Dilemmas around Making a “Safe Space” in Peacebuilding Training (Part Three)


Kyoko Okumoto – TRANSCEND Media Service

26 Feb 2024 – When conducting peacebuilding training workshops, facilitators/trainers often encounter ethical dilemmas. How do values, ethics and trust interrelate each other in the peacebuilding training settings? Such a research theme was explored over a weekend in June, 2023, in Davao city, the Philippines, in a workshop called “Workshop on Values, Ethics, and Trust in a Peacebuilding Network,” the third workshop for the AHRC-funded Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Project, in collaboration with Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI). (Note 1)

The Purpose of This Article: Having a “Safe Space”?

The primary objective of the weekend workshop was to delve into the intricate connections between values, ethics, and trust within the context of peacebuilding training settings. However, an additional theme concerning the establishment and sustenance of a “safe space” in these settings surfaced in the mind of the author/facilitator. This article is dedicated to exploring this topic, specifically through the lens of the learning processes undertaken with the workshop participants and the collaborative engagement with the MPI team.

Within the realm of workshop facilitation, the notion of creating a “safe space” is frequently emphasised, seemingly treated as an inherent and uncomplicated aspect of the process. However, this recommendation often lacks a shared understanding or consensus regarding the nuanced definition of what constitutes a “safe space” for each individual present. The assumption that establishing such an environment is straightforward overlooks the varied perspectives and interpretations of safety held by the diverse participants involved.

Part One provided a detailed account and analysis of the occurrences mainly on the Day One of the workshop. Following a series of warm-up activities designed to foster a sense of group safety, participants engaged in an experimental Poetry Activity that involved vandalizing another group’s artwork. Consequently, it became evident that the notion of a “safe space” was not preserved during this particular exercise.

Part Two intended to examine the reactions, comments, questions and claims put forth by the workshop participants. On the Day One and at the first part of the Day Two, participants engaged in reflections regarding the disparities between the values they professed to hold and the actions they actually took. Facilitators’ dilemmas around ethical elements in peacebuilding training settings were also discussed. Finally, efforts to regain trust after experiencing a challenged “safe space” were explored to discover that peacebuilders are all a “work in progress.”

In the previous parts, we learned how we embody the unspoken values, assumptions and expectations in peacebuilding training, how we deal with challenges that contradict such values, and how we make efforts to regain harmed emotions and lost trust. We also gained insights into the relationship between our ethics, which are grounded in embodied values, and the concept of a “safe space.” Part Three explores how we enact and move towards spoken values and a more nuanced and inclusive ethics in practice which builds trust. Ultimately, a “safe space” is the result of continuous, collective and nurturing efforts.

The Blindfolded Activity to Simulate an “Unsafe Space” Experience

On Day Two after some reflections from Day One, the participants were divided into two groups, each comprising several members. The facilitator proposed that Group One consist of all female participants, and Group Two consist of all male participants. The participants were then given the freedom to choose whichever group they felt most comfortable joining. Then, both groups were instructed to position one member in the centre of a circle formed by the other members, with the central person instructed to cross their arms at chest level. The central person then was encouraged to “fall” to whichever side they felt inclined toward. It was encouraged to experience the act of “falling” first with their eyes open, and then with their eyes closed. Also, all members were suggested to take turns being the central person, one by one, within their respective groups.

After they enjoyed the Falling Activity, everyone was requested to find a partner. In pairs, one participant was blindfolded while the other, unblindfolded, served as the guide to the blindfolded individual. Together, they navigated through the workshop classroom. During the first round, the guide could use words to give directions, but in the next round, the guide was not allowed to speak but was allowed to give nonverbal signals.

Subsequently, all blindfolded participants formed a train with one individual leading, who was not blindfolded. The one with the lead role was encouraged to speak. Any participant who expressed a desire to experience the lead role took over one by one in succession.

At the end of the series of activities that were designed to engage the senses of sight, sound, and touch, enabling participants to discern and acknowledge their sense of safety, everyone lined up along a rope-line. From one end of the line, representing “very comfortable,” to the opposite end denoting “very uncomfortable,” participants were instructed to stand at the point that corresponded to their emotions they possessed as a guide/leader, as a follower, in a pair, and within a group.

Verbalization of Values, Ethics and Trust

By concentrating on human “senses” combined with verbal aspects, the participants have explored their “sense” of safety, which is heavily influenced by all of them. The activities elicited a variety of responses from the participants. Some participants verbalized their complete trust in their partners, while others indicated varying degrees and levels of trust.

With the Falling Activity, one participant later writes in the worksheet: Even if I fall, I have a support system to hold me, and for those who were falling, I supported them by not letting them fall down. Another one describes: It connects to the trusting because I first did not fall down 100% because I was afraid that the team could not hold on to me. But after a few times, I started putting my trust on them and gave it a try. I could trust more and feel comfortable with opening my eyes because I can ensure myself that everyone is going to hold me, so I know I am safe. Another sharing was: I found it a bit uncomfortable and hesitant to fully trust the supporting group, and harboured concerns about the possibility of unexpected accidents or secret instructions being followed without notice. Reflecting on the activity in relation to reality, it becomes apparent that trust can easily falter when personal interests or demands arise from others.

With the Blindfolded Activity, one participant said: I trusted my partner completely because she guided me, held my hand, and gave me specific instructions. Another reflected: I was both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I was wondering if something might happen. It made me nervous during the second round when we could not communicate in words.

We found that maintaining and/or building trust can occur immediately in some instances, while in others, it requires several attempts. It also hinges on the attitude and the behaviour of the other person. The documenter also records that there were comments on “doubts” for not being able to see and “vulnerability” for unexpected things might happen. Many participants also paid attention to how the guide was speaking to the follower and assuring the partner’s safety verbally. In addition, they discovered that there were different kinds of “leadership” when one person leads the whole group, and that it is easier to trust during the pair activity than when they were put together as a group.

One participant mentioned: Fear paralyses and freezes us. Building trust needs time. We need to see carefully if we can rely on the person. Another participant commented: Building trust requires a lot of elements, in a particular, time and space and in various levels of relationships. Another claimed: I feel a little uncomfortable as I struggle with trusting others. It depends on the situation, and the people we work with. Trust building is a process to me. It is about engagement, commitment, integrity, respect, and relationship. Trust gradually grows in the process. Also, we know that there are many times that trust is affected by various circumstances and actions.

Then, the facilitator asked: The ability to trust depends upon our experiences, histories, and willingness to nurture trusting each other. Is there a difficulty of nurturing the trust? To the question, someone responded: In many of our work situations, trust is very important. What helps me develop my trust is my background as an activist and having a right perspective on peace and justice. Most important is to look at their heart and look for the goodness in their hearts. Believe and look for one little spot even if it’s just an iota of goodness in their hearts.

The participant continued: When I am blindfolded, what increases the trust is when the person becomes specific with directions. Even when we weren’t talking, she started guiding and holding me with her hands. When it was my turn, I also used her technique.

Someone added: Rebuilding a broken trust requires time and consistent actions to make people feel at peace and find evidence in your integrity and consistent actions. Also, another participant resonated: It is necessary to provide time and space to regain and rebuild the trust.

Connecting Values, Ethics and Work on the Issue of Trust

At the last session of the two-day workshop, the facilitator asked: Do you think values, ethics and trust are important to peacebuilding work? How are they organically interconnected?

Just as in Part Two and Part Three, I must once again express gratitude to the workshop documenter, whose meticulous documentation has provided invaluable descriptions that effectively capture the essence of the discussions. For the purposes of the articles, I choose to incorporate some of these well-articulated descriptions. Also, in respect and gratitude to the participants who have wholeheartedly joined the workshop for this experiential and experimental research, below are some valuable comments shared:

  • I am happy to see the diversity here in this workshop at MPI. Here, the practice of religion can be counted as a value. We may be hitting the insensitivity and sensitivity of the topic. But being sensitive to others is not only about the food served, but it is also about other religious and cultural practices. We must be sensitive in our response to each other.
  • In the Blindfolded Activity, when my partner verbalised her trust by actually saying, “I completely trust you,” it felt as if it reached my drive and desire to be a better and trustworthy person. It is encouraging. And trusting the other is a complex process. Persistence really matters in the process of building trust and the consistency of actions.
  • In my country, as we enter a new place and whenever we leave, we always do the ritual with cultural peacebuilding tool. It means respect for the elders, the others, and the land; and the land is with us as its people. The land, people, church, and government are one. If I will go to a certain province, there I introduce myself to them and explain where I come from, so the people in the community find the connection. For example, in our existing intervention and peacebuilding work, the community with whom we are journeying together are going through a severe case of climate change. We went and did the ritual to introduce ourselves. We came back and did the ritual again. During the ritual we conversed with the people, got to know each other, and built friendly relationships. We did not overwhelm them with questions about the peacebuilding program, but simply asked them three questions about their normal lives. The relationship between us thrived in time. (In this story-sharing, the storyteller used the specific local cultural terminology, but for the sake of research confidentiality, the author decided not to include them to avoid identification of the participants.)
  • I believe we are in the process of a paradigm shift, a shift in our mindset, and our worldview where we relate to people as human beings. We will not see a Chinese or Filipino, Muslim or Hindu, or “straight” or gay, but we will see the person. Our personhood is what connects us. There is so much in our world that is working against us, against this belief in our common humanity. The pandemic showed us the wounds of the world which cannot be erased. I believe that something is changing, a process is underway, but we are not certain as to what is being created.
  • I reflect from the perspective of the macro level, the bigger picture. It is important that values, ethics and trust are part of our peacebuilding work. But then the next step is how do we live out those values? For example, why did MPI chose the place, Mergrande, for our training and accommodation? MPI chose it as the training setting because it is simple, in line with our values of simplicity. There must be a connection between our values and actions at all levels.
  • The peacebuilding process has to have a foundation, and it is the values that we are talking about. Actions at the micro level and those at the macro level must be put together so that we do not forget the bigger picture in order for us to embrace another worldview that is different from the prevailing one and which will be defined by consciously practicing and living the values we have articulated in this workshop.

Reflecting the workshop participants’ insights, I believe that they are the evidence of the firm relation between the values, ethics, and trust. Values are the foundation of peacebuilding, ethics are derived from values and are to be practiced in peacebuilding actions, and trust is obviously nurtured by the collective and continuous efforts. Values, ethics, and trust synergistically contribute to the establishment of a “safe space.” Some participants also pointed out that the more you know who you are, the more you would be able to trust yourself, and finding alternative methods and ideas within yourself empowers you. When empowered individuals come together, there would be better balance between the key elements that were explored in this research. Sense of safety does not maintain itself without endeavours of all people. Once again, I remind myself that a “safe space” can also be easily compromised or destroyed, so that sustainable and collective efforts must be consistently pursued.

Closing of the Workshop

The workshop ended with a gesture of affirmative trust and support as participants, facilitators, and MPI staff gathered together in a big circle. There each affirmed and encouraged the other as peacebuilders and comrades on the journey of building peace by simple gestures of hugs, taps, hand-holding, and affirmative messages filled with respect and love for entrusting their lives, stories and context to each other, as the documenter records.

As a researcher/facilitator, I am thankful to all the people voluntarily involved in this research. The co-facilitator was constantly holding a “safe space” for preparatory or emergency consultations between herself and me. Also, with her remarkable skills and playful and positive attitudes as an artist-facilitator, the workshop space consistently emanated a vibrant and enjoyable atmosphere. The MPI team diligently upheld a sense of safety for all individuals involved. I strongly believe that thanks to the organization’s persistent and ongoing efforts in the past years, participants felt confident in placing trust in the workshop opportunity.

Some participants mentioned at the end of two days, that the research with various areas of the world with the cross-cultural factors and the values, ethics, and trust coming from this research would be able to help more peacebuilders. I hope to continue “our” journey to explore on this theme in years to come.

In gratitude to co-facilitator, co-hosts, documenter, class assistant and most of all, the generous and honest participants, I acknowledge that it was only possible that this workshop came to be a successful experimental and experiential research on values, ethics and trust in peacebuilding training settings.

Note 1.

This project is funded by UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is headed by Dr. Miho Taka and Dr. Michaelina Jakala of Coventry University in the UK. This workshop took place immediately following the close of the MPI 2023 Annual Peacebuilding Training at MPI on 2 June 2023, and was facilitated by the author assisted by a co-facilitator, Ms. Rosanna Quesada Palm. The workshop participants have attended the MPI 2023 Annual Peacebuilding Training in the previous three weeks. MPI support team was consisted of Ms. Christine Vertucci (Director), Ms. Queenilyn Liwat (Peacebuilding Training Program Officer) and Ms. Catherine Joy Catulong (Class assistant). It took place at Mergrande Ocean Resort, Talomo, Davao City, the Philippines, and the dates were from 3 June 2023 (starting at noontime) to 4 June 2023 (ending at noontime). The workshop was documented by Ms. Queenilyn Liwat.



Kyoko Okumoto (Ph.D.) is Professor at Osaka Jogakuin University, Japan, a research member of the AHRC-funded Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Project, and a facilitator at Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute. She is also a TRANSCEND International member (Regional Coordinator for Northeast Asia), a board member of TRANSCEND Japan, a former President of Peace Studies Association of Japan, and a former chair of Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute. Kyoko works in the fields of peace studies, conflict transformation and nonviolent intervention, and particularly focuses on the arts-based approaches to peacework. She teaches and facilitates peace workshops held mainly by civil society groups, and universities/schools. She tries to expand and deepen the network among North East Asian CSO/NGO people, and between NE Asia and South East Asia, and also with South Asia.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Feb 2024.

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