When a social movement takes hold of society in the way #MeToo has over the last few months the need for a more nuanced national dialog becomes ever more important. As social impact conveners we have both a unique opportunity and responsibility to help increase the capacity of our society to have this dialog in a productive and restorative fashion. From the spaces we create, the design choices we make, the policies we set forth, and the language we use – our ability to convene, to bring people together to engage in the exploration of core concepts like consent.
From our virtual conversation with social impact conveners (those who organize conferences, meetings, and other gatherings to bring people together around common purpose), we uncovered three core elements to share with other conveners that they may feel better prepared to engage their communities in this broader conversation.
- The Role of Justice
- Session Design
Conveners.org hosts virtual conversations with our members to explore topics that benefit from connecting with the shared experience and resources of our community. Most of this post is a review of the conversation we had on January 17, 2018, however some additional elements were added from follow-up conversations with our community. We selected this topic, because of the timeliness of the subject matter as well as the opportunity that this presents for social impact conveners to engage new frameworks around consent to do more than simply prevent bad things from happening. I am also passionate about this subject because of personal experiences I’ve had with harassment and the hope I have for the power of convening to engage in a productive narrative that can support members of our communities living these experiences day to day.
Let’s start with the language we use as the root of understanding how the conversation is framed is one of the most powerful tools we can bring to bear to shape the dialog around #MeToo.
Consent vs. Harassment
Many people are speaking of harassment – while some forms of harassment are fundamentally sexual in nature, many of them are derived from a fundamental imbalance of power. Our guest for the virtual conversation Ayla Schlosser founder of Resonate and author of a recent post Fundraising while Female spoke to the fundamental imbalance of power at play when people connect at a convening with the goal of fundraising. As Jessica Fleuti from the team at the Skoll World Forum shared, “conferences represent a gray area between personal and professional. There are standards of behavior in the workplace that are more clear cut. When you are at a conference, and some conferences are less overtly professional than others, it’s not always clear what the rules of engagement are, especially when there are late-night elements.”
Harassment makes one party feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or otherwise unable to speak about their authentic experience. Many of our conferences bring people together from all over the world, and the variety of cultural backgrounds and assumptions of what normal behavior looks like can be a recipe for miss-understanding that might lead to some feeling sexually harassed. Unfortunately rooted in this language is also a loss of agency and power. To be harassed is to be the recipient of action. It is to not have agency or power. It also makes it exceptionally difficult to speak up in a situation that is uncomfortable.
When we shift to a culture of of enthusiastic consent in our convenings we shift the power and agency to the participant.
If participants understand the importance of asking before touching, asking before making assumptions, then it gives everyone the inherent power to say yes or no before an action is taken that would result in harm. This reduces risk and enables the community – especially a cross-cultural community – to navigate their interactions from a healthy grounding in affirmative consent.
Harmed Party vs. Victim, Responsible Party vs. Perpetrator
Another key language shift is one that can unseat the implicit shame that has been unleashed through the #MeToo movement. As someone who has experienced harassment or worse, the identity of victim can be difficult to grapple with. When someone identifies as a victim, there is an implicit loss of power. A victim becomes a frame for your identity – not just someone who has experienced something negative or traumatic.
Common Justice is a restorative justice nonprofit that advance solutions to violence that transform the lives of those harmed and foster racial equity without relying on incarceration. They’ve introduced language of “harmed party” and “responsible party” that participants on our call found helpful in reframing the people who are at the heart of an incident where there is discomfort, violation, or other harm.
By shifting from “victim” to “harmed party” the emphasis is placed on the action that took place rather than an inherent quality of the person while also restoring agency to the person who was harmed to have the power to heal. According to Common Justice, “this term recognizes someone’s role in a given event and acknowledges that that role does not constitute the person’s entire identity. A harmed party is owed certain things by the responsible party and others as a result of the harm he or she endured.”
When we shift to using “responsible party” rather than “perpetrator”, there is a similar frameshift that enables the person to reflect on their action and find a way to break the cycle of violence or abuse of power.
When we use terms like perpetrator we jump to a frame where the person who has done harm is “a bad person” rather than someone who has “done a bad thing.” As Brené Brown shares in Daring Greatly – this frame of shame at its core is damaging as it ultimately prevents behavior change. When someone is “a bad person” then it is far more difficult for them to look at, address, or change their behavior. However, when someone has “done a bad thing” then there is hope for shifting and correcting the behavior at fault in the first place. If change is possible, it is most likely to occur within our own communities of values-aligned changemakers, and we don’t want to inhibit that possibility through immediate ostracization.
It is also important for us to consider ways to provide support, comfort, and re-affirm the sense of belonging a harmed party has in the community. For too long those who spoke out about harassment were mocked, shamed, or otherwise disbelieved. As social impact conveners, we have an opportunity to ensure that harmed parties feel heard and that their experience is acknowledged and respected.
There were a number of better practices that emerged when crafting harassment policies. Opportunity Collaboration provided an extensive policy with their Guidelines for Success that were crafted to be aligned with the unique culture and context for their convening, where beach side conversations and swimming meetings are a frequent occurrence. This is an opportunity to shift from prevention of harm to active consent. Imagine if instead of an automatic assumption of a meeting by the beach in bathing suits (or late night in a hotel room or at a bar), delegates had normalized behavior of making clear that an alternate meeting location would be equally acceptable.
“We seek to live our values in community, as demonstrated through our words and actions. We seek to create a space where everyone feels supported to show up as their best self and share their unique contributions with one another. We believe that we create our best work in the world in an environment where everyone can thrive. We seek to support our Delegates in being present with one another in a way that dismantles oppressive systems present in society at large.”
This policy went far beyond the structures of harm and harassment to also speak to the positive vision for the community and culture for delegates. Many conveners are just now seeking to implement formal policies for their participants and are incorporating a consent process into their registration forms.
Jessica asked an important question when thinking about crafting your policy, “should we enumerate what harassment means?” As we discussed this question, we realized that many of the existing tools to help explain what harassment is – like video resources, have some inherent challenges. While we were unable to name any specific videos, Ayla shared Double Union’s harassment policy which includes a significant series of definitions that can help inform the creation of a policy. One key phrase that is worth considering is “The Double Union community prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort.” When we can recognize and explicitly address that at the root of harassment is an imbalance of power – then it becomes easier to acknowledge the importance of supporting marginalized people. Consent is about connecting with people across a difference in power in a way that gives them agency.
“In many ways, OC is a microcosm of the world. Power, race, culture, gender, language, ableism and many other dynamics are, and will continue to be, present. Yet, at OC we have the unique opportunity to build the world we want, and to act in a way that models that world. We can decide how to minimize these dynamics from creating harm and choose how to respond when they do.”
~quoting a wise group of 2017 Delegates
Consistency is key
One better practice that emerged was the importance of consistent messaging to the community if you want to integrate these practices as norms of behavior. Summit Series provides a standardized onboarding process for all new participants that makes clear all of the norms of the community – not just those on harassment. Now as #MeToo gains prevalency and encourages us to speak about the gray areas we are coming to terms with the importance of having consistent messages to our community about harm and harassment emerges? as well.
- Have a clear policy on your website.
- Require consent from all registrants that they understand the policy when they register
- Have an opportunity for participants to ask questions and gain clarification both before the event and on-site.
- Provide a reminder and materials when participants arrive at the event – as they may have registered months ago and not remember the policy.
- Provide multiple channels for reporting including access to anonymous forms like google forms, typeform, or surveymonkey.
- Be clear on who a harmed party can turn to should something happen.
- Understand in advance how you will respond should an incident happen.
- Being clear that in the case of rape and physical assault the authorities will be brought in, and ensuring all parties know this in advance.
- In the case of a violation of the community’s norms of harassment, it helps to understand if you will be providing support to the harmed party, and if so what that will look like.
- It is also key to make clear to the community who they can go to, and when, to share an their experience of discomfort or harassment.
As Ayla shared, “we know that we are preaching to the choir, and yet we are always steeped in societal power dynamics — we wanted to make it clear at Opportunity Collaboration that we had an opportunity to create the world that we want to see at the event. While we were at the conference is when #MeToo came out. What has been interesting is that regardless of if you like it or not people are talking about it. Having a policy is not enough, there needs to be guidance and training on what happens when an incident occurs.”
Conveners should be justifiably concerned about maintaining the culture of our convenings, and we don’t want implementation of anti-harassment policies to seem punitive and spark a negative reaction. In a recent story on sexual harassment training by Jena McGregor of the Washington Post found, “a training that’s treated like a ‘bureaucratic necessity’ can actually serve to reinforce gender biases.” However, given the much wider #MeToo movement, there is a window of opportunity to use the national dialogue to catalyze and internal discussion. This is the exact right moment in time to be proactive about fostering safer, more inclusive communities within our convenings.
The Role of Justice
Speaking for myself, I’ve struggled deeply with the ongoing stories emerging from the public discourse around #MeToo. The public discourse now includes the full spectrum of experience from the obvious where there has been repeated patterns of physical violation, harm, and intimidation all the way to simple unwanted advances and awkward social interactions. The recent discussions around Aziz Ansari have brought this to the forefront. Yet what we have seen is that in the court of public opinion all men are being subjected to the same punishment. As we see in the court trial of Larry Nassar, it is critical to not look away and be able to face when there are clear patterns of predatory behavior that must be addressed.
Even in our social impact community, ostracization has become the universal result of being on the receiving end of an accusation of harassment. As an individual who has experienced sexual harassment from the benign to the violent – and even dyed my hair red because as a blonde attending SOCAP back in 2009 I mostly received requests for dates rather than serious consideration of my venture – I hope that we can evolve our response beyond the knee jerk punitive justice reaction.
Most of the culture in the United States is framed around punitive justice. You do something bad and you are punished for it – frequently through incarceration (should you belong to a minority as African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of Whites). This is a framework we are comfortable with and understand – and thus apply it to our policies of zero tolerance in the hopes that we can protect the culture we have created in our convenings.
However, I hope that we could do more. As social impact conveners we are using convening as a tool to address the most critical challenges facing our planet. From poverty alleviation to climate change to gender inequality – conveners around the world are building spaces that can be a model for the world that we want to create. If we are to do this then there is a responsibility to shift our model of justice to one that may be more challenging and more rewarding at the same time.
“Restorative Justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When [harmed and responsible parties] and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.” – Center for Justice and Reconciliation
With Restorative Justice the focus is on healing the harmed party. To do this the harmed party is provided with a circle of support. As a convener these can be staff or volunteers who have been trained in supporting people harmed by harassment. The harmed party is given voice – rather than hiding the incident (which can breed rumors and cause great harm to the core of the culture). The harmed party then has power and agency to name what they would need to feel healed from the experience. While this may be that they want the responsible party removed from the community – this is more likely to be a last resort (versus the first response). This process creates the space and opportunity for reconciliation that is more appropriate to the nuance and specific context of the violation – which may be as simple as requesting an apology and that the responsible party spends some time reflecting on their behavior. Through this process we can have responses that are more in line with the actual violation that occurred. IMPORTANT NOTE – I am not speaking here about violent crimes like rape or physical assault that fall under the category of offenses that can and should be handled by the appropriate legal authorities.
Should you seek to go one step further and engage in Transformative Justice – as a convener you are putting the culture of your community at the center of the process. Through radical transparency, transformative justice engages the community as a whole so that all know what occurred, and have a chance to hear from both sides. While the core focus is still on the healing and support of the harmed party, the responsible party is also given a chance to share their experience through a circle of reflection and accountability. The people who volunteer to hear the experience of the responsible party are not serving as an advocate, rather, they are reporting back to the community and to the harmed party what could have been done differently so that the community has the opportunity to reflect and integrate new norms of behavior. The ultimate goal being to transform the community to stop the behavior that happened from happening again.
We as conveners have the opportunity to design a wide range of conversation platforms and formats. We found that many conveners planning for their 2018 agenda including Net Impact, Skoll World Forum, Greenermind Summit, Opportunity Collaboration, and more are planning to incorporate some element of content about #MeToo, Harassment, or Power Imbalances. As we design these conversations Ayla shared, “men and boys don’t know how to engage and respond [in these conversations]. [In the public domain of #MeToo,] some tried and were praised, some tried and were chastised. It’s such a cultural movement that having an explicit conversation [is critical]. Also as a funder – how do you talk about acknowledging your power or ways that people use your power against you.” Ayla shared that they recently hosted a “He for She” conversation, yet still the majority of people who showed up were women.
We need to be thoughtful in designing conversations to create spaces that are safe for all genders.
At Greenermind Summit 2017, before the #MeToo movement had sparked broader dialog, a few participants hosted parallel conversations, one of all men, and another of all women. In the context of these two separate conversations the participants were able to more safely explore concepts like shame, power, female pleasure, numbing, and more. They found that for men, it was equally important to have all-male spaces to talk about vulnerability, sexuality, and shame – and that this needed to be explicitly designed and facilitated.
Net Impact is also grappling with how to incorporate these conversations into their design as for many students their conference is the first conference they are attending – and there is a unique opportunity to help create cultural norms and expectations of participants.
There were a few design ideas that emerged where conveners can create more explicit safe spaces for this dialog:
- Peer conversations, cis-male, and non-cis male conversations, funder only, and founder only to discuss the role of power, privilege, and consent.
- Circle of chairs or similar physical setups that encourage egalitarian conversation rather than panels or classroom style seating.
- Setting agreements for conversation norms up front including:
- Speak from personal experience
- Lead with believing the person sharing their story
- Pause when someone shares something authentic
- Listen – without thinking about what you want to say next
- Oops/Ouch – give tools to the group to name in the moment when someone feels an “ouch” from another’s comment and give space for the other party to say “oops” and clarify their intention.
- Ask permission – not forgiveness. This is especially true in the social impact sector where we may assume that contact like hugs are always ok and welcome, and may not be.
- Confidentiality is an important tool for authentic dialogue.
- Refrain from shaming language where someone is bad, messy, stupid, etc. and shift to nonviolent communication (NVC) language where we are comfortable stating feeling, needs, and requests from an “I” statement. For example, when you hug me I feel uncomfortable. I need to feel respected and safe. Could you please give me your hand instead of a hug?
- Provide enough time for the session. When holding space for a conversation that is likely to create discomfort or spark deep emotions, proactively prevent abrupt endings.
- Design for active inclusion – this can mean adding preferred pronouns to all nametags, ensuring there are gender neutral bathrooms for all participants, and providing materials in languages native to your participants when possible.
- When designing your session, seek out a skilled facilitator who is experienced in navigating potentially charged conversations with training in gender/diversity studies, NVC, conflict mediation, and other relevant subjects.
Thank you to all that participated in this discussion, both in the virtual call and afterwards to share your thoughts, feelings, and ideas about how we can step up to create spaces for dialog around #MeToo at social impact convenings. This is a broad and ongoing conversation, and for conveners who are designing their conferences for 2018 is going to be highly relevant. The intention in this summary is to provide concrete tools and ideas that can support conveners as they enter the 2018 design process. Including the language we use, and shifting to harmed party and responsible party, to the policies we create, to how we share those policies with the community in a way that is consistent and clear – these better practices provide a starting point for exploring the topic of #MeToo and are not intended to be comprehensive or absolute.