By Selma Zaki
Three years ago, I moved to New York City to pursue my master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University. I had moved from Lebanon after graduating with a BA from the American University of Beirut. Most of my education in Lebanon had been through Western and American institutions. Thus, I did not expect my educational experience in the U.S. to be vastly different; I was not completely wrong. That being said, one noticeable difference between both educational experiences is that there appeared to be more room at Teachers College for students to express their thoughts and feelings around sensitive topics such as gender, race and class. Hence, through class dialogues and discussions, TC offered students an opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts with one another, and also encouraged them to look within and examine their own identities and narratives.
One concept that consistently floated around at TC was “safe space”. At that time, I did not think critically of what that word meant. It just seemed like something that was said by professors to remind students that educational institutions are safe spaces. As in, one can express and exist without being exposed to discrimination, harassment, or any form of harm. A safe space in an academic sense is typically a space in which people who have less power feel comfortable enough to express. The idea that sensitive and controversial topics, such as race, gender, culture, class and politics, could be discussed constructively in a welcoming and protected space without being met with a harmful backlash appeared to be extremely appealing to me. I was excited to discuss these topics and for the most part, they were. However, it didn’t take me long to recognize that, as with many things, there was a schism between the idea and the reality. It appeared to me that though the intention of safe spaces was to foster enriching and challenging dialogue, the function of the spaces often did not always fulfill that role.
Over time, the word “safe space” started to seem more like a buzz word, a trendy familiar word that was loosely used, akin to “vegan” or “meditation” .The more I existed in these “safe” spaces, the more they embodied a descriptive and decorative characteristic. Conversations felt performative and scripted, and were largely guarded and censored. What was said and left unsaid was guided by the fear of offending the other. It became clear to me that in order to have productive and inclusive conversations, there needed to be a shift away from the mere idea of a safe space.
I remember a vivid example in my multicultural counseling class, we were speaking about abuse and mental health, and I shared how there is no system in Lebanon that advocates for and ensures child protection, which is why I was curious as to what could be done in such situations. I remember my professor responding with: “well, we’re talking about the U.S.”. In that moment, I didn’t feel “unsafe” for speaking up, but I did feel unheard. In another class role play, I was playing the patient and had to answer the question: “what is on your mind today?” That day, tragic events happening in Syria, Palestine, and across the Middle East were on my mind. And so, I spoke, only to be met with dead silence. None of my classmates responded, probably because they did not know how to. Because somehow, the reality of Middle East seemed so far removed from their reality, despite the U.S. playing such a significant role. Hence, despite the spaces being “safe”, the conversation remained sterile. For me, safety was not a necessary pre-requisite for expression, but I felt that my openness and honesty was unheard and unreturned. In a similar way, Laila, my friend and fellow student shared my frustration as she once expressed to me that as an Arab, what stands out the most to her is the non-existence of conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when discussing social justice. This was a feeling experienced not just by Arabs, but by other international students too. Charlotte, another friend and classmate from Germany, often felt that the conversations at university lacked variability and always centered around the U.S. She described the conversations as an echo-chamber, as in the same topics come up, in the same manner, with little controversy or inclusion of other narratives.
In 2017, Laila Abdel Salam, Charlotte Hamm, Nour Salem and myself, Selma Zaki, founded In Fluency in response to the frustration we experienced as international students. I met my fellow In Fluency friends and founders at Teachers College, through different classes and research labs. We all felt that the conversations we were having in the academic settings were limited. Moreover, we were all interested in examining the relationship between the macro and the micro; as in, how do larger systems affect the individual and vice-versa? Our past experiences were reflective of this interest of ours. Charlotte worked with refugees in Germany and took courses in conflict resolution and mediation to address the way in which political decisions influence mental health. Laila facilitated Participatory Action Research (PAR) with teenagers in Harlem. PAR is a non-traditional program in which facilitators work with marginalized communities and encourage them to research topics that are salient to their communities, without imposing their own narrative and privilege on to theirs. As for myself, I had an initiative in Lebanon in which I used the arts as a tool to raise awareness about the ways in which the social and political issues in Lebanon affect community members and civilians.
In Fluency was born out of a desire to expand the conversation of mental health and social justice to different countries around the world, specifically those that often get sidelined or overlooked. Our aim is to explore the ways in which socio-political injustice influences mental health disparities in different countries. Through yearly academic and culture events in college settings, In Fluency invited mental health practitioners, change agents, and artists from the international community to discuss systemic oppression from a local, insider perspective. Our first event “Psychology Beyond Borders: Lessons from Kashmir, Sudan, Palestine and Mynamar/Burma was a panel discussion at Teachers College, Columbia University that included a brief overview of the political situation of the country as well as its mental health status. This was then followed by a discussion between mental health experts and local activists. Despite some constraints such as distance and poor internet, we were still able to welcome and honor mental health experts such as Dr. San San Oo from Myanmar, Dr. Arshad Hussain from Kashmir and Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei from Gaza through video recordings.
Through the panel, we explored how different constructs such as mental health, resilience, treatment and resources look differently in different cultures. For example, the Western world speaks positively of resilience. But isn’t the focus on resilience another way to depoliticize the oppression? We also discussed the role of mental health experts in response to these large forms of political oppression. Should mental health be “political” and are the efforts of mental health experts enough in the face of large scale oppression? Despite asking such questions in the panel, we struggled to arrive at a conclusion as all 4 countries include a complex history and political and social reality. Hence, most of the panel was spent understanding the context of each country and forming a conceptualization of the history, traumas and oppressions. Thus, forming a response as to what can be done proved to be difficult. In a therapy session, a therapist can work with an individual to identify and possibly dismantle barriers that arise in the face of treatment. However, on a larger scale, there are more factors and barriers at play that it is difficult to facilitate the conversation of: what could be done. Such conversations shed light on both the helplessness locals feel in relation to their country’s narrative but also the hope that arises as a defense to the helplessness.
Our second event in 2018 was a cultural night food, poetry and music at Teachers College that included artists, musicians, poets from different corners of the world such as Brazil, Nigeria, Kosovo…A musician from Lebanon and a singer from Gaza played and sang traditional music. A poet from Kashmir spoke about his mother’s loss of sanity during and after 1947 Partition of India. A Ghanaian-American poet read the story of how her mother and father migrated from Ghana to America. A Mexican-American and Korean-American poet spoke about their experience as minorities in the U.S. While mental health and social justice were not the direct focus in a lot, art was utilized as a powerful tool to reveal one’s unique and complex narrative. Understanding “the other” starts with an invitation to express one’s own story, and an openness to listen to those that exist around them.
We, the founders of In Fluency are currently in the process of slowly expanding our scope and figuring out a way to make it sustainable. Charlotte, Nour and I graduated from TC while Laila is pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology. Charlotte is moving back to Germany and will be based in Berlin, as for myself, I plan to stay put in the U.S. until I collect my hours towards my Mental Health Counseling licensure. Despite having different paths, we still share a collective vision. We envision a world in which we can have conversations about global mental health and social justice in 1) more accessible settings, beyond the academic and secluded spaces, for example in community spaces, artistic and cultural spaces and salons, through podcasts and social media and 2) a more inclusive and equal manner in which different narratives, countries and layers of realities are included.
Our intention is not to talk about people but with them. We envision our world more frequently discussing politics and current events while considering the mental health perspective of the narrative. We would like to address a wide range of topics and talk about the intersection of mental health and trauma, displacement, modern day slavery, famine, architectural violence, radicalization, climate change trauma, foreign interventions, prison system and so on.
Our vision begs the question, which we all struggle with: how do we expand these spaces and introduce these conversation in the public sphere, especially when these spheres are entrenched in an ignorant resistance to the realities of the daily world outside of their direct environment? So far, we believe that our events added value to this idea of safe spaces because they were more inclusive in terms of people of color and individuals of different nationalities. We existed in spaces in which different accents were celebrated and we encouraged a culture of curiosity: a willingness to listen and ask about one’s narrative. We also focused on having locals speak of their own narratives. That being said, we are still exploring ways in which we can expand such spaces to different settings. We also often wonder whether cultivating a space in which everyone feels safe is the “right approach”. Can safe spaces sometimes be a facade that leaves little room for true difficult conversations to be cultivated? If our primary intention is to make everyone feel safe, then it is very unlikely that we will be able to stand in our truth and confront our oftentimes unsafe reality. As John Lewis once said: “you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble.”