Safe spaces. This is the theme of this year’s Internationa Youth Day. The UN started this initiative in 1998 to give attention to the role of youth in improving their communities and raise awareness regarding some challenges that they face. To inform this year’s theme the UN has stated that 1 out of every 10 children live in conflict zones and that 24 million are currently out of school to show that safe spaces remain problematic. While safe spaces exist in many forms ranging from emotional to physical safe spaces they simply do not exist for some people. Fortunately, I got to be part in creating one and see what its effect was.
– Lucas Barinanga, One Young World The Hague Ambassador
It was easier for me to imagine how physical safe spaces play a role in the development of youth than to understand how emotional safe spaces play that role. Yet, during a summer camp for 16-18 year olds in Belgium that I delivered this and last year that started to become clearer. The camp is part of the UWC movement and treated themes such as leadership, empathy, social responsibility, and global citizenship with around 45 participants.
As a facilitator during the camp we had to deliver workshops and activities. We worked hard and long before the camp to plan and design these workshops and activities. There were workshops on empathic communication, non-violent communication, sexuality, spirituality, amongst many others. In the planning they were the focus of the day. I thought that they were the reason why the camps had been a success for the participants. However, I was surprised to realise that in reality these workshops were secondary in the impact they had on participants. After discussing and observing with the participants both during and after the camp I saw that the real impact came from feeling safe and accepted in a community.
Part of the reason why many of them felt safe in this tiny community was because they were selected on the basis of their values, their proactiviness, and their maturity. Alike One Young World this had brought together a bunch of similarly aged individuals who might have felt like the odd ones out in their schools, families, etc. I remember one of them telling me that he was strange because they had such a strong and intimate bond to their peers at the camp which would otherwise have grown over years, not two weeks.
Being with like-minded people had allowed them to feel like they were being truly judged for who they were, not how they looked, spoke, or worshipped like. This was despite having a very culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse group of participants. Feeling accepted as themselves visibly led to many of them letting their guard down and stop pretending to be someone else. They started as taking the risk to show off their quirky talents such as putting a nail up their nose or having the courage to freestyle beat-box. They felt safe enough within the group to show their true colors, allowing themselves to build on their true selves and thereby grow confidence to continue doing that.
This was a truly heartening experience to help facilitate. Even if it was hard to accept that my complicated workshops were merely fillers for the real changemaking force: community and safe space. I have been lucky to have been able to offer and have received that experience in my life. Yet, I wondered how this feeling of community and safe spaces sat with my generation. The millennial generation (in many ways the One Young World generation) feels the loneliest and in many ways social media has gotten the blame for this (we did not allow social media during the camp). Furthermore, the feeling of community in Europe and North America has also been argued to have been on the decline the downfall of the church and neighbours growing less integrated (Bowling Alone: Robert D. Putnam). This is problematic as I have seen the positive effects having a safe space and intimate community can have for someone. Not everyone can attend a summer camp, and younger people are using social media more extensively, and so the question for me is: ‘With less youth feeling safe and accepted in their communities, how can we ensure that they gain the confidence and experience to become the best versions of themselves?’
Lucas Barinanga, One Young World The Hague Ambassador