a contribution by FemaleGaze

“And now for some questions from the audience…”

A guide to making an actively safe space

during public debates and discussions.

This text is an exploration of what it means to have a “safe space” for the audience during public debates and discussions. The text includes case studies where the lack of a safe space policy made a debate less satisfying, and suggestions of how event organisers and audience members can facilitate an even discussion, and make it more likely for minority voices to be heard during audience questions or debate.


 

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at a public debate or discussion in your local school, university, or community center. Perhaps you’re listening to a guest lecture on feminism, racism, or minority rights… And when it comes to the discussion, surprise surprise, most or all of the questions come from the white men in the audience.

I think many people don’t notice when this happens. After all, it’s the same ‘stale, male and pale’ bias we see everywhere, particularly in contexts like politics and media. Some people rightly draw hope from the many inspirational women and people of color taking leadership in many fields, yet there’s a very long way to go. Perhaps we’re just so used to seeing white men speak in public that we’re blind to institutional bias unless we are actively looking for it. Yet if we want to achieve real social change, we need to wake up and notice this bias, and where better to start than during debates or discussions in feminist and activist communities?

Why should we care about safe spaces?

‘Safe spaces’ have been criticised, (1) especially in education, as over-protective and a poor preparation for ‘real life’. However, when it comes to discussions in activist circles, I believe safe spaces are imperative. I see a ‘safe space’ as somewhere, whether real or virtual, where people who use violent, or triggering language are asked to moderate their tone, or leave that space. Although it’s not easy to formulate and implement a good safe space policy, that’s not the focus of this article. My interest here is rather what happens once you have a safe space policy, and then open up the space to the public. How can you create an actively safe space where a maximum of voices are heard during discussions? How can those of us with privilege, particularly men and white folk, become aware of our speaking habits and stop dominating conversations? What tools can moderators or event organisers use to ensure minority voices take the foreground?

On the individual level, questioning privileges and changing personal habits is a long journey. Even privileged people with the best intentions may still end up dominating a discussion. In light of this, I think it’s useful to mitigate for this by organising discussions which are as accessible and equitable as possible. Moreover, the wider community benefits from an actively safe space where those directly affected by structural violence are truly heard, therefore giving unique insights into how the situation can be improved. If space is not made for all audience members during public debates or question-sessions, then we lose our most valuable resource for building a better society.

Two true stories

I will start with two real-life examples of public debates. (2) Both of these happened in left-wing activist contexts in different cities in Belgium, where a presentation by a guest speaker was followed by questions and public discussion.

First, a presentation and discussion on Islamophobia by a well-known male activist and academic. The moderators were both female academics of color. The audience consisted of around 30 people: 6 white men, and the rest mostly p.o.c and/or female. In the introduction, the moderators said they had chosen to have the debate in that setting so they could hear about local experiences and aid community building. During the open question time, 6 questions were asked / accepted: 2 came from women of colour and 4 came from white men, of which 3 were ‘abstract’ question-statements about political theory, and one touched on more concrete issues.

The second event was a presentation and discussion about racism in schools, by a male speaker, a teacher of color. The audience was overwhelmingly p.o.c., including students, parents with children at school, and teachers, with just a handful of white people present. During the presentation, before the official question time had started, two or three white (male and female) teachers in the audience interrupted the guest speaker, reacting to his presentation, offering critiques about racism they saw in schools, and how they – as white teachers – thought it should be dealt with. The intervention of these teachers took time out of the main presentation, and also took up at least half of the time allocated for questions. After this, there was a limited amount of time left to hear from the rest of the audience, including other teachers of color, students and parents who shared a range of professional and academic opinions alongside personal experiences and critiques of racism.

These are two examples of well-organised, non-violent debates, with a diverse and sympathetic public and, to my knowledge, free from overtly racist, sexist or triggering language. Yet the safe space policy did not prevent race and gender bias in the discussions. I do not find this surprising: if discussions are left to run their course ‘naturally’, they tend to be dominated by those with privilege. In both cases above, the discussions left little space for the audience members whose experience made them most qualified to understand the issues and ask questions. We may have few chances to directly challenge bias in official institutions, but there is no excuse to ignore bias in intersectional activist spaces. Those of us who have privilege must question our speaking habits and make space for the voices of women, p.o.c., LGBTQ people, etc. We have to become aware of the hierarchies at play, asking: Who is speaking? How do they talk and how long do they talk for? Questioning and subverting the speaking habits of those with privilege not only changes the dynamic of a discussion. It also reveals the mechanisms of bias, in turn helping us deconstruct them and hopefully move closer to social change.

Lessons from the classroom

The following tools for making a safe space for discussion come from my background in communication and experience as a teacher. I am particularly influenced by the theory of communicative language teaching (CLT). (3) CLT is an approach to foreign language learning that encourages students to communicate about real life experiences. The method provides tools to help all students practice speaking, rather than simply allowing more confident people to speak out and less confident people hold back.

A public debate is different than a classroom: while teachers can encourage or require students to speak out, that’s generally not appropriate in a ‘safe space’! Moreover, in class teachers hold the main responsibility for ensuring equal participation. In a public discussion, it’s a group effort, and moderators can only go so far in facilitating an equitable discussion without the cooperation of the audience. In particular, those with speaking privilege have to question their speaking habits, and learn to leave space for others. Through my practice in the classroom, I have developed some simple tools for facilitating equitable group discussions. I would like to share these below, and I hope they are of interest to both organisers and audience members who wish to create ‘actively’ safe spaces for debate and discussion.

1) Ideas for organisers

Non-mixed? Before you organise an event, consider if you want some or all of the event to happen in a non-mixed environment (i.e. only women / only p.o.c.). If you still decide to have a mixed audience, what steps can you take to encourage self-reflection and active listening from those with privilege? If you are operating in a space or organisation where there are few or no women / p.o.c. / other minorities to begin with, you need to ask yourselves what is the cause of this bias? What short- and long-term changes are needed to make it a more accessible, intersectional safe space?

Have a clear safe space policy: Make the safe space policy clear before the event – on the invitation, on signs as people come in. This could include mentioning the strategy you will use if people say racist / sexist things, and could also mention the fact that you want those with privilege to leave space for other voices during the discussion. Consider also making a clear policy on whether photographs are allowed, and whether information shared during the discussion can be made public, or if it should stay within the group.

Make it accessible: How can you facilitate access for those with physical disabilities or visual or hearing impairments? Are the seats comfortable for all body types? Is there access and room for wheelchairs? Can you make it welcoming for people to ask questions and participate in discussions? Eg. by putting chairs in small groups to facilitate discussion during the break; ensuring easy access to all seats if you are using a moving moderator with a microphone. During question time, will you ask people to stand up and say their name before speaking? This can be intimidating, so consider if you prefer people to stay sitting down when they ask questions?

Planning: Make a strategy for question time in advance. Who will decide which questions or comments to take, and by what criteria? Will someone keep a tally of questioner demographics? What will you do if the discussion gets derailed or dominated by a few (privileged) speakers? What will you do if a member of the public is racist or sexist or uses violent language? Who will call it out, and how will they do so?

Be explicit! If you want a certain type of contribution or question during the public discussion, say so. If you want people to question their privilege before speaking, then say so. If you want questions about theory and research then say so. If you want open questions, rather than reflections or statements, then say so. If you want questions grounded in people’s personal experience, then say so.

Take a break! A simple but effective trick: take a tea break after the main presentation to give people time to reflect and discuss. Why? People generally feel more comfortable speaking in front of a big group if they can exchange and practice ideas with a small group first.

Give directions: If there’s a particular angle you want to cover in the debate, say so. Prepare discussion questions and share these before the break, or project them on a powerpoint. Remember the moderator can also steer the discussion once it’s started by summarising what has already been said, or asking for comments on aspects that haven’t been covered yet.

Questions on paper: Can you take questions by email in advance, or on paper after a break? This lets people participate even if they don’t feel like speaking out in front of a group. You can also save time by grouping together related questions, and choose to foreground questions or comments on a specific aspect if you want.

2) Ideas for audience members

Active listening – If you have no lived experience of the issue at hand, be that racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, class-ism… that might suggest you have privilege. Your default option should be actively listening to the experiences of others, rather than man-splaining, white-splaining or any other-splaining what you assume someone’s experience is like from the outside.

Check your privilege – Ask yourself why you are sharing a question or idea: Do you have a concrete question and want a real answer? Do you have relevant personal experience to share? Are you just asking to make yourself look clever (which rarely works…)? Are you speaking for others on issues where it would be better to hear directly from people who actually experience the issue at hand? If you know you are in a position of privilege and decide you still want to ask a question or make a comment, consider letting others go first and then speak if there is still time at the end?

Be alert – Keep track of who is asking questions. If you see that a discussion or debate is being dominated by privileged voices, point it out and suggest other voices should be heard as well. Be concrete and precise: “Too many men are talking in this discussion” is a vague value judgement. “The first five questions have been asked by men, but the majority of people here are women. The next questions should come from women!” is factual, and harder to disagree with.

Amplification – If someone’s words are ignored, dismissed or not heard, consider using amplification: other people repeat the same point, giving credit to the original speaker, in order to amplify voices of women and p.o.c. Particularly important at debates which are not in designated safe spaces.

Solidarity – If you are a person with speaking privilege, and you get selected over other people to ask a question (especially if only men and/or white people have been selected although women and p.o.c. have requested to speak), point out the bias and give your turn to someone else. Also particularly important outside of safe spaces.

Being shy isn’t a crime! – If you have a question but don’t want to say it yourself, it’s totally reasonable to write it on paper and then read it out, or ask someone else to read it out for you, or submit it to the moderator on paper. Many people find it hard to speak in front of a large group. Women in particular often tell me that they worry their ideas aren’t interesting or relevant enough. But in my experience, the people who speak up don’t have better ideas, they just have more confidence in sharing them!

Conclusion

As a woman, I know what it feels like to be sidelined or talked over by men in discussions. As a white person I have the privilege to not experience racism, and I also have the privilege of an education which made me confident about speaking out. Questioning these privileges is a lifelong process. It’s not always easy to actively listen, to know when to hold back and leave space, when to speak out, to call out inequality or share my own experience when I really believe it’s relevant. But I believe that now more than ever, if we want social change, we have to start actively listening to each other. And where better to start than by shifting privileged voices and dominant narratives out of the way to make an actively safe space for voices and experiences which are often ignored.

Notes

  1. A recent example is British philosopher John Gray taking on BBC radio 4 in September 2016: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wm6k0
  2. Despite recent high-profile discussions of ‘man-splaining’ and ‘man-terrupting’, I have found no research specifically about bias during question-sessions in public debates. For an overview of research into gender bias in speech in other contexts of discussion see e.g. Alice Robb in the NYT (3 March, 2015), http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2015/03/19/google-chief-blasted-for-repeatedly-interrupting-female-government-official/
  3. One overview of history and practice of CLT can be found here: http://hlr.byu.edu/methods/content/text/communicative-text.htm
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