The question of safe spaces was brought to the fore last year in the Occupy movement where a number sexual assaults and rapes took place within communities which were designated and designed to be radical. The recent meltdown the in Socialist Workers Party in the UK, where a senior member of the party raped a young woman while the party covered up for it has brought the issue back into the fore. These are not isolated incidents, the whole left and radical community is aware of assaults – sexual and otherwise – occurring in its midst, and at last it is starting to be tackled. But we need to go beyond simply dealing with incidents to preventative measures to engender a culture in which such acts are less likely to happen.
Over on Floaker, there is a very good article about how to deal with incidents which occur within radical communities, but it must be remembered that these do not occur in a vacuum. They occur within both an internal and social culture which facilitates them, through marginalisation and tolerance of violence. Our intentions are always looking outwards, but we also must look at our own internal culture to ensure that isolation and targeting do not occur. Below are a few suggestions of how physical spaces such as meetings can be made more inclusive and safer, as a general norm.
Everyone has the chance to speak.
Even if it is just to state their name. Activist meetings can be intimidating. Frequently people know each other prior even when a new group is established, and joining an already existing organisation is a daunting social process. Unless very confident its tempting to drift into the background and let more established and confident voices take control. By ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak, it breaks the initial embarrassment and makes them more likely to participate in future. Icebreaking – whether through a formal part of the meeting, or even simply as simply as going round asking people their name are essential. At public meetings, this may be impractical, but the opportunity for a newcomer to interact in person with an established group is essential.
Keeping a Stack
By using a “stack” – a list of contributors that want to speak in the order that they indicated, rather than just allowing the chair or facilitator to choose those who catch their eye. Frequently in when a chair chooses speakers, those known the chair or who are recognised within the community will be selected over those less known. A stack can overcome these problems, and also allow people a little bit more time to prepare as they know that their contribution is coming up and listen to what is being said rather than being preoccupied by how they can catch the chairs eye to make a contribution.
Breaking into Groups
Large meetings can be quite intimidating, particularly for less confident or newer members, breaking into smaller groups means that people are more able to contribute and less intimidated doing so, empowering them to contribute. Where different groups are allocated different tasks it may be more appropriate to allow people to choose based on their interests, but when groups are all discussing the same issue with a view to bringing it back to the plenary, it can be more useful for people to be randomly allocated (for example using a 1,2,3,4…. system) to make sure that any pre-existing groupings are exposed to the views of others, and avoid entrenching any already established group disagreements.
Handsignals can be an unobtrusive way of indicating your feelings about the proceedings. The most common ones used are waving hands upwards to show agreement and waving hands downwards to show disagreement and a raised hand to request to be added to the stack, however there are others to indicate that process is not being observed, that people are not understanding and want clarification or can contribute information which is relevant to the discussion. When a speaker has started to ramble, or time is short and lots of others want to contribute, a “wrap it up” signal can prompt them to finish their contribution, while a block signal can indicate be used to indicate that someone doesn’t agree with a proposal that is seeking group consensus and further discussion is needed, and a “direct” signal can be used to suggest that enough discussion has taken place and that the group should move to proposals.
Handsignals for safety
In Barcelona, the Barcafems have developed a handsignal (knuckles pushed together) to indicate the presence of sexism when someone is speaking. This saves a derailing of the discussion from the topic under consideration to sexism in the movement, but at the same time allows the speaker to become aware that people are unhappy about the sexism s/he is expressing and to adjust their own behaviour without a buildup of resentment occurring. It may be useful to extend the use of such to indicate all instances of non-inclusive contributions, where people are feeling marginalised or unsafe by the direction the discussion is taking.
Triggers – something that sets off a memory transporting a person back to an event of trauma – are common, particularly among activists who are frequently motivated to become active through bad experiences, or who have been targeted by state authorities through it. Trigger warnings on written material have become more common, however they are less common in speech. Warning people where you are talking of a difficult experience which may trigger the hearer can be useful to allow the hearer to prepare for it, or consider another way for the information to be presented to minimise the chances of reliving trauma.
Violence is not exclusively a physical phenomenon. Violent language, including swearing, threats, or an aggressive manner of speaking – particularly when it is directed to an individual, hightens the violence within a space and inhibits respectful communication. It is unsurprising that activist spaces sometimes become heated, given the passion which drives people to participate, but an overtly aggressive atmosphere is offputting and disrespectful. Regular temperature checks, where the group is asked for feedback on how the discussion is going using the “positive” and “negative” handsignals, can give an early indication of when people are feeling like the discussion is becoming unproductive or unhealthy. As well as agreeing some manner of intervening when there is a feeling that interactions are becoming disrespectful.
Cultural norms around physical touching can vary within group to group. Giving people hugs and jokey pushes are common around groups of people who know each other well and who know one another’s boundaries. However physical interaction can be problematic. It is a natural human instinct to use touch to communicate – whether that is a gentle reassuring handsqueeze, a congratulatory pat on the shoulder or a humerous nudge – but it should be remembered at the same time there is often the potential for miscommunication and inadvertent breaching of physical boundaries.
Catering for Special Requirements
Ensuring that people who have special requirements are catered for can be a difficult task, disabilities and other commitments can often limit people’s participation, and needs are so diverse that it can be difficult to pre-empt everything. Some basic considerations may include
- exploring whether the space is physically accessible to those who may wish to attend,
- whether special seating arrangements may be required – for example to allow someone with hearing difficulties to sit close to or opposite the speaker,
- whether information can be presented in a variety of forms including different languages or in formats which can be easily translated into other languages, or converted to accessible formats,
- where food is provided, encouraging vegan provision which is suitable for (almost) all dietary restrictions
- considering making provision for care of children as part of the space
By managing physical spaces to promote inclusion and participation, to highlight problematic speech or behaviours without derailing the discussion and pre-emptively exploring what can be done to minimise the chances of someone feeling uncomfortable or unsafe in the space we can create a much more welcoming environment for new activists and encourage healthy dialogue, maximise participation and minimise marginalisation.
Pro-actively promoting a healthy, respectful culture in the spaces in which we conduct our internal affairs within the activist movement will go a long way to developing a culture where respect and healthy interaction extends well beyond the boundaries of what is “designated” activist space.