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Rethinking safe spaces through intentional community building

Hands clasped together

This submission to the Together We Are blog is written by Mofi Badmos, Diversity and Inclusivity Coordinator at the Smith School of Business, talks about the importance of community and how creating spaces for BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) individuals is key to fostering belonging.

We finish our third book club meeting discussing Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, with so much awe and gratitude that I say to my friend and book club member “wow, I can’t believe we continue to make this happen”. I am stunned at how five Black women, in four different countries, across different time zones come together, in community, to discuss books and themes all connected through our different but shared experiences as Black women navigating society.

Our lazily named Best Book Club was intentional on the membership being Black and non-Black racialized women from African countries reading books by other Black and non-Black racialized African authors. There is something to be said about community, and being with others who have shared experiences is comforting, healing, and rejuvenating.

Community is central to my life and wellbeing. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria surrounded by family, friends and members of my community. I always had people and this cemented the feelings and benefits of having a network around. Moving to Kingston in 2016 for work exposed me to the many challenges of making friends and creating community in adulthood, especially in a space lacking in representation of Black people and the ability gather, effortlessly. There are significant comforts and unsaid ways of being that come with being in spaces with other Black and brown folks that I have to let go of in my day-to-day life. In many instances, I have not felt like myself and I continue to yearn for, crave, and create those communities where I can just be.

This drew me to ponder the many ways in which members of marginalized groups create and maintain community, in-person and online. It is important to have a discussion around the need of spaces and communities that are centered around marginalized groups and especially dispel the notion that the creation of these spaces is sexist, racist, and exclusionary for members of the dominant culture(s).

Rethinking safe spaces 

Safe Space, a term that is used often at the start of events, workshops, and sessions is a call to action to ensure that everyone in that space feels safe, is not exposed to harm, and, hopefully, is protected if safety is not met. The concept of safe spaces is contested because, among other reasons, how can organizers really ensure safety. The uncertainty around guaranteeing a safe space can be attributed to the systems of oppression that exist within those spaces. A way to work towards what can be a safe space for members of marginalized groups is controlling for the representation of the systems of oppression in that space, among other things.

Wine and Whine was a feminist, women-only party organized in Lagos, Nigeria in 2019 to create a space where women could have fun and party without the fears of harassment and violence. Some conversations around this questioned if “exclusionary” spaces are necessary when the focus should be on creating space where all can exist. Yes, that would be the goal but that is not the reality for women and other folks, as we exist in society.

To have this conversation is to understand that anti-Black racism, racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of oppression are deeply systemic and are not just results of interpersonal issues. Consider the fact that spaces reflecting the dominant culture (whiteness, heteronormativity, patriarchy, able-bodied) have existed, continue to exist, and are tainted with superiority, privilege, erasure and inaccessibility.  Any space created in contrast to this is not reflecting the current power structures but rather subverting them. To have this conversation is also to understand that the aim of intentional community building is to create safe spaces for Black and brown folks to share experiences and discuss forms of systemic oppression without the lurking presence of those systems.

Creating your space

I think about this frequently and especially in my work as the Diversity and Inclusivity coordinator at the Smith School of Business. I continue to think about how I can create space for equity-seeking students without further othering1 them. I see and can relate with the challenges that come from being in a white dominated space, wanting to connect with other Black and brown folks but not wanting that to be your only identity. The strength and validation that comes from intentionally creating your space is worth more than the illusion that fitting in can offer. Black and racialized people continue to be told that we have to limit ourselves in order to succeed, but a key part that is missing is that community is our fuel and as Black and brown folks, our coming together continues to be the fear of the dominant society. So tap into that as much as you can and like.

Intentional community building inspired the co-founding of Black Luck Collective, a community meet-up group aimed at bringing together new and seasoned Black Kingstonians to uncover our dependable and visible community through social, educational, and professional occasions. I felt the need to create this group, as I felt disconnected from my community living in Kingston and working in white dominated spaces. The limitation in self-expression, code switching, racism and micoaggressions, highlighted the importance of creating a space that does not include those things and where we can share shared experiences with understanding.

I implore readers not to lean to the initial reaction of wondering what-of-members-of-the-dominant-culture that this is excluding but think what is this doing for members of this community and how are they benefitting from this. Community gathering has always existed, but in spaces where people find themselves excluded or marginalized there is much relevance in creating space. As a member of a dominant culture that wants to attend a gathering as a way of support, I implore you to think about this and think about how much space you occupy in the way of infringing on true self-expression and comfort that these spaces bring. Reflect on your privilege and positionality as it can inform better ways you can show support and ally-ship.

I hope members of the Queen’s community; especially the students I work with will see the relevance of intentionally creating space and community for Black, Brown and other People Of Colour to be able to exist truthfully and hopefully in safety. In the great words of Audre Lorde “Without community, there is no liberation”

1. Othering: a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.  (powell, j. a., & Menendian, S. (2018, Aug. 29). The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging. Retrieved Jan. 16, 2020, from http://www.otheringandbelonging.org/the-problem-of-othering/)