📸 : @justinborucki

Shawna Potter – Making Spaces Safer & Responding to Harassment

I want attendees to know that if they are ever harassed at our shows that we have their back.

💖You’ve just released the book ‘Making Spaces Safer’ which is super exciting, but what first got you interested in this area?

My whole activist journey started with the discovery of Hollaback! It was so inspiring to me that I decided to start my own chapter in my own city.

I started out raising awareness about street harassment, tabling at events & just trying to learn as much as I could.

Then one day we got a story into our website about how someone was being harassed in a transphobic way on the street & they ducked into a restaurant to wait it out. The restaurant manager & employees were really cool & supportive. We got inspired & we thought ‘“why can’t every place in Baltimore be that cool??” they didn’t even do that much’. They just believed the person & said ‘yeah, you can have a seat here, here’s some water, let me know if you want me to walk you outside or get you a cab’ – you know, normal, basic human decency.

So, once we heard that story, we worked really hard & started the Safer Space Programme to teach other venues in Baltimore how to be this cool. I loved it so much as part of the conversation around harassment because I wasn’t just commiserating with folks, I was able to give people actual tools to stop harassment & support victims. I just saw so much value in that.

💖We’ve talked together before about – ‘if a venue’s unsafe, why not just leave it, why not just go somewhere else?’ Is a big driver for you the satisfaction of seeing things turn around & seeing things improve?

Yeah! The first venue that we trained had had an incident happen in the past that everyone in town agreed they handled really poorly. But it was a collective space & there were a lot of member changes there, so at some point there were all these people that had nothing to do with this incident in the past. But they realised that it was a problem.

And so, we trained them up & gave them the real tools to deal with stuff as it happens. It was always really important for us that people didn’t just sign the pledge & put up a sign. We wanted to train them & be there with them really taking this information in.

Now of course, in any situation where someone feels unsafe somewhere, they never have to set foot in the place. But that shouldn’t keep us from making spaces safer period or safer for everyone else.

The more we can do that, we’re preventing future victims.

💖A lot of these places it won’t necessarily be the staff, a lot of the time it’s cultural. What’s the biggest things that venues & customers can be doing to try & change that culture?

That’s why we talk to venue managers & employees because they are the ones that set the tone. If they’re really pro-active about being welcoming to a diverse group of people & letting people know what isn’t tolerated in their space, then they’re gonna attract a different clientele.

We’d rather people fall in line & learn a new way to be. But first things first, let’s make it so that anyone can feel comfortable in here.

‘We’d rather people fall in line & learn a new way to be. But first things first, let’s make it so that anyone can feel comfortable in here.’

📸 : @punkrocklyrics_

💖How do you know when a venue is a lost cause?

Yeah, that has definitely happened. Even one of the people working at Hollaback! was harassed at this one bar. They told the people working there and they said they weren’t allowed to do anything because ‘the owner doesn’t care; they won’t back me up’. And that was a known thing.

We sent someone in to talk directly to the owner (the bar has since closed up by the way) about the programme. They just responded with ‘no, we’re not doing that, women love this place! We’re not doing anything to change’.

When it’s coming from the top down that’s difficult to challenge.

On the flip side, I have actually done unofficial trainings for staff. I give them the same good safer space training; we just don’t add them to the list of safer spaces on the website.

I think it’s always worth giving people this information.

💖So, I guess the plan with the book is to make it more scalable so that it’s not you having to run around constantly?

I love doing workshops! I wish I could do it in every space across the world but that’s not feasible.

As someone who has finally got to a place where they can make choices about jobs, & trying to get paid for my work (which with your activist guilt can take a long time hahaha). There are some jobs I just can’t do.

I want to be able to say ‘well you know what, here’s this book, & it’s not that expensive, so you can try to do this on your own’. And then if you need me let me know.

💖Has the training almost become a seal of approval that people would go for even if they weren’t notably bad in any way?

Yeah! And you know the thing is, no matter how good intentioned you are or how many books you’ve read, there are always ways to improve. And that can make a big difference in how you approach victims or how you handle these situations.

Even if it’s just the magic of getting all the employees together at once so they can talk with each other about their common tactics for dealing with aggressive people, or what they usually say to victims.

A lot of the time employees don’t get together at the same time – they work in shifts. So knowing that everyone is on the same page, that everyone has taken the same training as you, that you can call on them when you need them – I think that’s a really beautiful thing for people that work somewhere.

And then the fact that it’s also about helping people & making them feel safer in your walls. I just love it!

💖If a venue was going to make one change immediately, what’s a small change that would make a big difference?

I think putting up signage is the easiest thing to start with. It’s also the most dangerous if you don’t know how to follow through.

But to even just put up a sign that says, ‘no hate tolerated here’ or ‘no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia will be tolerated here’. Whatever it is, just making it obvious that you have a standard of acceptable behaviour. That helps everyone to know ‘ok, well maybe I can’t get away with that shit here’.

That kind of sign starts to build trust & so you have to be able to handle complaints of harassment properly. That’s why I think getting trained up is so vital!

Ultimately, it’s all about telling people, about lifting the veil of silence.

💖So how does this influence what you’re doing with War on Women & vice versa?

📸: @jenvesp

It’s really interesting actually. Talking about this stuff all day long makes it a little easier when I need to stand up for myself or stand up for others when I’m at a War on Women show.

I feel a sense of responsibility, like this is our show so I need to make sure everybody feels ok, while I’m here. But I’m also very realistic in that, if we as a band want to play shows we are going to play places that have not been perfect for everyone. There are no places that are perfect for everyone.

And so, you have to reconcile that. I do it by hoping that when it’s our show, we make it a safer space for the night. Cause again, I can’t necessarily train all the places that we play, that’s a big ask! It’s already a big ask to try to get paid for playing.

💖What are some examples of things you’ve done at shows to make people feel safe?

We put up trans inclusive signage for restrooms. Obviously, I have a lot of power by having a microphone & a PA behind me. I can say anything that I want. I use very trans inclusive language, I call out racism in our country & I want attendees to know that if they are ever harassed at our shows that we have their back. They can talk to us about it & we’ll help them handle it.

‘Obviously, I have a lot of power by having a microphone & a PA behind me . . . I want attendees to know that if they are ever harassed at our shows that we have their back’

Our regular tour manager these days is trained at bystander intervention & we also give out free copies now of my pocket guide: Making Spaces Safer.

💖So, the book is aimed at venues, is the pocket guide more aimed at general people?

I’ll tell ya, they’re both aimed at any space where people gather. There are so many places in between your private home when you’re alone & some giant corporate office where no-one knows each other.

Like, coffee shops, my amp shop where I fix amps, the bar, the basement DIY space, the bookstore, a political meet-up group – anything like that!

The pocket guide is a little bit more like ‘here’s what you need to do to make it safer, ok, bye’.

The book goes into explaining why these spaces are necessary. It talks about what is happening in a victim’s brain that makes the kind of support that you’re giving them crucial. It has stories about people enacting safer spaces or wishing that they had them. You know humanizing it a little bit – the idea that people have done this before, it’s not that radical & here are some things you can do.

And then also talking about what you can actually do if someone’s being harassed, how to flirt in a non-harassing way, & how to start holding a community accountable for bad behaviour when you have no idea where to start.

💖So, say if I saw someone doing something or someone was harassing me in a venue. What would be the best thing that I can do to keep myself safe?

The first thing that I tell people is that ignoring harassment or being polite to someone harassing you is a perfectly valid response.

It doesn’t mean that you have failed or that you are weak, it means that you are doing what you know to be best, what has worked for you in the past.

‘The first thing that I tell people is that ignoring harassment or being polite to someone harassing you is a perfectly valid response. It doesn’t mean that you have failed or that you are weak’

So, if that’s what you’re doing that’s fine. There are some other options though. We all do that thing where we make eyes to someone across the room that says ‘I am in an uncomfortable conversation, can you get me out of this???’ So, you can find someone & give them the ‘oh can you rescue me’ face.

But you can also be direct & say ‘I’m uncomfortable right now’ & just walk away. Then just go & stand near someone that you feel safe standing near. I have absolutely done this. And so, by being clear & stating what I need, (which is sometimes hard, depending on what you’re going through) you’d be surprised at how much help you can get from strangers.

And then if you feel comfortable enough you can always tell the venues staff.

💖Do you find it sad that we’re all kind of naturally programmed to know some of these things, but then we’re not necessarily raised with the voice to address them?

Yeah! I think it’s a real shame! To be fair, none of its natural, these are learned behaviours. We figure it out pretty quickly though that that’s what’s gonna keep us safe.

But yes, I wish that earlier on more girls (girls especially of course but anyone really) are just given a better voice or encouraged to speak up. & maybe more than that I wish that young boys especially, were taught to respect boundaries & to value consent.

📸 : @bridgenine

💖Looking at things from the more transient side, for touring bands that are travelling around or tour bookers what are the top 3 things that they should check with venues that might help give them a good idea of what that venue is like & how safe it will be?

It’s always a good idea to just ask to see their anti-discrimination policy. I like assuming the best in people & by saying it like that instead of ‘asking do you have one?’ It’s an amazing little mini protest to be like, ‘well of course you should have one so let me see it’.

Asking whether there will be signage up the night of your show. Make it clear what kind of signage you want. Basically, make it easy on them.

And you can give out copies of my book hahaha. If you really want to give venues a leg-up that’s the thing to do.

💖So that leads very nicely into our last question, which was where can we find the book?

You can get it from, AK Press. It should be available on Amazon & any other major book sellers. I do hope to have some copies with me on any touring that we do coming up but I’m also hoping to sell-out, so I don’t know if they’ll be at every show but that’s the plan for now at least.

If you and I both agree that this is for everyone. I think that buying a copy for your favourite bar is a really lovely thing & it kind of pays it forward.

Everyone should buy a copy for themselves, their favourite group, maybe their least favourite bar that needs the most work! You can buy a copy for them & send it in the mail anonymously or something.

My goals is, the more people that have this information, the more people like us as audience members can just expect that any place we go that there’s going to be a bare minimum of care taken, that they’re going to believe us if we say that we’re harassed & that they’re going to support us in a way that helps us retain a little bit of power in the situation.

To add to that I’ve been doing online feminist coaching sessions – private consultations basically. So, if there’s anyone that’s interested in going over their specific band, venue or group & wanting to talk about the specific hurdles that they’re facing.

Anyone can start booking me for that just by visiting my Facebook page & messaging me or using the email address that’s in the back of the book.

Making Spaces Safer was released on AK Press & can be bought here: https://www.akpress.org/making-spaces-safer-6329.html

Shawna is currently on tour in Europe with her band War on Women, checkout the link below for tickets to shows: https://www.bandsintown.com/en/a/1964792-war-on-women

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