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There Are No Safe Spaces

The teacher yelled to the students, “It’s time for math and reading. Those of you who need to leave please line up at the back. The teacher from the learning resource trailer will come get you.” The windows were overcome with frost. They sky was a shade a grey, a snowstorm was brewing.

The eight students went for their coats to line up while the other twenty-two cackled under their breath as they pulled out their textbooks. The wind blew against the door panel as one of the students opened the door to the knock of the learning resource teacher. The eight students followed her outside gut punched by angry winds mixed with droplets of water. They were on their way to the learning center, otherwise known as the Title 1 program for “delayed learners.”

I was one of them.

The Title 1 program was to assist students in reading and math comprehension. Of course, all of us were students of color. Every week for the next three years I would line up and take that walk to the trailer which was located behind the school building. The physical removal from my classmates will stay imprinted in my memory forever. It is where I first learned there are no safe spaces. I was in the second grade.

Dr. Nichole Margarita GarciaDr. Nichole Margarita Garcia

I have come a long way since second grade, but academia, at times forces me back into that imprinted memory. Conference season is in full force and since becoming a tenure track professor I always find a spot to sit and watch people “conferencing.” In that moment I return to my second-grade self, and ask “How did I get here?”

Later in life I would reclaim that I was a student with different learning abilities. As an academic this is no easy task. It takes me longer to read and write. Sometimes when I go to write or read, it is like a jigsaw puzzle. Even more so, when I am stressed or exhausted making sense of words is that much more difficult. I dislike presenting because I have difficulty annunciating words which at times still get jumbled after practicing repeatedly. Even worse, reading aloud is my biggest fear. These skills are detrimental to my success as an academic.

Yet, the trauma from my childhood remains in the fabric of my being.

There are two-sides to conferencing. Conferences are about reunions with colleagues and friends, presentations on the next innovative research, and new connections made to build your academic community. However, conferences are also about performing in spaces, I argue, that can feel and be unsafe. A space where trauma reignites from our past or future selves.

Gloria Anzaldua, Chicana feminist poet and scholar, wrote in This Bridge We Call Home, “But there are no safe spaces… Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home, group, community, nation—and when to keep the gates open.”

bell hooks, Black feminist and scholar, gives an alternative to view space. hooks argues that individuals should create spaces that are “safe to struggle.” Both scholars point to the messy, contradicting, and at times hurtful spaces individuals operate in. As I progress in academia, I will be the first to admit I have engaged in spaces that I am sure left individuals feeling unsafe covertly or overtly.

I am learning as I go,  what “safe to struggle” space looks and feels like for myself. Sometimes it means I do not engage with individuals as to avoid tensions. Other times I need alone time or time with one person I trust entirely. It is how I nurture internal trauma that educational spaces produce to start the process of healing. It looks and feels different for everyone. How do you envision your “safe to struggle” space?

Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of Higher Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia

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