Safety and Bravery

I found the chapter  “From Safe Places to Brave Spaces” by Arao and Clemens (2013) to be insightful and thought provoking. This chapter explores the idea that the relatively recent trend toward creating and promoting environments that are comfortable and open to all viewpoints falls short of the need to create environments that promote an openness to vulnerability, discomfort, and appropriate confrontation. While much of this resonates with me (and I see the authors’ points about the shortcomings of “safe spaces,” I also find elements of the “brave space” model to be potentially problematic as well.

One such problem is that not everyone will desire or be ready to participate in a brave space. The authors do address this issue and note that allowing participants to opt out of emotionally difficult conversations may simply allow certain harmful viewpoints to continue without being addressed as such. On the other hand, not everyone is ready to be brave, and I don’t believe that it is usually effective to attempt to force bravery on someone. Some are ready to step out of their comfort zones. Some may need to but are not yet (or maybe ever) willing to do so.

Others may be tired of being brave. In the example given of the group of resident assistants in the “One Step Forward, One Step Backward activity”, we see the resentment and pain that can come from being (or feeling) forced into a situation (yet another) that requires an unchosen confrontation with issues of privilege and discrimination. In this situation, could forced bravery even be considered as retraumatizing?

Despite some possible difficulties with the “brave space” model such as the one referenced above, I certainly do not believe that avoiding these situations and conversations is the answer.  As I initially read I began to wonder whether some type of informed consent process might be a possible solution (or at least a help) to this. Would letting the participants know that they would be challenged in certain ways and encouraged to do their best to participate despite the likelihood of discomfort allow them to engage more fully without defensiveness, retraumatization, etc.? Sure enough, the authors address this very matter stating, “By revising our framework to emphasize the need for courage rather than the illusion of safety, we better position  ourselves  to  accomplish  our  learning  goals  and  more  accurately reflect the nature of genuine dialogue regarding these challenging and controversial topics” (Arao and Clemens, 2013). They go on to note that using the language of “brave space” can help to adjust expectations and serve as an indication that preparation for difficult conversations should begin.

At this point in time, my view is that there is value in brave spaces and value in safe spaces. Maybe there is a time and a place for each, or maybe they simply each have their benefits and shortcomings no matter what the context. Regardless, the consideration of how to create better environments in which these issues can be addressed is essential and adding the idea of “brave spaces” to our vocabulary is a step in the right direction.


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces. The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators, 135-150.

8 Replies to “Safety and Bravery”

  1. Thanks for the post. I agree that there is a place for “brave spaces” and “safe spaces” alike. My home, for example is a refuge, a safe space where I can shut the world out. I own this space and I can invite or dis-invite anyone or any idea in or out. I rely on this controlled environment where I am free to question in a healthy way. Out in the world, on the other hand, particularly in a university, I expect to be challenged. I expect to hear all points of views, even the ones that I disagree with and I will defend the right of those views (that I disagree with, and possibly even find offensive) to be expressed openly (*as long as they are not intentionally abusive or vulgar). So basically, I believe that the university setting is a place to be uncomfortable. To be exposed to new ways of thinking and learning. To be challenged and pushed, not for the sake of being pushed or shocked as the objective unto itself, rather while we stretch to learn and grow. thanks again for the post.

    • Andrew,
      Thanks for your response. You make a really good point in talking about how your home is a safe space for you but that in the university you have different expectations. I wonder if having some safe spaces in our lives frees us up to better handle the places where we are challenged in our thinking. What are your thoughts on that idea?

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on brave spaces. I appreciated the article, as I experienced numerous flaws in safe space practices in a previous workplace. Trying to explore issues of social justice that may be upsetting or triggering and yet making an effort to analyze what makes conversations about such topics difficult is incredibly complex as there is so many layers that require unpacking.
    Overall, It helped me see that we can also think about re-framing. For example, there’s a similar activity to step forward/ step backward that I’ve encountered which is to apply it to discussions in which students that typically share voice are asked to step back and listen while students that are typically quiet are asked to consider stepping up to the mic. After reading the article, I thought more about reframing this practice into Move Up/ Move Up. The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener. In fact, listening is a frequently feminized skill that is often seen as a lack of something. On the contrary, choosing to learn how to listen moves both you and the group up.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can take steps, while we can all move in body or spirit.

    • Oh wow, I love the “Move up / move up” reframe so much! Hope it’s ok to borrow?

      And I hear Shannon’s ambivalence about safe vs. brave spaces. I agree both are important and will think about the idea of “informed consent” for brave spaces. It might be easier to conceive than operationalize?

  3. Great post, Shannon. I agree that there is value in both safe and brave spaces. I feel as though we can all benefit from both, at different times in different places. However, I do agree that there should be consent by the participants. Yes, it is good to be challenged and have difficult conversations, but not against our free will. In contrast, I think safe places are important but one can also benefit from stepping out of our safe space.

  4. Thanks for sharing this post. Sharing experiences due to a variety of reasons is difficult. It’s important to recognize that acceptance by others plays a crucial role. Often women would not discuss any issue related to gender discrimination because they feel judged by there own colleagues. More awareness and education on social issues can bring a lot more people to share their experience. Recently me too movement happened; it made a lot of women share their shared experiences of sexual harassment they encountered at various points in their lives.

  5. Thanks for the post. I think that you and I are mostly aligned on this topic. Everyone should be allowed to determine when they are ready for a “brace space.” This is one of the considerations of stepping into the college environment which should be uncomfortable at times. If it isn’t uncomfortable, it is likely that your worldview is not broadening or your perspective being enriched. I do also believe that it is very important for people to have a controlled environment (i.e. safe space) where they can make sense of the things that have been learned. So, in summary, I would say that for the most part, college should be a brace space, and home, for the most part, is the safe space. Thanks for the post.

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