Doing feminism isn’t easy. You have to be willing to totally fall out with your family: quite often your given family and most often your chosen one.
The hardest part about doing feminism is realizing that if you’re really dedicated to it, you’ll be picking it apart for your whole life. Everything you love is under constant scrutiny: friends, TV, records, bands, zines, books, art, culture, your own sexuality... the internet. Feminism will always challenge you. You will always challenge feminism.
Like lots of punk girls from the suburbs, I discovered Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in my teen years and fell in love. They articulated a rage about not only the punk scene, but about the world around me that I had never tapped into. They made me believe I had it in me, too. So my friends and I set out to start a feminist collective.
In 2003, at age 18, in an effort to rally the masses, I sent out an email with the subject line, “hey girlfriend, i got a proposition goes something like this...” (the quintessential Bikini Kill battle cry) and I’ve been doing feminist collective organizing ever since. The collective (and distro) I’m currently a member of is called For the Birds, and we’re based in New York City.
For the Birds formed in 2008. Before that we were a nameless group of organizers who threw a feminist festival, much like Ladyfest, at ABC No Rio (in New York). Our group was staffed with women from various locations, backgrounds, races, and sexualities. We each brought a different cultural and social context to the table.
The fest, called The Big She-Bang, was a day-long event in August 2008 with an art show, a DIY fleamarket, free meals, workshops, panels, and live music. After a successful event, the next step was to dream up our future plans, and that was the moment we dedicated ourselves to figuring out a collective process, ground rules, and the inner workings of a functional distro. We yearned for sustainability. We wanted to be a long-standing catalyst of what can be called DIY feminist cultural activism, through booking music shows, readings, art events, and feminist conferences.
By October 2008, we had a name: For The Birds Collective.
Many feminists have done this before us. And as the cliché goes, those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.
In the early years, many of our women of color members dropped out, citing our lack of discussion about race. While I had been addressing white privilege in my personal reading, and in my schooling, I hadn’t yet learned how to do this in practice. I think the same goes for many of our other members. So we learned together.
Often when fighting against gender oppression, activists can lose sight of the ways that other oppressions intersect with feminism. There are so many aspects of gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality to unpack when you are working with feminist organizing. Our solution was to look to the ones who had addressed it first: postcolonial feminists, womanists, women of color feminists, third world feminists, disabled feminists, queer feminists, feminists or activists who’ve dealt with illness and/or grief. There’s such a rich history out there and there are so many people addressing these topics now, in real time (a recent example is the #femfuture document, the hashtag , and its critiques).
The idea of “safer spaces” became intrinsic to the work that we do. For the uninitiated, a safer space is “a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety.” This definition comes from the New York City Coalition for Safer Spaces, who For the Birds often works with. In essence, it is a way to ensure that a space is free of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and is generally safe and accessible for everyone.
Proponents of “safer spaces” often choose to use the word “safer” rather than “safe” because no space can be deemed totally safe: we acknowledge that “safety” means different things for different people, and we acknowledge our efforts as an ever-evolving learning process.
Through internal critiques of For the Birds, we realized that while we made an effort to ensure that our events were equipped with safer space policies, we had lost sight of the collective itself as a safer space.
Communication became the key to honestly engaging with each other, and confronting different axes of privilege.
WE ARE ALL SAFER SPACE SUPPORTERS
Last summer, For the Birds ventured to New Brunswick/Highland Park, NJ for C.L.I.T. (Combating Latent Inequality Together) Fest to facilitate a workshop based on our experiences, titled Winging It: Nurturing Authentic Communication in Feminist Organizing. We figured since we had struggled with these issues of communication only to be reminded that they were age-old, we should democratize our knowledge and share it with other activists.
Arriving at the very beginning of CLIT Fest (a Friday evening), I witnessed members of their organizing collective fret that a representative from an outside group doing “safer spaces support” was absent. Often, doing “safer spaces support” work means being a tangible representative (wearing a signifying article of clothing or accessory, like an armband) who will actively enforce the agreed upon safer space policy, and is a “safe person” to approach if need be.
For the Birds’ workshop didn’t happen until Sunday morning. We began the workshop by asking people what (potentially harmful) assumptions that we, ourselves or others make when entering feminist organizing work. We go on to ask workshop participants what they’ve been working through as activists, discuss our common experiences, leave room for issues we haven’t addressed, and add some of our own troubleshooting methods.
Here, we address safer spaces head on: we claim that a fairly common assumption in activist circles is that safer space support is up to someone else, a designated person that can be seen as more of a “professional.” We suggest that instead, it’s something that the entire community is a part of, and is responsible for. Throughout our discussion CLIT Fest organizers and other activist attendees shared their stories with us, and the whole room tried to offer solutions. It was a non-hierarchical conversation with self-empowering takeaways.
As the workshop progressed, more of the organizers felt inspired to take on the “safer space support” role themselves.
As we packed up our distro to leave, many CLIT Fest organizers could be seen dotted around the room, wearing pink armbands to signify that they were a designated “safer spaces support” person.
A tangible change had occurred. And this was the point: to take something intimidating and make it empowering. To share knowledge with each other. To change our communities in ways that strengthen all of us, and make room for our differences. This is what D.I.Y. means to us.
For the Birds’ workshop Winging It: Nurturing Authentic Communication in Feminist Organizing will take place Saturday, June 8th at 1:15pm at Locust Moon Comics and Movies, as part of Ladyfest Philadelphia.
You can read more about For the Birds’ work on feminist communication in our zine So You Want to Start a Feminist Collective..., DIY or Don’t We #3, and Women Who Rock zines. Or find us online at forthebirdscollective.org!