On community building, restorative/preventive measures and collectivising: how do we move forward and can we do it together?

By ila

As I sit here staring at multiple tabs on my browser, with readings on community building, restorative justice, and other similar topics of interest that I feel have been missing in the conversations that take place in the communities I inhabit, I struggle to find ways to enter and move on constructively.

The past two weeks have been nourishing in multiple ways with two closed-door sharing sessions, meetings with other participants who are slowly becoming friends in their own right, and several meet-ups with the mentors—some of whom are friends and people I have looked up to in the years I have been practising. I think a lot about how resources are defined, not necessarily just anchored as written texts, but in the form of conversations that I’ve had with peers and friends alike about the apparent toxicity and silencing that have existed far too long within our circles. How do we continue to care for one another without imposing our own wants and expectations on each other? What does it mean to hold space? Have we forgotten how to listen to each other?

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A sense of helplessness grows in my gut, causing me to heavily doubt my ability to form affinities with others progressively. Within our own circles, will we be able to work together to destabilise and pressure the structures in power to reconsider their current status quo, and to shed light on how cases of discrimination and harassment are being handled in our communities ? I keep thinking that I am no expert and I am not equipped, but I cannot do this alone either. There is an urgency to gather people and build stronger connections with one another, to imagine how the communities we occupy can look like if we take the time to define them—not necessarily with rigidity but at the very least, with clarity in how we can geniunely care for one another. Some of the conversations that I’ve had are still focused on survivors coming forward as the only way to stop discrimination and harassment from happening again. But can we find ways to stop it even before it happens, or according to AWARE, can we #AimforZero?

 

 

Screenshot of AWARE’s website

Restorative justice, restorative measures, and accountability are terms that have been raised a lot in the conversations that I’ve had. What do we do if perpetrators have been convicted? Is that enough accountability for their actions? Does banning them from certain spaces mean that we allow them to commit the same acts elsewhere? How do we intervene? Who does the intervening?

“At the heart of all of these questions lies one unresolved problem: what is “community?” Are we in one together as anarchists? As punks? As people in a certain local scene? Because we’re at the same protest, show, or mass mobilisation? Do we choose to be in it, or are we in it whether we like it or not, regardless of how we identify? And who decides all of this?

You can’t have community accountability without community. The entire transformative justice framework falls apart without some coherent sense of what community means. But unfortunately, no one seems to be able to answer this question for our milieu. And without an answer, we find ourselves banging our heads against the wall again and again, when a slimy assaulter just skips town or drops out of the scene after being called out, or when someone wields enough power in a scene to gerrymander the boundaries of community to exclude survivors and allies. This is not an abstract question: it’s fundamental to what we do and how power operates in our scenes.”

—extracted from Crimethinc’s Accounting for Ourselves: Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Anarchist Scenes

 

(This extract is from one of the many zines generously shared by wares, which will be printed and placed in the classroom of The Substation as an ongoing exercise to collect written resources and giving them an artistic form of its own. I am open to receiving and showcasing any other text/image/manuals and resources of all forms, so if you wish to share them with me, please email me at shahila.baharom@gmail.com).

I find it important to think about how these resources can be applied within anarchist structures; to consider how we can frame and question our own independent circles—ones which sit outside of institutions, companies, and registered organisations.

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First meetings with mentors

There’s a lot of valuable takeaways in these past two weeks and I will try to summarise it the best that I can in this post.

I met Nurul (CCP co-mentor) first and through our conversation, we both recognise that there are probably a lot of smaller groups that have already gotten together to initiate small action plans and it would be best to organise a talk to share my research project with people who are interested to come and be involved.

Building a resource platform is something that I’ve been wanting to continue developing after a casual meet-up with the folks from s/W/s last year. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve learnt that a direct confrontational approach to spaces and individuals who have in their own ways perpetuate the continuation of violence within our communities can be detrimental to our own state of mind, safety, and well-being. Last year, s/W/s conducted a survey to get a sense of things on the ground, and the valuable data collated was used to form their focus groups. I am planning to continue from where they’ve left off, to find out what has already been set in motion by other groups of people and individuals. The focus here is on the lack of structural support systems for independent artists, freelancers, and art workers from all disciplines, especially when it comes to forms of discrimination, harassment, and other forms of violence. I have to admit that this might be too broad to discuss within a short span of four months (three months, in actual fact), but we can all take this as a starting point for us to understand the urgency of having these conversations.

In thinking about how to define resources, Nurul shared with me that a bulk of knowledge sharing typically only stays within physical space and time, and seldom gets a second life beyond that. I completely agree with this. I am planning to document all the talks and the focus group sessions that I’ve attended as part of CCP through the process of transcribing, keeping it strictly anonymous so that the content/data/experiences can be disseminated and utilised amongst other groups.

In my sessions with Kah Kit (CCP lead mentor), we talked about the various ways in which I can address the issues that I am concerned about. For some survivors, due to personal reasons, reporting to the police might not always be an option. Under these circumstances, greater sensitivity is needed in handling such cases. We also talked about how, instead of focusing on specific action tasks for the months ahead, I should be focusing on gathering different clusters of people and working with them to shape our own strategies.

In terms of the focus groups that I’ll be organising, Alvin (CCP co-mentor) suggested coming up with case studies and working with the participants to address the grey areas collectively as an exercise. I feel that by focusing on specificities and running through the complexities of such grey areas together can make the gaps seem more obvious. He also shared with me contacts of individuals with access to certain channels and resources. This will be helpful to me in the long run—for the later stages of my project and beyond CCP—in thinking about how we can bridge and share our more developed resources with NAC.

Kin (CCP co-mentor), who is also part of s/W/s, gave me several good pointers in shaping a talk that I was originally intending to organise. After a conversation with him, I realised that it should take the form of a sharing session instead.

Closed door meeting with AWARE

One of the things that resonated with me is how the person we met mentioned that there is a correlation between discrimination and assault. Discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality is something that, at least in my opinion, happens quite a lot but is not addressed enough. Do we call each other out when we hear a racist remark or some sexist comment? I believe that if these comments are taken lightly or go unaddressed, they may potentially lead to cases of assault. This could be why physical and verbal cases of assault seem to be happening a lot within the arts lately.

The person who met with us from AWARE also shared about the importance of research in advocacy. Having been involved in three different research projects that AWARE has organised in the last two years as an interviewer, it was good to hear how the personal stories shared by the respondents have been put to good use. She also mentioned the challenges of solidarity building, even among activist groups. Recognising a gap in solidarity building, AWARE has an online platform called Your Stories, where women share personal accounts anonymously. I love how the platform forms a kind of solidarity that is not necessarily based on actual physical connections. I would like to explore the possibility of having a similar platform for survivors to share their accounts—pre-incident and post-incident—as a way to gain a sense of the different challenges that may occur, such as lack of community support, lack of trust towards survivors, and shifting responsibilities.

The AWARE person also mentioned that it’s great to think about how, by having more social actors and smaller groups, more change can be affected. AWARE has recognised the need for Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory, and they provide advice and support (both practical and emotional) to individuals facing discrimination or harassment at the workplace. During our discussion, I raised my concern regarding discrimination and harassment in workplaces that are not fixed, such as for freelancers and independent artists. She concurred that casual workers are probably one of the least protected groups of people.

Closed-door meeting with Project X

If I ever become a full-fledged activist, I want to be just like Vanessa Ho. I have known Vanessa for several years now and I know how much she is synonymous with Project X. As part of her advocacy, Vanessa shared with us the complexities that exist in the laws surrounding the sex work industry in Singapore. Sex work itself is legal but soliciting is not. She also shared about how the media’s negative portrayal of sex workers influence and shape the mindsets of the public and how this, in turn, could affect the policies that are made. One of the things I observed from our session with Vanessa is the way she uses language to address the “heavier” parts of her advocacy. Other than it being accessible and easy to understand, she is also frank and honest about the various “tricky” positions that Project X has to undertake in order to continue their advocacy efforts.

One of the things that struck me was when she mentioned how difficult it is to form solidarity and establish community building among sex workers themselves. Due to the nature of the industry’s ecosystem, women have to pit themselves against each other to earn their living. To tackle this challenge, Project X organises various events in their centres, such as fortnightly sessions of yoga that provide opportunities for sex workers to get to know one another and build their own affinities outside of their profession.

Project X is also doing amazing work in terms of capacity building, by working with sex workers or former sex workers to provide assistance to other sex workers. I feel that this model where resources, skills, and knowledge are distributed and shared are tools of empowerment.

On concentric circles of affinities

“As we move through our lives navigating connections with friends, neighbours, and comrades, we’re not just part of a single unitary community or even a web of multiple communities. Rather, our relationships with others take the form of concentric circles of affinity…. We don’t often directly state our commitments to and expectations of the other people with whom we share various kinds of “community”, except in specific projects or collectives; for instance, by living together, housemates agree to pay bills on time, wash the dishes, and respect each other’s space. What if we extended that degree of explicit intention to all of our relationships of affinity?….No, of course not… and that’s exactly the point. We can’t do that, so we have to figure out how to collectively determine these things within the different webs of relationships in our lives. Rather than presuming a “community” and attempting to hold people accountable based on that fiction, we should define our expectations of and commitments to the others in our various circles of affinity, and use them as the basis for our responses to conflict and harm. For example, let’s say that as my innermost concentric circle I have my affinity group. These are the folks I trust the most, with whom I take risks and for whom I’ll do whatever it takes. I’d be willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt in resolving conflict and addressing harm far more than any other people. Under this model, I would sit down with my affinity group and preemptively discuss how to address conflicts with each other when they come up, ranging from the most minor to the most serious disputes and forms of harm. Think of it as a sort of pre-nuptial agreement for friends and comrades, covering the bases in case things should go wrong. That way, I have a clear sense of how to respond when one of my crew does me wrong, and a shared basis of trust for working with them in a potentially long-term process of transformation. While I wouldn’t extend that trust to most people, within this group we share a deep and explicit affinity, so I’ll be open to criticism, calling out, and transformation with the trust that my comrades will be, too. Other examples of this innermost circle of affinity might be families (birth or chosen), houses and land projects, various types of collectives, or tight-knit groups of friends.”

– extracted from Crimethinc’s Accounting for Ourselves: Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Anarchist Scenes

 

As I am finishing up this post, I think about my child who is fast asleep and how hectic and triggering the last two weeks have been from these meetings and the email exchanges and text messages to and from strangers and friends about how important it is for us to come together in order to consider different possibilities and trajectories.

The next few months will be taxing for everyone involved when it comes to addressing and confronting such heavy and complex issues/accounts, and in trying to imagine ourselves moving forward in our own concentric circles of affinities. To those who have spread the word, contacted me and shared generously, I am thankful for all your gestures. Although I am honestly exhausted by all that I have encountered thus far, I am looking forward to continuing this with you.