feature image of model wearing our Safe Space eco-fleece sweatshirt from the Autostraddle Store
Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
This is not a how-to article about putting a rainbow sticker on your office door to show that you have taken an optional professional development training on LGBTQ+ identities and affirmation. It’s not that kind of safe space, folks. That “safe zone” or safe space training is good and fine. I like it. Yes.
This is a how-to about making your activist spaces a little bit safer and a little bit more accessible and inclusive! Yay!
Why “safer” and not “safe” space, you may ask? Because space is never really 100% safe for everyone. Even in an activist space, we can cause harm to others or be harmed by others. Even in a queer-only or trans-only space, we can cause harm to others or be harmed by others. The world is complex. People are always learning and unlearning and we all have implicit biases. So, unfortunately, literally nothing you can do can make a space 100% safe for all. What we can promise, though, as organizers and humans is committing to doing our best to build a space where people are able to bring their whole selves and where there is safety in the ability to speak truths and hold each other accountable.
1. Prioritize Accessibility
When you make your event or rally or meeting or even your social media posts more accessible, you make the world a more equitable and a little safer for folks who might otherwise be excluded from your work. Here are just a few example of how to make activist spaces equitable for more folks.
Use descriptive text: When you’re posting image-only content on social media or on a website like pictures and videos, add written text that visually describes the image for people who can’t see it and rely on text readers.
Pick locations near public transit: If you’re having a rally or event or meet-up, make sure you are thoughtful about whether people who use public transit can make it to your event, particularly in cities and towns where driving is more the norm than walking.
Choose buildings and areas that are ADA compliant and accessible: When you’re picking a site for an action, meeting, or event, check for things like ramp access, handrails, accessible entrances and doorways, accessible bathrooms, and elevators. Similarly, if you’re having an outdoor event, make sure there are accessible curbs and sidewalks and paths for folks who require or prefer them.
Plan ahead for accommodations: Put on your flyer if translation services are available, especially if people need to request translation services in advance. If you’re feeding folks and asking them to RSVP, ask them to let you know about any dietary restrictions they have or accommodations they need to be comfortable and healthy.
2. Make Commitments With Each Other
Part of safer space is making space for people to talk, be themselves, and grow. That includes focusing on both intent and impact. In other words, focus on intent a.k.a. assuming good intentions and being open to people possibly not saying the right thing all the time. However, we also need to focus equally on impact, the very real trauma and violence that can happen when people say or do harmful things, even if it was unintentional, and make sure they’re addressed immediately.
Set group commitments: Brainstorm your shared valued and commitments for your space. Post them somewhere where you can see them and remind yourselves of them as needed. Some popular ones are one mic (one speaker at a time), flow in/flow out (be aware of your level of participation in the group), show respect, and maintaining confidentiality. Side note: I very recently used to suggest “step up/step back” instead of flow in/flow out and was gently corrected by another organizer who pointed out that the “step up” language is ableist. Always learning!)
Make individual commitments: In some groups, it may make sense to have each person go around and make one personal commitment to the space you’re sharing. I’ve found this to be very powerful when working with other organizers or when anticipating difficult conversations with a small group of folks. We each know what our own typical bad habits are in group setting. Doing this allows for people to be self-reflective and really think about how they want to show up and it allows for gentle group accountability by sharing each commitment aloud with the group. If it doesn’t feel right or safe to ask people to share with the group, you can ask them to write down one or two things that would make them feel proud of how they showed up in the space for self-reflection.
3. Model Sharing Pronouns
It’s basic, I know, but it bears a reminder! Even I forget to offer people the explicit option to share pronouns sometimes when I’m not thinking about it. It’s my cis privilege showing, for sure!
When it comes to pronouns, I always say that you should give people the option, not force everyone to share their pronouns. Sharing pronouns has the potential to out someone to the group and they may not feel comfortable or ready to be out in a group. On the flip, for people and especially non-binary and trans people who are out and want people to use the correct pronoun, it’s super important to make it normal to share pronouns. I always do a simple description of what pronouns are, for folks who may not be familiar with the context, to eliminate any confusion or discomfort with the prompt. Then I share mine as an example and give people the option to share them or not. It makes me cringe when pronoun sharing becomes mandatory in an introductory setting and someone yells, “your pronoun!” at someone else when they forget to share. You never want people to feel like they are going to be called out if they don’t share, which is more about protecting folks who aren’t ready to share than cis folks who are confused about the request. Really, though, how do you know?
Here’s my sample script for when I’m facilitating a group or meeting: “Please feel free to share your pronouns, which are the words you use to describe yourself and could be words like: he, she, they, ze, no pronouns, or something else. You are not required to share your pronouns at all and we’ll all do our best not to guess each others pronouns regardless of whether someone shares or not. My name is KaeLyn and my pronouns are she/her. Who wants to go next?”
If you don’t already have a copy, Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson’s A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is a really excellent resource to have handy for yourself or someone else!
4. Facilitate for Inclusive Participation
When you’re running a meeting or event or panel or rally or any space where people are gathering, you have a lot of power to affect inclusivity in the meeting. The facilitator’s job is to make sure people are keeping on track and that everyone has an opportunity to participate. Even if you’re not facilitating, you may find there are opportunities to advocate for others to be sure everyone is actively included and engaged.
Center the voices of the most marginalized: Center the voices of people who are marginalized in the space. This can mean in terms of personal identity, particularly people whose voices often don’t get heard first. It can also mean access, based on who is able to be in the room vs. on the phone or on video chat or in the front near the facilitator vs. farther in the back of a room. It can mean people who do not share the dominant language in the room and are slightly behind the conversation because they’re using interpreters or having trouble keeping up. It can mean a lot of things. Try to make explicit space for people who might otherwise have to fight to be heard.
Use a progressive stack: This is a radical facilitation tool that aligns with centering marginalized voices. Let people know right off the bat or even include in your space commitments that you’ll use a progressive stack, meaning that you’re not going to call on or move right to whomever speaks up next. You may use discretion to go out-of-order and allow those who haven’t had a chance to speak or who are more marginalized or who are directly impacted by the issue you’re discussing go first and next.
Suggest a go-around: Instead of taking hands or popcorning off of each other, suggest that feedback or discussion is started with a go-around. In a go-around, everyone is given the opportunity to say something briefly, taking turns until every person has had a chance to speak. If it makes sense for inclusivity purposes, you can give people the option to “pass” on their turn. This is a way to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, even if some people are more extroverted than others.
Use post-it notes for brainstorming and consensus-building: Similar to a go-around, using post-it brainstorming is a way to get input from every single person without privileging the louder voices in the room. Ask everyone to take a small stack of post-it notes and write down their thoughts, then stick them up on a wall or a piece of chart paper. This way, every person has an opportunity to get their ideas and words included. You can also use this facilitation technique to group similar ideas together in post-it clusters and build some consensus about important points or themes for a variety of group work projects. (Note: After publishing this article, one helpful reader pointed out that post-it brainstorms can be an accessibility issue for folks who can’t handwrite without assistance, which may make them feel infantilized oe excluded. So a better solution might be brainstorming via an online platform like using a hashtag on Twitter or a polling app. Always learning and growing, folks!)
5. Hold Yourself and Others Accountable
This is maybe the most important part of a safer space and also the one that trips people up the most. Especially when you’re on the receiving end of an accountability process. It’s hard to swallow that, despite our best efforts, we can still mess up. In many ways, it’s even harder to speak up and say when you’ve been harmed by someone, particularly when you know their intentions weren’t bad. It’s a risk you take. Will you still be welcome in a space if you say something, if you dissent or if you speak about someone who has a lot more systemic or institutional power than you? On the other hand, will you still be welcome in a space if you admit that you fucked up?
Honestly, I can’t guarantee that these things turn out well every time. I will say that building a model for talking about and dealing with triggers and microaggressions and straight up messed up stuff that will undoubtedly come up eventually in your activist spaces (because it lives with us everywhere) is a step towards maintaining safer space.
Use oops/ouch: This is a popular one. I think it works well in group meeting-style settings where the dynamics of the group are highly temporary, primarily transactional, and don’t require people to develop a long-term relationship with each other. The premise is that you agree during your ground rules or space commitments that if anyone feels triggered or offended by something someone else says or does, they can say, “Ouch!” and the person will respond with, “Oops!” to imply no harm was intended and they’ve noted the harmful thing.
All that said, I don’t think this works well in group dynamics that have to develop over time, with people who truly have to build lasting professional or personal relationships with each other. Because it doesn’t really change the behavior, give the person who said, “Ouch!” a chance to explain themselves or the person who said, “Oops!” to learn and grow from the interaction. In some versions of this model, they do take time to discuss what happened. That said, it still may not be the best way and it puts a lot of pressure on the person who experienced the microaggression to speak up and explain themselves and educate the other person.
Use a community accountability model: This is a community-based way to deal with targeted violence within communities including abuse and harassment, outside of the prison industrial complex, with a racial equity lens. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence has an excellent reading list of shared resources on building a community accountability model that you should read if you’re interested in developing this for your group, organization, or space!
Like anything around inclusivity, we have to commit to always learning and growing and doing more all the time to make our spaces better and better. Feel free to share your ideas or experiences with safe/r space in the comments and any tips I’ve missed!
I feel like I say this on every Be the Change article, KaeLyn, but this is so so helpful and specific and valuable. Thank you!
I really appreciate it every time, @lgbt-rex! It always makes my day every time someone comments on a post I wrote. With this column, especially, I love love love that you are reading the column and getting something out of it! It can get kinda’ technical, which isn’t the sexiest part of activism and organizing and I’m glad you still want to read it!
i second the quick & easy guide for they/them pronouns! it’s great to have around for people to browse through. i think lots of us need refresher training if it’s not in our daily lives to use they/them, and it really is a quick and easy guide that helps your brain out.
@whiskeyghost is a goddamn genius, right?
AHHH THANK YOU BOTH!
Very informative, thank you (as always), KaeLyn!
I was recently in a situation where someone was super violating the accountability part and got called out by multiple people multiple times, but DIDN’T STOP, even after explaining why such and such wasn’t okay BECAUSE, and continued to go back and question it. Completely derailed the entire meeting. I like the idea of ouch/oops, but like you said, it doesn’t really work with the group dynamics.
Welp, I didn’t mean to comment under here. My apologies!
Ugh. That sounds painful, @jords! I’ve been there. There isn’t a simple way to deal with it other than to cultivate, over time, a space where everyone is equipped to accept accountability. Sometimes…it does not work out and it can totally derail your work.
Thank you so much for this! I’m in activist spaces a lot, and this helps me identify/name things that we’re already doing, as well as show us where we can grow ❤️
thank you so much for this series KaeLyn, it’s really interesting and I’m pretty sure it’s making me better at my job! Would you mind sharing more on flow in/flow out so I can be sure I’m understanding? Google didn’t turn up anything relevant.
Any future episode on how you keep your energy and passion going would be ve helpful. I find when your job is connected to your purpose it can be draining and img that others feel the same has been very helpful but currently my colleagues and I lost this particular (big) battle so any tips on refuelling would be greatly appreciated.
Flow in / Flow out is basically a gentle call to ask folks to be aware of how much they’re speaking or how long they’re speaking in a space. If, for example, you’re a person who speaks a lot, think about how you can wait to speak and leave more space for others. If you’re a person who is less likely to speak, consider how you can feel free to take up a little more space, knowing that we want the space to include as many voices as possible.
I think the biggest and best tip I can give for keeping your batteries charges, especially when you suffer a loss, is to take care of each other. Make space for joy in your work! Activism is part of what inspires passion for many of us, so “taking a break” can be hard. Doing good is part of what makes us feel good. That said, it’s also important to prioritize taking care of each other as people and that can be a part of an activist practice, too.
Re: pronoun go-arounds, I find that if they’re optional, people who don’t share get their genders assumed. Do you do any extra norm-setting to help people use they/them when someone hasn’t shared pronouns?
I do, @tengalaxies! Of course, people still make mistakes, I’m sure myself included.
When I’m in a space where we’ll be working together for some time (not just for one meeting), I do an activity with folks to help them recognize how often they use pronouns and how easily they slip into gendering another person without realizing it. We do an activity that I adopted from GLSEN where I ask people to get into pairs and interview each other about some basic, non-invasive info (favorite movie, favorite snack, etc). I don’t give the more info than that and treat it as an icebreaker. I ask them to take notes on the other person’s answers. Then, I ask them to go back into their pairs and give a verbal report on the other person (like they’re doing a newscast or writing up the interview, for example) without using any pronouns (including “you”). I normalize that it’s OK if they make mistakes and that this may be challenging if they’ve never done it before. Then, after a lot of chatter and giggles and after both people have had a chance to give their report, we debrief it as a group. I ask if it was easy or hard, what strategies people used to avoid using pronouns, what it felt like to mess up, etc. We then talk about misgendering and how often it happens to people who are often misgendered, particularly trans and nb people, ever day and how it’s a big deal when you add all of that up. We talk about how to avoid using pronouns at all if you don’t know someone’s pronoun, normalize that it’s a thing we’ve all been trained to do since birth and that it takes practice to think outside of, and commit to making our space together a place where we will use people’s correct pronouns or, if we don’t know a person’s pronoun, be conscious about not venturing a guess.
It works well in a classroom setting or with a group who will be together for a long time. I don’t know how well it works in a one-time setting, primarily because in shorter meetings, there isn’t scheduled time for this level of activity. It takes about 30 minutes to facilitate well.
That said, you could add to the pronouns script a few examples of how to address people whose name and pronoun you don’t know. “The person in the black shirt.” “You…”
A+ photos and captions! And thanks for the article, as always.
I always think I create fairly safe spaces whenever I facilitate but there are some great strategies here which I’m so glad I get to learn and take on board – thanks for sharing!
I wanted to raise something about #4: inclusive participation. While post-it notes are a good strategy for sharing ideas/finding consensus, they can inadvertently exclude some disabled people, e.g. blind/vision impaired, and people with motor difficulties who aren’t able to handwrite their ideas, and read others ideas. Personally, I always feel super uncomfortable when we do this in group settings because it’s kind of infantalising needing someone to read and write for me. I always prefer electronic alternatives, e.g. having a polling site or Twitter feed to share ideas (though admittedly I can’t really advocate for a best practice just yet).
#5 re accountability is so difficult to handle and from experience you really just need to establish an open dialogue where microaggressions are seen as an opportunity to learn and grow, instead of acting as a source of conflict. I like the ouch/oops idea as a starting point, but as you say, for it to be effective there needs to also be discussion of how/why the comment/action was problematic.
This is super helpful, @fragilelittleframe! So much so that I’m going to edit the post to reflect your comment on the post-its. I admittedly have biases as a currently able person that I am unaware of and I appreciate you pointing this out. I’m going to think about it myself as a frequent facilitator!
You leave no space for people who see that gender operates as a system of oppression, and not as an identity.
hi hi! would anyone mind elaborating on flow in/flow out? would love to implement but not too sure what it means in practice!
not 100% sure, but I think the ‘progressive stack’ thing is related, about equal participation. My take is that “flow in/flow out” is a request that each participant take some personal responsibility for taking up an equitable amount of space. AORTA collective offers the phrase “WAIT – Why Am I Talking?” and asking oneself that silently before speaking is a good practice for ppl who talk a lot (like me!). The amount we talk on our default setting has so much to do with privilege too, so addressing that people who are seen as male/white/upper class/etc were likely more encouraged to speak up in their formative years and can actively focus on listening if that’s true can help frame “flow in flow out.”
I’ve used ‘tickets’ in the past to help people notice their default level of speaking participation in less structured conversation – everyone gets 2-3 tickets that they ‘play’ when they speak – people who talk a lot are challenged to ‘only’ use that many and people who talk less are challenged to use them all.
Yup, that’s right! And I like to “ticket” idea!
this is so so helpful and i love the WAIT and ticket ideas. think this is gonna be great to frame in my own life. i tend to fill a little too much speaking room when i get excited about a topic. think it’ll be great to step back! thank you!!!!