thoughts

Brave spaces make learning possible

By Hala Aurangzeb and Tahia Ahmed

On December 10th, 2019

When does learning begin, and what makes learning possible? At The Inner Activist, we are deeply aware that possibility is an indication of deeper conditions of power. What is possible for one person and not the other is not simply circumstantial but is defined by the social and political structures that shape people's lives.

We began our course Conscious Use of Power this fall, by introducing the learning zone. The learning zone is that sweet spot between having our normative worldviews celebrated and the sensation of being overwhelemd by the confrontation of ideas that we have never experienced, and which threaten our sense of self. Our invitation is for participants to expand their learning zone in both directions so that what challenges their sense of self and other, over time, becomes fertile ground for unlearning and more learning.

The Inner Activist adopted this tool as an alternative to the practice of establishing guidelines for a "safe" space. As bodies that are differently located in the world, we understand the spaces of organized learning and political capacity building to always be shaped by these forces. Historically, "safety" has been a tool by which the powerful are kept safe from the marginalized "other". The promise of safety in the context of our complex world not only cannot be guaranteed, but may in fact perpetuate the very myths that we seek to unlearn. Does a safe space for learning assume that those who experience the privilege of feeling safe in most contexts are also the ones who are learning best?

In fact, how far can safety be extended in the context of unpacking harm, oppression, and violence? 

In our programming we turn this assumption on its head. We believe that transformative learning requires something different: brave spaces. By commemorating the learning trajectory and tools of social activists, who have always unpacked the ways that power functions through their precarious situations, we have modeled our courses on this premise. Brave spaces require participants to step into their agency and take responsibility for their own learning and for naming their needs.

Using our agency requires us to become attuned to the signals from our body — where is there opening, tension, fatigue, heat? Most of us, especially individuals targeted by capitalism, white supremacy, colonization, and cis-hetero patriarchy, are conditioned to function in ways that are contrary to this. Our nervous systems are constantly activated by micro-aggression, exclusion, and violence.

Our courses cultivate ways to be able to think about power, while being in the midst of it. Of learning to step out, to say no, to flex our critical, ethical, and intuitive abilities while also holding steady the realities of the world we live in. The courses at Inner Activist do not seek to repeat, but to augment the lessons from anti-oppression frameworks and take them to the next level. This challenge, we believe, requires a courageous tone for learning, to stretch the boundaries of our vulnerability.

The Inner Activist is committed to creating the conditions where vulnerability can be a choice and not a condition of our oppression. When the conditions are right and we are held by community, we can be brave enough to exercise our agency so that learning is made possible.

For further reading:
From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces by Brian Arao & Kristi Clemens

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