Politically active young people need safe spaces

In honor of International Youth Day 2018 let’s discuss the importance of safe spaces for youth political agency and participation. Safe spaces can mean formal or informal spaces in which young people feel emotionally and physically safe, and can exist without discrimination for who they are or what they believe. While these spaces are formed for a variety of reasons, creating safe civic and political spaces can help young people securely participate in political processes, interact with political institutions and engage more meaningfully with decision-makers.

A safe space can also be:

  • A physical space that is informed by the accessibility and availability needs of all attendees
  • An opportunity to meet other young changemakers, build social capital and stay networked
  • The ability to participate in a political process, such as an election, in their own conscience and without the fear of violence
  • Being able to work in partnership with decision-makers, such as in a political party, without being discriminated against, harassed, tokenized or manipulated
  • The ability to express one's views on social media and through digital platforms without psychological abuse, harassment or bullying
  • An opportunity to discuss the mental and emotional toll of political participation, and a space to strategize about potential risks

Safe spaces have been well-documented havens for social justice advocates and human rights defenders. Behind the scenes of many social movements were spaces for activists to gather with a shared sense of community, and conversations that affirmed and validated their experiences. Youth-led social movements are connected to young people’s aspirations, their lived experiences and their grievances. The arduous effort required to create the space to participate can be a heavy responsibility for young people to bear. The safe spaces we encourage are for young people who have felt that participating in politics is unsafe, inaccessible, inflexible, draining and doesn’t change anything. We need to build an environment that is more responsive to the needs of young activists, and the challenge should not be for the young person to change – it is for communities and institutions to serve them better and encourage their activism.

Diverse groups of young people are facing different realities and attacks, such as those who encounter varying forms of discrimination or live in fragile and conflict-prone settings. Young women face barriers such as geographic isolation and social norms, which can restrict their movement or impact perceptions on their ability to participate. Intentional safe spaces must consider the increased challenges faced by those with multiple marginalized identities and be tailored to serve their unique needs. For example, a safe space can support young women in building their confidence and expertise, while connecting their narratives to those of other activists. Safe spaces also provide an opportunity for specific groups to have sensitive conversations – like breaking silences, discussing violence and trauma, or analyzing the implications of power dynamics – without putting them at increased risk.

NDI’s youth theory of change is focused on both strengthening young people’s agency as changemakers and fostering an enabling environment for their participation. Safe spaces can be used as a tool, within the framework of our theory of change, to build youth assets and develop relationships with power holders based on trust, respect and mutual cooperation. The core of our approach to youth development is to meet young people where they are – safe spaces help implementers do just that.

Three steps safe space implementers can take:

  1. Define safe spaces: Ensure young people are involved in leading the design of civic programs and ask them to define their needs for safe spaces; assist them to integrate their needs into program activities.
  2. Ask questions that evaluate risk: is there the potential that youth participation in this program, event or process may cause them harm? Can the harm be mitigated? Are young people aware of the risks?
  3. Maintain your safe space: Ensure processes are in place to regularly assess risks, such as a safety audit or community mapping. Encourage youth-allies to advocate for the rights and protection of young people.

It is vital that the encouragement of safe spaces does not end with separate, “youth-only” spaces. A safe space is essential because it serves the needs of the individuals, but ultimately harnesses a collective effort to influence change. Young people have demonstrated their eagerness to build knowledge, skills and confidence for political activism, and these spaces can be used as a critical opportunity to prompt constructive dialogue and direct action. What can be born is the resilience, motivation and strategic thinking necessary to continue in the face of adversity.