Trusting Ourselves and Welcoming Others: How we create brave and safe spaces in early learning
When we feel safe, it’s easier to be brave. We can share our ideas and speak our minds with the knowledge that our words will be met by others with openness and curiosity. Many of us, though, have lived, learned, and worked in spaces where we feel the need to leave our true selves at the door. We avoid asking questions and stay quiet, holding back our ideas for fear of saying something wrong.
Executive Director Judy Jablon and Director of Programs Nichole Parks had a conversation about how their earliest experiences stop them from speaking up and explored ways to overcome our fears to create safe and brave spaces for living and learning together.
Nichole: For me a brave space is all about trusting myself. It means that I trust that I can handle what might happen if I’m brave enough to speak up or speak out or stand up. There have been times that I felt like I was “slapped around” when speaking up. Now I trust that even if I’m not appreciated or understood, I am going to be okay — that I am resilient enough not to allow the biases and prejudices of others or a system to quiet my voice.
Judy: When I think about brave and safe spaces, I go right to what they are not. I immediately think of my fears of being wrong. I can still remember how in first grade, we had “round robin” reading and I couldn’t read the words on the page. I could count the words to find my place. I was scared and all my attention was focused on not losing count. I felt like I was hiding a shameful secret, and it stopped me from learning to read or finding joy in learning. I think this applies to adults too. We need to create spaces where all of us feel secure in being our whole selves, recognizing that it’s okay if we’re still learning. If we can’t bring who we are to our interactions, how can we create spaces where children feel respected, cared for, and curious?
NP: It seems to me that we can create these spaces in the ways we activate curiosity about others, especially children. One of the greatest gifts of embodying the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leaders is how I continue to become more self-aware, ask questions of myself, and challenge myself to understand diverse perspectives. I remember, for example, when a three-year-old child walked into my classroom and introduced his parents by their first names. I had a visceral reaction, and I remember how it challenged everything I believe about parent-child relationships, when this was just how this child chose to communicate. Looking back, it reinforces how we, as adults, have a lot of unlearning to do.
JJ: I realize that my historical and therefore ingrained tendency is to think about brave and safe spaces as binary: it’s either dangerous or safe — I’m terrified or I’m brave. The path to safe is slow and bumpy. When I first began letting go of the idea of “Judy the Trainer” — trying to create spaces for adults where there was an open, free expression of ideas, it was scary. I was easily threatened when somebody challenged me or created tension in the room. I didn’t have tools to navigate safety for myself and others at the same time. As I continue to cultivate self-awareness, I’m more able to notice when I get anxious or unsettled and focus on settling myself before engaging with others.
NP: I think resistance to different perspectives comes from fear, and we’re not born with this fear. As children, we’re curious and excited to follow that curiosity, until someone conveys a message that we did something wrong. How do we manage this? I’m thinking of a time when I was on vacation with my daughter. We went to the pool, and there was no one who looked like us. I felt my body tense, worrying about how we would be perceived. Was she being too loud? Were we drawing attention to ourselves? Would they look at her beautifully braided hair with hints of purple and label her? Then I heard a mom laugh and say to her, “I love your hair. How’d you get your hair like that?” Being the confident, amazing person she is, my daughter said, “My mother bought it and then my hairdresser braided it in.” I realized that my fear was nowhere on my daughter’s radar, and if I had followed my instinct, I would have transferred that fear on to her. It’s so important to cultivate self-awareness in the moments we feel fear and think of the impact our fears can have on others before we react.
JJ: Your story sparks memories of how much my mother projected her worries of not fitting in onto me. It began with my grandmother, who came to this country when she was 15. She did not want to be identified as Eastern European, as Jewish, as an immigrant, and she was so invested in assimilation. I guess my grandmother projected her embarrassment of not fitting in onto my mother. My mother grew up with embarrassment about her identity, and inadvertently transferred it to me as I was growing up. Gracie is blessed to have a mom with so much self-awareness.
NP: I grew up poor, and a lot of times my shoes had holes in them, and my clothes were old. There was a girl in my class named Keisha, who was always dressed like a princess. One day I was in the same group as Keisha for a project. I remember looking at our feet side by side and feeling ashamed and small. Mrs. Kennedy came over and said, “Okay, everybody, take off your shoes and put them in your bin.” In that moment, she created a safe space for me.
JJ: As I listen to your story, Nichole, it takes me back to my elementary school in Queens. To me, it felt like the Empire State Building. I was crying my eyes out as we walked into that great big school, my dad trying to reassure me how great school was going to be. When Miss Carlin greeted me at the classroom door, she said nothing about my tears. Instead, she said, “Judy, I’m so glad to meet you, and I have someone I want you to meet.” She took me by the hand to meet Caroline, who would become my best friend. That’s my first the first memory of school, when Miss Carlin created a safe and brave space by looking beyond my tears and helping me find a friend.
While fears and insecurities can be contagious, as Optimistic Leaders, we can cultivate self-awareness by understanding ourselves, our pasts, and our interactions with others to overcome feelings of insecurity. We can work to create safe and brave spaces to learn together. Here are a few strategies related to each of the Five Commitments to support us in shaping safe and brave spaces:
Think Impact — Consider environments where you felt confident and secure in expressing yourself. How can you help create these environments for others, conveying that their voices matter?
Cultivate Self-Awareness — Think back to your early memories: did you spend time in environments where others respected your ideas, or did you feel that you needed to stay quiet and rein yourself in? How might these early experiences affect the ways you show up for others?
Nurture Relationships — Think of some words or phrases you can use to welcome and highlight the skills and wisdom of others and celebrate their unique perspectives. How can you show others that you’re excited to learn from them?
Refine Communication — Even when you disagree with others, think of ways to invite a two-way dialogue. Could you ask questions to better understand the alternative perspective?
Activate Curiosity — Think of something you don’t know but would like to better understand. How can you invite input from a group to create an open, non-judgmental space of shared learning?