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.

1 comment:

romham a. bear said...

i love this, thanks for posting.
When i was in a local welding school many years ago i was outed as trans by the other queer (i use the term loosely) in the class. It made my life a fucking misery and put me in direct physical danger. Because of the stress of the ongoing harassment and intimidation (much of which i couldnt even share with others), i ended up going into a self-paced set up where i was totally on my own. It was so stressful and because i was so stressed out i wasnt paying attention and put my knee out. After recovering from that my back had frozen up so bad (a bad accident when i was a kid was reinjured) from laying around that i could barely do anything. i ended up going on disability benefits, and have been on them since. i sometimes wonder how or if my life would be different had that not happened. The school had an anti-discrimination policy and procedure in place, but it basically was a complete joke. It didnt matter that i opened a case against one person in particular, the instructor was an asshole who simply allowed it to continue, despite telling me he would work it out.
That there could be some real support, some really inclusive shop spaces where this kind of thing didnt happen (or, if it did, would be dealt with properly) is something i look forward to for other queers and trans folks and others who want to participate. Thanks for being out there, doing your thing. <3