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We need safe spaces to challenge the status quo

By Alice Corner

Every year the UN celebrates International Youth Day, and this year the theme is Safe Spaces.

A ‘safe space’ is not a tangible or physical location, more a descriptor of a culture in which people can share their experiences without judgement, in an environment where they can exist free from violence, harassment, or hate speech. In certain circles, ‘safe space’ has become a buzzword for sensitivity, fragility, and – ultimately – weakness.

In an increasingly online world it’s near impossible to avoid hateful language and hate filled situations; especially if you’re a woman, an ethnic minority, LGBTQIA+, or all of the above. Twitter is overrun with trolls and actual Nazis, whilst Instagram has been proven to be the worst social media platform for mental health[1]. So why has the concept of a safe space become the butt of every joke? Why is wanting to detach from this overwhelming online negativity and put yourself in a positive environment seen as a bad thing? Perhaps it is because when we allow young people to interact with one another in this way, the outcome leads to a challenge of the status quo.

We know when young people come together incredible things happen. Our work over the past several years with the government-backed youth programme National Citizen Service (NCS) shows us this. NCS brings young people from all backgrounds together for a shared experience, and the programme gives them the chance to experience things many of them never imagined they would be able to try. To date, almost 400,000 young people have taken part. By creating a space – removed from regular life – young people are working together. This environment allows for new ideas to flourish and thrive and empowers the participants to take their experiences out into the wider world, graduating the programme with a sense of ownership over their personal achievements.

At Forster, we specialise in making an impact. Making an impact, though, is hard. To make a valuable impact you must first enact behaviour change. And behaviour change is very, very hard. It involves rewriting a person’s inner narrative, which has been formed as a result of years of lived experience. This experience manifests within and forms core fundamental beliefs. Usually, in adults, a behaviour change follows a trigger – such as a change in family life, personal circumstances, or environmental change. We all know how hard it can be to start going to the gym, or to eat healthier – and yet we all know people who have done so quite easily after a health scare.

Young people, however, are less rigid in their ways. They are still learning who they are and what their core looks like. They don’t have decades of experience guiding them down any particular path – and they are open to trying something new. And, lucky for us, they are open to taking action; with 76% of teenagers expressing an interest in participating in a social action movement[2]. For them, the motivator for a change in behaviour can be as simple as accessing a space to talk without judgement, and explore their opinions and ideas free from violence, harassment, and hate speech. Sound familiar?

Safe spaces are not a new concept. They come in many shapes and sizes. Young children practice the exploration of self in spaces created by books and films and telly. Here they are allowed the opportunity, through mirroring the fictional situations they consume, to explore different world views. We don’t dismiss children as being overly sensitive, and we don’t label this exploration as a weakness. It is simply an essential part of child development. Research has shown that the human brain doesn’t stop developing until a person is 25 years old – so, really, what is the difference between the child and the young person exploring their beliefs in protected environments?

Safe spaces are also demonised because they encourage an open exploration of emotions. Men especially are encouraged to bottle up their feelings. The primary purpose of a safe space is to create an environment without judgement – and, as a culture, we are very judgmental about emotions. This judgement is increasingly being recognised and tackled by organisations such as CALM and Time to Change – but we are still a long way from destigmatising feeling, especially in the workplace.

Recently we worked with Young Women’s Trust (YWT) to encourage young, under or unemployed women in disadvantaged areas to sign up to Work It Out – a service which offered career coaching, CV advice, and practical mentoring. Our campaign was a huge triumph with 94 women undertaking the coaching – 44% from the most deprived postcodes in the UK.

The incredible results of the campaign are a result of the accessibility of the service. By offering young women, who may be juggling zero hours contracts or caring commitments, coaching at a time that suited them, over the phone or online, we were able to meet a real need of our audience. Here, YWT were able to bring the safe space into the comfort of the women’s living rooms, commutes, or lunch breaks.  This instantly built trust by showing that they understood the needs of the young women.

The success of the YWT campaign is two-fold, with the immediate satisfaction of the women gaining good employment, but more importantly with the long game disruption of the work force status quo. One day these women will be in positions of power within their organisations, and with them they will bring different experiences, ideas, and outlooks. These women directly benefited from being offered a safe space to explore who they were and what they wanted, and to be confident within that.

Imagine a boardroom full of individuals empathetic to the needs and strengths of others due to learning to be comfortable with themselves and their emotions through exploring them in safe spaces during their formulative years. Sounds wonderful, to be honest.

Safe spaces empower young people. They encourage behaviour change. They scare the status quo. And we need more of them.