Beyond Safe Spaces
Part 2: Where Can We Take Our Togetherness?
I want to learn how to do more effective political organising, so I’m exploring how social change happens in spaces that don’t look much like meetings. I’m thinking of the punks in the 70s, or the hackathons I visited in Taiwan as 1000s of young people successfully rewrote the political logic of their nation. Not a meeting in sight!
In Western progressive political spaces we talk about “safer spaces”, a formula for including a diversity of cultures in our organising. I explore the context and theory of safer spaces in part one of this article.
I’ve been dreaming lately, what comes after safety? I’m motivated by utopias, so I imagine: if we were all safe, where could we take our togetherness? Can we grow comfortable spaces, thriving spaces, therapeutic, energetic, sensual, creative, hospitable… even erotic spaces?
While I’ve been contemplating this question, a few parallel experiences have come to mind: guests at a party, foreigners invited onto native land, and lovers opening up to each other. Maybe in considering these examples we’ll get some new ideas to bring back to our organising.
Diversity and inclusion through hospitality
You can think of hospitality as one way to include different cultures in one space. When you’re in my house, I expect you to make an effort to conform to “how we do things around here”, and in return, I will make an effort to make you as comfortable as possible. I’m concerned with the needs of your distinctive, dignified human body: are you hungry, can I get you a drink? Does the lighting and music create a convivial atmosphere or is it getting in the way? My concern starts with the physical experience of bodies in proximity. I don’t want to discuss ideas until all the bodies in the room are feeling okay.
When we start on those terms, then I can very quickly get into a relationship with you. We don’t need to know a lot about each other; almost immediately I start to trust you. The more trust we share, the more intimate and vulnerable we can be together. Within these intimate spaces, I’m most able to change, to heal from trauma, to learn from different experiences, to let go of out-of-date ideas, to imagine a different world than the one I know.
I went to a lomilomi massage class and the instructor told me, “In Hawai’i, massage is just basic hospitality. When you come to my house, I offer food, drink, massage.” That’s the culture I want us to grow in our organising spaces: an abundance of touch, care and intimacy. Yes of course, boundaries, consent, safety comes first. And then: let’s be ambitious!
Hospitality resolves a lot of social complexity by naming clear roles: host and guest. This is counter to the prevailing logic of many progressive organising spaces, where the focus is on “co-creation”, as if we can arrive with a blank slate and then all show up as equals to negotiate how we are going to be together. Hospitality operates on a fundamentally different logic. Instead of the blank slate and complex negotiation, we have just two factors: “how we do things around here” and “what you need to be comfortable”.
Ahhh, there’s the rub. “How we do things around here” presumes there’s a “we” who belongs “here”. So this is how we get to indigeneity. You see, my understanding of hospitality is not just about parties and shared meals, it’s also about how native people welcome others onto their land.
Diversity and inclusion through ceremony
Because I come from Aotearoa New Zealand, I know how it feels to be welcomed into indigenous territory. I understand the pōwhiri (Māori welcome ceremony) as an intricate sequence of steps for manuhiri (guests) to meet with tangata whenua (people of the land) and make peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange. Whatever your background, when you’re on the local marae (meeting grounds), you adopt local tikanga (the correct way of doing things, locally defined). Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) I know is not closed: it is open to trade, so long as we prioritise right relationships.
Colonisation is still hugely damaging to Māori, don’t let me understate that: I’m just saying that I’ve seen Māori techniques for negotiating between cultures that seem to be safe and productive. And it feels good.
So there’s one path for folks looking for a more straightforward way to include diverse cultures in your organising: submit yourself to Indigenous leadership and follow the protocols of your host. (I profoundly regret touring political spaces all across the US without visiting any Indigenous spaces — next time I’ll do different.)
For many organisers, that’s not a realistic option, at least not in the short term. So I wonder if there are other lessons to learn from this “inclusion through ceremony” lens? I think of the Māori welcoming process as a sophisticated technology to bring groups together in preparation for some exchange. Even in informal settings, you always meet Māori people over food. By comparison, our European methods feel rudimentary, ill-equipped for bringing difference together safely.
Reflecting on my experience at Web of Change, all of my best learning moments came immediately after the exchange of gifts. Someone offered me a coffee, then they helped me see how my cisgender bias was confusing my understanding of patriarchy. I prefer this quiet, gentle exchange far more than having my ignorance announced in public, where someone reminds everyone that I’m “just another typical White male saviour!”
Another time: I offered someone a smoke, we settled in and relaxed, and then I learned about the mostly unrecognised surge of First Nations organising in Turtle Island. Again, it was a gentle exchange of stories, a bonding experience. Easy. Compare this to other experiences I observed, where people’s ignorant questions triggered a facilitation crisis. There is so much trauma associated with First Nations activism in Canada, because the enormous damage of colonisation has not even stopped, let alone healed. So just asking questions can bring up a lot of pain. This is the point: bringing different people together can be extremely painful, we need more than just good intentions to make these meetings safe and productive.
I wonder if we can design our events to put the exchange of gifts before the exchange of ideas? Can we trade stories before we make theories out of them? Can we design our eating and drinking to be the central activity, rather than marginal “fuelling up” time? Maybe we can start our gatherings with many small connections: peer-to-peer spaces where intimacy can grow quietly, rather than pouring everyone into one big noisy group?
I want to make one more analogy, another way to think about diversity and inclusion: I’m thinking about love and sex.
Lovers opening to each other, knowing the risks.
I started writing this article in Vancouver Airport and finished it in Buenos Aires. My first night here, I had an epic dream, one of those dreams that feels like switching into a vastly more creative intelligence than the one I carry in my waking mind. All at once, I saw an unbroken chain of lovers all the way from Argentina to Canada, a network ten thousand miles long, weaving profound tenderness and intimacy. And between each of these lovers, there it was, that fragile careful space where our stories transform from trauma to healing to bonding to courage to joy to peace.
I’ve spent so much time wondering how on earth there can be enough healing for all the people wounded by all the awful injustice in the world? I woke up from this dream feeling/knowing there’s more than enough, there’s more than enough. Maybe I’ve shown up to meetings looking for a kind of therapy that I could find in the arms of a lover.
We could hurt each other. You can say all the right words, but I’ve heard the right words before. You can approach me with respect and consideration, you can charm me with flirting and flattery, I can be intoxicated with desire, and still a part of me knows that you could hurt me. If I let you in here, you could hurt me. So most of the time, I decide to stay closed. Maybe I’ll open the front rooms, invite you into the foyer, but I’ll keep the valuables locked up further inside.
But sometimes, sometimes I open all the doors, let the light and the air in: occasionally I’ll give you an all-access pass. And wow! when you and I meet there, we learn so much, feel so much, play so much!
Allowing someone into my space is risky. But the pay-off is so good, I’m going to keep doing it regardless of how many times it goes badly.
How does eroticism fit into our organising? A lot of people want more love and more sex. When we gather for conferences and retreats, there’s usually a hidden undercurrent of people hooking up with each other. What might we learn if we designed our events intentionally for people to find new lovers? What structures would we need to make that good for everyone?
This is what I mean, beyond “safe”, even beyond “satisfied”, I want to take our togetherness all the way out to “delighted”, and further still to places I’ve not been yet.
I want to hear what comes up for you when you read this article. Do you feel like you basically understand intersectionality and we just need new methods to embody it? Or are you operating on a different understanding of oppression and liberation than what I’ve described here? Do you have great experiences of trans-cultural negotiation you want to share?
I can anticipate a certain number of White men taking this as an invitation to complain about being prevented from dominating organisations or gatherings. If that’s you, please read this article I wrote for you before commenting on this one.
Everyone else: please point me to your stories, your resources, your insights and intuitions. I’d love to exchange with you.
p.s. This story is licensed in the public domain, no rights reserved, i.e. do what you want with it. Html, pdf, and markdown formats available.
p.p.s. These stories take days to write. I get a lot of encouragement when you hit that 👏🏽 button on Medium! If you want to free up more of my time for writing, you can support me on Patreon.