Safe Spaces for Black Girls in an Unsafe World

Grace* was honest because she thought it was the right thing to do, but it was her position in the program—one of her safe spaces—she was concerned about. She didn’t want to jeopardize it. That this was her main concern still bothers me. It said so much more than she realized.

One of the most significant parts of the mission of The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects is to create safe spaces for Black girls and young women. I’m reminded, however, that in work with disenfranchised people, many of us talk freely and frequently about safe spaces. “Feel free to share; this is a safe space,” we say, then broadcast tears, traumas (and even the joy they’re uncomfortable to share) on Facebook Live and to prove to funders and Pookie ‘nem that we are doing the real work. Facilitators and organizers talk a good talk. It’s one of the things that draws people to us. With our mouths shut, ears and arms opened, we alone are often safe, but it’s incumbent spaces we occupy are. Else there will be a longer lineage of Graces than there already is.

I learned early on, while building a relationship with Grace, whenever she hit me with the “I need to talk to you,” she was going to share something that would burgle my words and breath. We met when she’d not yet graduated high school. By the time I’d received this phone call, she’d broken up with an abusive boyfriend who forced her to miscarry well past her first trimester during one of his assaults, pulled together enough resources to stay in school when her parents refused her assistance, and these are just the high points (or low points, as it were). Despite much of what had been stripped from her growing up—the simplicity and innocence of youth—she was remarkably a cheerful giver of her time and spirit. Nay, she was quite remarkable. I was out of town working for the weekend when she texted that there was something she needed to talk to me about, but I convinced her, after a while, to tell me what was going on over the phone. I knew she took one-on-one meetings for heavy conversations seriously. We usually did them over dinner or during movie nights. But when my curiosity met with the urgency I sensed in her text, I couldn’t wait until our schedules coordinated.

I leaned on the wall of the hotel lobby, holding the phone up to my ear. She’d done something bad, she said, and wanted to know after she admitted to it if her place in the program I was directing at the time would be jeopardized. “I know you won’t approve of what I’ve done.” This made me pace. While she talked, an anxiety-propelled babbling, I tried to imagine what the “something” could be. Pregnant? Drugs? Had she been arrested and found a way to get bailed out without me?

“Just tell me what it is!” I interrupted her. My patience had worn off. How dare it.

A male coworker of mine had invited her over to watch movies, gotten her high and had sex with her.

For a flash, my heart dipped into a puddle of anger and pulsed, in my wrists, like my fingers were wrapped around his neck.

I thanked her for telling me and assured her that her place in the program was not in jeopardy. We then talked about her responsibilities in being as safe as possible, sexual assault, abuse of power and my commitment to her. We arranged to go to dinner when I got back to town and hung up.

He’d destroyed her safe space, our safe space. My quiet anger raced to rage.

“He has to go.” It was the only logical conclusion I could draw.

A few minutes later, when I talked with organizational leadership about what I’d learned, the response was “How old is she again?” and something akin to there must have been a misunderstanding, she must’ve wanted it and now feels guilty. Rage yielded to confusion, but I didn’t give up. The weekend passed, and I tried again Monday, this time prepared to offer more details. I had screenshots of the texts he sent threatening her if she told and demanding she have an abortion, if she ended up pregnant. “I can’t lose this job,” one text bubble said.

My confusion spiraled to disgust and a loss of respect, though, when the conversation hardly shifted. It was she who was the problem, and he and the office who were being protected. “How old is she again? … What’s the age of consent in the state? … Can we get in trouble legally? … Don’t let this leave the office.” (A warning, more than advice.) … “We don’t want to ruin his life. … He’ll never be able to get another job.”

There wasn’t a single question about Grace beyond her age. There was no concern about how she was feeling, if she was OK, what she needed. Nothing. And though I wasn’t his supervisor, as a consolation prize, of sorts, I was told I could talk to him, as long as I wasn’t too harsh. “You know how you can be.” All the labor. Thanks.

I had her back, but in the larger picture, who was I? The space we had among ourselves, just us girls and a couple men who’d been vetted over the years was safe. Our bubble, together, was secure but everywhere wasn’t, not even the organization where the program lived. My livelihood was now vulnerable because I wanted to protect the Black girls we’d bragged to funders we’d empowered. I refused the couple friends who threatened to do physical harm to the guy—some kind of consequence—because all fingers would’ve pointed back to the young woman and me. She wasn’t safe outside our bubble.

In this moment (this movement) toward accountability of people who pose harm to us outside our bubbles, it’s incumbent upon us to expect a shelter for wellbeing from those we believe to be fighters of the wolves from outside.

“It’s dangerous everywhere … You aren’t safe anywhere. You have to watch your back everywhere,” a young woman said during a listening tour in the southeast I facilitated for the NoVo Foundation. Cultural anthropologist and professor at Yale, Dr. Aimee Cox, observed and reported on the tour.

Everywhere, she said. Everywhere. That includes the spaces we are and ones that are intuitively safe. Like houses of worship. Jokes are made at the expense of young boys and even the predators who violate them in the Catholic church, for example. This is, I proffer, because of a large part of society’s discomfort and conflation of vulturine behavior with anything that is fiercely, yet precariously foreign to them. The same can be argued, I suppose, for #MosqueMeToo, which I stumbled upon by happenstance the other day. Mini-confession after mini-confession, girls and women shared instances where pilgrimages and time of prayer at local mosques became perfidious. Instead of feeling peace, they felt inner turmoil; instead of uplifted, they were burdened.

And these aren’t the only institutions. We don’t often think of families as institutions, but they’re the first ones we’re ever introduced to. We’re shaped in familial (however that is defined for you) systems that affect how we engage the world. In her briefing from the listening tour, cultural anthropologist Cox notes:

“In ways that may at first seem contradictory, individuals like caregivers and spaces such as schools are identified as both supportive and harmful. … Mothers provide comfort and stability, while young women also experience their mothers as judgmental and mercurial, leading one young woman to say about the mother she previously defined as supportive as also acting in ways that make it feel like she doesn’t love me at all.

For so many of the people we work with, old and young alike, we are surrogate parents, families, tribe. We represent what could have been, should have been.

Safe spaces support healing and growth; they’re curated spaces that allow us room to unearth trauma, fertilize it with goodness and plant bulbs of beauty.

If we aren’t mindful to make safe spaces more ubiquitous, we find that girls go from being cute and told they can do anything to being too loud, too fast, too pick-something-wrong-and-broken. Where are the coordinates—the greys—on the continuum between innocence and societal nuisance? It’s our imperative to recognize them and hold young women there as long as possible, escaping the adultification and unrealistic expectations of girls.

We find ourselves in a conundrum because, undoubtedly, what is necessary is more spaces for girls and young women to talk about and explore themselves, do the digging. But this leaves them—any of us, really—vulnerable to the harmful and predators among us. Take, for example, the inharmonious narratives some spaces demand, like the church. There, young women “may want to question mandates that tell them to forgive those who have inflicted pain in their lives without attending to their own health and healing” Cox notes, while simultaneously looking for spiritual guidance yet not being affirmed.

It’s also important to note, since we’re being candid, that curators of safe spaces lose something, too, when what we took time to develop is violated. Professionally, I have become hypervigilant in my quest to make sure young women in my care (i.e., engaging in work I am responsible for) are out of harm’s way. Operating this way isn’t sustainable and isn’t a fair expectation for myself, those around me and has the potential to limit the flexibility and freedom a safe space should offer girls and young women. This isn’t just about rapacious men; it’s about anyone who presents a threat to their wellbeing. My faith in who we say we are as defenders of girls and women was bruised the day leadership showed more concern for Grace’s assaulter than her. It reminded me of the other random, small bruises I’d ignored along the way, like we sometimes do when we bump into the coffee table and a few days later wonder how the blue-black mark ended up on our legs. If I’d paid more attention, perhaps I wouldn’t have been surprised. Personally, my old wounds began to ache as the melee pulled at scar tissue.

What do we do?

Consider context.
It’s crucial that we respect culture, that we consider where people are coming from—their homes, communities as well as the systems that shaped them—as we highlight areas that prove to be barriers to growth and filling empty places. Places that require healing aren’t broken or flawed; they’re symbols. Curating spaces for self-reflection, quiet and freedom without building (reciprocal) relationship and understanding framework has the potential to, ultimately, cause more harm more than good.

Make language accessible.
In the hook of “… & On,” Erykah Badu, problematic though she can be, depending on the day, sings rhetorically “What good do your words do if they don’t understand you / don’t go talking that sh*t Badu, Badu.” Too often once we’ve ascended to a place of understanding about <fill in the blank>, we forget the path we traveled to get to that point of understanding. Conversations must be haveable and not opportunities to show how much we know. This means we’re not dumbing down anything but making the language of restoration, trauma and liberation available. We do this by allowing the same grace and patience in space and time that others allowed and still do for us.

Question ourselves.
People in this work are good at challenging others and helping work through issues that come up. If we’re not careful, however, that can leave little room for us to self-reflect space and our place in them. Where are Black girls safe? Why are we holding on to people who bring harm and/or persistent discomfort to those we’re centering in our safe spaces? If we aren’t evolving in the spaces we’re creating, are we the best persons to hold space? Where else can we be of benefit to the movement? Are there safe spaces for perpetrators to heal? How are they held accountable? How do we engage them once/if they heal? Who gauges them?

Remember Ella.
While “safe spaces” is fairly new jargon, Ella Baker was pretty well known for her belief that strong people don’t need strong leaders. A similar philosophy can be applied in this conversation: People who are clear about their space and boundaries don’t need others to be unproductively focused on it for them. This, of course, doesn’t mean we don’t create spaces. What it means is we ensure those in safe spaces are emboldened to express their needs and desires. One of the best ways to do that is to talk with girls and young women, in particular, about their autonomy, rights and the responsibilities we all have to another.

One of my closest friends has a 5-year-old daughter. She’s beautiful, with her dark-brown skin, snaggle-toothed smile and long pigtails. One of the most recent things the two do during their daddy/daughter time is learning poetry and prose. So far, she’s learned Countee Cullen’s “Hey, Black Child” and Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear.” My favorite lines of that piece are “Your playing small does not serve the world / There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” His telling me about it, made me smile; seeing the video, filled my heart. I won’t ever stop wondering who protects her when her dad isn’t there, her mother, when her confidence meets others’ insecurity. If she lives through the things I have, or Grace has, and statistics say she likely will, will the spaces that embrace her be safe?

Grace is fine. Actually, she’s flourishing. I’m amazed by her resilience and sad that she, like so many other Black girls, fought her way through so much. As for my former coworker, I heard recently he’d gone to another organization in another city and betrayed the trust and body of another young woman. For a minute (or several), I immediately regretted not having him beaten. All I can do is trust that repercussions will meet him one day. And honestly, I hope it hurts.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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