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Trying to create a safer space

Monday 18th July 2016

Safer spaces are created with good intentions, but sometimes there are hidden challenges.

Eliana Gray was on Twitter and peeved by the announcement of yet another festival lineup of almost exclusively male bands.

At first, creating a competing festival in protest was jokingly suggested. But then Eliana realised she and other like-minded people could actually create a music festival in Dunedin that was inclusive, accessible and prioritised safety.

Throughout Eliana’s time working at bars and playing gigs down south she has never been aware of a gig that also actively catered to the physical and emotional safety of the people attending it.

WATCH: Trying to create a safer space at Yes!Fest

“It really frustrated me seeing people that I knew were unsafe – who have displayed abusive behaviour or had sexually assaulted members of the community – still going to gigs.”

A Twitter conversation turned into a collective brought together by similar frustrations and ambitions. Yes! Fest, a festival that prioritised safety, was created.

The concept of safe/safer spaces has a 50-year history, with origins in the 60s and 70s when women’s movements employed the concept in an attempt to separate themselves from patriarchal thought.

Recently, it has gained cultural currency in New Zealand. Safe spaces have been implemented at festivals, gigs, on campuses and at conferences, though some people, fuelled by a “harden-up” mentality, still struggle with the concept.

Music events and festivals have adopted safe spaces as a way to resist rape culture and victim-blaming, while queer groups use them to reassure members that they will not be judged and their attendance be confidential if they ask for it to be.

Alex Mark, president of Victoria University’s UniQ group, first encountered the concept of safe spaces at one of the queer support discussion groups at Otago University Student Association. She had just been through a breakup and was looking for a space where she could reestablish her own identity.

Alex understands that a safer space is a space that is actively maintained, inclusive, and welcoming. Where people who are part of it feel they can “be and express their authentic selves without fear of retribution, retaliation, or resentment.”

Alex is a confident leader and law student, but she is still wary of the possibility of daily confrontation.

When Alex is in public she always questions how she should walk, how she should hold herself so she doesn’t look like a victim, if she should make eye contact, if she can safely hold hands with her partner.

“Constantly having to be aware of your surroundings and evaluating your safety is mentally and emotionally exhausting.”

As a queer female, Alex is grateful for safer spaces. She has also noticed how others relax when they are in a space where they feel they won’t be judged. Sometimes members of UniQ sit in the corner at meetings just to be in a room where they don’t have to be worried about “someone staring at them, whispering behind their back, or openly mocking or threatening them.”

But, except for a three cubic meter locker, UniQ still doesn’t have a permanent space for queer students on campus. The queer group urgently seek to change this. Alex hopes to do so by seeking “tangible recognition by the university that queer students are important and worthy of specific support.”

A safe space is a confronting concept. Maybe it’s even a bit odd for those unfamiliar with it. It seems to negate instinct, all that “hard” work we’ve put into concealing pain. It suggests that all spaces that don’t actively aim to achieve it are unsafe.

It takes time to understand, especially when some of our own attitudes or actions have contributed to this lack of safety.

“When your identification aligns with the majority, it's easy to walk around in almost any space and not feel threatened or at risk, which makes it harder to understand why someone else might not share that feeling of safety,” says Alex.

Accusations against safe spaces often come from “a place of extreme privilege”, where people are protected by their own whiteness, maleness, class, and/or their own structures of silencing to the extent that they cannot understand others’ lived experiences, she says.

When establishing a safe music festival, Eliana and the Yes! Fest organising team have encountered different kinds of conflict.

The first time you run a safe space in a community the response is very emotionally charged, Eliana says as she sits slightly restless in an armchair at The Attic, a large studio and workshop space that occasionally hosts gigs. It’s the first time a lot of people have been able to talk about things that have happened to them within the community.

Eliana realised that she had been too ambitious. She had hoped Yes! Fest would set in place structures that dismantled rape culture in Dunedin’s music scene. “I got overly excited about the gig and [I realised] what I was subconsciously reaching for was kind of unattainable.”

She had to reduce her desire to creating an event that simply started conversations about these issues in order for people to be aware that they exist and that they need resisting.

After a group is formed, often the first way these conversations start is when the group establishes safe space rules or policy.

At UniQ they work these rules out collectively at the start of each year. In a room on campus, members sit in a circle, introduce themselves, state their preferred pronouns and what they want from the group.  “Generally, I find that if people are involved in making the rules then they’re a lot more likely to stick to them,” Alex says.

These rules usually boil down to respectful language and respecting each other’s pronouns and opinions. Vegas Principles also apply. So, what goes on in the room stays in the room.

Running a safe space involves honestly evaluating how events went, how rules are operating, and correcting any issues, Alex says. “If people don't trust that the safety of the space will be maintained and enforced, they won't be engaging, they'll be evaluating and monitoring their safety and on their guard.”

In Yes! Fest’s manifesto on its Facebook event page it says that the behavioural expectations of their festival include understanding consent and respect. Hate speech or belittling remarks won’t be tolerated.

Although, unlike UniQ, it does not have a list of rules that the organisers and attendees have all agreed upon, they seem implied in how they will implement safety.

The festival had a Rape Crisis-trained crew who signed confidentiality agreements before event and were available for attendees to talk to. The crew were told not to directly involve themselves in any situation or confrontation in order to not jeopardise their own safety.

The event also had a “chill zone” where attendees could take time out and a phone that people can use if something happens and they need to talk to a group like Rape Crisis or Youthline.

Despite the good intentions behind the festival, things went wrong along the way for Yes! Fest.

On the Yes! Fest Facebook event page and in its private groups people criticised its precautionary banning process.

The banning process let anyone, anonymously or otherwise, submit via email names of people who they deemed unsafe without explanation (in order not to invalidate their experiences). Submitters could decide whether they would like unsafe people to be banned from being involved in running the event or attending the event, or if they want the team to keep an eye on them at the event.

One person in the organising team said they were not aware of this process before it was implemented. She also said when she asked questions about it she felt there was still a lack of transparency as to who could access the emails and what Yes! Fest’s emails had said.

Others criticised the process for not considering what mental state a person could be in when they receive an email like this.

For those in the safety group who managed the emails, it became increasingly hazardous to their own well-being to read through emails in which some people were calling out their abusers for the first time, especially in a small community like Dunedin. Eliana described it as “hugely emotionally draining”.

Yes! Fest decided to pull this process partway through, writing on the Facebook event:

We wish to emphasise that we have not made this decision in order to silence survivors or protect abusers, but because it has put too much responsibility on a team of people who do not feel qualified to take on a role that deals with such sensitive issues and has the potential to cause harm.

Yes! Fest apologised for the harmful way they dealt with this situation but said that they would not apologise to people who had been flagged as unsafe.

They revised their process to allow anyone to buy a ticket to the event, although people whose behaviour was brought to Yes! Fest’s attention were still emailed by Yes!Fest to tell them this.

Yes!Fest’s misstep did not go without backlash. One band, Pesk, asked that they be removed from the line up because they found the framing of female and other musicians as victims as “incredibly disempowering.”

Pesk said in their comment: “A safe crew at any event is totally excellent – as is just generally keeping each other safe, but I feel like this event has put too much focus [on safety and this will dominate the event] rather than the music.”

Members of the organising team also dropped out. Although the numbers were difficult to gauge, one past member said the “safety team” alone went from around 17 people to under six.

Yes! Fest hasn’t been the only collective traversing rough terrain because of its safe space mentality.

Eyegum Music Collective, which has run gigs in Wellington for the past two years, had an internal reevaluation after facing criticism.

The shows Eyegum promoted as safer spaces have been immensely popular. There was even talk of plans to make it a nationwide collective. A musician who recently played an Eyegum show described it as densely packed and an energetic, supportive environment.

Unexpectedly, however, Eyegum felt they were unable to answer The Wireless’ questions on safer spaces.

The reasons were partially explained by a post on their website in April, posts on their Facebook, as well as tweets by several musicians who were frustrated with Eyegum.

The post begins:

Women have been leaving Eyegum. There have been men taking advantage of their position in the scene to harass and abuse our audience/guests. Along with that, there have been people inside our organising crew and people attending our events who have explicitly or implicitly condoned such behaviour. This is not consistent with the Eyegum ethos. We need to do better.

The post goes on to say that they pushed women in the collective too hard by putting it on them to maintain safety at weekly gigs. They did not address repeatedly identified problems with their safer spaces processes.

Eyegum also apologised for putting survivors’ mental and physical health at risk and jeopardising their recovery by not respecting their wishes.

However, it became apparent that this apology was insufficient. A rape survivor posted on their Facebook page describing how Eyegum, under the guise of a feminist agenda to implement safe spaces, put pressure on her and other survivors, disclosed information about her rape to others, and contacted her attacker when she expressly asked them not to.

She ended her post addressing gig-goers: “You are the people who get to moderate and grow the music scene we have. You get to decide what you will support and what you will confront. Please demand better.”

If a safer space is run in a way that abusive or harassing behaviour happens in that space, it seems more dangerous than a space with no label because of the false sense of protection it brings to those attending and running it.

Although Alex says a safe space will never be able to imagine and cater for all identities and that “it’s unreasonable to think that no-one [will ever] be offended,” an unenforced policy is potentially worse than worthless. When people don’t trust that the safety of the space will be maintained and enforced, they will be always on their guard.

Safer spaces are becoming increasingly incorporated into various parts of our communities. When the safer space is for a small group who have a specific purpose for it, like UniQ who uses their space to talk about their identities, it seems to work well.

You are the people who get to moderate and grow the music scene we have. You get to decide what you will support and what you will confront. Please demand better.

On the 7th June Eyegum released another post on their website again acknowledging the serious critiques against it. They have even considered totally ending the collective, but instead decided to stay together to remedy their wrongs.The safe spaces that seem to be struggling in fundamental ways are those that are events involving many people, who may be drinking and may not be aware or in agreement with the space’s rules. In these situations, the safe space process is ridden with pot-holes.

The post says: “Putting safer spaces into practice is a fluid thing, there’s no way to apply a blanket policy, beyond the guidance it can provide. What is needed is active listening and being responsive to women and gender minorities who are experiencing harassment or abuse...”

The collective acknowledge that people still may not forgive them or want to have anything to do with them.

Down in Dunedin, after multiple changes to Yes! Fest following criticism, the collective acknowledged that the group had entered unknown territory. They said that “creating safer spaces for our community is largely uncharted” and that they expected to make more mistakes. Yes! Fest said that it is this very process of mistake and adaptation that will “help maintain safer communities”.

On the day of Yes! Fest the 100 tickets to the event had sold out (just under half of them were for bands and collective members) and there were no door sales.  

Outside the Women’s Pioneer Hall on Moray Place in the city centre, a handmade sign, symbolic of the DIY ethic of the collective, welcomed people to the event. Past the door were two tables where zines and information pamphlets were laid out. To the right of these tables was a small separate kitchen (the “Chill Zone”) that had bowls of tiny teddy biscuits and apples.

Throughout the day young parents took their children to watch bands and socialise in a relaxed setting that had tea, coffee, and drawing supplies at hand.

By night time the families had cleared out and a scattering of friends of bands and members of the collective remained enjoying the music.

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Loulou is a freelance writer and BA/LLB major. Last year she returned to Dunedin after living in Beijing for six months. She's still working out how to mix it all together.
John is a freelance filmmaker living in Dunedin. He currently plays guitar in TRIUMPHS and works for a software company.
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