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8. The Death of DEI
  • Writer's pictureAntonio Da Veiga Rocha

More Than Fire-Alarm Safety

When one says the word Safe, the parameters of thought that come to mind for most people are actually quite similar. This is important as it doesn’t require an extraordinary landscape of imagination to identify it. Here at KinSite, when we find ourselves in the explorative discussions on safety in the social-work/learning space, we emphasize this very aspect - this commonality in thought. Most of us can agree, safety is something we all know we need and cherish, what becomes a bit more complex (if not contentious) is when we open the conversation of safety through the lens of social, emotional, and cultural needs.

I recently visited a private school to speak to the faculty about Safe Spaces and asked them what they thought was the number one concern for a parent regarding their kids and the school. As you can imagine there were quite a few answers: grades, guidance, discipline, college preparation, yet, interestingly, no one mentioned safety, which is actually the number one parent concern. When I said this you could hear the mumbles of ‘right, right, of course’. You see, it’s not that the faculty didn’t know this, it’s just that it's assumed. What we ask ourselves here at KinSite is: if safety is assumed and a prerequisite - an overarching and basic concern - why has it become such a contested practice in today’s institutions? Are we not all in general agreement with what the word means? Perhaps, less so than we think!

The Fire-Alarm Safety

During this faculty meeting I asked the attendants who was the safety officer in their classrooms. They said that they were. I continued, I imagine that during your orientation into this school you were taken around and explained most of the safety procedures of the building, and how to behave when such needs arise. I imagine also that you have a yearly review on the subject, told that you are the go-to person when the ‘alarm’ sounds and that you should follow all the safety procedures explained to you. This is the type of safety structure (safety definition) that comes to most people’s minds when we think of safety, the one which is still prioritized in most institutions, what we here call Fire-Alarm Safety. By many accounts, this can be understood - one’s physical safety is the catalyst for all other safeties - but safety is more than having in mind which exit door to use when the alarm rings, especially in multicultural societies.

I go on to tell the faculty that safety today is the overall wellbeing of each of their students, of their colleagues, and of themselves. It is a social concern, involving everyone in the social space. I then point out that if you have a yearly orientation on the school physical safety rules, why aren’t you having an orientation of a student’s and the social group's overall wellbeing? This is a need that is moving away from only identifying one’s physical safety, to a more social, emotional, and cultural landscape of being safe. So how do we define such holistic safeties and what does this broader definition of safety mean for today’s social work/learning spaces?

Social, Emotional, and Cultural Safety

The social and emotional characteristics of one’s needs are well documented in today’s society. It’s as if the doors have opened to this alertness and light is flowing in. This is especially true in learning spaces where a more comprehensive evaluation of how we learn is being studied. (I will note here that we shouldn’t only identify schools, colleges, etc. as learning spaces, as work sites are also learning spaces, increasingly so, with more attention being placed on trainings, personal and professional development, knowledge growth, and more.) Social and Emotional safety identifies the interactive people-to-people matrix in one’s day-to-day, and how such interactions impact one’s ability to feel involved, motivated, included, attended to, supported, etc. We tend to focus more on the youth population when we speak of Social and Emotional safety (rightly so at times as we’re helping to build their adult blocks) but we’re understanding more and more that adults are increasingly in need of this new cognizance, as many social environments produce toxic moments and spaces which can lead to the opposite effects of the safety characteristics mentioned above.

Cultural Safety somehow has not been included in these newer safety markers (Social and Emotional) though it should be, and this is likely because it is a complex area. The reality is that we are increasingly living in multicultural societies and the likelihood that you will encounter multicultural existences increases year to year.

There are many studies and debates on the effectiveness of multiculturalism, and much contestation as well, but one thing it has given us is an understanding of its complexity. It’s important to understand two basic definitions of culture for our purposes. Miriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group - also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. These definitions tell us that in study such combinations of characteristics can be endless in multicultural spaces, and in practice we can already witness daily insights into their experiments. So, being aware of someone’s cultural safety needs can be a complicated journey, but an essential one if we are to think of the wellbeing of all.

Here are five things you should keep in mind about Cultural Safety work:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the definition of culture, which states that customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits are part of the make-up of culture.

  2. Understand that multicultural societies are REAL, and that by their distinctive nature they almost always produce mixed-cultures and/or subcultures.

  3. It is a multifarious practice because cultures are diverse by nature. This automatically strengthens diversity work and diversity awareness.

  4. It accentuates the efforts often sought in Social and Emotional work, by better understating one’s cultural markers and using it to build inclusion and belonging.

  5. The contemporary reality of multi-culture living is an inevitable human presence based on our historical corridors. We all live in the same house, we were bound to run into each other at some point!

The Complexities of Safety are Real.

One’s overall wellbeing contains all the safeties mentioned above, physical, social, emotional, and cultural, and it is indeed a complex undertaking. Sometimes we may feel it best to take a more passive role, one that dismisses such complexities, minimizes the human experience to a few sets of factors, and distances us from many of our shared human responsibilities. The passive role means we don’t have to put in the work of studying differences: the multifaceted social platform that is contemporaneous life. Here at KinSite we encourage and work towards building the Active individual.

Allowing institutions to practice only Fire-Alarm Safety is a passive approach in this holistic project. Institutions find it comfortable to only attend to this sector because of its long and established history. There is a lot of shared information on how to practice it, there is also uniformity and familiarity which provides guidelines and assurances. But there is also another motivating force behind such willingness to comply, and that is law. Fire-Alarm Safety is dictated by pages and pages of regulations and guidance, and the penalties are often severe; the other safeties don't have such regulations and commonalities.

Both pillars, uniformity and regulations, make it easier for institutions to attend to this type of care, but we need to confront the makeup of our human complexities. What this often constitutes is an exploration and review of one’s own safety needs, unpacking what is and has been unsafe in one’s life and social surroundings, and understanding the diversity in one's lived experiences. It means constantly learning and being involved in one's cultural make up and in others', building one's repertoire of cultural experiences that are not only guided by the arts but by multicultural community involvement. It means reaching out to others' spaces of culture practice and learning through activities and through the removal of ignorance. It also means believing that we should all be holistically well, not just physically safe.


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