The Safe spAces For lEarning (SAFE) project aims to investigate the triangular relationship between safety and space, extending from the actual space, to the online space and the mentality in one’s own sense of creating and seeking safety. The project has been funded with the support of the Erasmus+ programme and is coordinated by Escola Profissional Amar Terra Verde (EPATV) from Portugal. The consortium includes five other partners: DAFNI KEK (Greece), PATATRAC (Italy), EAEA (Belgium), VHS Vienna (Austria) and the International Council for Adult Education (Serbia).
While project partners represent different profiles, ranging from adult learning providers to European and global associations, what they all share is a belief that a safe space is necessary to encourage equal participation in adult learning, especially among vulnerable groups.
“DAFNI KEK has been part of the SAFE project from the very first stages of the conception of its idea,” says Angeliki Giannakopoulou, Project Manager at DAFNI KEK. “The idea was to co-create a project that will outspokenly advocate for the recognition of adult education premises as safe spaces, and provide the means for adult educators, adult learners and adult education organisations to consciously create and maintain safe spaces for adult learning”. Giannakopoulou adds that the project idea was directly linked to the lived experience of learners, the diversity of the structures, the ways and the contents of each unique learning group and process.
“Having the opportunity to tackle the political connotations of lifelong learning and adult education is significant, especially in this day and age, where safeties of systematically excluded people and groups are being disregarded or even worse withheld. Through projects like SAFE we aim to see how Europe can envision a future of understanding and hands-on solidarity,” says Giannakopoulou.
A new understanding of safe spaces
“Having a safe space for educational and/or learning activities,both live and online, has a crucial value in the educational relationship,” says Paola Maciarello on behalf of Patatrac. “A safe space should have certain special characteristics, namely, a place where people do not feel judged and feel at ease again; where they can express themselves, find listening, and perceive welcome. It’s a space where people move smoothly and where the relationship is perceived as equal and inclusive,” she summarises.
Other partners add that while the concept of spaces has been discussed extensively in recent years, the project brings a fresh and much-needed perspective.
“Safe spaces for learning is an important, popular concept, but the idea and the principles it is based on are not so new,” says Katarina Popović, Secretary-General of the International Council for Adult Education, who led the collaborative work on the Learning Guide. “We wanted to explore the new understanding of safe spaces, to check deeper what is behind the phrase, what are the contemporary additions to the concept and to see some good practices that we may apply in our work.”
Safe space as a context-bound concept
The first results have been produced collaboratively by all partners. As a first step, partners shared best practices in creating and maintaining safe spaces for learning, which were collected in a visual library. They also carried out a set of focus groups whose outcomes were analysed in a report entitled “Safe Spaces in everyday life: Coping with struggle and oppression in everyday life systems. The Why, the What, the Who, the Where and the How”. The report looks at safe spaces from the perspective of both adult educators and learners, who share what safe spaces mean to them, whose responsibility it is to organise safe spaces, and where such spaces can – or cannot – be found.
“So far, the work on the focus groups and collating the report proved to be the most interesting part for us,” comments Thomas Fritz on behalf of the team from VHS Vienna, who drafted the report. “To see that the concept of a safe space is something that cannot be generalised and is always dependent on the individual’s context was most enlightening.”
The idea of a safe space as a context-bound concept is brought further in the Learning Guide, which looks at case studies from diverse communities, such as marginalised groups of women and LGBTIQA+ refugee groups. The guide also discusses the role of institutions in creating safe spaces for learning, learning settings as elements of a safe space, and methodologies in the context of safe learning spaces.
The way ahead
All project partners agree that the collaboration on the project outputs has been insightful.
“The main takeaway is a result of group processes, exchange with partners, critical and fruitful discussions: realising that every good adult education centre should be a safe space for learners, but that there are groups that deserve more attention. There are situations and topics that require more effort and better prepared trainers,” says Popović.
According to Maciarello and her colleagues, already starting a discussion on safe spaces is an important step.
“One of the main achievements so far is that we have initiated a discussion with psychologists, sociologists, educators and trainers working in different parts of Italy on the topic,” she says. “During the focus groups planned for IO1, this fruitful discussion and collaboration began, which will perhaps lead to a publication with an independent publishing house in Naples on the topic of safe spaces.”
“It has been really eye-opening seeing all the different ways people strive to claim or reclaim safe spaces in the public domain as well as in more closed communities of learning,” adds Giannakopoulou. “The creation of the first intellectual output of the project was a process of constant reflection on these very diverse ways and abstract concepts of safety that relate to different contexts. We really hope that the way that we have tried to conceptualise these intriguing but complex reflections will encourage the creation and maintenance of safe spaces in adult learning.”
The visual library of best practices in safe spaces in adult learning, the report on focus groups and the learning guide are currently available on the SAFE project website.