The Trouble with Ground Rules and Safe Space

I start each of my sessions with groups across all topics with two asks, bring a beginner’s mind and let’s work together to create brave space. Most of the diversity and social justice trainings or dialogues that I have been a part of have begun with the group setting a list of ground rules and safe space. The rules are usually very similar: be open minded, be respectful, agree to disagree, use I statements, etc. I’ve stopped doing this in my own social justice education workshops based on two very good lessons I’ve learned from great colleagues.

1. Ground rules can reinforce the dominant culture’s way of dealing with conflict. – Craig Alimo

My friend Craig Alimo shared this gift with me. It has stuck with me and made me uncomfortable every time I’ve lead or been a participant in setting ground rules. We create ground rules out of a wonderful intention to make the space comfortable for everyone to participate. However, this may not be possible or even desirable. It may not be possible because the very process of consensus building reinforces the dominant group’s way of dealing with conflict. If you are not part of the dominant group and have different cultural norms the consensus process can formally solidify the dominant cultures way of dealing with conflict. This reifies privilege and oppression systemically at the very beginning of an experience that is designed to deconstruct and work against those very things. It may not be desirable because the space where we feel little but uncomfortable (not unsafe and overwhelmed) is where learning happens.

2. Safe Space vs Brave Space – Kristi Lonardo Clemens and Brian Arao

So often I hear participants (usually White) share that they are reluctant to participate because the space isn’t safe. Usually, the facilitator rushes in, falling all over themselves to apologize, revisit the ground rules, and ask what the group can do to make this a safe space. When someone shares that they do not feel safe we should examine that closely and explore what systems of oppression might be being replicated and how can we be more thoughtful to disrupt those patterns. However, I’ve found some underlying and perhaps unconscious feelings that are at the root often when this sentiment is shared, particularly by those from privileged groups.

  • I’m used to operating in a setting where the dominant culture is the norm and I’m uncomfortable when that is named, even if the dominant culture remains the norm.
  • I don’t want to take responsibility for co-creating a space, taking a risk, or being vulnerable so I’ll place the responsibility on the facilitator or the group for that. That way if it doesn’t go well I can blame others and avoid my responsibility.
  • I’m afraid that if I speak up I will unintentionally reveal my ism (racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, etc.) and I want to feel safe from others holding me accountable.

Kristi Lonardo Clemens and Brian Arao introduced me to the concept of Brave Space. This transformed my aims in creating a learning environment around diversity and social justice. Rather than aspiring to create a space where everyone feels safe, I now aspire to create an environment where individuals are supported in being brave. To be brave means being vulnerable, being authentic, and speaking our truth even when we aren’t sure it is our truth or even when it might reveal our own oppressive socialization AND being open to others bravely sharing their experiences of us and holding us accountable so that we all may learn and grow.

Have you found ways to do ground rules that avoid these traps?

How do you create brave space?

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4 Responses

  1. I see the point here but I think it kind of boils down to definitions. Consensus (as I’ve seen it implemented) does *not* mean “majority rules”. It means that everybody, even those who are not in the majority, have a chance to have their voices heard, and while they may not have a filibuster or veto, they do have an expectation that the majority will hear them and strive to include them in the decision-making process.

    Similarly for “safe space”. In my experience, “safe space” does not mean “every person has a guarantee that they will not be made to feel uncomfortable” — it means that you will have space to be open about your discomfort, fear, guilt, shame, etc. It also carries some important expectations regarding confidentiality. I do like “brave space” as an alternative, though. 😀

    As in most situations, clarity about what we mean by the words we use is critical. Thanks for shining a light on two examples that are often misunderstood.

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