Sustaining Brave Space

Often we hear, “But the divisions are so deep, what can we do?” Living into a vision of deep inclusion is a daunting expectation. It means continually changing ourselves and our communities. It’s hard for actions to match words, again and again, yet as Unitarian Universalists this is what we are called to do. At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll consider the collective courage is takes to sustain consistently brave space as a foundation for deep inclusion.


Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning, September 15, 2019

Sustaining Brave Space

There was something about this past Wednesday – a beautiful clear, warm day – that took me back to September 11, 2001. I hadn’t been returned to that day for many years in such a visceral way.

Where were you that day in 2001? How did you learn of the events?

This year I found myself watching documentaries about ‘9/11’ – in particular several National Geographic shows. I was just drawn to them. I heard Garrett Graff, the author of the just-released  book “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11” interviewed on the radio, and immediately bought his book. On Wednesday I drove by the Pentagon and found a place to take pictures. A flag was draped on the repaired section of the building – a huge flag, yet dwarfed by the size of the building.

I recalled not feeling safe on 9/12, or 9/13, or for weeks, or for months after the event. What do you recall?

I was in my mid 40s. My children were 12, 10 and 8. How dare someone make me feel unsafe? We’d never flown a flag at our house and after ‘9/11’ we did for the next 6 months. My own safety generally had never been on my worry list. I’d known a young adult killed in a car accident, and seen a house a few blocks away after a fire. I’d seen tornado damage. And Bill was mugged once.

Risks for sure, but irregular and distant. The police and fire departments were ready to protect me. I knew war was vicious, yet it was distant. Our military would protect me.  Something about safety changed for me 18 years ago. And too, I am so aware that many Americans never felt the safety I’d known prior to 9/11. Many of us were now learning to live with an undertone of uncertainty.

As I think about safety, I’m also aware that mass shootings have us raising questions on safety. I’m aware that 24/7 news cycles and a smart phone that makes a peculiar accident 1000 miles away in a town I’ve never heard of feel real.

Safety. To be protected from harm. To feel protected. To be a protector.

Can we expect to be safe? Is there a base case where we can all thrive in safety, or is safety a luxury we should no longer expect, for those of us used to safety that is? Are we braced for what might be next? Are practical, reasonable safeguards in place? Do we want to live always feeling we need to brace ourselves

Safety, whether physical or emotional, is a series of compromises and trade-offs.

Sometimes government is the voice of safety in society. Cigarettes can’t be advertised or sold to teens, or seat belts need to be in cars, or sprinklers are required in buildings. Freedom and regulation are often in tension. Vaccinations? marijuana? Where do we draw lines? If lines are drawn, risks are still there. Who is liable for what?

Who is the most vulnerable? What spreads a sense of safety?

Even before 9/11, my UU church worked to create ‘safe spaces.’ We talked of being a place of learning where all would feel heard and respected. We had newly formed small groups – we called them Covenant Groups –where deep exploration of hard topics was the goal. As a group we’d meet monthly and talk about belonging, and mystery, and death, and God…name the topic. We’d agree by covenant – by promises to one another – to listen deeply, and share the talking time, and to show up, and to maintain confidentiality. We were in covenant was to create ‘safe spaces’ where conversations across differences would be welcomed; where everyone would be heard. Where trust would grow and where members would take the risk of being vulnerable.

As UUs we look to setting and sustaining covenant – promises to one another – seriously. It matters ‘how’ we are with one another. Covenants are not rules, but promises to one another. It doesn’t mean no one will be hurt or feel discomfort; that wasn’t possible to control. Covenant could offer a bar of what can be expected: listening with care, and of respecting differing views, and of considering our own biases and the impact on others are about the community we are creating.

And we are human. Promises will be broken over and over, and covenant offers too a path of return. We call one another back to the shared expectation. Over time, we’ve learned how hard this is. UUs put at the forefront the ‘how’ of interacting with one another and so we keep working on it. .

And our own processes aren’t perfect. We needed to think about ‘safe spaces.’ Safe for whom, and why? Had our small group ministry program adopted the term (and concept of) ‘safe spaces’ out of context?

Some of the ‘safe space’ history ties back to the LGBTQ movements. Decades ago safe spaces were formed to work through identity, and policy and advocacy when your sexual orientation was not known in public. From there campuses started picking up on the value of making space for marginalized groups. In a nutshell a safe space is a “place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” Source:

Campuses working on safe space began to struggle. ‘Safety’ as a concept has us ask, who is protected from what and by whom? Where is the balance between the right to be safe and the right free speech? Where was an open discourse of ideas being squelched? Were ‘safe spaces’ more about comfort or safety?

For UUs these are theological questions. They are integral to our asking, ‘Who is included?’ ‘Whose freedom is at stake?’ ‘Who faces danger?’

In a paper ‘Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals’ Diana Ali looks at the history and a change in ‘safe space’ language (and concept( which started around 2013. Was ‘safe’ space what was needed, or ‘brave’ space or both?

If a safe space is a “place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to emotional or physical harm,” maybe ‘brave space’ was needed. What would a space need to look like for differing ideas to be ‘debated’ in some way; how could there be discourse that was constructive; how might conversations consider a greater good. How might members of the community to express themselves, challenge one another in a positive way, and learn from one another?

Ali discusses the concept of ‘brave space’ which was emerging. Principles in brave space included:

“Controversy with civility,” … “Owning intentions and impacts,” (students acknowledge and discuss instances where a dialogue has affected the emotional well-being of another person) …  “Challenge by choice,” (students have an option to step in and out of challenging conversations) …  “Respect,” (students show respect for one another’s basic personhood) … and finally, “No attacks” (where students agree not to intentionally inflict harm on one another).

I have heard these guidelines in many settings, in various forms. Who is helped by defining such spaces? Does this really open up fresh dialogue, or leave those with privilege and dominant status pontificating? Do all person’s views need the same attention? What helps those most afraid share authentically? What stifles views?

Brave space is not a solution or an easy set of expectations. The challenge comes in living into the promises.

The research, done primarily in academic settings, finds there is value in having both ‘brave spaces’ and ‘safe spaces.’  Particularly for those from historically marginalized groups there is value to having set aside ways to gather. It is supportive of those who enter those spaces, and it sends a signal to others that their voices deserve full power.  And we need brave spaces to invite the sharing of ideas across a broader spectrum, with ways of expressing disagreements in accountable ways, and where there is recognition of impact as well as intent. Not always comfortable, but the place of stretching.

How do we do the intentional work of making room?Is there a need to find a stance of comfort to enter the learning, or is this shielding groups from diverse ideas?

How do we want to shape this space here at UUFE? I’ve heard, as long as we’re just kind and respectful to one another, that is enough. Enough for who? And here I return to my lens this year of deep inclusion. What makes space for all – across ages, across genders, across race and ethnicity, across theological perspectives

Are we a brave space today? What is sustainable? It’s hard for actions to match words, again and again, yet as Unitarian Universalists this is what we are called to do.

Where in your life do you want to be surrounded by brave space? Space where communication is respected, and where difference is not only named as present, but celebrated? Where do you want to have your own ideas challenged in ways that actually may have you change? I ask because these are questions without easy answers. These are questions where our sense of who we are can be rocked – spaces where we leave less steady than when we arrived, at least some of the time.

It’s easier to choose not to interact – to avoid conflict – stick to our own. Yet this is isolating and lets fear fester.

What really makes brave space work? As ‘brave space’ has been reviewed they’ve researched dynamics which matter. In a recent survey they found, “A brave space classroom had an unbiased professor who often adopted ground rules, peers who spoke openly and honestly, and seating arrangements that allowed everyone to see each other…”

If we follow this recipe of sorts, how do we create brave space here? When we add the covenant of right relations (on wall back by kitchen) do our promises help frame our ever-changing group as ‘brave space.’

One of the consequences of ‘9/11’ is a greater awareness of our fears, our sense of difference, our yearning for safety – all part of it.

And too we hope to find the way to a new collective courage where divisions are challenged, systemic disparities are names, and we return again and again to our expectation for ‘brave space.’ For me it’s the standard for meetings, and Adult Enrichment, for our children’s RE, and for Sundays. It will look different and feel different in time, but the skill and willingness to facilitate brave spaces is worth cultivating. The world is complex. What we can learn locally together helps us model what we want in the world.

Our faith asks us to always consider how to make room. We are called to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all. Our principles and our covenant call us to look across the landscape and ask about the fundamental safety of all. What spreads power to those who have had the least? Where are opportunities created? Or stifled? How does the sharing of power fit with safety?

Hard questions, and too we come together each Sunday and during the week not to just debate ideas, but to be specific in how we gather – how we open a space for those who are new, or shy, or boisterous to find a place – to sense they matter and help others feel they matter.

We come together for fundamental connection – to feel whole; to feel a bit braver together.

We close with words of Micky ScottBey Jones (inspired by an unknown author’s poem).

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know,
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together, and
We will work in it side by side.


May It Be So



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *