As one of my Kidpower colleagues told me, “I am proud to be the mother of a wonderful teen daughter who is bisexual and currently dating a very nice young woman. She’s a real advocate for inclusion and equality. And I want her to feel free to express her sexuality and identity in any way that feels right to her. At the same time, I also want her to make safe and wise choices about when and how she does this, being prepared to deal with homophobia and potentially harmful situations. Talking about this with her is hard – she is so joyful, optimistic, and carefree. I don’t want my daughter to live her life in the shadows – and of course, I desperately want her to avoid becoming targeted for violence.”
At Kidpower, we encourage people of all ages, all sexual orientations, and all gender identities to be proud of who they are, to respect others — and to keep these seven “People Safety” strategies in mind so that they can find a good balance between justice and safety.
- Put Safety First. Your safety is more important than embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense to yourself or others. This means that sometimes, even when someone’s behavior is unjust and unfair, your safety is worth avoiding confrontations that could become violent.
- Assess Situations Realistically. Don’t fall into the trap of the “Illusion of Safety” or the trap of thinking, “But It’s My RIGHT!” Use your intuition. Notice when something “doesn’t feel right,” and pay more attention rather than dismissing the feeling. Think First before doing something risky even though you might be filled with a sense of justified outrage. (See #1!)
- Use Target Denial. Target Denial means staying aware of your surroundings, noticing who is around you and what is happening, and moving out of reach or leaving before trouble starts. Be willing to change your plan if a situation starts to become unsafe. Don’t let yourself operate on automatic pilot, assuming that a big crowd or a quiet corner is, or will remain, safe. This also means that even during PRIDE week, you still want to Think First before you wear your Gay Pride shirt or hold hands around people who you believe may be likely to react with violence.
- Stay Centered. Manage your emotional triggers so you can act aware, respectful, calm, and confident even if someone is being rude, unfair, or threatening. Take a step back and give yourself a moment to breathe and look around, make sure you are balanced on your feet and that your hands are open, calm, and available to you – such as down by your sides, up and close to the front of your chest like a fence, or clasped together. Remember that reacting to disrespect by being disrespectful in the moment is likely to make problems worse without changing anything. If you are centered, you can make wise choices both about how to stay safe and how to work towards lasting change.
- De-escalate. If someone is threatening or trying to pick a fight, say whatever you need to say in order to leave in a peaceful way. You do not owe an attacker the truth. Be willing to lie in order to leave a threatening situation safely or even to apologize for upsetting someone, even if this is totally unfair. Don’t let anyone bait you into a fight or other unsafe actions that might give them more privacy or control.
- Set Boundaries. When it is reasonably safe to do so, speak up about prejudice in a powerful, respectful way that does not attack others even if they are rude and insulting. Think about the pros and cons of speaking up in this particular moment. Life is not risk free, and we have to take some risks in order to advocate for ourselves and others. At the same time, sometimes speaking up makes things worse and leaving and getting help might be a more effective strategy.
- Get Help. Remember that safety is with people who are acting safely and will help you be safe, not just a location that seems safer. You have the right to interrupt busy people, and to make them uncomfortable, in order to protect yourself and to get support to stop a situation that is unsafe. Be prepared to be persistent if someone doesn’t listen at first. If one person doesn’t help, find another who will. Even if the immediate problem has stopped, still get help and support from people you trust. We frequently hear stories of how someone getting help for themselves also had the effect of helping others avoid the same or similar problems.
Some of the most effective leaders of social change have chosen, calmly and intentionally, to stay in dangerous situations. However, these actions usually turn out to be most powerful when they are taken as conscious, centered choices solidly grounded in principles and with clear awareness of the benefits and risks of action versus inaction. Reactive behavior that is fueled by triggered emotions — such as righteousness, indignation, anger, or offense — is likely not only to be dangerous but also much less effective in furthering justice, fairness, or equality.
For everyone, by making our personal safety a priority on an everyday basis, we can strengthen our skills, deepen our knowledge, become more effective leaders and advocates, and make more intentional choices about how we assess risk in our efforts to work towards social justice for ourselves and others.
Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International is a global nonprofit leader dedicated to protecting people of all ages and abilities from bullying, violence, and abuse by empowering them with awareness, knowledge, and skills. Since, 1989, Kidpower has served over 3 million children, teenagers, and adults, including those with special needs, through its positive and practical workshops, extensive free online Library, consultation, and publications. Instead of using fear to teach about danger, Kidpower makes it fun to learn to be safe! Our K-12 curriculum is used by families, schools, and youth organizations for their own child safety programs. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and our cartoon-illustrated Safety Comics series and Introductory Curriculum for Educators. To learn more, please visit www.kidpower.org.