows that you can’t feel safe in the community. Sometimes people have nowhere to go, except for our GASP affinity meetings, and it’s just hard.” A community can feel safe, but sometimes we need safe spaces to open up opportunities for safety to everyone. Only 3.8% of American adolescents openly identify as LGBTQ+, not counting those who don’t even feel safe enough to be open with their sexual or gender identity, yet sadly, 42% of LGBTQ+ students don’t feel safe or accepted in their community, according to the Human Rights Campaign website. But, this got me thinking about who is allowed in safe spaces for certain groups. Do safe spaces not allow cross-identity conversations? I don’t understand how can we learn to appreciate other’s identities if safe spaces can’t offer a platform for conversation, or is that not their intention at all. But, I didn’t push these inquiries because we had to go to class.
As we were packing up our bags, Hannah added, “In an ideal world, where we all respect each other, and we can have respectful discussions, we won’t need safe spaces. We have not reached a place where we can always be respectful, and when you feel attacked there is no way you can move forward until you’ve found some safety.”
As they both acknowledged, there is a clear balance between seeking safe spaces and struggling with discomfort in order to educate yourself and others. But finding that balance in an institution is both crucial and nearly impossible, because designating a place as safe could mean that all other places are unsafe. So maybe it’s not the ideal of a safe space that is flawed or controversial, but the term itself. Because, as Julia Shulevitz mentioned, an educational institution should represent a place where “others feel safe enough to express dissenting opinions.” But without, as Hannah put it, a baseline of respect and integrity, which Milton requires but doesn’t always fulfill, there is no way everyone will feel safe.
* * *
Thinking again of Milton’s cry for safety post-election, I talked to Rick Dionne. He is my older brother as well as a Milton graduate of the Class of 2015, now a sophomore at Dartmouth College.
Sitting on the edge of my bed in grey sweatpants and a navy-blue shirt with bed head and an untrimmed beard, Rick stared at me, waiting for me to ask my first question. My brother doesn’t have the warmest demeanor—he’s a very to-the-point kind of guy. I have to add that Rick is an upper-middle class, white, cisgender, straight, male democrat.
Very academic in his answer, he believes that there are two definitions of safe spaces used interchangeably: a place where people go to seek shelter from trauma, such as sexual assault, and then a more general definition of a place where you can go so “you don’t have to be afraid of the scary conservatives.” Rick has serious issues with the latter definition. I also found his conservative remark ironic, because, given Milton’s majority liberal community and anger toward the election, many conservatives and Republicans wanted Conservative Club to be a safe space.
“An institution, such as Milton or any college, should facilitate students who want to organize and form groups to support one another.” But, because safe spaces are often a response to events and decisions that the administration and institution should not have a position on, Rick thinks that “facilitating a safe space is effectively taking a stance on that issue.” To him, it would be inappropriate for a school to sanction an event or a place for people upset by Trump’s election, because the school would implicitly be taking an official position on the election.
I had to laugh here, because, the day of the assembly and the call for safety, Milton sanctioned an after-school, all-school invited space where people could have an open dialogue about the election. It wasn’t termed a safe space, but it was still a sanctioned event created by the school. Again, being politically correct seems bound to safety.
President Donald Trump won the election, marking a win for those who detest political correctness or identity politics. Although I take issue with those who only strive to be politically correct, there is merit in people attempting to speak with intention. Being P.C. isn’t always the solution, but being civil and respectful should always be present in conversations. Civility is something that seemed to be glossed over during the 2016 Presidential Election. The conservatives have pushed back on political correctness in favor of honesty. The insurance or, as some may view it, the consequence of identity is acting and being politically correct; one of the reasons Trump rose in popularity was that he ignored the cultural trend of correctness. Right now, there is a cultural war in our country surrounding identity—how to respect identity and how to deal with difference. Safe spaces have entered the battleground of identity.
“When a safe space is used to make feelings of comfort paramount, people sacrifice divisive positions, controversial opinions, and in general ideas that are not in line with the progressive, liberal mainstream of the high school or college campus.” He gave the example of visiting speakers at college and how, when a speaker doesn’t follow the mainstream views of the students at the institution, people protest that their views and opinions are being threatened. “I think it’s unreasonable to say that somebody else speaking and expressing their opinion, is making you feel unsafe.” He concedes that he understands those who have faced sexual assault or mental issues, or those who have faced what he calls “real trauma,” (although he never elaborated on what real trauma looks like) have the right to excuse themselves from speakers if they are triggered to the point where they are not safe. But other than that, if it’s just an opinion that is making students uncomfortable, there is no need for outrage. “If it is necessary to block out views in order to keep the safe space, people need to have thicker skins.”
According to a poll recently released by the Gallup Organization, 78% of 3,072 students from 32 four-year private and public colleges said they want their campuses to create open environments where there is exposure to a range of speech and views. Only 22% of student’s desire limitations on speakers based on their opinions, and marginalized groups make up 77% of that statistic. So, the majority of students don’t think opinion should limit bringing speakers to campuses; however, 69% favored limitations of speech when language was deliberately upsetting. There is a difference between an opinion and an attempt to be hurtful, sometimes a hard line to draw as the election rhetoric has proven.
“What does the safe space do to actually create a feeling of safety and security?” Rick asked me at the end of our conversation. He didn’t ask it in a malicious way, merely quizzically. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I tried to explain to him all the positive aspects that I’ve learned through my research but he scoffed at my attempts to educate him. “If the safe space is necessary to make someone feel physically or emotionally safe, then I think there are other problems with the culture or with norms that are also disruptive to learning that should be dealt with more directly.”
* * *
I was beginning to wonder what a safe space really looks like, so I reached out to Joshua Furst, an instructional technologist at Milton Academy, as well as an Affective Education teacher and my advisor. He allowed me to sit in and observe one of his Social Awareness classes. Although I was allowed to view the class, because of the sensitive topics talked about, I was only allowed to note the general themes and the atmosphere—no quoting or mentioning who was present. I was a fly on the wall and I don’t think any of the students even realized I was there until the end of the class when I explained my presence. The twelve students in the class trickled in, definitely not happy to be in Affective Ed. instead of a free period—a general feeling towards these classes spanning the entire student body.
Everyone sat around the Harkness table, goofing off, on their phones, or disengaged. Mr. Furst explained the day’s lesson, and suddenly the students seemed more alert because of the topic: empathy. Mr. Furst required that everyone go around and share a moment when they felt threatened. Usually, as Mr. Furst pointed out, he didn’t require full participation every class, just that students were engaged. However, today was different. He wanted everyone to share a moment when their safety was compromised, and when they sought empathy. The vibe of the classroom was uncomfortable. These juniors are not all best friends willing to share their most personal life stories. Some of these students have probably never had conversations outside of class, not because they don’t like each other, but because they just don’t see each other or have different friend groups.
The class had a varying perspective on what being threatened was. I was not surprised that the majority of boys in the class viewed being threatened as physical and the girls in the class found their emotional safety was more often threatened. Yet, there were two female students who refused to speak about a time they felt threatened because they said they didn’t not feel safe enough in the classroom. Although everyone was being respectful, and no one was saying anything rude, these girls refused to share. The majority of students felt safe enough to share their experiences, but not all, and that is important. So even in an environment when everyone is respectful, not everyone feels safe.
I’m rapidly noticing that it’s human nature to be around like-minded people. We make connections based on similar opinions and it can be difficult to be around people who don’t share your fundamental beliefs or life experiences. Yet, diversity of identity in all respects (race, religion, sexuality, beliefs, etc.) has been proven to aid development of adolescents and broaden perspectives. But we often negate all of this research when in the face of threats or even discomfort, making it difficult to accept diversity of opinion.
“The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe,” a Washington Post article on inclusive campus communities said. A fear of misunderstanding or judgment by peers who do not share your experience can limit what you feel comfortable sharing with the community, which is why safe spaces makes so much sense. Yet hiding away in a safe space is detrimental to education. Maybe these girls didn’t trust the respect their classmates offered. Or maybe respect isn’t enough, unlike what Hannah and Sarah think—maybe we need empathy as well. Perhaps students can’t embrace learning uncomfortable topics until they are themselves comfortable, and these girls weren’t safe enough to help others learn. Affective Ed. isn’t a safe space, that much was clear.
* * *
In Withington during fourth period on a Friday, I had lunch with Ms. Morin, head of counseling in the Health Center as well as an Affective Education teacher. She is the face of mental health and support on campus, and I felt as though she was the final piece to this unsolvable puzzle. She walked in with a bowl of soup in her hand, and asked if it was okay if she ate during the interview because it was her only chance during the day, which just hinted at her extremely busy schedule. She put her bag down, took off her vest and her hat, leaving her hair a little disheveled, though she didn’t bother fixing it. I pressed record on my phone, and she commented that she hopes I will make her sound smarter than she is, easing my nerves for the interview. She, like Ms. Flewelling, has a very warm presence. Her voice is soft and low, forcing you to lean in to hear her, giving a further sense of intimacy to our conversation.
“Our job as adults in the community, and people in the community, is to care for those who are most vulnerable among us.” That was the first thing she said when I asked for her definition of a safe space. We need to care for everyone, and that might mean having extra support or trigger warnings for those who have suffered from mental illness or sexual assault. This hints at the fact that even though it is called a safe space, it is really more of a safe feeling that we are after. So, there is really no clear visual for a safe space. Adding to the impending controversy is that there is no way to quantify emotions; therefore, there is no way to quantify individual’s need for safe spaces. Everyone’s definition of safety differs, and so does the definition of a safe space.
There is a lot of negative talk about safe spaces, because there is consensus among previous generations of the “pussification” of youth today. Emotional safety is mainly a generational issue. These issues weren’t prevalent when our parents were in high school. I’ve heard of the term pussification before, originating from comedian George Carlin, who believes society is becoming less and less tough. As we aim to be more politically correct, apparently, we are coddled into safety, to the point where we fear failure. And, the sheltering of youth has given us the privilege of being safe.
“That word is horrible on so many levels, it’s ignorant and whatever,” Ms. Morin laughed uncomfortably. “They say we’re softening, but aren’t we better people if we’re understanding how to best care for all of our friends.”
I asked Ms. Morin to speak about trigger warnings before speakers.
“There is a message that is sent out to the community for speakers mentioning sexual assault or suicide or other severely triggering topics, so that if you need to take some space you can take it in the health center,” Ms. Morin says she is adamant that trigger warnings, used in moderation for only the topics that really require warnings signs, take all of two minutes to inform the community, and don’t impede on the speakers or the content. “Statistically speaking, people in the community have faced sexual assault. And some can, but many can’t sit through an assembly dealing with that topic.”
Speaking of statistics, one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 46.3% of adolescents suffer from some type of mental disorder, and for 21.4% it is a severe, lifetime prevalent disorder, with suicide being the number three leading cause of death in adolescents. People dealing with these life affecting setbacks should have a place to go if there is a triggering topic, because the last thing anyone wants is to hinder a healing process.
However, it is a privilege to seek out safe spaces. It is a privilege to leave, to not to be offended. Safe spaces may be the consequence of a privileged generation, which Ms. Morin seems to negate. Human safety seems like an essential part of a community, but it could be impeding on our ability to cope in the real world. Many say the millennials are overprotected by parents, and never given opportunity to fail. Are we, as a generation, so accustomed to being safe that we can’t differentiate threats from discomfort? Ms. Morin believes we are now more mindful of those most vulnerable. But it feels like we are all vulnerable these days, in some respect. Have we lost resilience?
Ms. Morin believes the plan ahead is to build empathy through perspective training, hoping to limit stigma and limit the need for safe spaces, “so we can all just sit around a table and talk without fear.” It’s easy for those unaffected to say safe spaces are damaging. It’s easy for those affected to close themselves off out of fear. It’s easy to not educate a community. And it’s easy to be ignorant. What’s complicated is knowing when you’re uncomfortable and when you’re unsafe, a distinction that our generation might have lost the ability to discern.
* * *
“Intent versus impact” and “citizenship not censorship” are Ms. Flewelling’s mottos and she laughs a little as she brings these up, saying how it feels cliché as she talked about the administrator’s role with safe spaces in this controversial age. I acknowledge that it must be an impossible job to find the fine line between educational and harmful content. She just smiles and nods humbly.
I can’t answer the questions about safe spaces, because I’m still not sure how I feel about safe spaces. The only thing my research has confirmed is that talking about the issue is the only way to make progress. There is value to having safe spaces and there is value in knowing when you don’t need them. Emotional safety is always subjective. Who gets to say what someone else feels? Maybe instead of a call for safety, we should be calling for empathy and understanding. We don’t necessarily need definitive answers, but I urge that we have the conversations, because, at the end of the day, we are all part of a community where no two individuals are exactly alike in experience or identity.
I think Ms. Flewelling put it best: “It’s fine to have a perspective and struggle with a perspective, but you have to mindful that you are a part of a larger community. It’s really not that hard, it just takes some focus and awareness. People should work a little harder here to not just be an ass.”
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