Tag Archives: inclusion

Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Policing your community

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.


When inclusion excludes

In theory, inclusion should be the default setting, but in practice often when you choose to include one person you can find you are excluding another. Here are some examples.

If you include someone who has acted abusively, you exclude their victim, who may feel they have no choice but to quietly leave.

If you include someone who takes up a lot of time, energy or other resources, you may exclude people who needed a share of that, but who are less overtly demanding.

If you include people who are always massively late, you may frustrate, demoralise and ultimately lose the people who turned up in good time and good faith.

If you include someone who is vocally intolerant and bigoted, you may well exclude people who find that behaviour unbearable.

If you include people who are exploitative and there for what they can get you exclude people who cannot afford to be treated as a resource in that way. This includes issues of emotional labour.

What happens all too often is that people who make the most fuss, who are most demanding and most able to assert themselves get what they want out of situations. It is the people who are willing to be emotionally manipulative who will demand a place for themselves even when they manifestly do not deserve one. It is easy to end up excluding quieter and less demanding people who vote with their feet when faced with things they can’t bear. Those exclusions may be invisible – it seems like they’ve just given up or gone away, not that they have been driven away.

What we include, what we tolerate, and who we allow informs who we don’t get to keep. It can be easy to lose sight of that. A community is the sum of its members, and when we prioritise the ones who are most demanding, the cost may not be immediately apparent.


Disability and loss of power

Disability is a loss of power. At the most obvious level, it is the loss of scope to do what is considered normal in the way the majority are able to do it. That in turn often creates a loss of opportunity. For many people, disability means poverty, it means a massive disadvantage in terms of economic power. It can also mean a loss of social power, as a result of being excluded or ignored. It can mean people feeling entitled to act in positions of power over you – speaking for you, telling you what’s best for you, what you need, what you are allowed and how much the healthier consensus folk are willing to budge to accommodate you.

What makes this extra difficult is that it can’t all be fixed. There are some disabilities that will keep you powerless and outside of things no matter how good the infrastructure is. If your problems are extreme and continuous, the loss of power can be absolute. There are times when we may need people to speak for us and to make decisions for us – for myself, if I’m deep in a panic attack, I often need other people to do things for me in the short term. To speak and act for me until I can speak and act for myself again. And then to give me that power back. To be unable for a while does not mean being unable forever, and if we don’t recognise how shifting these experiences can be, we take more power from people.

If we’re interested in inclusivity, then the power issues need considering. How do we give more power to a person who has lost power in this way? Listening is important. Being willing to hear what changes would help rather than being unwilling to inconvenience ourselves. The power to not be inconvenienced by change is a power held by people for whom everything is working just fine already. The experience of being exiled because nothing will change is a loss of power.

Speed is often a problem. Simply allowing people more time to respond, to deal with things and so forth can make a lot of odds. Many disabilities impact on people’s energy levels, their personal power and scope to get things done. Making a person move at a pace that they can’t move at further takes power from them.

We need to be alert to economic powerlessness, or the things we are doing become hobbies for the comfortable, and we can have no real communities. Poverty is not always visible or self announcing. Those who are not in poverty can have real trouble imagining what poverty means. Again, the people with the power are often in a position to ignore the problems of the people with no power, and to put their convenience ahead of inclusion.

If you have the power to exclude people by not trying to accommodate them, you have the power in a situation. Too often, people struggling for the means to participate are treated as though they have all the power, as though rights afforded to them mean a loss of power for everyone else. Accommodating someone is not a loss of power. Giving someone else the means to participate is not a loss of power to the majority, and it should not function to exclude anyone else. Too often, those who have power mistake being asked to empower others for being disempowered, and that’s not what’s going on.

It is so important to look properly at who has power and who does not. It is so important to know what kind of power we have and how that power impacts on others.


All Ages Communities

Being in the school system tends to culture us into associating with people who are within a year of our own age. For a lot of people, this habit continues through life, creating generation gaps and a lack of social cohesion. There are assumptions about what different ages and life stages mean. As a consequence, most social activity is either child free, or revolves around amusing the kids. Teenagers are expected to go off and do their own thing. Older people aren’t even present, much of the time.

Some events and locations will try to get round this by providing crèches and amusements for the younger folk, freeing up their parents to do the things. This of course still means dividing people by age.

All of this is very much on my mind because I’ve just come back from Lincoln’s Asylum – the biggest steampunk gathering in the country. It’s an all ages activity, in the sense that people of all ages can actively participate (some of the evening things are 18+ but given how many things are totally  accessible to younger folk, this isn’t a problem).  Kids really get into it, with costumes, and enthusiasm for many of the events.

What really affected me, was talking to older women who were not steampunks, but who were eyeing up attendees at the event. One woman said to me, “This is amazing, I’m 60 and there are people here who are older than me, and they’re dressed up and clearly having a fantastic time.” Of course Victorian based attire looks great on older folk in a way that modern clothing doesn’t. The assumptions about what older people can and should wear, in all other contexts, are both dull and restrictive, but steampunk elders can be as punked, glamorous, outrageous, playful and innovative as anybody else.

In most contexts for women, there’s a lot of pressure to appear young (while not falling into the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ trap). We’re supposed to be sexy if we look young enough, and to cover up if we don’t. But not too sexy, so as to avoid the ‘slut’ trap. When we are older, we are to hide sags, wrinkles, grey hair etc as best we can. We are not to celebrate our aging. I love that in steampunk spaces none of this applies. The results are varied, wild, unpredictable and deeply inclusive of all kinds of ways of being female. There’s also an abundance of space to play with gender representation and identity as well, which is incredibly liberating.

It seems mad to me that we so often have so much age-based segregation within our societies. Communities gain breadth, depth and long term stability when they can accommodate people at all life stages. It’s a very different thing being in a space you know will always have room for you, rather than being conscious of an obligation to grow out of it at some point. It’s good to be in a space that genuinely makes everyone who wants to be there welcome, so long as they uphold the one rule – be splendid. I love what happens when the default is inclusion, and look forward to the scope for getting older disgracefully.

I suspect that no matter how old I get, I will always be a filthy urchin at heart, so I‘m going to need the spaces that won’t try and shoehorn me into a twin set and a sensible haircut.


Life on the margins

8pm on a Friday night. My hands are too sore for crafting or music. I’m too tired to concentrate on reading. The rest of my body is too stiff to even consider going out anywhere, and even assuming I could push through that, the flatlining of my brain makes me dreadful company. Who can I ask to spend time with me when I’m like this? And so I sit in weary silence and look at the rain, and fail to flag up even to the people I’m living with that I’m sad and sore and lonely. This is not unusual for the end of the week.

What worries me is the knowledge that I’m a pretty minor case. Most of my issues are intermittent, meaning I get good days. I get patches when I can pull my attention together enough to be sociable, and when I have enough energy to go out and do the sorts of fun things that other people do. Many people are in this sort of state full time, always in too much pain, always short of energy, always depressed and otherwise struggling to engage. All the things I can’t do much of the time because they start too late, or are too tough for other reasons… there are people who never have an option on those things. And I know how much of a fight it can be getting people to accommodate me, over things like not being able to do late meetings. ‘Normal’ wins most of the time, and the preferences of the many tend to make it seem ok not to bother with fitting me in. Rare are the places where I’m so essential that setting something up to accommodate me seems worthwhile. Again, it’s not just going to be me who experiences this.

I know when it comes to issues around depression and exhaustion that there are a lot of people who go quiet. They don’t mention there was a problem until it’s dealt with, often. There can be lots of reasons – pride and the desire to hang on to what little dignity remains, not having the energy to even start the conversation. Knowing that things probably won’t be fettled to accommodate you. I wish I knew how to step up to that, to better express that if a hand goes up I might spot the difference between waving and drowning, and I’m certainly going to try.

Physical barriers (stairs and no lifts) are not the only reasons people can find themselves excluded. It’s terribly easy to exclude anyone who does not conform to a standard of mobility (bodily mobility and car access) affluence (can you even afford to get there? Can you turn up to that place wearing the kind of clothes you own?) energy levels (because 8pm is just not a good time to start things for some people). Having young children, and not having on-demand child care can push some people out. Events that become male dominated because women don’t feel ok to turn up because they don’t feel safe in that part of town at that time of night. Places you can’t get to on public transport.

Of course it’s impossible to run everything to accommodate every possible need. But it’s nice when just now and then there’s a bit of flexibility to accommodate the known needs of people who have said they would like to turn up, but have issues. There’s a kind of tyranny in normality that means if you can’t fit with what’s on offer, and you don’t expect to be heard, you just shut up and go away and don’t get involved. Which is a lonely sort of outcome, and means that places of activity can have a very narrow selection of people involved in them.

I find it really funny when groups of people who claim to be tolerant and inclusive (and I can think of several) can’t find any flexibility at all to deal with the fact that I just can’t handle late evening meetings. I’m sure if they thought I was ‘properly’ disabled, they’d go to more effort to fit me in, but I’m just a sore, tired woman who can’t handle late nights, and somehow that makes it ok to just go ahead and have the meetings without me. Those who suffer invisibly – the mentally unwell, those in pain – are easily dismissed, because the problem isn’t visible, so the exclusion isn’t so visible, and depressed people tend not to be very good at standing up for themselves. The less obviously someone suffers, the easier it is not to bother with it, because no one can see you letting them down, and apparently that makes it ok, in some circles.