‘Safety’ is not necessarily protection. Safety can also be found in knowing that one can transform a particular difficult experience into something else.
At Reos Partners, we often talk about creating a ‘safe space’ for individuals to be able to participate in a process fully without fear of their views being misrepresented or used against them. Yet, one of the dominant interpretations of creating a safe space is that it creates a protection from pain or from judgment.
Recently I participated in an internal Reos conversation about race and inequality in South Africa. A few colleagues planned this conversation in acknowledgement of the structural crisis we face in this country (and indeed in many parts of the world). It’s the perfect storm of slow growth, unfulfilled promises, unsustainable use of our resources and rising inequality.
One of the obvious places to start addressing this issue is where the structural rift is most visible and most personal – one’s own racial identity, and the manifestations of this racial inequality. As facilitators of social processes we see this rift in many groups and systems we work with, including our own in Reos. Yet we somehow feel less adequate to address this reality than some of the issues we’re asked to work on. After over 20 years of trying to understand the injustices of our past and asking ourselves what it will take to reconcile and create equality, it feels like we still haven’t found where the starting point is.
It’s left me asking what is the conversation that will move us forward? Towards what end? I think it’s likely we’ll never exactly crack the answers to these questions. But can we more intentionally have conversations that open up our experiences and stories? How can we start these conversations at taxi ranks, at a braais, at sports events, and at the company’s end-of-year function?
It was not an easy conversation to have amongst Reos colleagues – about what it means to be one’s race in South Africa today. It left me wondering, as a guide of highly contested social processes, how difficult it must be within the everyday wounded and unequal realities of our racial identity to talk about these things.
And yet in this vulnerable encounter, once we started telling and listening to one another’s stories, it felt like we’d crossed a new threshold. This threshold is the awkward truth than even though we’re friends and colleagues, there are real crevices separating us from one another. That separation has been created both by our past and our current reality in the form of the social structures we’re part of. We shared some of our lived realities, and narratives in our head, about what is most appropriate to say, how we socialise, make friends, learn a language, pay for an education or find a job.
The central theme across the conversation was one of weariness about what is actually possible to create a more just and equal society. And yet, we’re all still in the conversation. There are activist roots amongst some of us, and yet no one has chosen to leave to find ‘their own’ in the more familiar and comfortable community of homogeneity to fight the cause of social justice.
This conversation prompted me to think about what it means to create a ‘safe space’ to have a conversation about race and inequality. It’s not necessarily about protection from pain. Maybe it is about creating a space for a conversation where stories reveal the schism, and perhaps also therefore reveal possible traction. There might be a way to transform this reality, but that way is not yet visible to us.
This article is part of a series “Moving Through Tough Terrain”.