Safe spaces at events
In the events game, ensuring a safe, secure, and enjoyable environment for patrons is a top priority. Many modern event organisers have a sophisticated understanding of the types of harm reduction services they can provide to meet patrons’ wellbeing needs.
The term ‘safe space’ is used in a variety of contexts, but in the festival space, can be defined as “supportive spaces for people seeking help or requiring emotional assistance.”
Holly Bennett recently completed her Master’s of Science specialising in Psychology at Massey University. Her thesis explored how festival organisers and safe space managers in Aotearoa understand the service they are providing.
Holly's research involved interviewing 22 participants within the event organising space, both individually and in group settings, to explore their understanding of the value safe spaces provide. In September 2023, she presented her findings to a group of event organizers, generating significant interest.
What are safe spaces?
A safe space will generally be a comfortable, peer-supported area, such as a quiet room in a comfortable tent, that people can turn to for support.
During her presentation, Holly said that traditionally, risk management at festivals leans towards being punitive. “Authoritative figures, sterile rooms, bright lighting, either making people leave the festival, physically subduing them, or making them feel judged or like a burden,” she says. Holly believes the traditional approach continues because many event organisers lack the tools to do otherwise.
Safe spaces, she says, are a shift away from punitive actions and towards making individuals feel respected and cared for – figuring out what these people’s needs are and attempting to address them in a more individualised manner. Those who enter safe spaces at events are accepted as they are and the choices they’ve made and will be cared for by non-judgemental volunteers.
How can safe spaces help patrons?
People invest a lot emotionally and financially into the festival experience, and when this experience doesn’t match their expectations, it can leave them feeling a whole array of negative emotions. A person may encounter emotional issues, sexual harm or simply become overwhelmed. Holly says that sometimes people may become untethered from reality, or just generally feel sad or angry or confused. Substance use paired with potential mental health issues and the intense festival environment can sometimes all come to a head. Holly’s research found that event organisers thought safe spaces are a necessary form of psychological intervention at festivals. At large music festivals and concerts, particularly when drugs are involved, safe spaces can play a crucial role in providing refuge and support for those who encounter a broad array of troubles.
Event organisers reported that safe spaces serve as sites of psychological first aid embedded within a multifaceted network of safety. They likewise act as an independent wellbeing service by shaping culture and behaviour outside of the safe space. Further, safe spaces are seen as an important element of a complex and ever evolving approach to harm reduction that centres around individual wellbeing, in contrast to a consumerist, risk-oriented approach.
Benefits of Safe Spaces
The benefits of safe spaces at events go beyond just reducing drug-related harm; they encompass a more humanist approach to harm reduction. By offering psychological first aid and support, safe spaces make individuals feel secure, cared for, and less vulnerable amidst the sometimes-challenging festival environment. Safe spaces address a myriad of needs within the event landscape. They serve as a sanctuary for festivalgoers seeking both mental and physical safety, with specialized staff trained to provide peer support.
Current challenges in offering safe spaces
While the benefits of safe spaces are evident, there are challenges in implementing them at events. The main difficulty in offering such services is that the concept of safe space is still relatively new and therefore not well understood. Staffing can be demanding, and varying attitudes towards this type of work can pose obstacles. Finding and training qualified personnel remains a challenge, and there are few resources for people to draw on to help them establish these spaces, coupled with associated costs.
There are two prominent providers of safe spaces at festivals in Aotearoa at present, DeepSpace (mostly Northland) and PsyCare (mostly South Island). These organisations offer a variety of services for festivalgoers, such as sunscreen, condoms, electrolytes, and earplugs. More importantly however, they offer non-judgmental peer support, and a space free from physical and mental harm for guests feeling overwhelmed at festivals and events around the country.
An evolving concept
Holly says safe spaces at events are still a relatively undefined concept. There needs to be more resources, funding, training, and education about what counts as best practice.
Safe spaces offer an effective health and safety measure that connects with thousands of people and engages them in conversations about harm reduction. To fully realise the benefits, safe spaces require better funding, and a more collaborative approach amongst industry stakeholders and the governing policies that influence these spaces.
Next steps for the rollout of safe spaces at New Zealand events
Following Holly’s presentation of her findings, the group agreed to meet again to discuss how to support the development of safe spaces at New Zealand events.
Initial ideas that will be discussed:
* The development of guidance on best practice for running safe spaces.
* The development of training for staff and volunteers who run safe spaces.
* Advocating for funding that will enable the safe space workforce to develop and grow.
* Explore the development of a strategic plan.