Safer Spaces in Political Organising

“Safer spaces” began in forms such as consciousness-raising groups

Kassie Hartendorp is a Workers Party member, founding activist of the Queer Avengers, and works as a youth worker for a queer youth organisation. This article is adapted from a talk presented at the Workers Party annual conference.

What is a safe space?

As background, safe spaces began in forms such as consciousness-raising groups within the second wave feminist movement. These were spaces which allowed women to openly discuss the discrimination or abuse they were subjected to and strategise ways to fight against issues relating to sexism. The safety of these spaces was important as they provided an opportunity for women to come to terms with issues such as domestic violence or sexual abuse, within a supportive environment. They were also a space that addressed the issue of male domination within wider political groups and as such, often excluded men with the intention to minimise the chances of abuse or marginalization, so that those involved could move forward in their fight against oppression.

Nowadays, safe spaces are often associated with the women’s movement and the queer community. They were formed on the basis that women and queer people were often not physically safe within mainstream groups, and in these environments, people could feel confident expressing their identity or just existing without the threat of violence or verbal abuse.

Identities are complex:

When we create groups, organisations or movements, we often rally under one banner as a way to easily communicate our cause to the public. Even in groups which are brought together over a common identity, or to fight a cause related to that identity (e.g women’s liberation), these groups are never homogenous. The Occupy movement used the powerful slogan that ‘we are the 99 percent,’ but this kind of rhetoric, which brings people together, should recognise that not everyone comes from the same background or identity and most importantly, this is in no way a bad thing. Differences are often treated as threats, something that needs to be reconciled and normalised within a familiar culture. This quote from Audre Lorde, a self-styled “black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet,” suggests an alternative to this fear of difference:

“Without community there is no liberation… but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist. Differences must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

It sounds cheesy, but our differences can be our strengths, and those who are considered different should be valued, for if an organization cannot be dynamic, ever-changing and accommodating, then it will stagnate and become irrelevant.

After accepting that no activist community is a homogenous group, we have to do more to actually address and accommodate those differences. The issue would be simple if those differences had not been carved out through decades or centuries of oppression and marginalization.  We could probably tread around and work through these differences much easier, if they were not entrenched in historical or current pain, hardship and suffering. We could work through this, if certain groups had not been consistently ignored, dismissed or silenced. Not to mention, abused, violated or harassed. To navigate the way through any complexities related to oppression is extremely difficult at the best of times, and especially if you are in the minority group.

Why do we need solidarity?

Many of us subscribe to theories that are centuries old, but it doesn’t mean that our practices have to be outdated. Being aware of oppression, marginalization and issues such as accessibility isn’t compromising our politics; it is making sure we have a space that is welcome to all types of people. The ones who face the most oppression are the ones who often understand the problems of capitalism the best – they have been shunned, rejected or mistreated by the rigid structures of our current system. But it is also a matter of principle. What kind of society are we wanting to create, if it does not recognise and value difference?

It’s also a matter of principle if you follow the adage that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ The ruling class thrives on difference and uses it to divide the working class. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize our differences, it means that we should not let anyone be attacked by a system that is based on divisive and exploitative tactics and use those differences against us. Because that will make any chance of resistance even weaker.

Wolf talks about a case in the 1930s, with the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards; a reactionary union that was transformed in large part, by the communists involved, into a staunchly progressive force. The union was considered to have a high level of racial diversity with many gay workers. “Workers learnt from their own experience that if they didn’t welcome the Blacks, gays and others into their ranks, the bosses would use racism and homophobia to divide them and bust their union.” This led to the MCS taking a strong stand in supporting those who were black or gay in the union, and ended up winning serious material gains. Hall writes that their union was known for their door which had a large sign saying “Race-baiting, Red-baiting and Queen-baiting is Anti-Union.”

Now, not every union was or is this progressive, however, it highlights the fact that in this case, an injury to one worker, based on their race or sexuality, was recognized as being an attack on the workers as a whole. And with that understanding, those ‘minorities’ were defended, to the benefit of the majority.

As political activists, especially ones aware of class struggle, we need to be taking the same view. We need to have solidarity with those who are affected by homophobia, racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism and other prejudices, because an attack on them by the capitalist machine, is an attack on us all. We need to be raising the political level, isolating the backwards who are actively against social change, and working with those in the more advanced layers to build awareness of oppression and how it functions as a tool to attack and divide us all.

Easier said than done….

Anyone who has been in a group that has different elements knows that this a job far easier said than done. But I believe the first step, is creating environments in our own organizations that function as a safer space. If we cannot have a group that looks after our own, and shows solidarity in an internal sense, we can’t really be offering the same solidarity outside the group, or it just becomes lip service. We need to recognize when issues of sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia or racism come up, and address them so as to not let such unprincipled sentiments corrode the group, and drive people away in disillusionment.

As a general principle, safe spaces are easy enough to set up, but extremely difficult to maintain, and very simple to undermine. As such, it is problematic to label or imagine any group as a ‘safe space’, but we can always be aiming to work on elements that make our group ‘safer.’

The problem with most safe spaces is that the safety in itself becomes the aim of the group, rather than the goal of achieving safety, equality and liberation for all in the external world. Patton writes this of identity politics, which is a useful way of looking at groups that focus wholly on creating the ultimate safe space:

“The aim of identity politics is not human liberation or even an end to oppression, but the creation of cultural spaces where oppressed groups can express themselves freely.”

Now, it is important that there are spaces that provide the opportunity for marginalized groups to be able to express themselves freely, and indeed any political group that does not allow for free expression is certainly a problem. But a group that focuses solely on self-expression as an end point, should take the form of a support group, rather than a political group.

Support groups need to be spaces where people who are abused, discriminated against or marginalized can go and receive appropriate assistance. Examples include groups such as School’s Out or Tranzform which are spaces that provide queer and trans youth a safe haven that allows them to freely be themselves and explore their sexual or gender identity without any negative consequences.

Political groups have different goals to support groups, although these must sometimes overlap

However, political groups or movements have a different goal and that is to change the current conditions through education and organisation. At the same time, groups can, and need to be supportive – the fight is often long and hard, and we band together because we know we cannot do it on our own. Our groups will often attract the people who have truly felt discrimination or oppression in their own lives. But, there needs to be clarity around what your group is trying to achieve.

In a political group that runs campaigns and the like, you can never have an ultimately safe space. It just isn’t possible. If your goal is to engage with a wider group such as workers or the general public, then you will constantly be encountering those who either have little understanding of oppression, or who are outright hostile to marginalized groups. It’s often said by proponents of safe spaces that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressor. While this is true to an extent, education is important political work and has to be treated as important in its own right.

When I gave this presentation last, one person raised the valid point that the political and personal have huge crossover and are never easy to compartmentalize into separate, tidy boxes. Futhermore, the sharing of personal stories can help qualitatively grow and develop a group, through new understanding and stronger connections. I definitely agree with this, and also think that somebody’s mental and physical health and ablebodiness, or experiences free of certain types of oppression, gives them an advantage over what they can keep personal or political.

We also cannot rule out the importance of the personal as a tactic within groups. As an example, The Queer Avengers needed a session to orientate its kaupapa, so we asked everyone to prepare and share the reason why they come along to the group or why they wanted to be a queer activist. What I, at least, never expected, was the immense emotional experience that this brought. People shared their stories of being bullied, non-acceptance, abuse, mental health and suicide attempts. It was one of the most powerful gatherings I have ever been to, and that power directly came from the sharing of personal experience. It cyrstallised why we were organizing, and created new threads of understanding and warmth towards each other, which are necessary for the solid foundations of long lasting, cohesive group. Not to make it sound mega clinical, but to share and acknowledge the personal here is a tactical move that is a means to fighting queerphobia as an overall strategy. If the strategy is merely to share and discuss the personal, then that will distinctly change the way the group orientates and operates.

One thing to note is that to include some who are actively opposed to any progressive political change, it often means you exclude others. In Occupy Wellington, the idea of the 99% was used to justify the inclusion of people who were acting oppressively. Some even argued that members of the National Front were part of the 99%. It was only through active opposition, seen by some as divisive, that a General Assembly agreed National Front members would not be welcome.

During the events last year, many critiques were made of the Occupy sites which were unfriendly, unaware and often hostile to women, and queer participants in a space that was meant to be fighting against oppression. Because of the absent or flawed processes for dealing with these issues, many people who were genuinely interested in creating change ended up leaving out of disillusionment.

It’s not just external engagement that can compromise a political ‘safe space’ however. The most difficult struggles are usually those that take place at an internal level, among members of your own group or organisation. The fact is, even if we have the best intentions, and a thorough understanding of oppression or inequality, we have all been taught how to behave or think by the same machine. Not many of us have the opportunity to be raised in an idyllic commune that breaks down traditional norms of how we view race, gender, sexuality or able-bodiedness. But most of us are participating within groups that aim to challenge dominant ideas and achieve the liberation of all.

Some approaches in the attempt to create a safe space include turning a magnifying glass on their own members and their behaviour, monitoring each action and calling people up to ‘check their privilege.’ While I do think that every person should be honest and self-critical about their own experiences, I think this approach elevates individual behaviour over social transformation. None of us are perfect, but most importantly; we are socialized in ways that reinforce oppression.

Some approaches prioritise individual behaviour over social transformation

However, there are some forms of behavior that are simply unacceptable, and within a political group, there needs to be a way of addressing this. Some acts or attitudes take place within the group, and are easier to deal with. If a person is obviously being prejudiced, it could be racist comments, or constantly talking over women in a group, then there needs to be a process for how the group deals with it. To ignore it, is to foster a culture that accepts the very marginalization that we as activists should be standing up against. Depending on the extent of the behavior, I think it is important that any critiques are put forward in a comradely way. Sometimes people don’t realize that they are being offensive or oppressive, but at the same time, there needs to be a hard line maintained that certain acts are not acceptable within a political organization.

There are more extreme or complex cases that must be dealt with extra care. A situation which many activists face, is when other members perpetrate unacceptable behaviour outside of the groups they are involved in. As an example, a person who sexually or physically abuses their partner. This is a far more difficult situation to deal with, and requires a more sensitive approach. It is one thing to set guidelines around the behaviour that is expected in your organisation, and another to try and control behaviour of someone in what is considered ‘their own time.’ At the same time, groups need to be open to dealing with and supporting the affected through ongoing damaging behaviour. The only thing that I will note, is that it is very important that the choices and wishes of those at the hands of abuse is held as the most significant deciding factor on how to go forward.

Other options can include setting up contact people or a disputes committee that is there to field any issues that come up within the group. It goes without saying that this individual or group needs to be genuinely prepared to confront these issues. Those who bring them up need to not be treated as ‘divisive’ or their complaints relegated as secondary to the primary concern such as ‘class’, or dismissed for the sake of a false unity.  Other ways of dealing with oppressive behavior that people may have heard of include community accountability models. I personally don’t have any experience with this, but would love to look at ways this could take shape in our own communities.

One way of seeing a safe space in a political organisation, is building a culture that has an active awareness of how oppression works, and the ability or processes to be able to deal with challenges to that space if they arise. This requires education which must be addressed at a group and individual level. This doesn’t mean waving a Consent is Sexy leaflet in peoples’ faces, it means having meaningful and educative discussions on what oppression looks like. These are hard discussions to have, and often you may feel that it has had no impact whatsoever. But as Mao pointed out, without internal struggle, an organization is dead. No space will ever be the perfect utopian safe space. But it is possible to deal with most issues as they arise in a comradely and constructive fashion. It also must be said, that if we cannot engage with the most ‘advanced’ layers of politically conscious people, then how are we expected to persuade the general masses why we need to achieve the human liberation of all?

Political spaces in general need to be safe but also actively moving forward and addressing issues as they arise. When people feel marginalized or are made to feel culturally, physically or emotionally unsafe, they will usually just leave, rather than making an attempt to change the culture of a group. For this reason, efforts need to be made to check in, evaluate, self-critique and modify norms as the need arises.

Basic tips for creating safer spaces:

  • Make it clear in your constitution or guidelines that certain behaviours are unacceptable.
  • Have a clear process or grievance procedure for what happens if someone is acting in a way that is oppressive towards certain groups. This also means having consequences for those who act against the guidelines.
  • Do be aware of power imbalances – you can’t always erase them, but they need to be transparent.
  • If you have open meetings, make sure they are genuinely open to the majority of people. You cannot please everyone all of the time, but endeavour to eliminate as many barriers as possible.
  • This can include holding meetings at accessible venues, offering forms of childcare, ensuring there are accessible and non-gendered facilities such as restrooms and holding them at times which are convenient for the majority of people rather than just one group.
  • Make sure you give people the chance to speak. While most new members take a while to adjust, if someone doesn’t appear to be feeling comfortable enough to talk during meetings, try and explore why.
  • Try to have rounds as a tactical means of discussion so that everyone has the option to speak, and keep speaking orders that ensure the same voices do not dominate meetings.
  • Ensure that you build a space based on respect. This means respect of peoples’ identities, their physical and emotional boundaries and limits, and respect of peoples’ opinions and beliefs.
  • Take care of each other. Be observant and supportive. If someone doesn’t come back to meetings, check in with them in a respectful way, and be prepared to address any criticism that may come up.

Angela Davis speaks at an Occupy rally


We have discussed the need for solidarity and creating safer spaces within our political organizations. This article will not necessarily apply to all groups, but hopefully some of this will spark the need to critically evaluate and creatively move forward in a way that is genuinely inclusive. This will be different for each group, but the need to create spaces that openly confront oppression is important for the advancement of any ‘movement.’

As Angela Davis asked during her Occupy speech, “How can we be together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive? How can we be together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory?” Our groups and structures cannot remain the same as they have over the past 100 years, as our communities and identities change and evolve. We need to be working together at a collective level, regardless of difference, but this needs to be done in a way that does not leave behind any group or community on a systematic basis. This is far more difficult than it sounds, but without addressing this, our groups will function in an unprincipled way that does not truly fight against the structures and social relations that have us wanting out of capitalism in the first place.


  1. Don Franks says:

    Interesting ideas.

    “Safe spaces” looks like a bit of the sixties that has re appeared in different times, for different reasons.

    The difference you indicate between a support group and a political organisation is an important one, not always recognised.
    In relatively peaceful and egalitarian countries like New Zealand it is quite easy for middle class left groups to slip into becoming social support groups.

    Unacceptable behavior can appear in many forms. Racism and male chauvinism are certainly two examples. Other examples of corrosive anti social unacceptable behavior are persistent lateness, work dodging, financial irresponsibility, theft and dishonesty. Those behaviors are seldom tolerated by a strike committee, but have undermined many a liberal left organisation.

    The choices and wishes of those at the hands of abuse are highly significant, but when you look at real life examples, ought they always be the deciding factor?
    The cases of severely battered women declining help and opting to return to their abuser are a challenging question. It is, after all, easier to do nothing on the grounds that “that’s what the woman herself wanted”. I have been aware of such situations several times and always felt not right about it. I don’t know the answer to this but I do know that the problem is not always solved by citing choices and wishes of the abused woman. Too often the result is years of cruel vicious abuse and sometimes murder.

    Open meetings should be genuinely open to the majority of people. There are many ways to exclude people. For example, the insistence of some in Peace Action Wellington that only vegan food and drink be allowed at social functions raised a barrier. Several first time newcomers saw the group as a weird lifestyle cult and did not return.

    Socialist organisations should be citadels of honest and tolerant solidarity, where members feel safe. At the same time I think they have to be training grounds preparing comrades to harden sufficiently to endure and survive the supremely unsafe experiences presented by revolutionary activity.

    We have had it soft in New Zealand, we do not have to face gas or lead or rubber bullets in the daily course of our political work.
    If we want to make a revolution we will have to be like Bernadette Devlin and prepare to face up to that stuff.

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