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ACRL 2019 President's Program

Discussion, information, and additional resources for the 2019 ACRL President's Program. Opinions expressed by blog authors are their own and do not express the views or opinions of their employers or of ACRL.

From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces

by Hallie Clawson on 2019-01-23T07:00:00-06:00 in Advocacy | Comments

This week's post comes from Samantha Hines, Associate Dean of Instructional Resources for Peninsula College in Port Angeles, WA. Learn more about our guest authors on our Featured Authors page.

Like a lot of white people, I had to be whacked over the head with issues of race before I had the “aha” moment. For me, that moment came at a leadership institute I attended in spring of 2016, during a 90-minute safe-space discussion on diversity in the library profession. By its end, the two white men in attendance had held forth for several minutes on how they were the ones truly discriminated against in librarianship, while a white woman proclaimed that hiring for diversity in librarianship is “just reverse racism.” I was aghast, completely speechless, without any tools for responding other than a weak insistence that the demographics proved otherwise. I vented my frustration on Twitter, and was called out the next day of the institute for violating the safe space of the discussion. Now, I recognize this as a classic silencing move born out of white fragility, but at the time it made me determined to find a tool for talking about race in an open and accountable way.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces,” an article by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. This article taught me that safe spaces are manifestations of dominance and privilege— that the only people safe in a safe space conversation are those from the dominant culture. Further, safety is not a reasonable expectation in an honest conversation about social justice issues such as diversity in the library profession.This is a conversation that needs to make people uncomfortable, because the facts around diversity in the library profession are uncomfortable. The article provided actionable guidance on creating and facilitating a brave space, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Unfortunately, the first time I tried it out it fell flat. The participants didn’t get it, and it was, objectively, my fault. I lacked skills as a facilitator, and I also lacked a good understanding around issues of race in general as a middle-aged white woman. It could be called a tremendous learning experience, in that it was very painful and uncomfortable. I really, really wanted to give up and pretend I never had this crazy idea to change the way we talk about race in the profession. However, I talked about this experience as part of a “fail talk” panel at the ACRL-Washington/Oregon joint conference in 2017, and the process of sharing my failure oddly enough inspired me to try again.

I did three more workshops around brave spaces, took some courses in understanding race in America, and started to feel somewhat competent in addressing the issues. A colleague at one of my workshops suggested I propose presenting my workshop at the third Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. “Great idea!” I thought, and put in the proposal. It was accepted, and my attendance and presentation there was an amazing experience.

It was also a tremendous learning experience, in that painful and uncomfortable way I mentioned above. I had to reckon, and am still reckoning, with the fact that I took up space at a conference intended for my colleagues of color. There are so few spaces in librarianship just for people of color, and in my white-centered way, I assumed it would be no problem for me to take part in something that wasn’t for me. Everyone at the conference was wonderfully inclusive and welcoming, but looking back I realize that I didn’t  take the time to consider what my presence there meant. This would have been a great opportunity to partner with a colleague of color who had an interest in sharing about brave spaces, to develop a new iteration of my workshop for that audience.

Learning about brave spaces has definitely helped me find my personal voice around issues of race in the library profession. It is a stellar tool which, when used by a skilled and knowledgeable facilitator, elevates discussions around diversity and social justice issues, which our profession sorely needs. Even when it’s used by a less-skilled facilitator, it can help open up avenues of thought that a safe space will never encourage. The outward and progressive focus of brave spaces allow us to think about race in librarianship as a structural issue as opposed to safe spaces’ focus on internal values and experiences. This is astep we need to take. I encourage others to give this framework a try in their own libraries, communities, and professional development experiences when talking about issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Hopefully your learning experiences will be less "tremendous" than mine. I would be thrilled to hear how brave spaces work for you!




Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: a new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In Landreman, L. (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Hines, S. (2017). From safe spaces to brave spaces: rethinking how we talk about diversity in the library profession and learning from failure. PNLA Quarterly, 82(1).

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