Note: A draft of this statement was first adopted by the Firestorm Collective on 1/19/14. See also, Statement of Intention For Our Space.
Purpose of this Statement
Crafting this statement helped our collective to develop a shared understanding of oppression and anti-oppression work. By making the document public, we affirm our commitment to countering oppression both in our space and beyond, and we invite others to hold us to the high standard that we've outlined herein. We further hope that this statement will introduce critical ideas to those in our community interested in learning, practicing and integrating anti-oppression work.
Our understanding of anti-oppression work is continuously evolving and, as such, this text is subject to ongoing revision as a "living document." We welcome feedback, discussion and suggestions for its improvement.
What Is Oppression?
We understand oppression to be any behavior that marginalizes, threatens, harms or silences an individual or group, with the support of cultural or institutional force. Oppressive behavior comes in a wide variety of forms, from seemingly harmless jokes to threats of violence, from interrupting to verbal abuse, from unwanted touching to rape, from hitting to murder. Some forms of oppression are more extreme and irreparable than others, but all serve to reinforce and enact a narrative in which a targeted group is less-than-human.
This is what distinguishes oppression from other forms of discrimination. Oppression is a systematic phenomenon that operates through power and privilege. An individual who experiences discrimination while in a position of power is not oppressed because society grants that individual both the expectation and capacity for recourse. Those who are oppressed, on the other hand, experience discrimination within a context of culturally imposed powerlessness. This may lead to situations in which they do not even see their own oppression, creating a culture of stigma, shame and social acceptance.
Our analysis of oppression is rooted in the understanding that individuals have intersecting identities and are capable of both experiencing oppression and perpetuating the oppression of others. This is sometimes referred to as “intersectionality,” and the implications for anti-oppression work are significant. For example, white women, who experience oppression on the basis of gender, have a different experience than black women, who experience harm both as women and as people of color. If we fail to account for the latter’s intersection of identities, we might conclude (as some white feminists have) that the police and prison system are an effective tool for addressing gendered violence; however, these institutions serve to perpetuate the destruction of communities of color.
If only part of an individual’s identity is acknowledged, they may experience erasure, preventing them from bringing their full self to a space, project, or movement. If we do not recognize and respect all aspects of a person's identity, we end up replicating systems of marginalization. This often occurs when when we make assumptions about others’ lived experiences and the ways they experience power or powerlessness.
As workers within Capitalism we experience oppression even within liberatory workspaces. We can address the imbalance of power between employees and employers but we cannot easily escape the larger economic forces that compel us to sell our labor for survival. As a co-operative business, every interaction with a customer has an effect, whether positive or negative, on our collective survival. Although we operate without bosses and strive to minimize the presence of hierarchical structures in our workplace, an inescapable baseline of powerlessness may magnify other forms of oppression experienced within our project.
Our co-op pushes back against the mechanization of labor, ranked labor, managerial coercion, and competition between workers by operating collectively, basing all decision-making on consensus, paying all labor equally, and refusing tip-based compensation. This structure expands access to knowledge and power while breaking down internal divisions. In spite of this we experience many power dynamics typical of workplaces, and some of the dynamics we eliminate are replaced by others unique to our collective structure.
Power exists formally and informally within our collective. Formal power includes the division between members and prospective members, within which some decision-making is explicitly granted solely to the former. Meanwhile, we know that informal power operates through seniority, disequal valuation of work (eg shift vs managerial work), and differences in ability. The current structure of our collective could even fully preclude participation by some individuals on the basis of ability. While we are committed to working towards empowering each other and contesting the norms of the capitalist workplace, we know that systems of power and privilege will never be absent. For this reason, the continual naming and acknowledgement of existing and shifting power structures is essential to our anti-oppression work.
Our Collective Context
Encounter and Safety
"The basic proposition of a dialog is to recognize the existence of the other, to respect them, to say, s/he is other, I am going to relate to the other, disregarding beforehand, not even thinking that s/he has to be like me, or that I will make him/her my way."
Through the operation of a welcoming, accessible space, our collective seeks to facilitate encounters between individuals and communities normally kept separate by policy, identity and geography. This work, we believe, is critical to both freeing ourselves as individuals and building a movement capable of contesting authoritarian society.
Spaces of encounter are inherently conflictual. While we see potential value in the creation of spaces that are safe(r) – that is, designed to maximize the comfort and security of a marginalized group – and many of us participate in such spaces, we believe that the homogeneity required of safe(r) spaces is incompatible with the radical inclusivity of encounter.
This is not to say, however, that we are resigned to passivity in the face of oppression. As the architects and guardians of an anarchist space, we feel that we have an obligation to act as allies to those targeted by systematic violence and harassment, be they our patrons, members of our collective or ourselves. This means naming and challenging oppressive behaviors that occur inside and outside our space.
Our collective recognizes that the systems of power and privilege that define mainstream society also permeate the radical milieu from which our project arises. These dynamics are expressed in various interlocking systems of oppression (eg racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, speciesism, etc), which prevent equal access to resources and safety, disrupt healthy communities and movement building and severely – sometimes irreparably – harm our allies, our friends, our loved ones and ourselves.
Within both our space and our collective, a history of oppressive behaviors has caused enormous harm to our work, our personal health and our reputation in the radical milieu. Assumptions of horizontality serve to obscure the patterns of power and privilege we experience internally while a lack of clear policy disempowers participants from raising their voices or seeking support from our collective in the face of disrespect, crossed boundaries and harassment. Over the course of our project's life, these dynamics have caused numerous collective members to leave and many potential allies to seek community, coffee and encounter elsewhere.
It is not our expectation that the adoption of an anti-oppression statement will erase this history or ensure a future unburdened by oppressive social relations. We understand that anti-oppression work must be ongoing, with commitment represented not only in written statement but also in the living culture of our collective. We hope that this statement will provide a foundation from which to inspire and challenge one another and we welcome members of our community to draw from it for the same purpose.
"Rather than narrowing the circle to those neighbors to whom we feel accountable, we must redefine communities of accountability to be those people with whom we have the least in common. [...] For in this model, no one escapes being my neighbor."
Individuals and organizations can be said to be "accountable" when they respond to oppression by seeking to understand their role in intersectional systems of power, acknowledging their responsibility and then changing their behavior to prevent future harm. We aim to provide an atmosphere of accountability, where earnest efforts are made by all to evaluate and change the ways we deal with interpersonal and systemic oppression.
We know from experience that being accountable is not easy. It challenges us to operate outside our comfort zone, making us feel vulnerable and defensive. But accountability is crucial to the project of interrupting oppression because we have all been imprinted by the logic of power. Even with good intentions, our internalization of discriminatory assumptions and hurtful patterns of behavior will make us oppression's collaborators if left unchecked.
"An injury to one is an injury to all."
To be an ally is to dismantle systems of oppression through advocacy for, and support of, those who are oppressed. Part of practicing allyship includes educating oneself and others, promoting a supportive atmosphere and confronting oppression as it occurs. When we act as allies, we understand that we come from a position of power and work to remedy our own oppressive behaviors as well as the systematic oppression that surrounds us.
We believe that good allies seek to add their voices to the struggle for liberation rather than speak on behalf of those whose voices are being systematically silenced. Allyship is not an identity, but rather a practice meant to lift up and empower those who experience oppression. As people acting in allyship we expect to make mistakes and learn from them, but we will not give up when things become discouraging or uncomfortable.
We believe that being accountable requires us to think critically about the ways in which our behavior, individually and collectively, plays into larger systems of power.
Questions that we seek to ask ourselves as individuals include:
- What is my relationship with the person or group I'm engaging? What systems of power might be present in our relationship?
- Am I speaking with authority? If so, why?
- Am I talking down to someone? Am I making them feel powerless or unsafe?
- Am I making assumptions about someone? If so, what are they and why am I making them?
- Would I feel differently in someone else's shoes? If so, why?
Questions that we seek to ask ourselves as a collective include:
- Is our collective dynamic supportive during meetings and in our work?
- Does our membership reflect the identities present in our community? If not, how might this impact our perspectives and priorities?
- Do our policies or their application create a double-standard for access, respect or participation? If so, why and for whom?
- Do our policies or their application reinforce or contradict systems of power at play in society? If so, how?
- How can we better connect with those who have become culturally isolated or silenced? Why have we not been able to do this in the past?
Responding to Oppression
We believe that the most effective way to respond to oppression is to clearly and calmly explain what about an individual's behavior was offensive and why, providing as much specific information as possible. As a radical space with a literary focus, we can support these conversations through the provision of free resources on power and privilege.
Collective responses to oppression that we seek to avoid include:
- Ignoring or denying the behavior in question;
- Justifying or excusing the behavior;
- Prioritizing the feelings of the individual responsible over those harmed;
- Insulting or shaming the individual responsible;
- Alienating or expelling the individual responsible without dialog or opportunity for reconciliation.
While stressing the need for personal accountability, our collective also acknowledges that we have all been socialized into intersectional systems of power and privilege and are capable of acting as oppressor or oppressed. Although this does not absolve us of responsibility, it does highlight the universal need for effective anti-oppression strategies. Our collective goal is to create space for oppressive behavior to be acknowledged and unlearned without rejecting anyone. This change-oriented approach to oppression is sometimes referred to as "restorative justice."
Getting Called Out
When someone's oppressive behavior is identified and brought to their attention, we often say that they have been "called out." Responding to being called out can be difficult, especially when we feel that our identities or values (as anti-authoritarians, radicals, progressives, etc) should fool-proof us against crossing others' boundaries. When this happens, it is easy to feel caught in a complex tangle of emotions: shame, confusion, anger, embarrassment. This only increases when those calling us out aren't doing so gently; however, we believe that even in this challenging emotional state, it is our responsibility to respond in a way that promotes healing for those harmed while cultivating empathy and personal growth for ourselves. If we respond otherwise, how can we say we are committed to anti-oppression work? Our responsibility to understand how we are causing pain must be more important than our desire to protect our self-image or reputation.
Individual responses to being called out for oppressive behavior that we seek to avoid include:
- Acting dismissive or trivializing the significance of oppression ("You're just being overly sensitive" / "It's not a big deal");
- Acting defensive or insisting on a mitigating context ("I'm a good activist");
- Redirecting blame ("You can't criticize me for X because you're guilty of Y");
- Arguing over the details ("I didn't use that word");
- Acting hurt or guilty in a manner that distracts from the harm caused ("I'm so hurt that you called me X" / "I know I'm fucked up. I've always been this way").
We believe that it is most effective for individuals being called out to listen patiently and attentively to the perspectives of marginalized folks and their allies, take responsibility by apologizing or making amends, and engage in further self-education and reflection. Of course no response to being challenged is sufficient without a commitment to change the problematic behavior in question, but the simple act of acknowledging you've hurt someone and intend to think more about your behavior is a great place to start.
When members of our collective engage in a pattern of oppressive behavior, directed either at fellow collective members or others in our community, we will seek to address those behaviors through an appropriate collective mechanism, including direct feedback, outside mediation and/or re-evaluation of that member's participation in our project.
Any process for confronting oppression must be guided, when possible, by the affected individual(s) and primarily concerned with their needs for dignity, healing and safety. If the needs of those affected cannot be met through mediation, reconciliation and accountability, or if the responsible collective member does not sufficiently participate in these processes, then the expulsion of that individual is the only possible recourse.
In situations where folks utilizing our space are not willing or able to take responsibility for their behavior, transformation is not possible and they will cease to be welcome at Firestorm. Unless an individual is particularly hostile or is engaged in extremely problematic behavior, this will normally be preceded by a conversation explaining the nature of our space, our commitment to anti-oppression work and our resulting expectations. It is our desire not to exclude anyone from Firestorm without giving them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and work on their relationship to power and privilege.
Anyone unwelcomed from Firestorm will be given the chance to meet with our collective to discuss the circumstances surrounding their exclusion and the terms under which they might again be able to participate. In the event that those directly affected by an abusive individual's behavior can be engaged, we will prioritize their needs and desires, bringing their voice into the conversation rather than speaking on their behalf.
Within Our Collective
When oppression has been identified within our collective, whether inside or outside of our formal time together (ie not just during shifts, meetings, co-working, etc), it triggers an immediate, collective response. This could take the form of a priority agenda item at an already scheduled meeting or a dedicated meeting with the sole focus of understanding and identifying the harm that has occurred. It is our intention to never bury our response to oppression within business-as-usual or divert it into one-on-one conversations as both of these approaches can further marginalization and preclude strong collective outcomes.
We seek to empower those who name oppression by providing space to articulate personal and collective experiences. By centering those who have experienced oppression in the process we hope to restore agency where it has been taken away. Based on the needs of these persons, the collective will then determine the best mechanism to address the harm. This may rely on the use of our grievance procedure, which can be found in our Operating Agreement.
In addition to strategies for responding to oppression after it has occurred, we are committed to developing tools that nurture a collective culture where oppression is infrequent or can be interrupted as it is happening. These tools include:
Space Agreements -- Our work together is informed by a set of shared commitments that assist us in identifying oppressive dynamics and holding each other accountable. These agreements will be revised as our collective changes to reflect our evolving needs.
Meetings focused on collective culture -- We set aside space on an ongoing basis to identify and address emerging dynamics within our team. It is our intention that this shift the responsibility of requesting space off of individuals who are experiencing harm and onto the collective as a whole.
Further development of skills -- We continuously seek opportunities to expand our collective knowledge and question our assumptions. For example, we may use our time together to read and discuss an essay, present new information and share skills, or facilitate open discussions.
We know that the ideal resolution, in which an individual takes full responsibility for their actions and is able to meet the needs of those they have hurt, is not always possible. As a small collective with limited resources, we cannot invest unlimited time and effort into every relationship and, in some situations, we may decide that working with an abusive individual is beyond our capacity.
The frequency of people moving and traveling between radical communities has weakened the ability of communities to seek accountability from those with a history of oppressive behavior. Although we recognize that the current model of accountability in use by many activists is deeply flawed and often fails in its aim to address patterns of abuse and privilege, we believe that it is important that our stance towards the policies and processes of other communities be one of respect and affirmation.
Firestorm is not a space that is welcoming to individuals who are seeking to avoid accountability for their behavior. If someone is involved with Firestorm as a member, intern or volunteer, has a background of abusive behavior and is required by a survivor, community or accountability process to reveal their background to those that they work with, then that person is expected by us to honor and abide by those requirements.
The following texts were of great value to us in the crafting of this statement and we recommend them to others engaged with power, privilege and collective process:
- Anti-Oppression Politics in Anti-Capitalist Movements by Junie Désil, Kirat Kaur and Gary Kinsman, Upping the Anti Vol. 1;
- AORTA Resource Zine by kiran, Jenna/Golden, Tyrone, Esteban, and Lydia
- Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry by Richard Singer and Delfina Vannucci;
- Doris: An Anthology and The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb;
- The Broken Teapot: A Critical Analysis of Current "Accountability" Models by Anonymous;
- Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy by Chris Crass.
The following organizations, which generously shared their own anti-oppression or safe(r) space policies, deserve special thanks as both a source of inspiration and, in some cases, overt plagiarism: The Earth First! Journal, Wild Roots Feral Futures, Red & Black Cafe, Bluestockings and Free Geek Vancouver.