Defining “Safe Space”

How do we build community on a college campus? How can congregations build a sense of belonging for college students?


When I tell people that I intern for a chaplain, people are often confused about what exactly I do. As an intern for L3: Listen, Learn, Lead, I am called to create a community and a safe space for student reflection. The first meeting of the spring 2016 semester began with my establishing an unwritten contract to denote the conversation as a “safe space.” Despite being crafted by Millennials in a university setting, this contract did not refer to the language we used around each other, but rather the way we ourselves would allow ourselves to be open to the opinions of others. Personally, part of my idealized version of a university experience includes creating a safe space for students to discuss issues that matter to them.

Sometimes this means blogging and sometimes it means facilitating discussions on calling. During this time of tragedy, it meant coordinating a service and space for the College Park community to consider the events that occurred. “United in Compassion and Hope: Gathering in Response to the Orlando Tragedy” formed out of a campus need for a “safe space.” This space is not secular, but rather raises our interfaith and secular diversity. While the term “Safe Space” is weighted in our society and often viewed as a new-age, liberal term that refers to a sterilized environment where PC culture is propagated, there is no reason that this should be the case, however. A Safe Space is “a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe…a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.”

One of the official goals of L3: Listen, Learn, Lead is “Providing a safe space and opportunity to experience an inclusive, supportive community as they explore the meaning of vocation for their lives, in the midst of big questions and often anxiety concerning their futures.” The actualization of this is much more difficult, however. Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure and the right to voice their personal opinion, as well as explore other opinions. That being said, to create the proper environment for this space, significant community building must occur. After our annual retreat last semester, there was certainly a deepened sense of community among L3 participants. This raises questions though: “Was truly just forced time together all we needed to form a community? How do you actually build community?” While rules can define and maintain a Safe Space, rules do not a safe space make. Regardless, it is hard to not list some rules in a blog, so here are my top three L3 community and safe-space building guidelines that I recommend for your careful and prayerful consideration, especially as local congregations interacting with our L3 students as they spend their summers at home!

  1. Acknowledge everyone both socially and intellectually

While it is fantastic to create social spaces for young people, it is crucial to remember that young adults, especially college students, are incredibly academically and intellectually driven. Raising these traits in social settings will only further empower them to reach higher levels of understanding.

  1. Know when to use humor and when to refrain

Millennials are at once an incredibly laid-back generation and an incredibly serious generation. While we may use sarcasm heavily amongst ourselves, we are very careful to know when sarcasm could be offensive. This may lead older adults to think we are obsessed with a PC culture, but this is how we respect those around us.

  1. Don’t segregate

As I mentioned above, there is value in social time for young people. But they also want to interact with the congregation as a whole. They want to network with older congregants who may know more about the field of study they want to pursue. During Wednesday L3 lunch discussions, we had a variety of students participate, from graduate engineering students born in India to sophomore English majors. This group did not lack cohesion, nonetheless, and everyone involved was able to better learn from each other.

Happy Community Building!


Courtney Steininger

L3 Intern

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