Shawna Potter knows ‘Safer Spaces’ aren’t a radical idea

Photo Credit: Chris Sikich

In 2019, few phrases are more charged — and misunderstood — than “safe space.”

Blame it on the internet, blame it on the political climate, blame it on the swirling chaos of misinformation plowing through social media at any given time; one may point a finger wherever it pleases, but ultimately, the term needs to be boiled down to what it really means no matter who skewed our perception of it.

That’s where Shawna Potter comes in to help venues everywhere — as well as the people who flock to them.

Potter, the singer of War On Women and founder of the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, originally released her pocket guide Making Spaces Safer last summer in an effort to help cultural gathering places understand what it meant to be a safer space… that is, a location where discrimination, hate speech, and harassment will not be tolerated.

This spring, she’s expanded the pocket guide by releasing Making Spaces Safer as a 200-page book, offering information about how both venues and bystanders can help prevent harassment, and how they can assess the situation and help victims when bad behavior (unfortunately) unfolds.

After War On Women perform live at The House of Blues for Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings 3 on Saturday, Potter comes to Harvard Square’s Armageddon Shop on Sunday (May 19) for an in-store reading and conversation surrounding her book and how to make any kind of setting safer for people of all identities and backgrounds – especially folks from marginalized communities who frequently experience harassment.

Policies and procedures exist for handling harassment in the workplace. The same goes for harassment — or bullying and hazing rituals — in schools and universities. Why should venues and local gathering spaces be any different? Put simply: They shouldn’t be.

The time has come for people to understand that “safer spaces” are not a radical, wildly liberal idea, and Shawna Potter’s one of the folks at the helm of the movement. Read on below for Vanyaland’s chat with Potter about her book, the importance of bystander intervention, and “cancel culture” ahead of her stop in Cambridge.

Victoria Wasylak: Your new book started out as a pamphlet. What made you decide you wanted to expand on it?

Shawna Potter: Well, I kind of rushed to put that pocket guide out. Once I had the idea to write it, I felt compelled to put something out as quickly as possible, but I knew that it was just the highlights, just the bullet points on this information. For anyone that might be more skeptical about the need for safer spaces, or just anyone that wanted to know more, they would need to know about the things that I include in the full-length book. It just gives a more complete picture of what’s going on and why this is necessary.

One thing that I really liked that you said in the book is that the idea of a safe space, or a safer space, is not a radical idea. A lot of people think that safer spaces are a cushy, liberal, stupid thing, where in reality it’s about having spaces where no one will be harassed. Where do you think that wrong idea came from, and how do you think we can work on people better understanding what these things actually mean?

I hope this book helps people understand what we’re really after here. I know that when I speak in general terms to people about harassment, sometimes I don’t see the wheels clicking in their head, and once I start to say “no, it’s not about someone saying ‘hey baby’ to me on the street, it’s about being called a cunt, or grabbed by a stranger, being followed, or my drink being spiked.” Then people start to realize “oh wait, that happens?” And that’s what we’re trying to fight against. It’s a false dichotomy to think that we either have to have a lawless environment where anything goes, or we have to have an Orwellian, regimented, you-can’t-say-anything-that-isn’t-approved-by-big-brother environment. That’s a false dichotomy, that’s a false choice – there is so much more room in between those two things, and it’s really just about promoting the respect and autonomy of people that are often harassed just for being who they are.

I think there’s an issue of what I call “willful ignorance” — people don’t understand, and they don’t make an effort to understand, so they’re really not getting anywhere with knowing what people who don’t look like them go through, or what’s appropriate [to do or say] in general. I think it’s really important that you included a whole chapter on approaching women, or flirting with other people, because there’s this reaction of “well, I guess I’ll never talk to women again!”

Exactly, and that reaction to the #metoo movement has been frustrating for me. I knew I wanted to include that chapter in the book for a while, but I was really gung-ho about it because in a way, I didn’t want anyone to have an excuse to say that anymore. I wanted them to know that there is a difference between being complimentary and exhibiting harassing behavior.

What I really hope people get out of the book is someone being kind to them and laying it all out there for them so they don’t have to go through not knowing what it’s like for other people — so they don’t have to ask someone who is a part of a marginalized community and burden them with educating them. That’s my goal of this book — to do that heavy lifting of educating people on behalf of anyone who experiences harassment. I want to make it easier for people to do better, and I want to make it clear that it doesn’t have to be really, really difficult hard work – it’s just work. It just should be done.

This book is aimed at venues, but something else that I liked that you included is how bystanders can help. Why is it important that people don’t look the other way on these things? How does that make a difference?

Studies show that even a knowing glance from a bystander can reduce the trauma that someone experiences when they’re being harassed. I want to make it easier for people to do more than just give that knowing glance and I want to make it clear to them that they should at least do that.

And getting involved as a bystander is not about putting yourself at risk — honestly, maintaining your own safety is paramount because you can’t help anyone else if you yourself are being targeted. There is a bystander intervention tactic for every situation, for every personality type, for every level of safety. There is always something you can do. Knowing what the five D’s of bystander intervention are and how they might play out is how you pick what’s right for you in that moment. If you look like the person being targeted, maybe you don’t want to confront the harasser directly, but you can delegate to someone else, you can use the delayed response of checking in with someone afterwards and working towards reducing their trauma and [affirming that] that they’re not alone. Those are just as valid as directly confronting a harasser.

The amount of options you put in the book is really important. I don’t work at a venue, but before reading this, I would have thought that if someone was being harassed, I would have just immediately kicked that person out. But, in the book you explain that it’s better to go to the person who was being targeted and say “we can do a few things – what would you like us to do?” There’s a lot of stuff like this in the book that might not occur to people otherwise.

It’s always important to let victims maintain some control and some power after a disempowering situation. I think, for the most part, it’s not about punitive measures to whoever is allegedly harassing or abusing someone. it’s not really about that — it’s about letting the victim know that they are supported and just letting them be heard and validating their experience and listening to them. That is the most validating thing and most likely all someone needs, just to know that they’re not alone and that they’re believed. How they deal with the harasser comes second. You have to center the victim in all ways, and consider them first, and their needs, but realistically. The options I provide in the book are all realistically in the power of the venue, or people running a space. By offering those options, you help to manage expectations of what is actually possible.

Since you mentioned punitive measures — you talked about “cancel culture,” which has become more and more popular on social media, and how that if you cancel someone and write them off, that doesn’t allow anyone the chance to work on themselves or improve.

The thing to do is to start actually holding people accountable, and that starts with the people closest to you. The first venue that I trained to be a safer space is a venue that had kind of messed something up in the past. They didn’t deal with the situation of someone being harassed very well. We got a couple of people wondering why we were bothering to continue to talk to them.

From the beginning when we started the Safer Space Program here in Baltimore, we were always aware that those were the people that need it the most. Who else should we be talking to? We need to talk to the venues that have the farthest to go, that realized that they messed up and want to do better. Those are the folks who are going to be the most invested in making spaces safer for all, because they see the path ahead of them. They see that they messed up. Basically, what we told ourselves from the beginning is “what is the goal of this program?” It is to stop and correct bad behavior. It’s for abuse and harassment to stop. If that’s the case, we can’t just send harassers and abusers to other towns to continue to do the same thing. We can’t ostracize them and make it so that those behaviors are all they know. We have to teach them a better way. That can be a little touchy for victims, but that’s why it’s my job, not the victim’s job. That’s why it’s the friend of the abuser or the harasser’s job, not the victim’s job. It’s everyone around the community at large that needs to hold people accountable until they can hold themselves accountable.

How do we get this book in the hands of people who have the wrong idea about what a safer space is — and get them to take it seriously?

This is definitely information meant to be shared. Even if you think someone you work with wouldn’t read this book, you can discuss the things you found in the book with them and tell them what you’re learning. I also started a donation campaign to get the pocket guide into venues across the states, so bands can take donations and give a copy to all the venues they’re playing on tour – big clubs, small clubs, DIY spaces. By using their position of power, they have a certain amount of credibility or influence to say “hey, safer spaces is important to us, here’s a resource for you.” And I think resource is the right word — this is a resource that every venue should have on the shelf behind the cash register. It’s something that everyone can use, no matter what kind of space they run, no matter what their politics are, no matter what their identity is — the point is to have a good time and not be harassed.

This is the kind of book that you should buy your favorite venue, or any other bartenders or managers you know, your favorite store – this is a gift for them so they can give the gift of safer spaces in the community. I do online feminist coaching, in addition to running workshops and training. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I couldn’t personally train every venue in the states, as much as I’d love to, but I do plenty of online trainings, even individuals or groups. If anyone has a situation they need help with, or they want to learn this stuff from me, I’m happy to Skype with them because this is what I care about the most — it’s what I’m most passionate about.

‘MAKING SPACES SAFER’ BOOK RELEASE WITH SHAWNA POTTER :: Sunday, May 19 at Armageddon Shop, 12 Eliot St. in Cambridge, MA :: 4 p.m., all ages, no cover :: Facebook event page