Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shop Safety

I enrolled in a program to teach future high school shop teachers a little over 2 years ago. I came into it with the perspective of having been a girl in high school shop classes and seeing, feeling and living the dominant shop culture of sexism. Even when teachers are "including" female students in classes, "welcoming" them to participate in an environment that continues to be ripe with misogynist language, sexist behavior and the all around "dude-off" that some how erupts out of the combination of steel, grease and male entitlement can be toxic. I came into this program hoping that I would be able to leave the establishment with the required pieces of paper and bag of tricks to set up a shop space where this is not only acknowledged, but managed, countered, and overturned. I want to be a shop teacher because I feel that there are not enough people taking anti-oppression work, privilege analysis, and empowerment into workshops. I believe that making things is one of the best ways to develop self worth, feel pride in accomplishment and work towards becoming more self sufficient (a necessary process for those utopian anarchists waiting for the revolution, best to get some skills ready for when it all falls apart and DIY becomes not just the best and most affordable option but the only).
I was "welcomed" into the program. I spent the last two years leaving parts of myself at home and putting on a personal shield to enter the ring of the dude-off to try and pull what I could (for myself as well as the betterment of others who don't feel that they do have access to such opportunities). And I would agree- lots of people don't. I may even venture to say that I didn't/don't and have been really stretching things to make it OK enough to get through. By the end I am exhausted. What are the reasons that this program pushed me to my breaking point, what made it so hard for me to push through, why might I JUST be able to slip through on my last bits of strength if the teachers look favorably upon me?

When a person who experiences oppression, violence and abuse talks about a place feeling safe it is not only a matter of physical elements. For a queer to feel safe in a work shop space depends on more than proper guards over blades. For a woman to be safe in a shop, it often requires more work than may be required for other people coming into the setting with a different set of privileges. This is not because queers are unsafe workers, or that women are stupid and require more instruction to "get it".

A shop instructor can "welcome" women, queers, people with disabilities, and others who are often left out of industrial education into their class, but without doing a few things, personal things, the instructor risks "welcoming" those students into a dangerous situation. The reason for this lies in the default power structures existing in male dominated spaces. Women can and do become incredible trades people. Often working longer hours, for less pay, and busting their asses to produce higher quality work. Queers can produce beautiful artifacts using a whole slough of technological processes when given the opportunity to learn their way through them safely.

So when I say "safe", what do I mean here? The instructor is not actively doing anything malicious against their students, the shop set up isn't unsafe to others in the class. Namely those who don't experience oppression in the forms of risking one's physical safety outside the shop. Someone who has never been harassed, assaulted, threatened or otherwise violated because of their identity or presentation may have a default (everyday "normal") feeling of safety. Those of us who ARE subject to such treatment often walk through the world on edge. We have a guard up because we need to. We are careful because the reality of our experience is that of physical violence. Especially so in spaces dominated by people with that innate feeling of safety, the comfort in their world and their bodies that has afforded them the privilege of NOT thinking about it. Spaces facilitated without consideration to that bias automatically create a space with the potential of feeling unsafe to those who may feel unsafe in the greater world.

Many (mostly male) intellectuals at the heads of technology departments wonder why female enrollment continues to pale in comparison to the male counterpart. The female students who do enroll and stick to the programs have incredible success. And incredibly thick skin. What keeps more women and queers from having an open door to technology education?

Unchecked power and default structures of oppression do not create space for women and queers to succeed in technology. It becomes the job of the individual to create that space for success. I would like to see it become the job of instructors, in all fields, to do personal work. Unpack your backpack, take a reality check about how and why you know and feel the things and ways you do. Take a second look at language. Think critically about the ways that you present material- what bias do you come from and what bias must your students have to follow you? And most of all, who do you think deserves to have access to your lessons, and will you do what it takes to make sure that is delivered? Please comment with experiences of sexism, homophobia and transphobia in shop spaces and amazing teachers and facilitators who've created a new "normal" in their shops.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Creating Safe Spaces- proactive vs. reactive

(Trigger warning: sexual assault)
This weekend I returned to my hometown of Victoria for one of my favorite holidays of the year. A bunch of my friends and other bicycle enthusiasts organize the bike riders ball (bikeprom.ca). It is an event centered around the love of bicycles. People always go all out, decorating themselves and all types of bicycle related machines to ride through the city and dance late into the night. The VeloVixens perform and a good time is had all around.

This year, leading up to the event I heard about a discussion that was happening within the organizing body. I couple of organizers were advocating for safe space policy to be put into action, recognizing that proactive work needs to happen to create the space that is safe enough for all of our friends to feel welcome and safe. This was challenged by others who had never done such work, and I'm assuming, have never felt unsafe or oppressed in "community". I don't know what that conversation or process looked like. I have only heard about through the grapevine, and saw what actually made its way to the party.

I got myself all done up for the event. I rebuilt my bike, after 6 months since I was hit by a car while riding it, it's undergone a full rebuild. I am still not able to ride a whole lot without knee pain, but I wanted to show up on a bike, and show off my sweet new ride. I found a pretty white dress with rhinestone strapless neckline, my friends help me sew in a bike tube corset back into it to make up for my extra large ribcage. I had big hair, a flashing tiara, make up and of course full beard and entirely practical shoes. I felt hot. I was hot. I got ready with a bunch of friends and rode down to the party.

Not 10 minutes after walking in a complete stranger walked up to me, to tell me that she was "glad I was comfortable with my facial hair." I can only assume that she was trying to compliment the beard and dress combo, but no matter which way that wording is analyzed it comes off as backhanded and patronizing. It sort of set me off, but I didn't do to much with it. I was having a great time. Dancing, catching up with old friends, getting my hair crimped by strangers in the coat check. Having a gay old time. Until some man, a complete stranger, came up to me on the dance floor and grabbed my tit. I can't even begin to think of what his motives were, but my immediate reaction was to remove his hand, with the force necessary, and VERY strongly tell him that he was out of line. The more I tried to communicate with him the unacceptability of his actions the less he seemed affected. He stood where he was as I told him that he would need to leave.He apologized for offending me, and I told him that I wasn't asking for his apology, he hadn't offended me he'd assaulted me, and that I needed him to go, not apologize. Too late for words. By this point I was fucking raging, yelling in his face and telling him that he needed to get the fuck out. He quite clearly wasn't listening to me, he didn't respect me from the beginning, but I hoped that my clear needs (you: leave, get your shit and don't come back) would go somewhere. It didn't. I had backers, people stepped in, echoing the need for him to leave. I walked away from the situation and went to the front door of the party. I asked the ticket takers if there was security working the party, there was not, as this party was "friends getting together in 'safe space'" One of the door people stepped up and listened to what was happening and joined me back over to the dude who was still standing there with the first people who had stepped in. He wasn't listening to the first masculine appearing person in a dress, or the tough quebecois farmer queer, but maybe he'd listen to a slightly larger guy in a red dress. Luckily the door volunteer was committed to seeing the guy out. He walked with him to get his bag and escorted him out. Another guy who stepped in came to me after to tell me that, although this was not an excuse, it seemed as if this guy had no idea that what he'd done was assault. No idea that grabbing someone's body in that type of way without consent was unacceptable. I don't know what rock this guy's been living under, but it was time for him to learn. I hope that this experience was lesson learned for him, I hope that he gets a better idea about how to interact with other people in a respectful way. I hope that this doesn't happen again, to someone who didn't feel that they had the backing to stand up the way I did. If the party wasn't organized by friends of mine I may not have done that. If I wasn't able to look around and know that I had a whole load of people backing me, I may have kept quiet. If I had been drinking I may have brushed it off.

The fact that this guy didn't know is a problem. Trying to create safe spaces with people who are ignorant to the basic needs of safety for the people in the space they share is an uphill battle. I believe that creating a safe space requires a proactive stance around accountability. I was glad to see this poster on the door of the venue. I wish that it had been on the posters, on the website promo, on the facebook event. I wish that there was more of an opportunity for education for guys like this who "don't know" how to interact with other people respectfully, to learn what that means, and know that they will be held accountable. This conversation NEEDS to be ongoing. It NEEDS to be at the forefront of event organizing and promotion. Because if it isn't, the default is douchbaggery. Ignorance, discrimination, assault, rape, violence and hate are so prevalent in our society that they are the default. Creating safe spaces involves taking those things apart and PHYSICALLY creating spaces which are based around respect, inclusion, access, safety, fun and community.

I am very grateful for all of the backing that I had at the party. I am incredibly appreciative of every person who stood up to this predator and put him in his place. I am so thankful for my friends, who give me the confidence that when I am violated I won't be standing up or fighting back alone. Now I'd like to see how this translates into the organizing strategies of my community. It's not over.