While I was waiting, I decided to highlight here a question that I touch upon in my presentation regarding safe spaces. I chose to attend an in-person affinity space for this project. Physically entering a public space can be challenging sometimes, for a variety of reasons. This affinity space is unique in that it consistently generates new interest and first-time attendees regularly cycle through. There were only a few people - out of a normal attendance of 20 - that I saw more than once. Several newcomers said that they came because of recommendations from friends. A significant portion of attendees had recently moved to Denver and were looking for a social gathering to meet new people. The boundaries and borders of this space are, therefore, very porous. The group considers this a positive attribute because there are no barriers to entry. Nurturing affinity spaces should be open and accessible.
However, I would like to challenge the idea that open necessarily means accessible in a social setting, as well as the assumption that a lack of literal barriers translates into an automatic welcome. It is one thing to say that everyone is welcome, and quite another to make everyone feel welcome. This is where I believe that the affinity space in which I participated could do better, and I make this point in my presentation.
I didn't discuss any incident in particular in my video because it would be published on a huge platform, and I wanted to keep it very general. I do want to address one instance here, though. This came up recently during my final session with my affinity space. A regular - but also new - member was upset about an incident that had occurred a couple weeks before between himself and a woman who was in attendance that week. I was out of town for that session, so I only heard his version of the story when I returned. He was visibly bothered by it, but recounted the story more than once to different members - all men - who inquired after overhearing him talk to others about it. I sat at a table of four men and listened and attempted to find out from him if he was aware of the other person's point of view and if he understood why she was also upset at the incident. My conclusion was that he didn't. I really wish that I had been able to hear both sides of the story.
Unfortunately, the woman who was a part of the incident decided not to return and posted an angry public comment on the group's web page. She detailed the ways in which she felt uncomfortable and lamented that the group she used to enjoy has turned into something else - an unwelcoming space. I have no reference for understanding what she is bringing up here because I wasn't one of the people who witnessed the occurrence. I am aware that she felt as though she was being "silenced" and talked down to at the meetup. If that is the case, it seems reasonable that she wouldn't want to return. The man's version of what happened consisted of defending his own words and actions and placing the burden of being comfortable and being understood on her shoulders. There are a couple things that make me uncomfortable here. If anyone decided to stop attending a meetup group because of something I said, I would be very concerned. I would immediately want to know what I did to cause someone to feel that way. I certainly wouldn't be bragging about it. Because there are so few women who frequent this space, it's possible that he assumed he would have more support than she would. Indeed, she chose to leave. Which is drastic.
And that is a problem.
We have been asked to consider the cultural norms of our chosen spaces, and in particular how individuals become insiders. How do they even know they are insiders? How does this happen? Currently, there is nothing at all in place within my affinity space to assure people who are thinking about attending that they will not only be welcomed, but that they will feel welcomed. This reminded me of my years of living in community and of intentional inclusive practice. So I wanted to share an example of what I briefly refer to in my presentation and that I believe is very relevant to our discussion of learning spaces. The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) is a little like an affinity space, it's an organization that:
"works with students, worker-owners, activists, and community members who are interested in applying cooperative principles to meet their needs and fulfill their various missions...provides education and technical assistance to its members and co-op organizing groups, assists its members in communicating with each other, acts to educate the public on cooperative principles and practices, and promotes the co-op movement as a whole."
A community can and should establish a set of norms for ensuring safe spaces within organizations. If there were expectations in place that everyone supported within my affinity space, perhaps members wouldn't feel like their only option is to leave. If attendees agreed on what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior, as well as ways of communicating around one's needs, maybe others would feel comfortable speaking out against attitudes and speech which are contrary to those agreed upon, instead of remaining silent.