January 26, 2017

Moving from Safe to Brave

When I was a young girl, my mother sent me to the corner drugstore to see if I could make a purchase without anyone knowing I couldn’t hear. You see, my mom believed that being able to pass as hearing would keep me safe.

My deaf mother grew up without signing because, again, her parents felt that being able to pass or blend in with the rest of the world would keep her safe.

I was a young woman before I discovered signing — and an entire universe of expression. I didn’t know it, but before I learned to sign I was impoverished. I had denied myself — or the world had denied me — a richness and depth of authentic interaction. Trying to pass as hearing had kept me impoverished in my spirit, strength and vitality.

College Board Website Features President Jane Fernandes

I shared this story as part of my presentation on creating brave spaces at the recent College Board Higher Ed Colloquium, where I had the privilege of sharing a panel stage with Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system and president of the University of Houston, and Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College.

Overcoming Impoverished Communities

My assertion is we all have a tendency to create impoverished communities, where everyone looks alike and thinks alike. We hide our disabilities and imperfections — rather than choosing to learn more about ourselves by opening our hearts and minds to people who are different from us.

Here at Guilford College we strive to create a unique community in which everyone has all options open to them. We have a commitment to diversity and respect for all voices.

We experienced the transformative power of those voices last year when a group of committed students — known as Integrity for Guilford — brought forward critical issues related to equality and social justice. One demand centered on safe spaces. Integrity for Guilford asked to be as safe on campus as white students are — in classes, residence halls, bathrooms and board rooms.

Safe Isn’t Good Enough

Over the past semester, with our focus on the U.S. presidential election, I reflected on the students' concept of safe space as I understand it from my own life. This year, I have explored the idea of “brave space,” a concept created by social justice educators Brian Arao and Kristi Clemmons.

In brave spaces, students with differences learn to hold their own positions while allowing other students space to hold their positions absent dismissal or judgment.

Learning how to listen deeply to those who have different experiences and beliefs than our own is an essential student success skill. Profound disagreements should not erode community; they should serve as opportunities for strengthening community as we build bridges of understanding.

For our communities, families and ourselves, we must make certain no one is so defined by their circumstances that they don’t have empowering options to thrive and help us solve the world’s problems. Brave spaces on colleges campuses are one valuable way to assure our communities are authentic and relevant to the real world.