I belong to and help moderate a safe space group on Facebook called Link Your Life (LYL). The mission of this group is to provide “a safe, non-competitive space that is fueled by mutual support and compassion.” We are writers (who share our links, hence the group name), survivors, humans, who want to be lifted and lift each other up in a world that would silence, shame, and push us back down.
Our brilliant and compassionate admin, Shawna Ayoub Ainslie, recently asked us, the LYL moderators, to reflect on what exactly a safe space is to each of us. We realized that while we all share the core concepts, we each have different lived experiences and so approach the notion of safety through varied lenses. And that’s a good thing.
I have blogged about safe spaces before, here and here. I’ve considered what safety actually is, because of course, as I just said, it means different things to different people. And of course, there are real brick-and-mortar safe spaces, and there are online safe spaces, and literary safe spaces, and the safe space underneath my favorite, impossibly soft, charcoal-with-yellow-leaves throw blanket, the safe space of my increasingly solid tree pose, and even underneath my tattoos and leather and poetic “speaker” voice.
Today, I’m going to address only online safe spaces, specifically Link Your Life, and I’m going to start via negativa, to clear up misconceptions.
What an online safe space isn’t:
- An echo chamber of sycophants telling each other everything is fine, or everything is terrible, or everyone is fine, or everyone is terrible.
- A place to practice avoidance of every bit of information, news, or culture that might upset or disturb you.
- A place where nothing said or shared will ever ever ever bother you, trigger you, or cause you harm.
Moderating an online safe space is an exercise in accepting the limitations of one’s personal power. I can’t guarantee that everyone will feel safe all the time. What I can do is listen when someone says they don’t feel safe, and take steps to resolve the problem.
Moderating an online safe space is not moderating a happy place. We ARE happy, most days, but being happy is not a prerequisite for participation in a safe space (nor is being unhappy). There are no rose-colored glasses. There is no “shhh, you can’t talk about that here, you might upset someone!” There is no shaming, whether you’re happy or sad or pissed or anxious or numb.
Moderating an online safe space is not therapy. It is not a replacement for professional mental or behavioral health services. Nor is it in any way promotive of hiding from problems or avoiding negative stimuli.
Are we all clear now? Good.
What an online safe space is (to me):
- A closed or even secret place where you can say anything you want without fear of being blasted, shamed, verbally abused, bullied, or shunned. A sanctuary where we can process problems and negative stimuli as we feel able. BUT…
- …also a place where members recognize that there are consequences to what we say, so we employ both empathy and trigger warnings. An online safe space, if it is going to be truly safe, asks its members to consider how others will respond to what’s being said and shared. It’s a place to practice empathy in the very basic definition of the word “practice,” because we can take those practices outside of the group as well. With that in mind…
- …an online safe space is as safe as its members make it.
- A space free from bullying and harassment, but not conflict. There are no conflict-free zones on the internet, or in life. An online safe space is safe not because of a lack of conflict or disagreement, but because of how we deal with conflict and disagreement—with understanding, respect, empathy, clear communication, and enforcement of our rules.
- A space where we celebrate diversity and difference, and in that celebration, we learn about struggles others face and come to perceive our sameness and oneness with one another.
- A space that is trauma-informed. We understand the myriad physical and psychological ways that trauma manifests in our everyday lives.
- A space administrated and moderated by people who must constantly consider and reconsider their practices and concepts of safety and be willing to adapt and evolve them as needed. Hence, this post. The LYL moderators recently discussed whether politics could ever be a safe conversation for everyone. I had to step way back and think about that, and I’m still thinking about it. What constant consideration and reconsideration require is…
- …a space where active listening is a regular practice. What makes people feel more safe than being listened to and knowing they have been heard and understood? I can’t think of anything.
- A place full of people who want to be there. An online safe space opens itself up to unsafe feelings and situations if there are members who are not participating. As a moderator, I can’t tell a lurker or creeper from someone who is just shy. We want our members to participate, and actively seek ways to engage people who do not, whether they are busy or forgot they were a member or have anxiety about sharing or any number of other reasons for their non-participation. I recently floated the idea of a “shy people non-thread,” a post that signals to the non-posters that moderators will be available via PM between such and such times to hear their comments on anything group-related. This would be an attempt to expand our definition of “participation” to include private communication with a moderator the member feels comfortable conversing with, rather than only public posts and comments.
- A space where we assume that at least one reason for any share is because the sharer could use some support. Imagine if everyone on every social media platform assumed that in response to every share.
- A space where we seek to make true and honest connections with others, instead of only clicking “like.”
- A space where we share our art and our thoughts, but not where we sell, buy, or solicit.
- A space where we consider atmosphere and strive for a mix of serious and light so that we don’t become too much of any one particular mood. I host a weekly selfie thread in Link Your Life, typically near the end of the week, so that we can lighten things up and “see” each other’s faces as we are going about our various days in our various corners of the world. I also co-host a weekly safe-space-within-a-safe-space thread, where we don’t have to use trigger warnings for our shares. A dynamic mix of posts is important.
- A space where we uphold our rules, no exceptions. Safety first.
Link Your Life is always evolving. These are just some of the practices that I think comprise a healthy safe space. My fellow mods have plenty to say on the topic as well:
Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment, By Shawna Ayoub Ainslie
Why this one life hack will change your life forever, by Raymond Baxter
The importance of safe spaces and how to understand them better – Link Your Life, by Charlotte Farhan
Harmony, by Rachel A. Hanson
How bringing others in improves healing and progress, by Thomas Ives
Safe Space for Our Voices, by Charli Mills
What Is a Safe Space? by Drew Sheldon
What does an online safe space mean to you?