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Photo by Kate Hoos

Making Spaces Safer: An Interview with Shawna Potter

Shawna Potter is the singer of War on Women, the founder of the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, and the author of Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather.The guide has tips for people in all roles on scenes, including musicians, show attendees, and bartenders. It also gives advice on flirting without crossing the line.

Photo by Kate Hoos.

MRR: When and why did you decide to write this book?

It was actually right after Warped Tour. My band War on Women played in 2017 and on that tour I was doing safer space and bystander intervention workshops with audience members through The Entertainment Institute. They asked before Warped Tour started if I’d like to teach a course. And I thought, “What the fuck would I teach, other than what I do at home?” Which is safer space stuff. What a perfect place to have more people know what to do if they witness harassment! I was so concerned with keeping my voice intact for a full two months that toward the end, I couldn’t believe that every day I was singing for 30 minutes then doing these workshops. I thought maybe I should just write all this shit down. It was an effort to save my voice, because I was saying many of the same things, just like in my safer space trainings at home that I’d been doing for about five years. The same issues and questions come up all the time, so I wrote it down so everywhere could have access to it and every space could be safer.

MRR: How did you initially get involved in anti-harassment work?

I didn’t do a lot of activism growing up, then in 2010 I discovered the Hollaback! website. It was really powerful to know that I was not the only person dealing with street harassment: that street harassment had a name, that there was a language around it, and that other people would understand what I was going through. I learned that it was okay to be angry, sad, or embarrassed about experiencing harassment. Whatever I was experiencing was normal and it was such a revelation to me. I was like, “I’m going to start a Baltimore chapter.” I got in touch and asked to get involved.

That’s when I really started waking up to other people’s struggles and other forms of oppression and how they all intersect. I was always feminist and pro-women’s rights, and I always knew that some people aren’t treated fairly in this world, but I hadn’t gotten past that. The Baltimore chapter launched in 2011 and around the same time War on Women played our second show—the launch party of Hollaback! Baltimore. I started talking to people about harassment, tabling at events, partnering with organizations, and sitting with trans rights organizations to see what their needs were.

Around that time the conversation around street harassment started changing. More people were acknowledging that harassment existed. So what’s the next step? We realized we should start teaching venues how to respond to harassment complaints, because they have a lot of power to make someone’s night go better or worse. It’s all in the book, but we got inspired by a story that was submitted to the Hollaback! website where someone was being harassed and a restaurant owner was really cool and let the person hang out without buying anything until the harasser left. The owner even waited with them until a cab arrived to take them home. It seemed really obvious to us, what if every single place in Baltimore was that cool? What if I knew which places I could duck into if I felt unsafe in the street? It grew from there and we created this program. Soon I was the only person from the original group still doing this work, and I just couldn’t stop, even when War on Women was getting really busy. People wanted to know: harassment is bad but what can we do about it?

MRR: People involved with counterculture and on the punk scene pride themselves on subverting the status quo—but often our scenes start to replicate mainstream misogyny and racism and seem to tolerate harassment. What do you think we can do to improve?

The biggest thing is to call it out every time we see it. It’s still so common that it’s easy for people to shrug it off, ignore it, or say, “What do you want me to do about it?” Because they don’t know what to do. I address that in the book, there’s a lot everyone can do and it’s not all super confrontational or going to put your safety at risk. It’s as simple as saying “hey man, don’t say that” or “that’s not cool.” The most important thing is to call it out and challenge it every time it happens and be prepared for when it does. What are you going to do about it when it happens?

Sometimes “that’s not cool” isn’t enough. I want people to recognize that if they organize a space they are responsible to it, and should use that power for good instead of pretending that they don’t have a role with power and they’re so anti-authority or whatever. If it’s your basement where the show is going on, you do have some responsibility to the people that are there to make sure they’re happy and healthy. That includes access to water, access to bathrooms and fire exits, and acknowledging that people get harassed. You have to address it and make it clear that it’s not okay in your space.

MRR: DIY spaces are vulnerable and calling the police can put them at risk. How can we handle conflict without bringing police into our spaces?

A big thing people forget sometimes is that you can do a lot proactively. Put up signs everywhere saying that harassment isn’t tolerated and make it clear what you stand for, and that you will be kicked out for those behaviors. There’s a lot people can do proactively before any incident occurs. They should have policies in place (however casual they might be). Have your signs up. Make it clear what’s okay and not okay in your space. A lot of kinds of harassment aren’t always this scary, physical, someone’s-gonna-get-their-ass-kicked kind of stuff. A lot of harassment that occurs is in the form of a “joke.” A lot of harassment might not seem like a big deal to the people who aren’t being harassed, but hurts the person being affected. The trauma from harassment and identity-based violence is cumulative. Most situations aren’t going to get you into a full-brawl with someone and you’re going to have to call the cops to break it up. That’s likely not what’s going to happen. Someone is going to say something shitty. All you need to do is believe the person that’s telling you it happened, or if you overhear it say, “Hey, knock it off, or I’m gonna kick you out.” Now if that person says, “Oh it wasn’t me, I didn’t say that, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you can say, “Okay cool, well just don’t say it again.” End of interaction.

If they’re belligerent, drinking heavily, or getting violent, now we’re going to delegate. We’re going to engage everyone in the room—which again is easier when you have it on the fucking wall that no racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic bullshit is allowed. So you can point to the wall and say, “Hey, this person is doing something that isn’t cool, but they’re way bigger than me. Can you guys help make sure that they get out safely and that I don’t get hurt in the process?” You start asking people to help you, which is one of the five Ds of bystander intervention: you delegate. It’s very hard to refuse someone looking you in the eye and asking you for help when all they need is help to make sure everything goes okay. People want to have ownership over DIY spaces. They want to feel that this is ours and they can help make this place better. But when they don’t know what to do or it’s not their space, they’re not going to do it first.

MRR: What can spaces do to encourage people working there to be more responsive and skillful when these issues come up?

I find that people feel more comfortable “doing the right thing” if they just know what that right thing is. One of the reasons I do these workshops and I wrote this book is because when I was learning more about the privileges I have and learning more about the struggles of marginalized groups that I am not a part of, I came up a lot of times against a dilemma or an issue and I’d say, “OK, I get what’s happening. What do I do?” There were so many times when the answer was to just listen. And that’s only going to take you so far and that’s frustrating for me. I thought that if I go into a space and everyone is willing to listen to me and wants to make sure all kinds of people feel welcome there and have a good time, I’ll give them some background info, but what they really want to hear is what to do. “Just tell us what to say and do.” Once people have that, well guess what, they’re going to do it. They feel so much more comfortable. That drive to help their community is there; they just don’t want to make it worse by doing the wrong thing. Make sure volunteers know what to do. You can give out a xeroxed page from Shawna’s book. Have your policies written down.

I know volunteers come and go, so I feel that there should always be someone around in that DIY space that is your safer space “expert.” At least one person who’s consistently at every event and has read up on this stuff more than everyone else. Then if someone complains you know that the thing to do is say, “Thanks for for telling me. I’m just a volunteer for the night, so I’m going to take you over to Shawna.” That’s fine too. It’s delegating. Just make sure that everyone knows and that person is easy to identify for audience members. You can make an announcement on the microphone. Let people know what you stand for, what your policies are, and who to talk to if they have a problem. Make it clear.

MRR: Volunteers definitely come and go. A lot of that is just the nature of organizing, but the other part of it is people burning out. What advice do you have for maintaining sustainable activism?

It is okay to step back sometimes. Give yourself permission to step back sometimes. If you’re just being lazy and you want to watch Netflix that you could watch any other time, maybe you should get off the couch and go to the event. But you’re allowed to take a break because you’re no good to anyone if you burn yourself out to ash. Self-care is important and I mention different kinds in the book, but honestly the most important thing I want people to know about self-care is that it doesn’t mean buying a fancy $7 latte. That’s not self-care. Self-care is making sure you eat a colorful plate of vegetables sometimes, get some fresh air, drink enough water. Get a little exercise; take a little time to be quiet. It’s about taking care of your body and your mind. In a spiritual way almost, if you wanna get a little woo-woo with it. Make sure you are connected to yourself and connected to the reason these fights are important to you. Why is justice important to you? Why did you get involved in the first place? Find that spark still. You have to nourish it and give it oxygen and make sure it’s still sparking.

My final thought on that is you can find a new way to stay involved. I was getting burnt out when for years all I did was table, handing out postcards and buttons and talking about street harassment. I did that all the time and had those conversations, and that’s hard to do after years of doing the same thing. That’s when we started doing safer space trainings. It made us feel like we had some good knowledge to share, and it’s something people want to know. I did that for a long time then thought that I could have a bigger and broader reach by writing a book. You get that activist guilt where you want to teach everyone safer space stuff, but you can’t. I found different ways to address harassment, which is my passion. If the world was less accepting of your average harassment of strangers, it would be less likely for more serious forms of violence to occur. On what planet is it okay to yell at a stranger what you think of their body? That’s fucked up. It’s so weird to me. But if we think that’s okay, some people are going to think “okay well now I’m going to touch that body” and “I’m going to see how far I can go with this person.” This is my passion, but I don’t need to be tabling and handing out postcards for my entire life to make an impact. I highly recommend people find an art form they enjoy—and you don’t have to be good at it—whether it’s music, painting, cross-stitching, or anything. Harness it and get a message out there.

Making Spaces Safer was published by AK Press.