In October of 2017, I was invited to give the presentation “Cultivating courage in our professions and our communities” at the Arizona Archives Alliance Summit.
This presentation was and is meant to challenge the ideas that libraries and archives are “safe” and “neutral” spaces. Instead, I believe libraries and archives perpetuate social injustice by clinging to these norms and I hope we can all do better to cultivate courage in ourselves, our organizations, and our professions through promoting, having and normalizing social justice dialogue in all that we do.
I want to first acknowledge that I could not and have not done this work alone. These four people have been engaged with this work alongside me every step of the way and they have my sincerest gratitude.
The unique differences of safe and brave spaces, as well as their respective values in our institutions, cannot be ignored. It’s important to question safe space practices, without actually questioning the SAFETY of individuals or groups who may be targets of hate and microaggressions. A few years ago I came across the concept of brave spaces, thanks to a former colleague at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s center for multicultural and diversity studies, named Ashley Ray.
In the foundational article “From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice” Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write that through exploring critical questions around safe spaces they came to realize that the approach to initiating social justice dialogues should not be to convince participants that risk can be removed from the equation, this is simply impossible. Instead, they proposed revising the language, shifting away from the concept of safety and emphasizing the importance of bravery, to help students better understand — and rise to — the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues. Unexamined, safe space norms can cause more issues and do more harm than good but they still have a place in our society, given the fact that we all require some breaks from the work that comes with social justice education (both as learners and teachers). Safe spaces provide a place where you feel understood by others, can be a place of renewal or retreat. Brave spaces ask us to engage in uncomfortable conversations in order to learn to do better. Accountability is essential to brave spaces, including: accepting responsibility for one’s actions and the repercussions, willingness to name and challenge oppressive ideas, and recognizing how one’s identity (and privilege) impacts group dynamics.
My own teaching and library philosophy is deeply rooted in feminist pedagogy and the work of bell hooks, who has also discussed safe spaces and courage in the classroom in Teaching to Transgress, as well as in this conversation with Laverne Cox.
So, as bell hooks states, cultivating risk and love is how learning can take place. She is an exemplar of someone who practices critical generosity.
The library is sometimes viewed as and referred to as the heart of campus and this resonates with me. This is partly because it reminds us that the library is a central, core function to academia. We send out the blood and the information that turns into knowledge that helps our community thrive and succeed. The heart is the strongest muscle in the body. Not only this, but the heart is where we derive our compassion and courage from, which is what drives advocacy and social justice work in libraries and beyond.
Colleges and universities must be a protective space for the promotion of democratic ideals, civic values and critically engaged citizenship.
To this end, I worked with the four faculty I mentioned earlier to host an event in the library on safe and brave spaces last year, with a focus on developing norms for difficult dialogue, as a group. The faculty and I then developed our own, contextual definition of what a brave space could look like (below) based on the experience of working with the 50+ students, faculty, and staff who attended the event. Overall, the event was positive and students and faculty expressed that they would like to see more of this kind of activity in the library.
It’s important to establish guidelines, ground rules, and group norms in whatever context you’re having a conversation around social justice issues. This can be done by a group, by facilitators of a conversation, or by a combination of the two. Allowing time and space to collectively establish and shape group norms is more in line with feminist and critical pedagogy, and social justice education.
At our event we took common Safe space guidelines and worked in groups to reframe them, discussed them, and brought our ideas to the larger group. Thinking about both the intent of the safe space guideline and the typical outcome helped with the reframe.
One example of a safe space guideline: Agree to Disagree
Intent: Respect everyone’s opinion
Outcome: People check out when challenged
Brave Space Guideline: Controversy with Civility – go ahead and engage, and don’t dehumanize others while doing so
These guidelines are critical. Barbara Fister recently stated in her Inside Higher Ed piece called “A necessary footnote: when we say everyone is welcomed here there’s a self-excluding exception” that, “You can’t invite people into your library so they can announce, ‘guess what, you’re not welcome here, and we want you gone.’ You can’t give these folks that platform in hopes that we’ll all understand their perspectives better so we can reason with them and maybe change their minds. That’s not what they want. They want a library where some people are not welcome.”
This goes for our conversations, too. This is not a place for white supremacy or bigotry of any kind.
This may feel intimidating, depending on your context and culture. As noted earlier, calling out oppression can be an uncomfortable process and has often been an unsafe thing for marginalized people to do. When this process is not modeled for us, or even discouraged, by our supervisors and administrators it makes it harder to have these conversations.
I’ve received a number of negative responses when raising issues in my workplace as well as in one professional organization, when challenging white supremacy in particular. Part of this work involves being the model that we don’t see around us and taking necessary risk, though it may feel isolating and scary to do so.
Finally, what if we get it wrong? What if we say something that hurts someone?
Bell hooks writes “If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference.”
It’s okay to say the wrong thing, own your impact, and move on. I’ve been nervous to say and do the wrong thing (particularly as a white librarian), but this willingness to engage is the only way out of that.
If you are waiting for someone to give you permission to start conversations, or even just participate please go ahead and give yourself that permission, because nobody else will.
Libraries and archives have core professional values, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, our institutions have separate values, and our personal values may or may not align with either, depending on how professional and institutional values play out as part of our environmental culture. I see no disconnect with the written values of my profession or institution but I have observed that they often do not play out as I believe they should. We can help shape our culture by talking and reflecting more deeply as well as doing what is within our professional purview to effect positive change.
I say all of this at a time when normalizing and ignoring what is going on socially and politically is dangerous. It is especially dangerous for the communities we reside in and work with. We have to acknowledge and grapple with social issues with our colleagues, with our students, and with our administrators. The brave space event was great, but it was not a one-off event. I incorporate brave space ideals into much of the programming and instruction that I do beyond that, including the Art+Feminism wikipedia edit-a-thons and the Women/Trans/Femme maker nights that I facilitate monthly. In my classes, I don’t avoid talking about political issues and their impact, such as Trump’s decision on DACA and the mental health implications for immigrants as a means for teaching information literacy. We need more spaces where vulnerable students are not only respected, but centered in the conversation.
I plan to continue these conversations with compassion for those who are most vulnerable and an understanding that they are hurt and angry, as many of us are and should be.