Out of despair, students of color seek meaningful ways to reflect on national politics and social injustice on their own terms.
Photographs by Kayla Reefer
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida earlier this year, teens nationwide were desperate to figure out how this could have happened once again. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence in America, there have been 349 school shootings in the United States since 2013 (at the time this issue went to press), an average of one school shooting per week. Schools are no longer safe institutions. The white and upper-middle-class students from Parkland, Florida, mobilized quickly for increased gun control with national media outlets focused on their every move, leaving students of color across the country desperate to make their issues—police brutality, systemic racism, and deportation—just as pertinent. But how? According to a Teen Vogue article, black youth, who’ve been passionately advocating for gun-control measures for years, felt they had been “demonized, obfuscated, and overlooked.” This VICE editorial was sparked by a private meeting held in March that was led by students from the nonprofit Get Lit, which fosters creative expression through poetry classes in Los Angeles. Youth of color sought out safe spaces to vent together because they didn’t feel like they were being supported, heard, or treated in the same way as the students from March for Our Lives. Many were looking for places where they could talk openly and collaborate around the issues that affected them.
Safe spaces can be launching pads for young people to take their first step into activism or to garner the confidence they need to pursue self-expression through the arts. By having the private time and place to collect their thoughts and emotions with peers, teachers, parents, and after-school facilitators, students feel more emboldened to get involved in what’s going on around them, whether it’s joining social justice movements like Black Lives Matter or participating in their own education in stronger ways. The safe places—sometimes a car ride alone or an after-school art program—strengthen their resolve to enact change in their own lives and communities, and they can lead to a conscious awakening to take personal action. Collective movements of young people are sparked when they feel empowered to speak their minds.
We chose to give voice to these students from Los Angeles who are finding their own ways to build community, finding outlets to share stories of loss and rage, and forming their expressions of self on their own terms. —Marina Garcia-Vasquez
17-year-old Kiyah Gentle:
"I need safe spaces because sometimes my headspace can only hold so much. I overflow, and no one should have to keep everything inside. We as people need safe spaces to let go of pain, safely. To be able to get the emotions out of our heads before it manifests into something beyond the mind. My safe spaces vary depending on my opportunity to get to them. My space has most consistently been a viewpoint—the top of Topanga Outlook—so I can listen to the ironic noise of a quiet place. When I am up there, the amount of space around me feels as though I can get out of the box of emotions and stress I may find myself in."
18-year-old Justin Candys:
"My safe space? It’d have to be the beach. I come here with friends about every other week just to hang out, catch up, vent, or let go. There’s just something about the waves. The way they sound while I’m sitting on the shore with my friends—just talking is therapeutic, and they always make me feel at home. I suppose you could say the group I come here with is my safe space, but without the beach, we wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. Safe spaces are so important because in our current sociopolitical climate, almost every aspect of our lives is under attack. We see the legislation constantly breaking down our protections, refusing us our rights, tearing our families apart, destroying our environment, controlling our bodies, and putting our men, women, and gender nonconforming in harm’s way. When you look at all these tribulations, the conscious person will see that we as a people are hurting, and we need somewhere we can go that will give us love. That’s what safe spaces do, and they absolutely must be protected."
20-year-old Jamiah Lincoln:
"My neighborhood lake sits inside of an 80-acre park named Lake Balboa Park. This lake is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Being that I was raised in the SF Valley my entire life, the park has always been the closest place for me to feel free. Whether it be in private, or with a friend, the lake always provided me with a space where I could express myself. My car brought the lake to my attention because oftentimes, I’ll drive my car to the lake, and sit in my car to write. As a kid growing up—and even now—it’s necessary that I had a space like that to not only heal, but to create my art as well. Safe places are most necessary for the youth. It’s important that we’re able to grow and accept the world for what it is—faults and beauties—and still coexist with it. And I’m sure some adults may need and benefit from it now, perhaps because there was a lack of safe spaces in their youth. But, most importantly, we all deserve the space to feel important and secure in our struggles and overcoming them. Safe spaces have always provided me with the tools I need to collect my loose ends and reestablish a relationship with my mental stability."
18-year-old Lauren Brewster:
"I strongly feel like safe spaces are necessary because this country does a really good job at continuously attempting to do two things: to invalidate youth voices and to silence the voices of people of color. When someone is at the intersection of both, it’s really hard to remind yourself that your voice and opinions and feelings matter. So for me, I found my safe space in the art— mainly music—I make. Half the time I don’t even create with intentions of it being seen, but more as a way for me to cope with the world around me. My art is my truth, and nobody can take that away from me. My physical safe places would probably have to be the apartment I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with my two roommates (because we can talk about anything) or my dad’s house, but both pertain more to the people than the places themselves. Safe environments are a way for young people of color to remind ourselves that we are more than just stepping stones for others’ success. We carry just as much value, just as much genius, and our thoughts and feelings did not ask for anybody’s validation."
16-year-old Miabella Chavez:
"My safe space is Las Fotos Project. I’ve said this a million times, and I’ll say it a million more: Las Fotos Project has become a space in which I can exist and create art for the sole purpose of doing it. I never have to prove anything or defend my character. All I have to do is be present and exist. There are many spaces in which I’m a woman and a Latina before I am MiaBella, but Las Fotos is not one of those places. Safe spaces are important because they are true to the fact that you don’t need to offer the world any sort of gift to have a purpose. My safe space has given me a second home—one in which I can exist free of the idea that I can be too much of something and not enough of something else."
18-year-old Bryce Banks:
"There’s a park by my house. When I was little, I spent a lot of time going there and playing in it. I used to wonder what was on the other side, because in the distance you can see a highway, but I would see people walking with groceries and imagine they’d walk across the freeway with groceries for their family. The middle of the park was and still is really magical to me. Without Del Amo Park in Carson, I would’ve never seen the inspiration for my first poem. I would’ve never grown up with my closest friends. I would’ve never had an escape from the tyranny that lurks at home. Safe spaces allow people to step out and away from the rigors of life and just be."
17-year-old Choyce Brown:
"My safe space is my backyard because it calms me and balances me. The street is right on the other side of my backyard, so it gives me a great balance between noise and quiet, which I like. It is so necessary to have a safe place. It helps me make more rational decisions that I probably wouldn’t be able to make when I’m panicking or having anxiety, but my backyard takes all of my panic and anxiety away."
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