Youth engagement requires a welcoming environment for youth to gather. There is a difference between a place and a space. While the place provides a physical location, the space is created by those who interact in it. Youth should have an active and on-going role in creating a youth friendly space. Their input goes beyond the look and feel of the room, youth can help ceate space usage guidelines, safety protocols, etc.
Keep in mind the following when selecting a place:
- Is the location easy for youth to find and get to?
- Do the hours of operation meet youth’s needs and schedules?
- Is the building accessible for youth with disabilities and special needs?
- Is the physical space comfortable and appealing to youth?
- Will noise or use of the location disrupt others in close proximity?
- Is there a quiet area that youth can use to de-stress and practice self-care?
- Is there an opportunity for youth to make the place their own?
A safer space goes beyond the physical place. It’s about the behaviours and interactions that create an open and accepting environment, a space where everyone feels respected and valued. In a safer space, people can express themselves honestly and authentically,1 and they can contribute actively without fear of being judged on account of their social identities such as, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.
A safer space is not free from discomfort. To grow and learn, both youth and adults must confront issues that make them uncomfortable, that force them to struggle with who they are and what they believe, 1; 2; 3 A safer space allows participants to take risks, analyze their position and to work through conflict respectfully.
Tips for creating safer spaces:
- Identify core values to be upheld in the space
- Set group norms and expectations
- Adopt an anti-discriminatory policy
- Implement a conflict resolution process
- Adopt a trauma-informed lens
- Offer clinical support
- Put safety first
Featured story: Creating a relaxing space for youth
The Wild Den group at Robert Bateman High School in Burlington is revamping an unused space in their school to create an awesome relaxation and mental health promotion room. The Wild Den team chose to create a space where their peers can feel comfortable, de-stress and find resources about mental health, relaxation, local agencies, etc. The Wild Den space will be used year round for mental health awareness activities and social events. Each event will provide students with a relaxing atmosphere to engage with their peers and learn about mental health and wellness.
Identify core values. Collaboratively identifying values will help you understand what really matters to participants and how individuals in a group want to behave with each other. It is important to note that the values held by the agency as a whole will also have an impact on the space.
Set group norms and expectations. Group norms help ensure positive interactions between group members.
The Positive Space Network at the University of Victoria has a Safer Space policy that helps establish how individuals within a group interact with one another:
- Respect your own physical, mental and emotional boundaries.
- Stay attuned to your own needs and remember that you are welcome to take time away from the group should you feel that you need time alone, or away from the group.
- If something doesn’t feel right to you, please speak up. You may not be the only one who feels that way.
- If you don’t want to talk or answer a question, say so, don’t wait for someone to get the hint. Try to vocalize what you need.
- Be assertive if possible. If you have a concern with someone, be direct.
- Respect others’ physical, mental and emotional boundaries.
- Always ask for explicit verbal consent before engaging or touching someone. Never assume consent. It is important to remember that consent is not always implied, even with folks that one is typically very close to.
- Don’t assume the race, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, gender, history with violence etc. of others. Instead, ask if someone is open to engaging in dialogue about identity. Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to answer a question.
- If at all possible, find out what pronouns people prefer or use neutral pronouns such as they or z.
- Respect the confidentiality of others. Respect the privacy of information, narratives and experiences that others share with you.
- Assume positive intent.
- We are all here to learn, and we all have something to offer.
- Clarifying questions are encouraged.
- Respect diverse opinions, beliefs, and points of view. Share ideas rather than judgments.
- Use ‘I’ statements as much as possible to state your reactions or your experiences to avoid attacking others when challenging them or engaging with them about mistakes that may have been made.
- Everyone (including you) will make unintentional mistakes.
- Be aware of the effects your behaviour has on others and accept responsibility for it.
- Expect to be challenged by others if you make a mistake.
Establish clear anti-discriminatory policies. Explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, class, appearance, etc. This ensures that youth who experience marginalization or discrimination due to their identities or traits are safe and understand that this space constitutes a space where they can expect a level of safety from discrimination and violence.
Create clear guidelines alongside youth about use of language in the space to ensure that no discriminatory terms are used, and that all present in a space are aware of terms that could be triggering or traumatic for other participants.
Implement a conflict resolution process that outlines steps for handling a conflict or filing a formal complaint. Creating this process with youth and ensuring that they fully understand their rights and responsibilities promotes safety and accountability.
Adopt a trauma-informed lens where agencies and service providers work to preserve the physical, emotional and cultural safety in a space. Trauma-informed practitioners help educate the young person and their support networks about the impact of trauma on their well-being so they can better reflect on, understand and respond to the effects of trauma on their behaviors. 4A clinical support network should be aware of trauma-triggers and strive to reduce the risk of re-traumatization in a space.
The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity created a trigger warning workshop presenter form that asked all speakers to sign off on the safer space policy of the organization and to list any triggering or traumatic content that might be touched on in their presentation.
Provide clinical support. When working with youth, and even more important, when working with youth with lived experience of a mental health issue, it is critical to ensure that young people have access to clinical support. This might involve having a clinical support staff on call at all times and ensuring that the staff member working with youth is provided with basic mental health awareness training. Remember that youth most often go to their peers for support so be sure to include young people and natural helpers in your clinical safety plans.
Featured story: Making better use of evidence
All the programs offered at YouthNet/ReseauAdo are supported by clinical back-up, which ensures the safety of participants and provides support for facilitators. Phase one of our clinical back-up safety net involves training facilitators in ASIST 5 , coupled with ongoing training in youth mental health promotion and suicide intervention. Phase two ensures that a social worker is available on-call to support the programs. A protocol outlining these procedures is in place. Facilitators follow-up with program participants if they flag/demonstrate higher risk or need for extra support services/resources either on a completed survey or during program delivery. Depending on the demonstrated risk of the participant, facilitators will contact the on-call clinical social worker for clinical support.