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8-min read
February 10, 2022

7 Ways to Make Your Community a Safe Space for Black People

“Black people don’t want special treatment, we want fair and equal opportunity.”

When discussing Black experiences within community, the above piece of advice from Marjorie Anderson, Community Strategist and Advisor at Project Management Institute, is a really important place to start.

By definition, safe spaces are places where people feel empowered and secure enough to engage in honest, critical, and challenging conversations about sensitive issues without fear of harm. In communities, all members should feel free to express their unique perspectives without fearing a backlash that could cause psychological, emotional, or physical harm.

However, communities exist within a society that has made whiteness the norm and blackness the other. It is easy for this to filter into these communities and make them a harmful space for Black people to be a part of.

So where do we begin to change this? We spoke to some community experts on actionable ways to can make sure your community is a safe space for Black people.

Create a sense of belonging

“When I join a community that has more white people than other races, I find myself changing parts of myself like my accent or even trying too hard to fit in,” says Community Manager at Meritas Jephtah Abu. “After some time, I realized this, and I had to take a step back to understand that these are the things that make me who I am.”

A sense of belonging is a basic human need. Making sure members feel that they belong — and don’t have to change who they are to fit in — is especially important for Community Managers who want to build communities that will last.

“It is imperative to allow members of the community to be themselves and make sure that they know that their experiences and nuances are appreciated and welcomed,” says Jephtah.

Marjorie, who manages two diverse and inclusive communities, prioritizes fostering that sense of belonging.

“We don’t shy away from hard conversations, we offer mechanisms for support, and we treat all community members equitably. In both communities, the interest is ensuring meaningful experiences and connections for the individuals involved," she says.

“If we’re in the wrong, we correct it. If we missed something, we want to know. We make sure that people have an opportunity to tell us when something isn’t right and we engage them in the conversation around how to fix it where we can.”

Actionable steps: “Don’t expect that people show up as anything but who they are with the knowledge that they have,” says Marjorie.

As a CM, this means being authentic and opening up conversation — even about difficult topics. Make sure that differences are celebrated. If you notice that Black members in your community are being othered or their input goes unnoticed, be the first to create a conversation around it and engage — just as you would with any other member within your community.

Be intentional

“Intentionality is about ensuring visibility for Black voices and ensuring erasure of their experiences doesn’t occur,” says Marjorie.

If you have Black people in your community who you know have a lot to contribute but haven’t, find out why, she adds. Is it because they feel that their voice is being drowned out?

“It’s OK to check in and ask what you might be getting wrong. Be mindful of when you are engaging your Black community members and if it seems lopsided, admit your blind spots and change it.”

Actionable steps: Find out who among your inactive members are Black people. If so, be intentional about finding ways to re-engage them, either by starting a conversation to find out why they might not feel a sense of belonging in the community or by starting conversations in the broader community about issues of inequality and belonging for all members.

Talk through things with your members and understand their challenges, then help create an experience that removes those barriers for them.

Invest in Black team members

“The community I am a part of has both Black men and women on their Community team,” says Augustine Nthenge, Community Specialist at International Baccalaureate.

“This is extremely important because it means that the members have someone they can go to whenever an individual makes them feel unsafe. Having someone who looks like you and has gone through the same experiences as you is crucial in establishing a level of trust.

“The members feel like they don’t need to explain themselves and can count on you to have their back, which is extremely essential if you want to make Black people feel safe in a community."

Having a Black person on your team should not mean that they are automatically in charge of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI & B) work, either.

“We have just as much experience, knowledge, and expertise as others in this space (sometimes more) but we are nine times out of 10 asked to do the labor of solving DEI & B issues,” says Marjorie. “And when that work is done, we seldom get asked to do much else unless we have incredibly strong networks. Which not all of us have access to.”

Actionable steps: Hire a team as diverse as your community should be. As much as DEI & B is an important role to fill, Black professionals should not be confined to this role. Hiring Black community experts will enhance your community experience and help you to have a more diverse approach to engaging your members.

Use the correct language

The language used in your onboarding process will tell Black people if your community is a safe space before they’ve even spent time in it.

Establishing the fact that discrimination and hateful speech are grievous offences in your community is crucial to making people who suffer discrimination in their everyday lives feel safe and secure in your community.

“I am a part of a community called Omek and a lot of work has been done to make the community feel safe, specifically for Black people,” says Augustine. “My personal favorite is the language used in their guidelines, especially the one that states ‘Be kind — don’t post anything that is hateful, discriminatory or invalidates experiences’.

“Having that spelled out the minute you enter the platform relays the intentions of the community and its commitment to making you always feel safe.”

Actionable steps: Include hate speech and discrimination rules in your community guidelines. All new members should be informed that hatefulness and racism will not be tolerated during the onboarding process.

Highlight Black expertise

You should highlight a wide range of experts at your events, in your blog posts, or in conversations with your community — especially those who are Black.

However, this shouldn’t exclusively be where DEI & B is discussed. While this work is important, it’s not the only area Black professionals have expertise in.

This is something Marjorie has experienced in her own career. “The biggest challenge for Black people in community is the overwhelming sense that the only time we’re considered experts is when it comes to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Marjorie.

“My expertise extends far beyond DEI & B. Being asked to contribute based on my expertise and not my experience as a Black person is incredibly important. And that’s not because my experiences aren’t. But it’s because I’m more than a Black person.

“And yes, being Black plays into how I think and move about the world and makes me a little bit more sensitive to things like inequity and discrimination, but it also enriches the way that I interact in community spaces,” she adds.

Augustine has experienced this in a slightly different way to Marjorie as a rising community leader.

“Trust within community is important. However, there have been plenty of times where I have suggested something in a community space but as soon as someone else says it (usually a white person), they get credit for it and often never think twice to give me the credit. Not only does it make me upset, but decreases my willingness to contribute to the community,” he says.

Actionable steps: Engage Black community professionals outside of DEI & B work and include them in your community event panels, blogs, and other content pieces. Credit them for their input when it is given during conversations in your community.

Build trust

Black people in your community should always feel like you've got their back. Augustine explains the importance of trust and assurance in community — especially when things go wrong.

“Historically, Black people have always been at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the colonial ranking of the different human races. Therefore, whenever anything goes wrong, people tend to abandon Black people to fend for themselves and that can be difficult when trying to build relationships,” he says.

“Within communities, what might happen is that a Black person might do something wrong and be kicked out without having an opportunity to explain themselves. What’s even more disheartening is that people tend not to come to your rescue and turn a blind eye and move on with their own lives. Therefore, this makes it difficult for them to feel part of a community because they have to calculate every move they make and that’s not a sustainable way of living.”

Actionable steps: Treat all your community members equally. Reach out to community members you haven't built a relationship with and make them feel welcome and cared for. Engage with Black members regularly and not only when something has happened.

Safe spaces, not separate spaces

While many Community Managers may see creating separate groups for Black people as making their communities a more welcoming and inclusive space, many may see it as further othering and resegregation.

As Marjorie says, inclusion is not about special treatment, but equal opportunity.

“Whether that be opportunities to share our knowledge, to advance our careers, to participate in meaningful conversations and share our experiences without a ‘yeah, but’ — whatever that looks like.”

Actionable steps: Take steps to make your entire community inclusive of all different types of people and experiences. Your general spaces should be used for all types of conversations without othering different types of people. If a conversation is about race, it should not be confined to a separate channel of only people of color. Have these conversations openly and trust that the community you’ve built is a safe space for critical conversations to take place without harm.

Want to hear from more Black voices in community? Join our New Year, New Career: Breaking Into Community Management event on Thursday, Feb 10, 2022!

A graphic iniviting people to Community Club's New Year, New Career: Breaking Into Community Management event on Thursday, Feb 10, 2022.
Pam Magwaza
February 10, 2022

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