Community means taking responsibility for how we engage with each other. It means dealing with bullying, not ignoring sexism, racism, abelism, ageism or anything else of that ilk. However, it also raises issues of gatekeeping and exclusion.
I’ve never seen a community improved by people making it their job to try and push others out for ‘doing it wrong’. If you have gatekeeping urges and feelings about quality and maintaining the integrity of a thing, there are better ways to go. Help people learn – give them pointers, tools, tips, insights, support and encouragement. This takes time and effort and doesn’t get you as much attention as standing at the entrance pushing people away. Where support and inclusion are the norm, people wishing to take power through gatekeeping are more easily identified, so they can be taken aside and supported and encouraged to do something more productive…
Here are some other questions I would like people to ask about how their community spaces function.
Who gets to speak, and who speaks most often? Who doesn’t get chance to make themselves heard? How could that better be rebalanced? Who gets to make decisions and how are those decisions made? Who gets a say in the process? Are the decisions made by the people doing the work? If there is a democratic say then there must also be a democratic sharing of effort and responsibility.
If there is conflict in your community, doing nothing is the choice that supports the person who is out of order and further harms the person on the wrong end of things. If you think both parties are equally to blame, please consider that other people may be silenced, shut down or made uncomfortable and unable to participate as a consequence of undealt-with conflict. The character of your community is in no small degree defined by what people do, and how they do it, when something goes wrong.
If there is sexism, and everyone looks the other way, then your community supports sexism. If someone raises bullying as an issue, and nobody wants to know, then bullying is something your community supports. If someone feels excluded because they can’t physically get into the room, and no one responds to this, then exclusion is something your community does… and there’s a startling amount of this around. Usually it appears in quiet, low drama forms, and is dealt with quietly with a shrug and a ‘this is how we do things’ that just leaves no room for change. I’ve been in a fair few spaces dominated by straight, white, middle class, middle age and older, physically and mentally healthy men, and I can say with confidence that many of them cannot see how business as usual excludes people who are not exactly like them.
Educating people who don’t understand how what they do needlessly excludes others, is a relentless and emotionally draining sort of job. It tends to fall to those least resourced to do it – the one woman in the meeting may be the one person who is able to talk about why the culture of the space means there aren’t more women in the room. The one disabled person will be the person telling you why the venue is so problematic. The one queer person will be the one explaining why the language used is so excluding. The one victim of bullying will be the person on whose shoulders falls the job of explaining why the culture of your community enables bullying. This is hard stuff to bear.
So often what happens when the person who has made it over the threshold but doesn’t fit easily into the ‘normality’ of the group, is that the group resents them for flagging up problems. The community may feel comfortable with itself, it doesn’t want the hassle of changing or the discomfort of looking at its own norms.
If you aren’t the person at the sharp end, and you see someone raising something like this, don’t dismiss them as a nuisance. Don’t call them a snowflake. Don’t insist that the problem is them and that what you usually do is fine. Don’t be part of the subtler forms of gatekeeping that keep out people in this way. Listen to the issues. Try and see it from someone else’s perspective. Don’t assume that your experience is what everyone else gets. Open your heart. Open your community space. Take pride in accommodating people and being flexible around their needs.