Beloved Community

[Content Note: Discussion of domestic violence, racism, worker exploitation and injury, misogyny.]

So, I promised I'd talk a little bit about the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) conference I attended earlier this week, and also provide a transcript of my speech (which is below). Misty's post has a lot of good information on workshops we attended and some of the speakers we saw, which I won't duplicate, so make sure you read her post, too.

I first want to extend my thanks to the WSCADV staff, who are amazing. Primarily, I want to say thank you to Mette, who had the faith in me to be a presenter and who invited me to speak. I also want to say thank you to Reed, who managed the technical part of my presentation. Thank you to Ankita, for taking pictures. Thank you Nan (and Flat Nan), and Leigh, and Sandi, and Ilene, and Traci, and Erin, and Tyra, and Jake, for making me feel so welcome and supported. Special thanks to Tyra for our conversation about the future of the movement, which gave me lots to consider.

Thank you to the ASL interpreters who made my speech and Misty's and my workshop accessible. And thanks to Misty for being my ride, even though it was out of her way.

If it seems like I am literally full of gratitude, I am. It was a gift to inhabit space for a few days with hundreds of people who care about other humans so profoundly.

* * *

If I wrote about every stand-out moment of the conference for me, this post would be a thousand miles long. But here are a few…

Nan Stoops, WSCADV's Executive Director, talking about how she loves being the catcher in softball, because it's the only position in which you get to see the whole rest of your team. The catcher's view is unique. Great catchers are underrated.

Rosalinda Guillen, in her Monday morning plenary address, urging us to consider the cost to the migrant workers who keep our food as cheap as it is; recounting how she cannot eat raspberries, because they remind her of a friend who lost his feet to frostbite working raspberry fields.

Lynne Kuchenbuch, also speaking on Monday morning, reminding us that "shift happens."

Walking around the room at the Monday afternoon workshop presented by Shaker Emerald_Isle and her boss April (who was, as an aside, rocking a highly covetable knockout red dress), who had posted on the walls pages from history detailing intersecting moments of reproductive justice and domestic violence law. Did you know that there existed orgs to advocate on behalf of animal welfare before any existed to advocate for the humane treatment of women or children? True Fact!

Attending Mette's Tuesday workshop for support group facilitators. It was striking how many pieces of that discussion felt relevant to me. A lot of interaction with community members who are seeking support, advice, and/or assistance locating services happens by email, and I do it in isolation, without the benefit of colleagues who are working with clients as part of a service organization. To be in a room full of people who do what I do, even if I do it in a nontraditional way, was important to me in ways I can't easily articulate.

The workshop on reproductive coercion was excellent, as Misty mentioned. Later, I had an opportunity to speak to Jake about his primary focus, which is fatality review, i.e. piecing together the narrative of a domestic violence incident that culminates in death, to help inform intervention strategies. This is a job in the world, filled by a person, who doesn't even think it's the saddest job in the world, because it might save someone else.

Emily May from Hollaback! and Vicki Ybanez from Red Wind Consulting, were both so amazing. I was flattered to be able to share a stage with them. Emily has turned Hollaback! into a global movement. Vicki, as Misty noted, "was a member, not facilitator but member, of the support group in Duluth, MN, that originally created the Power and Control Wheel that is used by most people when talking about domestic violence and abuse." She is a survivor, and a rock star.

Over and over, I observed how many of the women at the conference who are now advocates identified as survivors. Over and over, it was evident that they survived in part because they found beloved community. And they're paying it forward.

* * *

I don't believe there was video shot of my plenary address, but if there was and I get a hold of it, I'll let you know. In the meantime, here is the text as I prepared it, though naturally it was delivered with some minor differences. I hope you enjoy it.

More: Building and Defending Beloved Community

Thank you, Mette, for that lovely introduction. And thank you to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence for inviting me to speak and be a part of this conference. The past few days have felt like Beloved Community to me, and I am so grateful for this experience.

As Mette said, I am a writer and advocate. I am also a survivor of sexual violence. I am colleague, mentor, friend, and family to survivors. I am the wife of a survivor of domestic violence. I am also and therefore a searcher of safe spaces and a believer in storytelling.

All of us who engage with survivor work of any kind recognize and experience the power of storytelling. Survivors telling our stories is, of course, the primary way we break the proverbial silence of abuse. It is also the way we begin to process. The first steps of survival often begin with telling—telling authorities, telling a friend, telling ourselves.

Survivors' stories are critical to our own well-being, and they are critical to the dismantling of a culture of abuse—

[slide: Culture of Abuse w/ definition]

—in which domestic and sexual violence proliferate in the long shadows cast by the towering lies of their alleged rarity.

But telling our stories can be hard, for all the reasons I don't need to explain to the people in this room. We need the support of beloved community. We need safe spaces in which to tell our stories.

But saying that we need safe spaces is easy. The harder part is understanding how they are built. The hardest part of all may be allowing ourselves the expectation that they can be built. Survivor work can cure a person of optimism swiftly and decisively. There are lots of opportunities for hopefulness, and lots of opportunities for disappointments. Having expectations under such circumstances is an emotional risk.

I nonetheless want and need to be someone who expects more, boundlessly. I want and need to be part of a community who will take the risk with me of expecting more.

Because: As both survivor and advocate, I've experienced the vast, reverberating power of storytelling and safe spaces, the profound value of beloved community.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning, for me…

[slide: The Beginning]

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was working at a tech firm near my home in Indiana. It was run and staffed almost exclusively by straight white conservative men.

[slide: Statler and Waldorf]

I was the only woman on my entire floor—and it was the sort of place that, if put to film exactly as it existed, would have been called an over-the-top caricature of an actual workplace.

Misogyny, racism, homophobia, body policing—every type of bigotry conceivable mingled in a noxious stew of hostility. The men who ran the place assumed all the men they employed were just like them, but they weren't—on my team, there were gay men, atheist men, a multiracial man who was passing as white.

I was constantly battling with the owner and other executive officers to keep a lid on their bigotry. In return, they complained of "censorship" and of being asked to indulge my tiresome "political correctness."

They found my politics amusing. They loved to needle me—and it was a great game for them. I could ignore them and they could declare victory in my silence, or I could respond and they could escalate until they could declare victory in my fury. Heads they win; tails I lose. Like I said—great game. For them.

I didn't have a strong network of local support to process this toxic dynamic. I had, however, discovered these great things called blogs. (No one will ever accuse me of being too far ahead of the internet curve.) And at these blogs, people were talking about many of the same things that were driving me to distraction. Many of them, in comparably conservative areas, were having similar experiences in their workplaces. I felt less alone. And I began to participate.

In comments sections, I found a progressive community that I didn't have in "meat space."

[slide: Meat Space with definition]

I found people who valued and validated my politics, my opinions. Because my politics and opinions were so inextricably tied to my humanity, this new community also valued and validated me.

Despite my ardor for being an active member of those political communities, I started to see missing pieces—often around women's perspectives. The men who authored these blogs could talk about Roe v. Wade or the Violence Against Women Act as political pieces, but not with the same intimacy with which I engaged with them. And, in some cases, when women tried to inject their experiences into the discussion, particularly if our experiences contradicted anything the male authors had asserted were "women's experiences"—

[slide: women drinking water]

—we were shouted down.

We were also routinely told to "go to a women's blog" (or a gay blog, or whatever relevant equivalent), underscoring the dynamic that mainstream political blogs, even the progressive ones, were white and straight and male, and different perspectives were only appropriate at a "specialty" blog centered around "identity politics."

[slide: U-Turn Sign]

But what I was seeking was simply a space to talk about things like, say, the presidential debates, where I wasn't going to encounter someone using a misogynist slur to demean John Kerry for insufficient pugnacity.

I may have ranted once or twice about this to my partner, Iain. Ahem. He suggested that perhaps I should start my own blog. Ahem.

No, no—in fairness to him, he was very encouraging. I had always written, never professionally, but he had always been very supportive of my writing and, when I didn't have the confidence to found my own blog, he gave me the push I needed. And, equally as importantly, so did the new allies I'd made in the communities of existing blogs.

When I casually mentioned the idea of starting a blog to them, they, too, encouraged me. "Do it!" they said. "Go for it! PLEASE!" I realized that their supportive admonishments were suffused with urgency. They needed a space where they could talk about general politics and culture but would not be silenced for speaking to their experiences. I wanted that, too. I needed it. And I was going to have to create it.

So, on October 5, 2004, Shakesville was born. It was then Shakespeare's Sister, a Virginia Woolf reference by way of a Smiths' song—and it was, at its inception, primarily concerned with national politics and it had exactly two readers: My partner and my best friend. I figured it would stay that way, that I would be screaming into a virtual void. Which was okay. I was okay with that. It was a catharsis.

But a community quickly and unexpectedly grew, first of commenters who'd known me at other blogs. And then of people who stumbled across Shakesville—and stayed.

[slide: Ideals]

At first, I had grand plans. I was a believer in free speech, having not yet realized how the US' free speech paradigm largely functions to protect privilege, and I wasn't going to ban people. I thought that what was missing from other spaces was merely the managers' regular participation in comments. So that all voices could be heard, especially the voices typically marginalized in other progressive blog spaces, I was going to facilitate conversation and persuade people to engage with civility.

[slide: whoooooooooops]

Ha ha—did I say grand plans? I meant naïve plans.

Managers' participation was, as it turns out, a key part to building a safe space—and I'll come back to that—but it was not the only or most important part. The most important part was learning that there is a limit to good faith, that I could not talk people into participating in a productive way if their intention is to make trouble, to explicitly undermine productive and inclusive discussion.

The first time I had to ban a really troublesome commenter, I wrote a whole post about it. I explained, in painstaking detail, to the community, why I had taken the difficult decision to ban him. He was harassing me; he was harassing other commenters. He was driving people away from the space, people who I wanted to participate. People who didn't feel safe with him in the community, spewing a constant stream of hateful, misogynist vitriol.

It was the very first time I laid down a boundary at Shakesville, and it was the first time I lost readers who rejected that boundary being laid. One reader wrote a post at his blog calling me "the Ann Coulter of the Left."

[slide: Ann Coulter saying "Come again?"]

That first banned commenter has since been re-banned multiple times in multiple commenting systems. He writes about me in other spaces. He has stolen and posted pictures of me from an unprotected Facebook account. He continues to send me harassing emails eight years later.

Had I never built a boundary around his participation, the space never would have been safe for anyone else.

[slide: Safe Space]

And so began the construction of the safe space at Shakesville. Now, here, I want to state plainly that no space is ever truly safe. The safest place in the world for a privileged, white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class American teenage girl should probably be her own bedroom in her happily married parents' suburban home, but it was the place where I was raped by a boyfriend who supposedly loved me. I knew then that there are no totally safe spaces. And I know it still.

I know it because I have screwed up and made Shakesville not safe for people before, because of my privilege or personal flaws, and I will undoubtedly do it again.

But a safe space is nonetheless the objective, and talking about a safe space as anything else, calling it by some name other than the concept to which we aspire, is like talking about freedom by another name. There is no whole, perfect freedom, either, but no one fights for freedomish. The objective serves as inspiration to get as close as we can. Audacious ideas are a compelling muse.

So, with the idea of making Shakesville as safe a space as possible, I increased my participation in comments. The presence of a believer in safe spaces does make a difference. I wrote a comprehensive commenting policy with detailed guidelines for participation in the community. I added moderators, starting with Misty Clifton, whom some of you met at our workshop yesterday.

And I invited members of the community to participate in defending the boundaries of the space from the people who wanted to turn it into something else, who wanted it to be just like seemingly every other space on the internet—a free-for-all of unregulated shouting where the loudest and most belligerent voices drowned out everyone else, a place where the bullies who leverage the culture of abuse in their favor will always win.

[slide: Bobby Knight, labeled "Famous Hoosier Yeller Bobby Knight"]

That was not what I wanted. The whole rest of the world might accommodate them, but I wasn't going to.

[slide: More, please.]

I was keen to dismantle the culture of abuse; I needed to start with building and maintaining one little space, Shakespeare's Sister's space, a virtual room of my own, with different priorities.

Something interesting began to happen. Well, two things, actually.

The first is that people who felt themselves marginalized from political discourse in other spaces found a voice at Shakesville. They became deeply invested in the community which was giving them something they hadn't found elsewhere. Shakesville added contributors, moderators, guest posters, and active commenters. The community grew.

And with it, the shape and scope of the commenting policy changed. The growth and increasing diversity of the space constantly showed where new boundaries needed to be drawn, and I drew them—sometimes to protect a class of participants whose particular needs I'd not previously considered, and sometimes to protect those of us who were building the space and populating it with content. It is an imperfect and ongoing journey.

The second thing that happened was that, as I was challenged on my privileges—and, implicitly, readers who shared my privileges were challenged on theirs, too—and as I subsequently changed the rules to facilitate greater inclusivity, I got pushback—sometimes from very long-term readers who were wondering what was "happening" to Shakesville. Sometimes wondering what had "happened" to me.

And, truth be told, something had "happened" to me. I was increasingly writing through an explicitly feminist lens. And that was in direct reaction to members of the community who easily and casually issued demands for my silence or my acquiesce to their decisions about what were the Important Subjects with which Shakesville should be primarily interested.

Which, not coincidentally, were the subjects of privileged men.

Boldly came their orders, their exasperated exhortations to be less feminist, with no sense of the temerity of conveying exhaustion with fighting misogyny, when they will never be its direct target. It's a distraction; it's a bore, they moaned. The poor souls, burdened by having to hear about misogyny in a space where their presence is not required, created by a person who cannot escape misogyny, even in her own space.

I tightened the commenting policy. I explained: "I cannot walk away from misogyny for a moment, and so I cannot for a moment walk away from feminism, either. Feminism is my sword and my shield, which I carry because the world is hostile to me, not the other way around. That is the context of this room. It was built by a woman. A feminist woman."

Shakesville became a feminist social justice space out of necessity. There was pushback. I pushed back harder.

Everyone, you see, loves the safe space and the protections it affords them, until they are asked not to violate its guidelines to maintain its safety for someone else.

I will never cease to be amazed by someone who expresses a deep appreciation for a prohibition on homophobic language, then turns around and expresses contempt at being asked not to use misogynist language.

But a beloved community cannot exist under a paradigm of "safe space for me, but not for thee." We all had to be all in. Those were the rules.

And there were people who didn't like the rules. They made accusations of tyranny, of disallowing disagreement. They called Shakesville an echo-chamber and a cult. Suffice it to say, that is not the case. Knowing that didn't make it easier. I felt like I was failing.

But then there were the people, so many more people, so many women, who thanked me for making a space for them. Despite the criticisms, the safe space was working as designed—voices that were drowned-out elsewhere were being heard.

The grim predictions made by flouncing discontents that the quality of the discourse at Shakesville would suffer if I continued to accommodate the "oversensitive" (or some variation thereof) did not come true. Quite the contrary—creating guidelines to ensure that the voice and experiences of a trans lesbian of color with disabilities are as valued as the voice and experiences of a straight, cisgender, able-bodied, white male qualitatively and quantitatively expanded the discourse via a diversity of perspectives.

The richness of contributions, encouraged by dismantling the disincentives and barriers to participation in other spaces, is the radical potential of a safe space.

Community members told their stories, shared their lived experiences. Among them were perspectives I'd never found at other general subject blogs.

[slide: Storytelling]

As I said earlier, we all understand the inherent and multipurpose value of storytelling for survivors. It's also a critical tool for members of other marginalized populations, who face disincentives and silencing narratives discouraging public storytelling outside of spaces they have built for themselves.

Reducing those disincentives in support of building a safe space to encourage public storytelling has yielded a number of positive results, but perhaps none so important as this: People are allowed to be experts on their own lives.

In a space prioritizing listening to one another, the myth of the monolith is subverted, as individual members of marginalized populations speak to their individual choices and needs. In a space prioritizing learning from one another, the urge to 'splain, to lecture someone on their own lived experiences, is undermined.

And then there is this, not a small thing: People whose voices are typically marginalized can process the various indignities done to them with other people who can empathize in an intimate way, who don't pity them or respond with awkward platitudes but relate down to their very bones.

Via storytelling, natural alliances are exposed—which, in turn, tends to facilitate more inclusive language. One of the phrases I use at Shakesville, as an alternative to the ubiquitous "war on women," is "war on agency"—because the reproductive rights agenda that constitutes the "war on women" is lashed to hostility toward sexual consent, toward marriage equality, toward trans rights and protections, toward healthcare access, toward prison reform, toward the self-governance and bodily agency of many populations. Recognizing the scope of the war on agency is a reflection and acknowledgement of diverse community storytelling.

Thus does storytelling create a recursive loop—facilitating safe space through its exhortation to ever greater inclusivity, which encourages and abets ever more storytelling.

But that beautiful loop needs guardians.

[slide: Boundaries]

Being the guardian of a safe space, or beloved community, necessitates lots of drawing boundaries—which, in practical terms, means lots of saying no.

[slide: "No" with thumbs-down button]

No, you cannot use marginalizing language here. No, you don't get to decide what we're going to talk about in this space. No, you cannot deliberately misrepresent others' ideas to pick fights. No, you can't approach authors in bad faith. No, you can't argue with the community guidelines. No, you can't make rape jokes. No, you can't bully other members of the community. No, your commenting privileges are being revoked. No.

Now, I don't know about you, but a big part of my socialization as a female person in a patriarchal culture of abuse was being discouraged from saying no—especially to men. It was never put to me that I should always do whatever any man wanted; in fact, the explicit words I heard were about women's equality and how abuse is terrible and I have a right (and a responsibility) to say no to men who want things I don't want to give them.

But the implicit messaging, the stuff of my daily lived experience, was utterly contradictory to that. Hug your Uncle Les. Give your Uncle Eddie a kiss. Wives obey their husbands. Good girls do anything their parents tell them. Good girls don't ask so many questions. This last one after I was labeled a disturber of the peace at eight years old for asking the minister a series of impertinent questions about dinosaur bones.

Care of both my family of origin, which does not have good boundary issues, and of the larger culture, I strongly equated saying no with disappointing people. And now, as the guardian of a safe space, I found myself having to say no a lot, in order to draw, maintain, and defend firm boundaries to facilitate community. And I had to do it publicly.

It was not, for a very long time, a comfortable place for me to be.

But then, a strange thing started to happen. As I got practice drawing boundaries for the community out of necessity, I found it easier to draw and hold boundaries in my own life. I felt deserving of love and respect. I felt less obliged to maintain toxic relationships out of habit. Most importantly, I felt empowered to say no to behaviors that were abusive, behaviors that had long felt normal and immutable to me.

Building and defending beloved community had taught me how to build and defend myself.

[slide: "Yes" with thumbs-up button]

Around the same time, readers started writing to me about how the example of my publicly drawing boundaries around the community was affecting them in their personal lives, in small and absolutely life-changing ways. I had women writing to me about ending abusive relationships and finding new love, about leaving crappy jobs at which they'd been sexually harassed and finding new careers they adored. I had men writing to me about drawing boundaries with abusive parents, and giving themselves permission to admit having been sexually assaulted.

One of the things I write about a lot is expecting more.

[slide: Expect More.]

If you're content with, or resigned to, the status quo, what's the point of being an advocate? Well, part of saying this community could be more than the usual bickering and bullying was giving permission to members of the community to expect more for themselves outside the community, too.

They took that expectation of more, getting more and giving more, away from the community and into their outside lives. I can tell people no. I can better respect when someone tells me no. They reported their experiences back to the community, in long and winding conversations. They offered one another advice and support, about how to draw boundaries with coworkers, friends, family—about how to teach their children about drawing and respecting boundaries.

The beloved community at the online space of Shakesville was spilling out into the world.

[slide: Reverberation]

I am, of course, highlighting the good bits. There are, at Shakesville, like in any other community of activists and advocates, like in any other community of people, dramas and disappointments. And there's no model for what a space like Shakesville should look like: I'm really fumbling my way through it every day, and sometimes I fail.

But no community is perfect. And no community has to be perfect to be great, to be something special. In fact, I think a centerpiece of beloved community has to be space for imperfection, for reflection, for growth. Beloved community gives room for people to breathe, and for people to learn—to develop a habit of expecting more, of themselves and others.

Having more expected of me has been a gift; I am challenged to live up to those expectations. And when I stumble, my beloved community picks me back up and sets me on down the path to try again. Keep going, they urge. We need this space.

Not everyone needs what Shakesville has to offer, but everyone deserves beloved community of their own, a safe space in an unsafe world. And perhaps the most damning indictment of a lack of beloved communities is to envision a world in which they were abundant, in which consent, safety, respect, inclusion, vast and varied storytelling were priorities, were the desert instead of the oasis.

Building beloved community is essential, because its principles reverberate.

The deepest gift of beloved community is reassuring its members that they deserve that kind of space in their lives, that they can and should expect more, and gives them the tools to create it.

The work that we do as activists and advocates can be overwhelming, particularly because we live in a culture that treats abuse as a constant, as part of the natural order, as invulnerable to prevention as the rising sun. Such a discouraging thought. But we can expect more.

Expecting more is contagious. Shakesville started as a yearning expectation for more in me–an expectation that I could be involved in a discussion about politics, about a movie, about anything where I wasn't alienated by casual misogyny and other bigotries; an expectation that my story should matter, and the stories of people other than the usual gatekeepers.

Eight years and 50 million visitors later, that expectation has reverberated through a beloved community built on the simple but radical notion that everyone's story matters.

And that's my story. Thank you very much.

* * *

[Note: Comments will be closed on this post.]

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus