What Makes a Space "Safe"?

batonnage forum

What I wanted to talk about was the Batonnage Forum I attended this past Saturday. About how there were several panels that left me with more questions than answers, a renewed sense of spirit and community, and a reminder that none of us are having the same experience. I wanted to talk about how refreshing and inspiring it was to be at a conference with over 450 people who were genuinely interested in having difficult conversations about how we can create a more equitable culture within the wine and hospitality industry. I wanted to tell you about the all of the wonderful black women who attended the forum thanks to the scholarships provided by Julia Coney and the staff of Batonnage.

Instead, what I find myself circling back to is this idea of “safe space.” It is a phrase I myself use frequently in describing my intention for an event or gathering. When I label my retreats and workshops as a “safe space,” what I’m trying to communicate is that this is a space where your humanity is honored and cherished. That it is a place where you will be respected and listened to. That it is a place where you can be free to stumble in your words and your art. That this is a place where I am willing to be honest and vulnerable with you if you will be honest and vulnerable with me, and that my goal is to withhold judgement and shame.

And so at the start of the conference this phrase, “safe space,” was used, most likely to mean the same things I mean. Yet, I’m curious to know if it really and truly did feel safe for some of those who were in attendance. When issues of race, sexuality, and equity were brought to the table, how many felt truly safe?

For the black women in the audience who came alone, how safe did the space feel?

For the queer women who traveled alone, unsure of how many other queer women would be there, did they feel safe?

How safe did the woman who made a controversial statement about young women in tight and revealing clothing feel once she made her statement and was met with groaning disapproval?

Did any of the men in attendance feel safe at a conference that is, at its essence, challenging their status of power?

These questions are not really about the forum specifically, but about a deeper inquiry into what it means when we who organize events label a gathering as a “safe space.”

To me, feelings of safety require a certain level of intimacy with the people and the place I am in. Feelings of safety are most likely to occur when we are in true community with whom we are sharing space. In what ways is it possible to check in with folks to gauge their feelings of safety, with genuine care and without crossing boundaries, especially when the length of an event doesn’t allow for deep connection? How do we ensure that everyone does indeed feel safe? Is it even possible to make all participants feel truly safe?