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Introduction to Safe Spaces Policy Discussion

April 8, 2013

M – AWOL is a feminist group that meets monthly in Next To Nowhere social centre, which is a collectively-run, non-hierarchical activist space. AWOL stands for Angry Women of Liverpool, because sexism gives women many reasons to be angry, but one that particularly brought the group together was the common and frustrating experience of encountering sexism within activist organisations that ostensibly aim to create a fairer society and be anti-oppression..

E- There have been several prominent cases of sexism & sexual harassment/abuse in leftwing and other political organisations in the media recently, with SWP’s protection of a perpetrator reflected in the Lib Dems’ cover-ups, and the Glasgow University Union protecting members who heckled women with sexual insults in a debating competition.
We can pick and choose examples from across the political spectrum, but it’s important to remember that sexism is not limited to those particular organisations – it’s endemic across the left, because its endemic in society.
One positive thing to take away from the recent scandals, though – the evidence is that it’s not that these things are happening more than they used to – it’s that more survivors are speaking out and gathering support to oppose it.

M – When survivors speak out about abusive behaviour by other activists and seek support from their group, too often the response is disbelief and denial. Ranks close around the perpetrator, because it’s hard to comprehend that a good friend or comrade might be capable of doing such harm. Insistence on incontrovertible proof overrides taking any kind of constructive action. Survivors are conflicted because the group and its aims are important to them, but may be led to feel that their legitimate request for support and accountability will divide and undermine it. They may be isolated and ostracised. When women in leftist groups try to challenge or even just discuss sexism, they are often told that to do so is to distract from class struggle. Feminism is dismissed as “identity politics” and sexism will be magically solved by the revolution or can be dealt with after that’s been achieved.

E- AWOL ran 2 successful sessions in the last year on sexism in activism, aimed at raising and discussing these issues with members of a wide range of activist groups across the city. The first session focussed on cultures of sexism, and how we can recognise and expose them. The second looked into how we can ensure our groups have the resources, policies and processes to challenge sexism and other oppressive behaviours.

M – Safer spaces policies and procedures are a proactive approach to preventing and dealing with oppressive or abusive behaviour within a group. A safer spaces policy is a collective agreement on what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable, and that anyone raising problems will be listened to. It’s essential that the policy is backed up by collectively agreed procedures for holding individuals accountable for abusive behaviour. A safer spaces approach is not about scapegoating, blame or punishment but about restoring power to the survivor and asking the perpetrator to take responsibility for their behaviour and understand what was wrong with it.

E- I’ve been involved in establishing safer spaces policies and processes at Next To Nowhere, the AF & elsewhere. Safer spaces not just about sexism, but challenging all oppressive behaviours and creating a safer space for everybody. It can be difficult to even start that conversation, because the first response to the idea that such a policy is needed is defensiveness, and showing evidence of a culture of oppressive behaviour can prompt a group to start defending or accusing individuals and demanding evidence, which completely misses the point. Establishing an organisational culture that can deal effectively with oppressive behaviours within its ranks is always a good thing – it’s good for our activism, good for our internal cohesion and trust within our groups, good for social justice in society. The more that people feel comfortable, safe and included within our organisations, the stronger and more effective we become.

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