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Structuring safety

Structuring safety is about having the intention of not traumatising someone we are working with and about being witnesses to their stories and accounts.

Structuring safety is important when working with mothers and children from diverse backgrounds who may experience racism and social isolation.


‘We contest the binary of “safe or unsafe” when we co-create relationships of enough-safety with our clients (Bird, 2004). I work to create some-safety, enough-safety, or a safe-r conversation and relationship. All conversations across difference are risky because power is always at play. Doing harm by replicating oppression is always a potential risk. This is true despite our commitments to social justice and our collective ethics (Reynolds, 2009).’

Richardson & Reynolds (2014).

Structuring safety is your work

Richardson & Reynolds (2014), writing about their work with Canadian Indigenous survivors of residential schools, suggest that ‘structuring safety’ is not about preparing for the work; it is the work. Structuring safety first requires you to work in partnership, to do the work of understanding the impact of racism, privilege and any experiences of violence or oppression in their country of origin. It also means you need to be aware of how your appearance (clothing, posture, attitude, tone of voice) and the meeting place can foster safety.

Consider the following points when structuring safety.

Structuring safety What might I say?
Honour the autonomy of the family and community. They decide what will be talked about and what will be of use.
  • What is most important for you to talk about?
What will be of most use to your family and your community?
Acknowledge your privilege and your own cultural connections. Locating your privilege and cultural heritage will demonstrate that you are aware that you do not see yourself as ‘normal’ and them as ‘different’.
  • I have an Irish and Scottish background, second generation to Australia. I know that because of my white-Anglo heritage that I have many privileges you have not experienced.
Ask everyone how they would like to be identified culturally. This includes any white people present. Asking only non-white people how they culturally identify reinforces racism and the idea that non-white people are ‘different’.
  • How would you like to be culturally identified?
Continuously ask for permission about when, where, who and what to talk about.
  • Who do you think it is important to speak with?
  • Who would you like to speak with?
  • Where is the best place for us to speak?
  • What is most important for you to speak about?
Plan responses to fears of possible backlash in their cultural community or from family.
  • How will people respond to you speaking about the violence?
  • What will this be like for you?
  • How might you respond to that?
  • Who can be of help to you?
  • How can I be of most use to you?
Make space for them to say ‘no’.
  • How will I know that you want to say no to something?
  • What will it take for you to say no to something I have asked or have done?
  • How would you like me to respond to that?
  • What does saying ‘no’ say about your ability to decide what’s going to happen?
  • Is there anything I have done that has made you want to say ‘no’? Or is it uncomfortable for you to talk about your situation?
Thinking about tonight, tomorrow and the future.
  • How are you feeling now about what we talked about? How might you feel tomorrow about what we just talked about?
  • How will you care for yourself today and tomorrow?
  • Who can be there to help care for you?

Modified from Richardson and Reynolds, 2014.

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