Too Big to Fail

Apparently, in the autism world, there’s a concept of “too big to fail.”

Autism Speaks, apparently, is too big to fail.

Autistic self-advocates and our allies have been speaking very loudly, nearly unanimously (like anything, we won’t all agree, but we almost all agree on this) that Autism Speaks is doing more harm than good in the autism world. Autism Speaks promotes an agenda that speaks to fear and prejudice, affirming that fear and prejudice among supporters and volunteers. It speaks to the first thing that goes through a parent’s mind when they hear their child is autistic: “The world’s ended. Your child has been stolen. You won’t have a life. You’re marriage will fall. You really should have built that bomb shelter.” Okay, maybe not the last one, but they absolutely echo that message – despite plenty of parents disagreeing with it (and a large reason for these feelings is the fear and prejudice that Autism Speaks promotes).  But don’t take my word for it – search for “What is wrong with Autism Speaks” and you’ll get plenty of others who feel like I do. I’ll give one link here, from Emma’s Hope Book: What is Wrong with Autism Speaks. But I’m going to assume that most readers of this blog either just did a bit of Googling or read Emma’s link (or any number of other links out there that say the same thing).

So, we’ve been boycotting Autism Speaks and seeking to let their sponsors know we don’t like money going to an organization that makes our life difficult.

In the midst of this, we hear people dismayed that we would not seek to engage and work with Autism Speaks. Well, let me start by saying: we tried. Seriously. Many, many of us tried to engage with Autism Speaks. They do not want autistic people to have a seat at their table, except for a PR role. We’re good for publicity and fundraising, but not actually for coming up with thoughts about what would make our lives better.

But, ignoring that (and this effort continues – should Autism Speaks seek to engage in a meaningful way with autistic people, I’m sure they will have no shortage of ways to engage), there are two main reasons people say we should “engage” and not protest. First, they say “Autism Speaks does good things too.” Typically, they’ll mention local chapters that somehow do something good. Second, they’ll say, “Autism Speaks is the largest, best funded Autism organization and could do a lot of good if they could be pointed in the right direction.”

I’m not going to discuss the first right now, other than saying that while Autism Speaks does occasionally do something good, they do a heck of a lot more bad.

As for the second reason, it’s essentially, “Autism Speaks is big.” Yes, we know that. Of course they are – they are well funded, and spend almost all their resources to grow. Not through helping people, or even research (yes they spend money on research, and, no, autistic people do not oppose research; however, they spend more on salaries and marketing). I’ll add that I’m not comfortable supporting a research organization that can’t understand their own research – but my point is not about research. It’s this idea that if we don’t support this big organization, we won’t have any voice at all.

Let me start by saying that having Autism Speaks not speak would not hurt me or others at all. Nor would it hurt the vast majority of autistic people. In fact, it would allow other organizations that do understand research, that do understand autism, that do care about prejudice and groundless fear, to speak out.

Might doesn’t make right.

Nor is Autism Speaks likely to change course anytime soon. I hope that our efforts to get their attention by letting their sponsors know that donating to Autism Speaks is anything but non-controversial has an impact. I hope Autism does change course. But right now they aren’t doing anything that helps autistic people. Seriously.

A big oil terminal. Exxon-Mobil De-Kastri Terminal (public domain, by russian.dissident via Wikimedia Commons)

A big oil terminal. Exxon-Mobil De-Kastri Terminal (public domain, by russian.dissident via Wikimedia Commons)

We might as well volunteer and donate money to Exxon. After all, Exxon is big. Way bigger than Autism Speaks. And if Exxon wanted to help autistic people, they could do a wonderful job of it with the resources they have. Sure, if you sent a $100 check to Exxon, they probably wouldn’t actually use that to help autistic people. But neither does Autism Speaks. And that’s the point.

If you want to support an organization that encourages discrimination and fear of a minority population, go ahead and mail your check to Autism Speaks for Christmas. But I can suggest a lot of better uses for your money. The first one that comes to mind is ASAN, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. Go read about them. They could do a lot of good with your money.

But don’t just give to Autism Speaks. And don’t you dare tell me that I should support them because they are big.

Why I’m Proud of my Community (including our allies!)

This week has been good and bad.

A major autism organization started this off by posting a really horrible essay (the comments are actually good on this one, though – another thing that makes me proud of my community) about their policy summit. Besides for other horrible stuff in the essay (we’ll get to that), the actual summit will apparently consist of a bunch of people chosen by Autism Speaks to tell government “what autism says.” One group is absent though: autistic people. Our voice isn’t important to the group that claims to tell people what autism says.

Immediately, several autistic-run organizations sprang into action. I was thrilled to see an organization I’m part of, Association for Autistic Community, quickly decide, YES, this is something we need to speak out about. We joined with ASAN, an autistic-run group that is extremely effective in advocating for the well-being of autistic people, in issuing a joint statement about what Autism Speaks has done.  But we weren’t the only ones to make a statement: Autism Women’s Network made a statement of their own.

Then, we saw a powerful advocate organize a protest of the Summit. From all accounts, it was a successful protest.

See that? In the span of about 48 hours, we’ve (autistic people, that is) issued formal statements and organized a successful protest against an event. But, uh, sure, we’re not qualified to sit at the table for discussions about what to do about the problem of our existence put on by an organization claiming to understand something intrinsic to our being.

I’m proud that our community did this.

But that’s not all we did. Many, many autistic bloggers wrote about the event. Here’s just a few:

Of course some of us did a bit more digging. Lydia discovered that Judge Rotenberg Center was one of the featured exhibitors at the Washington DC Autism Speaks Autism Walk (edit: I thought it was an upcoming walk, but it was a past walk). Lest you don’t know about JRC, you can watch the below horrific video used in a trial against them:

Again, this video is very disturbing, only click if you can handle that. In the video, a kid is shocked for refusing to remove his coat.

Ironically, Autism Speaks previously issued a statement against the use of shock by JRC. Now, they featured them as a resource to parents at their most well-known event, their autism walk. Disturbing indeed. For what it’s worth, the trial ended in a settlement. I’m proud our community stands up to this and continues to fight – and publicized the support given by Autism Speaks to the only school in the USA to use electric shock to discipline students (and, yes, other students get students that had problems in other programs, a common refrain used by people to justify awful behavior).

This morning, another surprise event – John Elder Robison, one of the only (if not the only) autistic voices on an Autism Speaks advisory panel, resigned. He wasn’t the only one. A mom, invited by Autism Speaks, who personally knew Suzanne Wright (one of the founders), spoke out about the hate as well in one of the most powerful pieces written this week.

But this wasn’t all – our other allies have been here too. Parents are fed up with being told that their kid is a horrible, diseased, terrible, a drain on society, and destroying their families. And they’ve shown themselves to be the allies we (and their children need) – and very much in disagreement that they aren’t “living” but merely existing (as, apparently, a family with an autistic family member exists, and doesn’t live, according to Autism Speaks). They’ve all written brilliant texts that show their main worry about Autism Speaks isn’t political gain, but rather the well-being of their child. Autism Speaks hurts their children.


(edit: I also came across this after I made the initial post) And then there’s people like Spaz Girl who aren’t parents of autistic or autistics but might be classified as “just an ally” (there is no such thing as “just an ally” – you all are very important). She wrote This is the Week that Autism Speaks Meets its Downfall.

(edit: added to the original post) Special education professionals also are speaking up! Tim wrote, “The Best Argument Against Autism Speaks: A Special Educator’s Perspective.”

(edit: also after I made the initial post) Even the Autism Society of America (historically hostile to autistic people, but this organization has seen tremendous change in the last few years) has made a statement.

I am proud of my community. I’m proud of these allies. I’m proud that there are people in my community who get it. Who understand that slick advertising isn’t enough, that there actually has to be some substance behind saying you care about autistic people.

I’m so damn proud. We don’t need Autism Speaks to speak for us. Thank God.

The Cost of People

Autism Speaks has said we cost society over $2.3 million over our lifetime.  From their recent event about us and without us:

Financially, we estimate it costs 2.3 million dollars to care for one person with autism for their lifetime, and it will be well over $137 billion dollars for all our children.

Actually, Suzanne Wright, one of the founders of Autism Speaks, misquoted her own orgnization’s research, that said:

This research found that intellectual disability plays a major role in the cost of autism to individuals, families, and society as a whole. The costs of autism per year are nearly twice as high on average for children and adults with intellectual disability than for children and adults without intellectual disability, $2.3 million in the U.S. and £1.5 million in the U.K. ($2.4 million) for those individuals who are impacted by intellectual disability compared with more than $1.4 million in the U.S. and £917,000 ($1.46 million) in the U.K. for those who do not have intellectual disability.

They further claim that 45% of individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) have intellectual disabilities.  There’s a lot of reasons why this 45% number is inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter to this discussion.  Let’s just assume that Suzanne did new research that found our cost of autism was $2.3 million over our lifetime.

Usdollar100-mediumTheir research hasn’t yet been officially published as far as I can tell, and, thus, not peer reviewed.  So I don’t know the factors that went into deciding what a “cost” is.

For instance, my family has a mortgage payment. Is that a cost? Is it a cost if it is paid for out of Social Security? Is it a cost if it is paid out of employment? What if I rented? If I was in a group home, is that a cost? Is it really a cost to society if someone is being paid with this money, who then uses that money to pay for things like their house?

So let’s look at neurotypicals, while we figure out cost. I would say that US residents cost more than Chinese residents. And I can prove it.

China sets their national poverty line at 2300 RMB per person.  That’s $377 per year, according to Google. I imagine it’s pretty darn tough to live on $377 per year or less per person (somehow 150,000,000 Chinese are making this) but the World Bank says that this is the minimum necessary to live to their standards on, so I’ll take their word for it.

In contrast, the USA’s poverty level, set by the USA government is $23,050 for a family of four, or $5,762 per person (note that different family sizes have different poverty levels).

Now, one could take these apples-and-oranges numbers and say, “Wow, poor Americans cost society 15x more than poor Chinese!” (if you looked at rich Americans and rich Chinese, the numbers would be much more dramatic).

Or you could say this is a bogus comparison. Costs, standards of living, and measurement of poverty differ between the two nations. You can’t compare things that way. But you also can’t say that the American who owns a beat up car (a luxury most Chinese don’t own) is necessarily wasteful – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t (and certainly not all Americans own cars), but regardless he probably doesn’t see his way of getting to work as waste.

Now, I’m not saying China is doing well – obviously when you have 150 million people living on less than $377 a year, there’s a major problem there, and something the rest of the world should care about (although, generally, we don’t).

So, does that American cost world society more than that Chinese? Is this even a valid question to ask?


Lewis Structure of carbon dioxide, from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

We can try looking at another measure, CO2 emissions. These emissions cost the entire world, not just the country they are created in. Everyone int he world pays for these emissions. So let’s look at China and the USA, the #1 and #2 CO2 emitting countries in the world.

China emits 6.2 tonnes of CO2 per person, according to Wiki in 2009.

The USA emits 17.2 tonnes per person.

So, here, the USA hurts the world about 3 times more than China does, on a per-person basis (of course China has more than 3 times the people so as a country they create more CO2, but they create less CO2 per person).

For what it’s worth, Qatar leads the world in per-capita CO2 emissions at 44.0 tonnes per person, about 2.5x what the US and 7x what China does.

So, is the American not costing the world, while the Qatar citizen is costing the world immensely?

Regardless, how much CO2 cost does the average autistic have?  How does that compare to the successful business executive?  Who really costs more?

What people really mean when they say someone costs society is that someone gets the money that provides for their living through a method that isn’t considered noble or acceptable. It’s noble to be a rich guy who made millions out of selling bogus securities on bad mortgages. Or the guy that knows that a good deal of the people receiving student loans don’t have a chance in hell of actually being able to pay them back, but knows that he can rely on insurance and the government to bail him out. He’s not costing society, even though that student will not be able to purchase a house or start a family because of the crushing loan.

Often people think there is a cost if someone isn’t working. There are 5.1 million stay-at-home mothers in the USA.  That’s 1.7x the number of autistics, according to Autism Speaks! Are they a drain on society? After all, they aren’t working. Yet I never see articles talking about the cost of stay at-home-moms (for good reason).


Senator Lindsey Graham

Or we can look at people who receive income and services from the government.  In 2011, the average Congressional salary was $174,000 per year.  So, assuming Lindsey Graham made average salary, his 20+ years of congressional service cost us $3,480,000 – not other benefits, which are substantial.  Regardless, it costs us more to have Lindsey Graham in office for just a small portion of Lindsey’s life (20 years is just 27% of a 75 year old estimated lifespan) than it costs for a lifetime of support for an autistic with an intellectual disability, according to Autism Speaks. Assuming a 75 year lifespan, the autistic that “costs” 2.3 million USD will cost, on average, $31,000 per year.  That’s substantially less than the $174,000 we pay the average congressman – 5.6x more than the autistic with intellectual disabilities.

What’s interesting to me is that people allow this type of rhetoric at all. It’s absurd to try to figure out if a Congressman or an autistic person “costs” more. Particularly when cost is a value-laden term – does it cost more if I receive social security and take the bus or if I work and drive a gas guzzling car? If I’m Chinese or American? Do I cost less to society if I create a financial system full of bad loans or if I receive food stamps?

It’s bullshit. The existence of people doesn’t cost society anymore than the need to eat does. You can’t have a society without food. Or people.



This is Autism Speaks

This week is another week that America will be subjected to claims of our inhumanity and blamed for social problems.

This is Autism Speaks.  You can read about their latest press release, another event where they don’t bother to actually value the voice of autistics.  Now, what I write below is a parody of the horrible announcement they posted on their site. And, yes, I know there are wonderful parents out there (I shouldn’t have to say that – it’s an indication of the lack of power we have when we do have to say that, despite never saying that there aren’t good parents – people somehow assume bad motives and intentions, not good ones).

So, what is my problem? I’ll try to explain it this way:

We’re told that we’re three million that are missing.  Apparently Autism Speaks is looking for us (maybe they should try listening, we’ve been screaming).

We’re told we’re gravely ill. No, our stomach is sick, but that’s because of the rhetoric. Many of us are quite well.

We’re told that we need the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force to find us. We’re told we  need the National Guard to find us.

We’re told they will keep looking for us.

Yet for the most part the group making these claims has lost touch with three million American children, even as they beg for more money from the nation.  Yet we speak. Why won’t they listen? We’d be easier to find if they used their ears.

We’re told that we cause families to split up, go broke, and struggle. Never to bond, love, or share. We’re just the bad.

No more.  This week in Washington, D.C. we will gather an unprecedented number of autistics, allies and real experts in every area of autism to protest their three-day summit.  We will demand a national response. Or even just an acknowledgement that we – the people they claim to want to help – exist and have a voice.

Don’t we deserve it? America has always been about equality and representation. Even when we lose our way, we eventually discover it again.

Yet, they seem to have forgotten their children – and these children are part of our future. And us autistic adults are part of our today.

Each day across this country, those three million moms, dads and other care-takers I mentioned can make a choice.  That is – if they aren’t seduced by the fear mongering of Autism Speak’s rhetoric about lost and sick child. Truth be told, many of them aren’t, at least according to Autism Speaks, supposed to enjoy their children—or when they do – they are supposed to be fixing their kids—never just sharing time. They should be wondering what they will try next. Will they try new drugs? A new social skills program? A special school? A new doctor?  Sometimes – silence would be better than supposed advocacy.

These families are not living.

They are existing. Breathing – yes.  Eating – yes. Sleeping- maybe.  Working- most definitely – 24/7.

This is Autism Speaks.

Life is lived moment-to-moment.  In joyful anticipation of their child’s next move.  But they’ve been told to live in despair.  In fear of the future and the today.

This is Autism Speaks.

On the good days my family and all the others out there – millions around the world – see the sun shine and their family’s smiles. They notice the brilliant colors of the autumn leaves. On bad days, they are depleted. Mentally.  Physically.  And especially emotionally.

Maybe they have been up all stressed out about lack of services to help them live with dignity, without being told they are broken or defective. Maybe they are up yet again crying, just wanting someone to see them for who they are. To listen.

Maybe their parent has been trying to drug them.

Maybe their parent has said they want to drive them off a bridge, to kill them.

Maybe there is a waiting-list for supportive housing, for personal aides.

Maybe their parents won’t let go.

Maybe they don’t have the money to pay a special lawyer to fight for the services they need to survive, because we’re too busy funding things that won’t help.

This is Autism Speaks.

If any of this sounds familiar, you know Autism Speaks.  And if you know Autism Speaks, you know we are looking at a monumental failure in advocacy. And, we have no voice in it.

What I described above is really just the beginning.  In the next years, Autism Speaks will likely continue down this path. Ignoring the voice of autistics.

And, what about us autistics? How much can we hateful and ignorant rhetoric can we stand? How long can we fight against people telling us that our voices don’t matter because they know someone who is “nice” and part of Autism Speaks? How long will it be before the exhaustion makes us ill?  How long before we break?

And, we they do – who stands against the hate?

There is no national will to stand against this. It’s nicer to think that Autism Speaks is just good, but misunderstand people.

So let’s dial back a minute and consider the many times Autistics have reached out. Do we have real autistic representation on Autism Speak’s board? Are we even one of many voices at the table discussing what should be done to people like us? Are we anywhere close to hearing a guarantee we will get a fair shot to be heard?

We know autistics from minority and lower income families are even less listened than other autistics, so they lack even more representation – look at Autism Speaks’ board and count the number of minority and low income board members.

How about in advocacy?  Is there a desire to include us at all? Are we listening to autistics tell you about what does and doesn’t work? Is there collaboration?

But – there is no attempt at collaboration.

Yet – our future depends on it.

Financially, we are blamed for costing 2.3 million dollars to care for during our lifetime, and it will be well over $137 billion dollars for all of us. No mention is made to our contributions, only our costs. Yet Bob and Suzanne Wright, the founders of Autism Speaks, made plenty of money from the government – much more than 2.3 million dollars Bob worked as an executive to GE, which recently cost plenty to the tax payer – and has for many years.  Maybe it was worth it, as I’m sure many of the contracts delivered value to us – our money was invested and spent well. Others, not so well. But any dollar spent for us is seen as waste. Never mind where these numbers come from – I dare you to find the autistic adult who will receive 2.3 million dollars of services.

But money aside, these are our lives.  We have a lot to say about our lives.

What is our message?

We can’t even craft one – without even one seat at the table.

Close your eyes and think about an America where three million Americans and counting largely cannot influence the decisions of government and support agencies about how they are tried. Imagine three million of our own – unable to even get a seat at the table to talk about the things we need so we can eat, so we can bathe, so we have a roof over our heads, so we can pursue our love lives, so we can live.

This is a national emergency. We need to be heard – NOW.

We are heading to Washington with a call for action and a call to be heard – NOW. We are asking Autism Speaks to respond to autistics with the urgency we deserve – NOW.

Autism Speaks – here we come – because we need to be heard – NOW.

What’s a Safe Space?

Previously, I’ve written about what I see as the overuse of the word “trigger” – how it has essentially become code word for “something I have a strong negative reaction to” and thus not at all the original intent of the word (which was to label those things that, when present, could cause a person to become a danger to someone or to lose the ability to manage their life for a time).  That overuse means that people who feel strongly about some subjects and people who have serious risk to themselves are characterized the same – and that’s a disservice to people who need to explain that, no, this isn’t just something they strongly oppose and have anger about, but is something they can’t be around – not because they don’t like it, but because they’ll lose control.

There’s another term that has morphed over the years: safe space. This term has evolved over the years – I’m going to discuss that evolution and how safe space might be applied by an organization that isn’t only designed to be a safe space, if that organization would want to. I’m going to use the example of a church service for this, but obviously it would apply to other contexts.

Th term, “safe space,” seems to have originated with domestic violence shelters and outreach – the goal was to provide a physical “safe space” where a victim of domestic violence would be safe from their attacker.  These spaces might not have well publicized locations (so the abuser can’t find it), would not identify people staying there, would have procedures for people arriving and departing the space without being tracked, might have security staff, and would be understanding that people who have been abused in their home will feel uneasy just about anywhere after their sanctuary was invaded.

Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t make something like a church a “safe space” in this regard – it probably wouldn’t have security personnel, a hidden location, and procedures to keep the identity of attendees secret, nor would other attendees be well-vetted before arriving.  They might understand domestic abuse and do what they can to keep a victim physically safe, but a normal Sunday service wouldn’t be a safe-space, no matter how great the church, in the original “safe space” sense, without substantial changes.  That said, that doesn’t prevent them from being decent and using some sense – things like child release policies (make sure children in child care are only released to an authorized person, for instance), ensuring that ushers and others know about legal orders or the need to ask certain people to leave (with police help if needed) if they visit the service, and respecting the idea that the victim is in a very vulnerable and hurt state.  A church might even offer key sacraments through a visit to a truly safe space. But, regardless, it’s not likely to be able to make the service itself a safe space in the same way as a domestic violence shelter may, no matter how well intentioned or how good the people are.

Later, the term, “safe space,” became used by feminist and LGBT groups.  Both used the term to means something different than the space used by the domestic violence safe spaces.

Some women’s groups used the term to mean, “places where we are safe from oppression by men.”  This was some of the original intent of women-only (or womyn-only) space – the idea was that, generally, the people oppressing women were men, so without men, there would be less oppression.  This greatly simplifies the concept, and it is quite a bit more nuanced than this would imply – and I know that (and you should too before you just repeat this!).  However, two things came of this – first, obviously some women can internalize prejudice and thus perpetuate prejudice against themselves and other women.  Secondly, creating such a space meant creating a definition of who could be there – and any such definition will be controversial (for instance, is a trans woman allowed?  Whether or not she’s had surgery?  How about an intersexed person?  Or a trans man?).  There have been many fights over who is a woman (I’ll also add that women aren’t the only marginalized community to fight over who is part of their community).  So this definition has been changing over the years, bringing it more in line with the LGBT definition of safe space.

There’s some purposes served by having a space for a marginalized community – it can be valuable for growing a community, giving people a sense of comfort the outside world lacks, and providing freedom for people to say and do things they might not do in the wider world.

But of course this, too, isn’t a definition of safe space that could be applied to our hypothetical church service – unless the church was to exclude all whites, men, non-disabled, etc, people to make it a safe place in this sense for marginalized populations (such as non-whites, women, disabled people, etc).

That takes us to the LGBT definition.  I remember being a kid in school when this started in my area – certain teachers would have a pink triangle (pointed down). I didn’t know the pink triangle had roots in LGBT oppression and was now a symbol of the fight against that oppression, but I was told it symbolized “safe space.”  That is, it was a place where an LGB (I suspect most safe spaces weren’t ready for T at the time) student could go if he or she needed someone to talk to. It would be a place where the person’s sexual orientation wouldn’t be challenged, nor would the person be told they were a sinner. There was physical safety as well – the person displaying the triangle wasn’t going to attack someone who discloses homosexuality.

Being older, and with more understanding of the LGBT movement, I now realize that it was meant to be a place of support, to give the student a place to have a shoulder to lean on that wouldn’t be judgmental, wouldn’t gossip about it, and maybe could help the student find ways of dealing with the discrimination they face. There weren’t a lot of places where someone could go without hearing about the old testament or telling someone who might gossip about it.  I also learned the LGB safe space concept started not in classrooms, but in corporate America, as a way for allies to show their support in a more practical way.

Other oppressed populations have also adopted this concept (including many women’s rights organizations, replacing the original definitions used by these types of organizations).

I believe this last form of safe space – the LGBT movement’s definition of safe space – is the most common definition of safe space used today.  Today, when someone says, “safe space,” what they are probably saying is, “Certain beliefs will not be expressed here, nor will people be judged for certain actions. There’s a community standard in place.”  For example, a disability-rights safe space might prohibit blatant ablism and might require people participating to understand the basics of disability rights already (so that each new non-disabled person joining the space wouldn’t need to be taught disability 101 by the disabled people in the space who are likely very, very sick of doing this teaching with people).

Again, with our hypothetical church service, making it this type of safe space can be difficult. Let’s continue with our disability-rights safe space concept. Maybe the church does decide that they will not allow, uncontested, the discussion of why disabled people should be in institutions. That won’t however stop someone from coming off the street and raising the topic until someone stands up and says, “We don’t do that here” (which will probably raise all sorts of other problems, like how the person is disabled themselves or how they have a disabled family member). Yes, hopefully others will step up, but should the person be removed from the church or should they be educated? If educated, that is one of the things that safe space is supposed to protect the marginalized person from having to do – it gets old to have to give disability 101 training to everyone! But of course some people do need disability 101 training. Maybe you can get non-disabled people to do that training, but that training will take time. What do you do in the meantime?

I believe strongly in value of all the types of safe space listed above, and feel that it is important to have these spaces for people. But, at the same time, I also believe it’s important to define exactly what we want out of our safe spaces – particularly when extending this to spaces that aren’t dedicated safe spaces in the way a domestic violence shelter may be (such as our hypothetical church service). How do we make that church service (or anything else) a safe space? What does safe mean? Does it mean physical protection from your abusive husband? A place where people who you won’t run into a person who shares a common characteristic with your most common oppressors?  A place where you will not have to listen to people’s “ism’s”, such as racism, ablism, and misogyny (an -ism by another suffix)? Or is it a place where you don’t have to explain to every single new person how to interact decently?

It’s worth having these discussions. And certainly, once people are aware of an issue of oppression or safety, they should consider it in the spaces they have authority in – certainly no ally of the LGBT community, for instance, wants to be part of a place that allows homophobes to spew hate. Or which requires the one person in a commonly oppressed group to have to educate everyone in the organization, continually. Or to allow a domestic abuser to gain access to children he (or she) abused. Nothing is perfect, but we can get better.

At the same time, it’s important to say what we want when we want safe space. What, exactly, are the parameters for our space, and how is this different from just wanting a space where everyone is like us or nobody disagrees with us? It is different, but it’s important to be able to explain why and not just use the code word “safety”. Everyone wants safety, but we all have different ideas of what “safe” means. So we need to be explicit.

In the meantime, we need to keep working to eliminate the -isms, to educate people about different kinds of people, and to make sure abuse victims really are safe from their abusers.