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Alternatives to creating safe spaces online

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Four weeks ago, I signed up to a reading/study group to work through The Artist’s Way. It is a book by Julia Cameron that I first read about 20 years and I didn’t really take to it, but over the years, I have heard many wonderful things about it.

The Artist’s Way reading/study group cost £55 for 12 one hour online meetups organised by Alternatives, a not for profit company which rents space and runs events at St James Church in Piccadilly, London.

Over this last year, I have had a transformative experience on the Fairytale Medicine, which is about Women who run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a book I felt had something to offer me but again which I couldn’t really learn from alone. However, after spending over a year in an amazing online community with lovely people who have become friends, I took the plunge with the Artist’s Way and signed up, eager to learn, slightly scared but willing to be vulnerable and share my feelings with strangers in order to connect.

I thought it was a bit cheap but I figured they must be subsidising it, because from my experiences, a good online community needs people and people should be paid, not just because moderating can be a difficult job, but it easier to value others if we feel valued.

Last time I heard, YouTube moderators get paid £7 an hour to witness the worst of humanity. Technology already exists to do this but it is way easier and cheaper for YouTube to pay people badly and treat them as disposable than slow down their servers with software. The bottom line as ever.

I was a bit nervous about Artist’s Way as I am not good at managing situations when people don’t behave well when we are supposed to be sharing tender stories about ourselves, I normally freeze with fear, but the ground rules in any safe space which were written on the worksheet, are: no one gives advice, or counsels, fixes, etc., and everyone respects everyone else’s time. So I thought: It will be okay.

In the first week in my breakout group, I met some lovely people and I felt relieved and thought: Yes I can do this as we talked about if we had done our famous Morning Pages and gone on an Artist’s Date and what we hoped to achieve on this course.

The second week in, we had to talk about the crazymakers in our life. Cameron’s theory is that there are many crazymakers in our lives who disrupt us and prevent us from doing what we want to do i.e., our creative work. It is an interesting idea and in our breakout groups each person had to talk about a crazymaker for one minute after which each person in the group would take 30 seconds to say something affirming and nice.

Two of my group were just lovely and did exactly that, after I explained my crazymaker who made a difficult situation worse. One person, who was not an awful person, instead of affirming and validating me, gave me unsolicited and inappropriate advice about how to fix this situation because they are qualified counsellors, it was their job and they knew what was best for me, so disregarded all of the safe space guidelines and took much longer than 30 seconds to tell me what I should do.

Inside I was horrified and could only manage to say I’ll think about that. Afterwards, I stewed on it a bit and realised that I would like to know how to manage a situation like that successfully as I feel that only someone with extensive training in moderating groups can successfully navigate and shut someone else down who is in the middle of giving terrible advice in a polite way.

I tried to get on with my week and forget about it but when Sunday came around, I couldn’t face going to the call, so I didn’t.

This week it was on my mind, so I mentioned it to a friend who suggested feeding back to the Alternatives people as all of these places ask for feedback at the end, why not give it now? I thought that it was a great idea.

Yesterday afternoon, I sent a summary to the info@ email adding at the end that I had felt like shouting shut up but that I would never ever do that. I thought I was bringing levity to the situation whilst expressing how awful it had made me feel, after all who doesn’t want to tell people to shut up even though we wouldn’t because we know it’s wrong?

A couple of minutes later received a: I am so sorry, what was the name of this person? From a nameless person(s).

Nothing else.

Immediately, this did not feel safe. I gave the first name only of the person to this nameless person(s) at the end of the info email, after convincing myself that it would be okay, after all, this was a respectable institution.

I added in my reply that that it was less about the person but more about a general support as for me personally, if it was made explicitly clear that we weren’t here to fix each other or give advice at the start of each breakout group then I would feel that I had permission to say if a similar thing happened again something like: I’m going to stop you there, this is not a space for advice, as we were explicitly told, I know that you mean well, thank you, but no! I thought that as uncomfortable as I felt about being asked to tittle-tattle to a nameless person(s), we were here now and I wanted to make this work.

The nameless person(s) response came in super fast:

In order to maintain a safe space for everyone else, I am taking you off the course.  I am very concerned about the tone of your email.  If you needed help you could have just asked at the time as instructed many times. 

Enjoy the book

I could hear the sneer. The pitiless tone of this email continued with lots of for your information in it about how things had been made VERY clear (their caps not mine) to me and I was to blame. Apparently, I was supposed to either a) just quit the breakout room or b) call in a moderator, explain to the moderator what was going on and then after the moderator left the room carry on having a chat to this person. Yeah like that would be an all round great experience and I would definitely feel the love after that!

Nameless person(s) said that all of the groups didn’t need moderators because everyone is a grown up and there is self-advocacy. They have run over 200 courses with no moderators and the fact that I would even dare to suggest that they should think about having moderators in each group means that I don’t have self-advocacy.

This is shaming. I was shamed by a nameless person(s) who told me that they are not legally obliged to give a name, to be personal, to be human, and basically implied that there was something wrong with me for being unable to manage this situation myself.

I pondered the email and the idea of not being allowed to continue the course seemed a relief, so I started a reply that I would be quite happy to leave as long as they gave me the rest of the weekly worksheets, after all I had paid for them and I quite liked them.

But then, having researched about safe spaces and trust as a HCI person, as well as experiencing a safe space. I felt deep in my bones that I was right, and to have shared my vulnerability and my tender heart only to have been met with such a passive-aggressive shaming response, well, I felt that I deserved better. I knew that I wouldn’t get it from them so I would give it to myself. I added a list of my thoughts on safe spaces onto the email and sent them to nameless person(s). Here they are:

  • Calling something a space safe doesn’t make it so.
  • Telling people off for not being able to manage in a triggering situation and then blaming them and telling them that they are wrong because they didn’t respond in an appropriate amount of time in a situation in which they felt unsafe is not a safe space.
  • Asking people to name names is not a safe space. 
  • Not giving your own name in any of these exchanges does not lend itself to creating a safe space.
  • A safe space requires trust and the points above mean that I don’t trust you.

To which I would add now, shaming has no place in any space, safe or otherwise. Shaming has no space in society.

Nameless person(s) replied almost instantly:

As a safeguarding responsibility, I have removed you entirely from the Alternatives network, all email lists, all platforms and we will not be sending any worksheets. 

The threat against another student is grounds for us to remove you completely.  

Thank you for your feedback.

They also copied in the Director of the course, presumably because deleting someone from the Alternatives website has to be sanctioned by a Director.

I realised at this point that I was having one of the synchronicities of life which Cameron talks about in Chapter 4 of The Artist’s Way, and up until that point I had thought was complete woo-woo, of how when you require something and you are open to the spirit of creativity or God or Higher Source, that the opportunity becomes apparent.

What I wanted most of all was to leave this toxic situation as soon as possible so, I politely replied to nameless person(s) and copied in Director saying that I hadn’t threatened anyone, nor was a danger to anyone, and given that nameless person(s) had implied that I was, it was a libellous statement and as such I required a full refund and an apology.

The Director sent me a carefully worded almost-an-apology apology along the lines of: I am sorry for what happened in the breakout room, because of course, the Director would not admit to any libellous behaviour, or toxic shaming. The Director explained that nameless person(s) has a list of words to check for safeguarding purposes, (like a robot, so why not get some software to do it if your safeguarding is that basic? Getting a human to behave like a robot is inhumane but the advantage is that the robot wouldn’t get all self-righteous). The Director admitted that my comment feeling like shouting shut up but I didn’t was understandable, inoffensive and fine within its context and I would be granted my refund as long as I agreed to not contact Alternatives again and agreed to not receiving the worksheets.

So, me the messy human with feelings in their spiritual community, for whom they were supposed to be running the course to help, got deleted for knowing her rights. I was disposable and I was dismissed, but if I was a good girl and went quietly, I could have my money back.

Safe space, my arse!

I replied saying that the apology would have to do as we both knew that is not what I meant, and I agreed to not contact Alternatives again or request worksheets.

[N.B. The worksheets are a selection of the exercises copied from the book and handed out just before the course and I enjoyed seeing which ones they selected. Nothing really to get excited about. Or so I thought.]

The Director emailed me straight back thanking me, and asking me to contact them about my refund if I haven’t received it by Thursday.

From this I saw that words have no meaning for Alternatives: safe space, self-advocacy, support, help, feedback, don’t contact us again mean absolutely nothing. I won’t be holding my breath for my refund because I am a woman of my word and having given it, I will never contact Alternatives again.

Nameless person(s) can sneer all they like because yes, in spite of this experience, I will still enjoy the book. I have done my morning pages and tonight I will be doing an artist’s date with my fairytalers in a real safe space.

Safe spaces take energy, time and respect to create. Banning people on a technicality and shaming them because they asked for help, is not a safe space. Nameless person(s) behaved like a robot, pattern-matching words, because it was quicker and easier than empathising with another human being and whilst that might make their space feel safe, I would not want to share that vacuum of faceless, shameless pitilessness where anyone can get deleted at a moment’s notice because they dared to query that space and find out that it wasn’t safe at all.

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