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Safe spaces and trigger warnings commonly appear on social media and in political debates, but their definitions and purposes are sometimes misunderstood.

Safe spaces are places reserved for marginalized individuals to come together and discuss their experiences. Marginalized groups may include women, people of color, survivors of abuse, and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Colleges often provide safe spaces, both on campus and online, through student groups and counseling resources.

What's In a Name?

Safe spaces originated within the community now known as LGBTQIA+ and have since been adapted for use by other marginalized communities as well. Today, "safe zones'' are typically for the LGBTQIA+ community, while other marginalized communities have their own versions of safe spaces. Regardless of the name, safe spaces and safe zones are intended to facilitate communication and self-expression without fear of further marginalization.

Safe spaces on college campuses provide support for students who feel maligned by society, especially during the transitional stage of early adulthood. Many learners develop their identity and values in college, and safe spaces are crucial to this process. Through safe spaces, colleges promote inclusion, diversity, and sensitivity among students.

The following guide explores what constitutes a safe space in college, including commonly used terminology, to help you learn more about finding safe spaces, identifying allies, and recognizing and using trigger warnings in person and online.

What Constitutes a Safe Space?

The goal of a safe space is to provide a place where people are not subject to the biases, discrimination, and criticism of the outside world. A safe space may exist in the abstract, such as during a conversation about a sensitive subject, or in physical form, like a private meeting room. On a college campus, a safe space can be any location deemed "safe" by student volunteers or faculty with inclusion/diversity training.

Online learners need safe spaces, too. Academic programs increasingly offer safe spaces within their schools' learning management systems (LMS) through online groups, chat rooms, and message boards. Beyond the confines of an LMS, some schools also designate and monitor safe spaces within their social media channels.

Many colleges offer additional services, like diversity or sensitivity training, to encourage an inclusive learning environment. North Carolina State University, for example, now requires all students, faculty, and staff to complete coursework in diversity and inclusion.

Who Benefits From On-Campus or Online Safe Spaces?

  • LGBTQIA+
  • Individuals with Disabilities
  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)
  • Unhoused People
  • Women
  • Veterans
  • Everyone!

What Are Safe Zones on College Campuses?

Safe zones provide an opportunity for marginalized students to connect with allies and each other. Colleges may offer safe zones in a particular room or series of rooms on campus, usually marked by a sticker or sign. Colleges promote safe zones on campus to support inclusion and equity among students, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, or ethnicity.

The Safe Zone Project provides resources to help colleges support their LGBTQIA+ communities. Any member of a college's student body, faculty, or staff can undergo safe zone training to become an ally and learn how to create a safe zone. More than 25,000 educators in 100 countries have received training through the Safe Zone Project.

While college campuses are still critical settings for safe zones, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited physical gatherings. As a result, many colleges moved their safe zones online or reinforced their existing virtual support resources.

Who Are Safe Zones For?

The Safe Zone Project focuses on how colleges can support LGBTQIA+ students who feel marginalized for their gender identity or sexual orientation. These safe zones also welcome cisgender students who have questions or seek to offer support. For example, the University of Alaska Southeast offers comprehensive support through a safe zone network, the Southeast Alaska LGBTQIA+ Alliance, and the Campus Inclusivity Alliance.

Other colleges offer safe zones to any student who needs them. The New School, for example, welcomes "...all members of the university community inclusive of race, ethnicity, national origin, culture, language, gender and gender expression, sexuality, religious and political beliefs, age, and ability."

The Safe Zone Project also trains faculty and staff to become allies and lead workshops.

What Does It Mean To Be an Ally?

Allies are members of the majority group who advocate on behalf of marginalized students. Safe zone programs provide training to college faculty and staff who aspire to ally positions. As friends and mentors, allies can lend an ear or helping hand to marginalized college students seeking support or assistance.

Allies often include members of a college's diversity or inclusion staff, student services administration, or even the dean's office. The Safe Zone Project offers ally training for those who are interested. Individuals who complete training receive a sticker to identify themselves as allies to students seeking support. However, there are lots of other ways to be an ally.

What Are Trigger Warnings?

Creators place trigger warnings before text, audio, or video that may contain potentially distressing content. For example, trigger warnings may alert readers/viewers about impending references to violence, abuse, or psychological trauma, including things like physical altercations, sexual assault, and verbal harassment.

What Are Trigger Warnings Used For?

We use trigger warnings to warn about disturbing or sensitive content so that people who find that content upsetting can decide how to engage with it, helping them avoid potentially re-experiencing a traumatic event.

For example, a survivor of physical abuse may experience violent flashbacks after unexpectedly hearing the details of a fellow survivor's story. Safe spaces routinely employ trigger warnings to allow participants to decide their own level of engagement with sensitive topics.

Colleges typically use trigger warnings in both physical and virtual safe spaces. As such, students gathered in person or online may choose whether to hear or view material preceded by a trigger warning. Safe spaces and safe zones must adhere to common trigger warning rules.

Beyond the protective boundaries of a safe space in college, students may also encounter trigger warnings in the media. Some social media outlets require trigger warnings for disturbing content. However, there is no standard across online platforms and therefore no guarantee that warnings will be present.

What Careers Help Create Safe Spaces for Marginalized People?

Becoming an ally is the first step toward a career in creating safe spaces. Several occupations lend themselves naturally to serving marginalized community members. Social workers, for example, may specialize in LGBTQIA+, disability, or race-related advocacy. Others may serve colleges as advisors or counselors, assisting students who are dealing with marginalization and related trauma.

Colleges also increasingly employ faculty and staff dedicated to inclusion and diversity. Schools often appoint diversity specialists to help create safe spaces and lead sensitivity training programs.

Counselors and psychologists play a pivotal role in supporting marginalized people, especially in schools. School counselors may pursue specific training to become allies for marginalized students on campus, while student services staff members can also provide counseling to students in need.

LGBTQIA+ and Ally Groups and Resources

Athlete Ally
a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring equal access, opportunity, and experience in sports regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Campus Pride
a nonprofit organization focused on helping student leaders and campus groups create a safer college environment for LGBT+ students.
The Safe Zone Project
sexuality, gender, and LGBTQ+ education curricula and resources for educators and self-directed learners, all available for free online.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Should I Put Trigger Warnings For?

Trigger warnings should precede content that could potentially disturb survivors of trauma or abuse, PTSD, or anxiety disorders. Violent content always needs a warning, as do discussions of systemic marginalization.

Can a Person Be a Safe Space?

Yes. A person who is committed to creating welcoming, non-judgmental spaces where people are able to speak freely can be a safe space.

How Can Students Create Safe Spaces?

Students should ask advisors in the office of diversity or inclusion at their school how to create a safe space. If your school does not have a diversity office, reach out to the student resources or support office.

Many schools require students to submit a request to create an official safe space on campus, but enrollees can always create their own safe spaces in conversations by devoting their full attention to participants, enabling everyone to speak freely, protecting marginalized people from harm, and asking for clarity as necessary.

Header Image Credit: Pekic | Getty Images

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