MIIS Speaks-Safe Spaces

By Pushpa Iyer and Jason Buchanan

A sincere thanks to those who participated in our poll from our interactive section “Reflection and Response” last issue on safe spaces. We truly enjoy reading all of the responses and hope this leads to stimulating conversations with your peers. 

Please take our new poll on the topic of self-care and let us know your opinion. Click here to read about the topic and here for the poll. 

In this space, we will report on the results of our most recent survey on safe spaces. We received 131 responses from members of the MIIS community. 

The first question was, “Are safe spaces necessary at MIIS?” Nearly half (49.23%) agreed that they were. The remainder were evenly split between “maybe” and “no” ( both 25.38%).

In the next question, respondents were able to select multiple responses. “Who do you think has the most responsibility in creating and maintaining a safe space at MIIS?” Students have the greatest responsibility, according to 39.11% of respondents. Students are followed by faculty/staff at 30.67%, and administration at 30.22%. 

Our final question was “Do you think safe spaces will curtail free speech on our campus?” 45.8% of respondents thought that safe spaces would not prevent free speech. Less than a quarter of survey respondents (22.14%) thought that it would, and 32.06% were unsure. 

The comments respondents provided further illustrate community perceptions and understanding of the concept of safe spaces. Some major themes we identified from the comments on this topic are included below. 

Confusion on the meaning of “safe space”

In our last issue we discussed two differing conceptions of safe spaces and asked readers to keep in mind Katherine Ho’s definition. She makes a distinction between safe spaces as they are commonly understood and how they may be applied in academic settings. According to her, a safe space should encourage individuals to speak and “to take intellectual risks.” The result is that many may feel uncomfortable. This definition of the concept promotes free speech and does not intend to curtail it. Ho also acknowledges the conflation of these definitions in her article. From the comments, we understand that the MIIS community shares our confusion over the different interpretations of a safe space. A few commenters made direct reference to Ho’s article and expressed a sentiment of defeat: “Ho’s definition may be nice in theory but it is not what is implemented in practice, so just let it go.” Others questioned what made a space safe and if it was the establishment of a certain set of rules. Other nuanced understandings offered the idea that safe spaces must be created and built and everyone has a role to play. A couple of comments questioned what the space would be used for and that would help in deciding the meaning of the safe space. Several respondents expressed a preference for the term “brave space.” As one comment put it: a brave space is where an individual is “encouraged and empowered to speak up.”

Students have the most responsibility in creating and maintaining safe spaces

Most in the community felt that students had the greatest responsibility for creating and maintaining safe spaces (39.11% of the respondents). We like to believe that is reflective of the fact that many members viewed it as taking ownership of these spaces we were heartened to see much support for grounds up efforts. What also came across strongly was the fact that many respondents felt that a safe space cannot be created by people at the top and imposed on those below. All this said, when it comes to creating a safe space for marginalized and vulnerable communities, it seems like sometimes those at the top have a moral obligation to create safe spaces. One cannot expect the burden of creating and maintaining the safe spaces to fall on marginalized communities alone. Therefore, in some sense, it seems like everyone has a responsibility in creating and maintaining safe spaces.

Safe spaces are experienced differently by different people

Different comments presented differing views of whether MIIS was already a safe space. “I have always had a positive experience. I have never felt afraid to share my feelings or my thoughts,” one respondent wrote. A first semester student wrote that they felt “uncomfortable” and that MIIS was not a safe space because of aspects of their identity that were not respected. The common argument that safe spaces, as applied in academic institutions, coddle students was apparent throughout the submitted comments. This idea, that safe spaces shield students from important life lessons, is discussed in more detail here. “The world is a tough place–get used to it,” submitted by one commenter was a common refrain. Another stated: “This is not a daycare.” Others wrote that they took on the responsibility of establishing and maintaining safe spaces for themselves. This is achieved through a strong network of supporters and friends who are able to foster a sense of security, which better positions this respondent to exist in spaces where their ideas and comfort may be challenged.  

How will privilege play out in “safe spaces?”

Many respondents were concerned about how privilege would play out in the safe spaces. There were comments suggesting that it was usually people with power and privilege who would have the greatest criticisms of safe spaces. People who did not feel threatened would not need safe spaces said many. That made us wonder about all those responses which said that spaces only coddled people and that in a graduate school, everyone needed to toughen up. However, it was clear that nearly half of our respondents felt that safe spaces were necessary at MIIS. To us, it signified that many were keen to engage in those difficult conversations and felt the need to share thoughts without fear of judgment or criticism. 

Freedom of speech should not be restricted

The large majority of comments seemed to agree that freedom of speech should not be restricted, regardless of political opinion. However, some respondents did express skepticism that conservatives would be able to speak freely in safe spaces as opposed to liberals since MIIS was more of a liberal institution. People generally appear to agree that a safe space is only made possible through collective effort, and that this collective effort must have adequate buy-in from all concerned: students, faculty/staff, and the administration. Even though many expressed their desire for a campus in which the freedom of speech was wholly protected, others felt that a clear line should be drawn when speech becomes objectionable. That is, just because it was a free space, it did not mean people could engage in hate speeches.

To conclude, safe spaces are needed at MIIS to the degree that that they promote a healthy discussion which should include possibilities for people to disagree on an issue without attacking each other. We thank you all for your contribution and invite to participate in the next poll on self-care.