By Dragan Atanasov
When speaking of safety, what we usually mean is being physically safe, or free from physical harm or danger. The need for physical safety is deeply rooted in the evolutionary development of the human species, and our brains are pretty good at recognizing signs of danger. In fact, it is our automatic response to threats that has kept us going over millions of years. Safety is still an essential human need, expanding into more dimensions over time – safety of family, employment, financial resources, property etc. Our approach to safety and our reactions to potential dangers have changed, particularly in the social context, and it is thanks to that we don’t perceive every stranger as a potential danger. With time, we have developed the ability to recognize the cues that provide us with a feeling of safety, which allows us not to be in a constant state of alert.
Being safe is generally defined as “not in danger or likely to be harmed”(1). It is this understanding of safety that we usually have in mind when we ask our loved ones if they are safe, or when we mark ourselves as safe on Facebook. But instead of consciously assessing our level of safety, what we normally rely on is our feeling of safety in a particular moment. This is an emotion that we don’t often think about consciously, yet it is very important for our well-being. It is also something we don’t discuss often with others, regardless of whether we feel safe or unsafe.
Feeling safe means that we do not anticipate harm or hurt, either physically or emotionally. It is in this kind of state that we can learn, grow, be creative, connect with others, and truly flourish. When we fear for our safety, our responsive system activates and survival takes precedence over anything else. This may seem very basic and logical, but it is often overlooked. It affects the youth field as well. When we work with young people, we often forget that we need to start by creating safe space so that they can engage and benefit from the activities. Often the reason for this is that we don’t consciously think about safety in the first place. And even when we do, we usually see it from our perspective, failing to recognize that different people need different conditions to feel safe. It is not uncommon that some of those conditions are determined by an individual’s background and past experiences, making safety a particularly essential aspect when working with young people with fewer opportunities.
In 2018, the United Nations chose “Safe Spaces for Youth” as the theme for the International Youth Day. According to the UN, “Youth need safe spaces where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves”(2). So, providing safe spaces for young people goes beyond ensuring that there is no threat for physical danger. It goes without saying that physical safety is important, especially when using methodologies that entails considerable risks for achieving personal growth in young people, such as hiking, camping, or doing sports. Another aspect of physical safety is ensuring that there are mitigation strategies in place for realistic risks – theft, fire, earthquake. But as we already noted, our brains are quite good at noticing and reacting to physical threats. In addition, many youth spaces (frankly, in some countries more than in others) have solid safety rules and procedures. The task becomes more challenging when we expand our understanding of safe spaces to include emotional safety, and when we start considering the conditions that need to be put in place to ensure not only that young people are safe, but that they also feel safe.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines safe space as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations”(3). In the youth work setting, among other things, this also means that young people have a place where they can freely express themselves, interact with others and build social relations without the fear of being attacked, judged or discriminated against. Unfortunately, there are not many such spaces where young people can go. On the contrary, schools, sport clubs, bars and other places where youth spend their time often nurture competitive and aggressive environments. According to the 2017 Global Youth Wellbeing index, 49 percent of young people surveyed said that their lives are too stressful(4). The rate of youth suicide has fallen compared to 25 years ago, but only by 10%, remaining a huge challenge for our societies(5). The growing pressure coming from work, school, peers, home and other social contexts makes the need for securing safe youth spaces ever more important.
In 2018, the International Youth Foundation asked young people what safe space meant for them(6). Some of the responses include:
- “Safe space” refers to an environment whereby the youth can contribute or participate in economic, social, and political issues without any discrimination, harassment, or bias. – Obedi, 20 years old.
- To be in a safe space is also not to be afraid of someone else’s condemnation. A person feels more calm and confident. – Illana, 17 years old.
- A safe space is a meeting place where you can have a dialogue between people who hold different views. – Leonardo, 25 years old.
- Safe spaces are places where I can be comfortable in my own skin, where I won’t be attacked for the things I say or do.” – Camiera, 18 years old.
According to the Framework for Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Youth Sector published as part of this project, creating safe and supportive environments is essential for promoting a learning environment for youth. The Framework makes a reference to the Pyramid of Youth Program Quality developed by the Weikart Centre for Youth Program Quality, which puts a safe environment at the bottom of the pyramid, and supporting environment as the second level. While the first layer relates to physical and emotional safety, the second one has to do with creating a warm environment, promoting engagement and reframing conflict, among the other aspects. Both are important not only for promoting learning, but also for supporting the overall well-being of young people.
So, what can we do to ensure that youth centers, youth clubs and other youth spaces provide the proper conditions for young people to feel safe enough not only to spend their time there, but also to participate in the activities you have planned, and engage in healthy interactions with youth workers and other young people? If safety is a feeling as much as it is a state of being, and if different things help different individuals feel safe, then how do we make sure that we respond to everyone’s needs? And how can we use the youth spaces to actively promote positive mental health and well-being in young people?
The reality is that a lot will depend on your local context – the type of youth space, the profile of the young people you are working with, any specific challenges that you are facing etc. Hence, it makes sense to start by analyzing the current state and exploring the needs of young people related to safety. You can do that by conducting interviews and focus groups, or even by having informal talks with them. Whatever the format, it is essential to conduct those talks in a safe environment, so that young people will feel comfortable to share their needs and fears. You can then plan concrete measures and actions based on the feedback you receive. Examples of things you can do include:
- Establish basic rules. It is very useful to have a set of basic rules written and presented in a visible place in the youth space. It is even better if those rules were co-created with the young people. Having common rules is important because it sets the expectations of young people about their behavior in the place, of what they can and cannot do. It also provides youth workers with a basis from which to act whenever they notice actions that shouldn’t be tolerated.
- Implement the rules. Even though it is logical, it should still be stressed that rules are there to be respected. It is not enough that a set of rules is on the wall, since the rules lose meaning if they are not implemented in practice. This means that youth workers will need to react accordingly whenever they notice that a rule has not been respected. Only in that way will young people feel protected from harmful actions and words. In an ideal environment, young people themselves can also intervene if they notice rules are broken – but that requires an even higher degree of feeling of safety.
- Be a role model. A lot has been written about youth workers being role models, as one of the essential roles of their profession. This extends as well to respecting the rules of the place and showing the desired prosocial behavior that supports the feeling of safety in others. It will be easier for young people to follow the rules if they have an example to follow.
- Give timely feedback. It is another essential element of youth work – young people need feedback and youth workers should care to provide it timely and in a respectful, supportive manner. If you want to build a safe space, you will need to communicate with young people about the issues that jeopardize safety, even if sometimes it is not comfortable.
- Reframing and resolving conflicts. Conflict has a great potential to threaten the feeling of safety, and thus it is very important that you react as soon as you see a conflict arising. Whenever possible, conflicts should be reframed, meaning that you should help young people to remove the lens through which they are stuck viewing the conflict and help them move into a more positive or productive way of viewing it. Whenever needed, you will have to take on the role of a mediator, moving the conflict towards resolution while reinforcing the feeling of safety.
- Do regular check-ins. Regardless of the types of measures you undertake, you will never be completely sure if all young people feel safe in the space. Hence, regular checks can be useful. If you have a healthy and trustful relation with a young person, they should be able to express their concerns and fears, as well as propose actions that will reinforce the feeling of safety.
- Look through their lens. This one was already mentioned but it is worth repeating – don’t forget that you are creating safe space for your target group, and not just for yourself. Think about the background of the young people you are working with and consider any particular experiences they might have, as individuals or as a group, that might affect their feeling of safety. Think of potential triggers that you may want to avoid, and any particular elements that may positively influence young people.
At the end of the day, it is always useful to remind ourselves of the definition of safety. Cambridge dictionary defines “safe” as “not dangerous or likely to cause harm”(7). What we need to do is remember that this definition includes a lot more than just physical safety. Harm can take different forms – psychological, emotional and so on. If we believe in the holistic approach of positive mental health, then we should also understand safety as a holistic concept. And if we accept that safety is also a feeling, then we should be proactive about creating conditions that will reinforce it.
(1) Cambridge dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/safe
(2) United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: https://www.un.org/development/desa/youth/international-youth-day-2018.html
(3) Merriam-Webster dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/safe%20space
(6) International Youth Foundation: https://www.iyfnet.org/blog/young-people-tell-us-what-safe-spaces-mean-them
(7) Cambridge dictionary: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/safe