Three Tips for Creating or Improving Your Campus Org's Safe Space

If you are involved in an organization on your campus, especially one that is an activist group for marginalized people, you may be familiar with what a safe space is. You may have even taken part in safe space training before. A safe space is defined by the Safe Space Network as a place where people can be present "without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability." It is often that you will find faculty and staff, RAs, and even some students that have attended Safe Space training and received some type of identifier - a sticker or badge of sorts- to let others know that their space is a safe space and all people are welcome. 

When it comes to campus organizations and their resource centers, however, the concept of a safe space goes far beyond having a space solely where harmful language and actions aren't used. When recruiting students to be a part of an organization, the environment should do more than just explicitly state that it’s a “safe space” by also having a positive and welcoming aesthetic. After attending a workshop at this year’s Midwestern Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual/Ally College Conference at Purdue University titled “Neon Signs & Billboards” presented by David Yip, as well as reflecting on what I have learned from my campus' safe-space for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, here are a few tips learned to enhance your organization’s safe space or resource center.

Be Mindful of Detour Objects / Hazards

Detour objects and hazards are items that do not belong in a safe space and act as an uncomfortable force against people, especially those who are new or looking into an organization’s space for the first time such as on a campus tour. These objects can include posters that are exceedingly aggressive in their message, vulgar, non-educational or unrelated to an organization’s purpose, an off or boring color scheme, and the streaming of media that may not contain safe language or material that could act as a trigger for some members. Other hazards include the actions and language of members who are working or hanging out in their space, as some behavior may also act as a trigger to other members or as a turn-off to those passing by the space. In most campus organizations with a safe space or resource center, there are often hired members to facilitate their safe space and make sure there are no offensive objects and that those using the space are contributing to the safe environment.

Organizing activism events that are peaceful in protest against government bills, campus events or activity that is unsafe to groups of people, and hate crimes is also important because they do not increase the potential for more harmful action and language against an already affected group. When an organization remains peaceful, educational, and welcoming to those people who are affected by hate crime or oppressive events, it allows students to see a response that is not intimidating or triggering to the general public that in turn encourages others to join the activism. 

Create Attractors and Adapt to Trends

In order to attract new members and increase the amount of member participation in an organization, especially during campus tours and orientation weeks, it is important to pay attention to trends and create an attractive energy from your space. Most organizations often have graphic design or photography positions for students to have the opportunity to design posters and digital media for advertisement, as well as event coordinators who work to facilitate and organize campus events that students and even the general public can attend to see an organization’s culture or activism. Advertisement media that is professionally put together, informative, and uses safe language establishes an organization’s credibility to students while hosting public events provide an opportunity for members to talk openly with those students about their org and provide a welcoming atmosphere of the space and organization. One of the most important values a safe-space organization can have is a level of communication from members to students that is friendly and welcoming as that personal interaction is what brings first time students to an organization back to hang out and participate more. Consistent outreach and social interaction about the organization when recruiting new members that is not overwhelming and is genuine is the key attractor for an organization.

The space itself should also be kept up to date with relevant event posters, resources, and other media so that there is something new for members to check out when visiting. Keeping a space interesting by providing activities that are discussion provoking and contributing to the organization is another main attractor to members as the space is always changing. Maintaining a fashionable color scheme that may or may not change periodically, as well as a clean space, also can attract students as well as providing comfortable seating and workspaces for students to hang out around. Organization staff members are often required to encourage members to throw away their garbage before leaving and also making sure the space is clean when it is time to close down at the end of the day.

Safe space staff members should also be trained in listening to members or students who may come to speak in confidentiality about personal stories or dilemmas they may have and directing them to the necessary resources or options to get the help they need with these issues. It is often the safe space acts as not only a place where people feel comfortable to hang out in, but also as a place where those who don’t know where to go with personal problems can get the help they need while being ensured their situation will remain confidential. Teaching members the importance of that confidentiality and what appropriate resources fit a given situation is very crucial to the safe space experience.

Lastly, members who are facilitating the space should be facing the entry way and open area of the space so that they make eye contact with people coming in and can immediately smile and engage in welcoming conversation with them. It is even appropriate for staff to stream popular or trending music and shows that are safe in language and content that may attract members as well. Having soft background noise in a space can often relieve awkward tension as well, letting members relax and engage in conversation.

Keeping Records for Improvement

When facilitating a safe space or hiring new staff members to do so, it is important to keep record of things that have worked in the space and things or actions by members that need to be addressed or improved on to restore safety in the space after an incident or to just overall improve attraction to new members. Taking attendance of how many members come to hang out in the space or at a hosted event can give also provide an idea for future reference on things that were successful and a way organizations can see their participation count and set future goals on membership.

Lastly, taking into account member suggestions and tips on how to facilitate a better safe space that fits the needs of its members is also very crucial to not only the organization but other students. Listening to member suggestions and responding to feedback reveals how much an organization values what members are looking for in terms of education and safety which in turn encourages other students to check the organization out.

The safe space is much more than an area explicitly stating that they are a welcoming and neutral environment to marginalized and minority students; it goes as far as creating a welcoming environment to increase organization participation and keeping students involved and educated on its mission. If you are interested in creating a safe space for an organization or improving a current one, following these tips as reference can positively impact the appeal and credibility of your organization and allow students an opportunity for safe stress relief, personal resources, and overall education.