Safe Spaces: A Convenient Concept, A Difficult Question

There are two questions that I have witnessed that are often challenges for marginalized and oppressed populations to answer due to our consistent mistreatment:

  1. What do you need to feel supported?
  2. What do you need to feel safe at work?

I have sat in on and facilitated numerous focus groups and interviews with populations (women, People of Color, LGBTQIA, Disabled Individuals/Individuals with Disabilities and all the intersections) etc. and this question is usually answered with a long silence. I have a theory regarding why it is often met with hesitancy and sometimes an honest “I don’t know.” Because, we don’t know the answer to a question that we have never experienced for ourselves, at least not consistently enough to have expectations of a safe workplace utopia.

For example, if you ask a software developer to write out an answer in code during an interview, most of the time this person has experience, degrees, and some exposure to code. They have the experience to answer this question. If you are a person who has consistently experienced micro and macroaggressions, targeted at every piece of your identity in the supermarket, social media, television, in restaurants etc. the normality of your experiences are laced in varying degrees of traumatic and harmful encounters. We are working hard enough to just stay above water in the continual flood of bigotry and prejudice. Now you want us to tell you what we need to feel safe? To do the heavy lifting and help you figure it out, especially in spaces where we are vulnerable and interviewing for employment.

Let me be clear that safety comes in varying degrees, just like harm. We have varying degrees of assault charges, drug charges (distributed inequitably), etc. We need varying degrees of safety in our lives. We need to feel safe living in our house, leaving our house, turning on the tv, coming into work, sitting in our yards, being our authentic selves and bringing our full self to work when you ask or tell us to do so, etc. The list can go on! So when you ask this question, understand how our minds start to process what safety might look for us in our lives.

We have been placed in multiple positions in our social, personal, and professional circles where our identities are constantly under attack or have been offended. So when you ask this question and you are met with silence, it should be expected. My purpose in this article is to reach both the companies who ask this question and candidates who are expected to have an answer.

To The Interviewers,

The notion of safety has to be built into a multitude of your systemic procedures, policies, values, and most importantly actions! Instead of asking these questions in a single sentence you must equate safety for identities into every questions. Here’s a better way to ask the two questions stated above:

Question: What would you need in order to feel supported?

Alternative: What are some career goals that have for yourself and how can we help you achieve those goals?

Question: What do you need to feel safe at work?

Alternative: What kind of systems have you previously encountered in a workplace that ensured your success?

It is important to understand that when you ask the question regarding safe space and support you could trigger previous trauma and should expect an emotional response, if you even receive one at all. Emotions are not always a negative thing, and in some cases descriptors of experiences, look into the deeper meaning behind them. So be mindful of your questions due to a person’s experience, because the more marginalized identities they possess, the harder this question is to answer. I encourage you to rephrase these questions in your interviews or take them out of the question lineup and fix anything in your culture that perpetuates the mistreatment of our identity/ies. Don’t ask for our contribution if it’s not going to impact the institution.

To the Candidates,

I am going to be cut and dry here and tell you exactly what to say if you get stuck during this question. Here is what you need:

  1. Engagement and Empowerment- You need to not only feel heard, but see your voice in action! You need a space where your workplace is incorporating your voice and can show you the impact through their daily procedures, policies, values, product etc. You need to know that your voice and experiences are recognized, honored, and valued! You are not there just for your representation. You need authentic participation.
  2. Equitable Practices that Minimize Bias Impacting your Experience- You need to be protected by and from the forces of hierarchical identity (White privilege, homophobia, etc.) that will impact your experiences at work! We understand that your workplace can’t completely be free of bias, at least right now in our current times. It’s going to show up. What you need to know is that they have some of the following practices in place to minimize your exposure:

a. Productive and strong ERG’s/BRG’s where you can become a member

b. Diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings that addresses challenges in the workplace, that have deliverables and objectives

c. Professional development plans for all employees that give you a clear trajectory for promotion.

d. Equitable Salary/Wages -Ask to see their career bands and salaries!

e. Policies in place to address microaggressions when they happen, or any other form of discrimination, and you need an outline for how procedures are handled.

f. You need a flexible work schedule that allows you to get your work done and is welcoming to your commitments to your family

g. A space that supports your wellness! Healing from the foolishness of others is necessary.

Do not be afraid to ask questions about your professional trajectory in relation to your identity/ies, especially the ones are more likely to face more oppression than others in the workplace. Equity is about having systems in place to promote equality for those who need it and many workplaces are still figuring out how to measure and practice equity. Make your workplaces or potential employers work towards equity for you and others!

Dr. Cheryl Ingram aka Dr. CI, is a very successful entrepreneur, blogger, content creator and expert of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.

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