Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Subtle Art of Creating Unsafe Spaces

College campuses are changing. For years, faculty and administrators have lamented the lack of student activism on campus. This lack of activism was generally regarded as student apathy – a feeling that most students cared more about getting drunk on weekends than in fighting for causes. From the end of the Vietnam era through the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, college campuses were places of relative calm where only the occasional “fringe group” spoke out on important issues of the day.

Not anymore. After 40 years of apathy, a new generation of student activist has emerged. These Millennial protesters have been praised by many for their willingness to stand up and be heard, and have been derided by others because of their need for “safe spaces.” Those on the left have been quick to jump on board this new wave of activism, joining students in their demands for more inclusive campus environments. Those on the right have been even quicker to call these students coddled crybabies and to issue warnings that they’ll never make it in the “real world” with their victim mentalities.

Notably absent from these conversations, particularly in student affairs circles, has been any reference to student development. And that should strike us all as problematic.

Coincidentally (or not) these changes on campus have coincided with a change in how we prepare student affairs professionals. About the time I was finishing graduate school, a handful of higher education/student affairs graduate programs began incorporating social justice education into their curriculum. Initially, the schools doing this did so in order to distinguish themselves from the pack, but the trend proved popular and soon caught on in most other programs. Now, 15 years later, most higher education/student affairs graduate programs boast of a curriculum with a “social justice emphasis” and, in fact, many of these programs offer and/or require more courses on diversity and social justice than on student development. Simply put, social justice has eclipsed student development as the focal point of many student affairs preparation programs and, subsequently, many student affairs professionals. As a result, we now have more and more new professionals working in this field who appear to care considerably less about student development than they do about social justice work.

Let me be clear – a focus on social justice has been an important step forward for our profession, and has recruited a highly motivated new generation of professionals into the field. Additionally, the results on campus have been positive – we now see universities doing more and more to support social justice, dismantle institutional racism, and provide resources for oppressed minority populations. All of us can agree that these changes have come about at least in part because of the social justice focus that has taken hold within student affairs in the last decade and that these changes have been a good thing.

Like any great shift in philosophy, however, there are unintended consequences. I would argue the greatest consequence of the shift in focus away from student development and towards social justice is this:

As a profession, our priorities have shifted away from the creation of carefully constructed learning environments (unsafe spaces) and towards the creation of carefully constructed echo chambers (safe spaces).

This ideological shift could have long-lasting ramifications, not only on our profession’s place within the academy, but for the well-being and success of our students.

Whenever I think about the safe/unsafe space dichotomy, I always think of Nevitt Sanford’s theory of Challenge and Support. It states that, in order to progress along any developmental trajectory, students need a healthy balance of challenge (unsafe space) and support (safe space). Too much unsafe space, and students may regress to previously held, less developed beliefs. Too much safe space, and students will never be exposed to the different ideas and worldviews necessary for them to grow and develop. In order to develop, students need to experience challenge and support, a healthy balance of unsafe space and safe space.

I fear that, as a field, we are forgetting and/or neglecting the subtle yet important art creating unsafe spaces.

When we consider Sanford’s theory of challenge and support, we must always think about it in connection with some other developmental theory (I’ve written about the frequent misuse of Sanford here). In conversations around student activism and political engagement, the logical theory to apply is Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development.

In our world of social justice-focused practitioners, writing Perry off has become a favorite pastime of many in our field. Perry did most of his research on white men at Harvard – the most privileged of the privileged. Despite those shortcomings, Perry’s theory has stood the test of time and has been empirically validated across cultures, classes, and nationalities. Perry postulates that students develop intellectually along the following trajectory:

Notice that the arrows in between Perry’s stages go in multiple directions. This implies that students can both progress and regress along these stages. With the right blend of challenge and support, they progress, but with too much of one or not enough of the other, they can stagnate or, even worse, regress to previous, less developed ways of thinking.

So what does all of this have to do with the new social justice philosophy in student affairs? Simply, we now focus more on what students are saying rather than focusing on the thinking that led to those words. If the messages we hear from students are progressive and promote a message of social justice, we don’t dare challenge the intellectual underpinnings of those statements. To the contrary, we praise them for their activism and progressive thinking. However, if the messages we hear from students are traditionally conservative or not inclusive, we are quick to point out the flaws in their thinking or, even worse, we call them names (racist, homophobic, xenophobic, hyper-masculine, etc.).

This is problematic.

Dualism, even when cloaked in a social justice ideology, is still dualism. As a profession dedicated to student development, we should confront dualism whenever and however we see it - not just when it is cloaked in the ideology of political conservatism.

Frankly, we are doing our students a disservice if we do not help them develop intellectually, even if we support those causes for which they are fighting. A great example of how the dualism of some social justice activists can be confronted can be found in comments President Obama recently made about the #BLM movement. The President, clearly frustrated, criticized leaders of the group for refusing to sit down and engage in talks about meaningful reforms, stating that some #BLM leaders felt that such conversations “might compromise the purity of their position” – a way of thinking that is clearly dualistic in nature. President Obama was right to challenge this way of thinking – not because he opposes the aims or purposes of the #BLM movement, but because a dualistic “my way or the highway” approach to problem solving does not usually solve very many problems. President Obama has learned a lesson that many in our field could stand to learn – that social justice and intellectual development are not mutually exclusive. We do not have to pick one or the other. We can support the advancement of social justice while gently challenging the intellectual rigor of those arguing on its behalf.

Dualistic social justice activism manifests itself in a variety of ways on college campuses across America every single day. The example we see most often is student protests leading to the dis-invitation of controversial speakers. The dualistic “this person is wrong and I am right” way of thinking that fuels these protests would be best replaced by a “let me hear what this person has to say, understand this issue from their perspective, weigh the merits of their argument against my own views on the matter, and see if there are issues on which we may actually agree” way of thinking. But instead of creating the unsafe space where those conversations can happen, we create a protective cocoon – a safe space where students are left free to think what they want to think without ever being forced to consider an issue from someone else’s perspective.  We dis-invite controversial speakers.  We choose social justice over student development; safe space over unsafe space.

Imagine, for a moment, that you worked at one of the campuses where students have openly supported Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. The response to these incidents on the popular student affairs Facebook groups and twitter channels has been predictable – joining in with the social justice activists, shaming the students supporting Trump, calling them any manner of names (I’m not sure very many people knew the meaning of xenophobia until Donald Trump became a serious presidential candidate) and demanding accountability for political speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment. But how many of us have sat down with a student supporting Trump to find out why? How many of us have facilitated those conversations between and among our students?

What if we learned that a student who supported Trump was a first-generation college student whose parents lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector when those jobs were shipped overseas. Then, his parents could not find a good paying job at the local food processing plant because of the suppressed wages brought on by the flood of illegal immigrants working in that plant. Imagine that this student’s parents are on unemployment with no hopes of finding a good-paying job in their hometown and this student is having to now work two jobs to pay for his education because his parents can no longer afford to help him. So for him, when he hears Trump talk about how bad trade deals and illegal immigration are suppressing wages and screwing over the working class, “Make America Great Again” isn’t a message of hate or xenophobia at all but, rather, a message of economic prosperity that resonates with his own lived experience.

Knowing this, would we still call that student xenophobic? A racist? Or might we be a little more willing to think differently about illegal immigration and trade once we heard the perspective of someone who has been adversely affected by those issues? Are some of Trump’s supporters xenophobic, sexist and racist? Absolutely. But we should know better than to paint all of his supporters with such a broad brush, especially when those supporters are our own students. 

Instead of calling our students names, we should be committed to their learning and development. Instead of adding fuel to the fire and protesting against Trump and his supporters, we should be creating opportunities for students from different sides of the political spectrum to sit down in an attempt to better understand one another's perspective. Our work as social justice advocates is important, and it must continue, but it becomes problematic when it begins alienating a significant portion of the students we are supposed to be educating. Instead of choosing sides in the culture war raging on many of our campuses, we should be focused on helping students from different sides sit down, understand one another’s perspectives, and try to find common ground. Instead of allowing both sides of the culture war to rest comfortably in their own unchallenged safe space, we need to remember that student development is still important, and do our part to create the unsafe spaces where students can have meaningful conversations and learn from one another. But when we view every problem solely through a social justice, rather than a developmental lens, this becomes increasingly more difficult to do.

In doing this, we must acknowledge that for some students, daily life can feel like a constant “unsafe space” where they experience oppression at every turn. I am not suggesting that we make their lives even more difficult by refusing to provide them with the spaces, both physical and psychological, that they need in order to feel protected and safe. We must provide those safe spaces, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because their success and development depends it. But in doing so, we need to be willing to acknowledge the differences between inadvertent micro-aggressions and deliberate acts of oppression, between cognitive discomfort with an idea or topic and something that genuinely triggers traumatic memories from the past, and between hate and ignorance. Not all unsafe spaces are created equal, and we need to stop pretending that psychological discomfort, no matter how great or small, even for oppressed minorities, is always a bad thing.

We need to balance our commitment to social justice with a renewed commitment to student development. We need to understand that social justice can and should inform our work in student development, but that social justice WITHOUT student development is, frankly, not what our colleges and universities hired us to do. We need to break away from the mindset that our own ideological purity is more important than the impact we have on student learning. We need to commit to the development of ALL of our students. Most importantly, we need to commit to doing the work the work that is, always has been, and always should be at the heart of the student affairs profession – creating the spaces, safe and unsafe, where our students can learn from one another.