Stepping into the learning zone in SAFER space

Riikka Lehtinen, Peace Education Institute, words
Heli Pekkonen, Peace Education Institute, images and videos

Power, privilege and prejudice are the core reasons of why and how discriminatory practices come to life and stay in place. The Finnish Peace Education Institute coordinates the Erasmus+ project SAFER with six other partners from Estonia, Slovenia and Finland to provide teachers and other professionals with tools and skills to tackle hate speech, discriminatory bullying, and excluding practices in schools. In the project, we look more closely at how power relations, privileges, and prejudices affect the educational systems, structures and traditions.

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The quote from the author and activist Robert Jones Jr. made the participants of SAFER mentor training quiet down in serious self-reflection and opened a space for critical discussion.

The EU-funded project SAFER started 2019 with training of mentors in Pärnu and the first training of teachers in Kokkola, Finland. The participants of the SAFER mentor trainings are all educators of a different kind: teachers, NGO workers, LGBTIQ+ rights activists and career coaches. Later in 2019, they are going to start working as mentors for teachers participating in SAFER trainings and support them in tackling hate speech, discrimination and racism in schools. The participants carry on bringing the tools that they have acquired into their school communities in order to benefit their pupils’ wellbeing and ensure their equality.

The project SAFER focuses on transforming schools into safer spaces. The name is an acronym for “Schools Act For Equal Rights” that the trainers and pedagogical developers of the project came up with to express the core idea and goal of the project. “Safe(r) space” is a term originally referring to spaces that were created by people with marginalized identities to be and feel safe. The term is nowadays understood more broadly and used to express that no discrimination is allowed or accepted in places, groups, gatherings, or events that have safer space guidelines. The goal in using guidelines to tell people what kind of behaviour is wished for is to create inclusion and true participation in discussion and change-making. Through affecting people’s behaviour and bringing their attention to power relations the aim is to change the status quo of power hierarchies in the society: make space for marginalized voices, that would otherwise be silenced, build inclusion and belonging and support equal opportunities. In the project the aim is to bring this thinking to schools and give teachers necessary tools and attitudes to make schools into safer spaces: places that are safe for students and teachers of marginalized groups to be themselves, participate and belong without fear of being excluded, bullied or discriminated against.

According to the participants in SAFER trainings, teachers need opportunities to learn about building equality and inclusion so that they can educate their pupils and provide them with the life-skills they need. Learning starts when we have the courage to step out of the comfort zone into the learning zone, where we are faced with uncomfortable truths and the insecurity of not being certain. For teachers, this might mean critical evaluation of their own work and practices of their school community from the point of view of equality and power relations. It also means confronting one’s own internalized prejudices and power positions. Acknowledgement is the root of learning and finding new, sustainable solutions. Sometimes learning means that we have to un-learn old attitudes, thought patterns or beliefs. The change of attitudes and behaviour does not, however, lie solely in personal growth, but also requires structural change. Unseen hierarchies of power differences still exist in the society but for people who live lives of privilege, it is often easy to think that safety, equality, and peace already prevails in the society and in schools. It can be difficult to see that for minority identities and marginalized identities this is not the case. It makes it even harder, that we need to realize we are a part of the problematic systems and structures that uphold discriminatory practices and oppression. At the same time, we need to find the hope that keeps up the attitude that, as we are a part of the problem, we also have to be a part of the solution.  

For many participants, the training offered a welcomed and much-hoped-for forum for reflection and discussion with colleagues about issues such as hate speech, violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination in their community where they themselves are involved. Teachers need time and space to analyse how societal power relations manifest in their school, how they themselves are involved, and how they could tackle the issues in their work and community.  

One of the fundamental ideas of the project is to try to invent new models for transforming schools into safer spaces, learning from both good and bad practices. The ideas are collected through seven partners from Finland, Estonia and Slovenia: Peace Education Institute, Educational Department of Kokkola, Mondo NGO, Noored Kooli, Tamsalu Gümnasium, Ljubljana Pride, and Osnovna šola Nove Fužine. During the two-and-half-year project the practices, tools and methods will be collected and put together into a web course, a tool kit and a model of transformation for schools. The three partner schools of the project will carry out a transformation process that considers all factors, subjects and layers of school life: all the staff, the whole environment and pedagogical practices are looked at through a critical lens and adjusted accordingly.  

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Robert Jones Jr.

The educational system has a key role in the transformation process. Schools are places where the youngest members of society learn the norms of interaction, participation and active citizenship. They learn what and who is accepted or ostracized and excluded; whose voices are not heard in the society; who are not visible in the discussions; who has to keep their true self a secret or be exiled. Teaching the young what it means to be socially, politically, emotionally and physically safe gives them tools to build participation in the society, to be an active citizen, to analyse power structures, to fight discrimination and build a more equal world. The innovation of the project is that if we make schools into safer spaces for children and the youth who have marginalized identities, then the school community and environment as a whole will become physically, emotionally and socially safer for all. If we as communities work to take care of all our members, the work will nourish the whole society.

No place can be totally safe. The people who belong to privileged groups still have a lot of work to do to become aware of all the different forms of discrimination and microaggressions that marginalized identities face. That is why we have to aim to transform our school communities into safer spaces.