Posts Tagged ‘building trust’

Cross-posted from the whirlwinds project by team colors

TRIGGER WARNING

This collection of resources and writing deals with the subject of sexual assault, which may have intense connotations or bring up difficult feelings and memories. Please consider reading this when you are in a safe space or have some one available to talk to about the material if necessary.

Grounding our work
by Em Squires

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Relationships are slippery and wet like water. I can feel a relationship touch the flesh of my heart or the skin of my back, and I know it is there because I can feel that presence asking for my attention. I cannot explain the work of Philly Stands Up without talking about relationships. They explain how I got involved and why I stay committed. Our model and processes are rooted in a criss-crossed web of friendships we share with eachother, the working relationship(s) PSU builds with perpetrators of sexual assault, and each of our individual commitment to PSU as an organizing collective.

Almost two years ago, I decided to move to Philly. I couldn’t afford New York City and needed to get the hell out of the Midwest. I didn’t have a job, but I had a place to live with my friend Nic. Stevie and Nic raved about the magnitude of Philly’s awesome-ness and how much I would love it. So I did either the stupidest or bravest thing I’ve ever done – I packed a van, maxed out my credit card, and dropped a cannonball into the pool of my future with a vague agenda to “find some work” and, hopefully, meet some new people who would inspire and challenge me. Sink or swim. Either way, I would feel the water.

It was Stevie who sent me the email inviting me to my first PSU meeting. I had been in Philly for just over six months, working a demoralizing service job and was painfully clawing my way out of an abusive relationship. I was not in a great place. It was a long email, certainly the most formal email I’d ever received from him, but by the time I finished reading, my pulse was racing. Work with perpetrators of sexual assault? Engage with building a culture of consent within a sex-positive framework? I didn’t even really know what that meant. My own organizing background was grounded in anti-oppression youth organizing and the labor movement, with some work on gender, affirmative action, and independent media thrown into the mix. I was a teaching artist posing as a waitress – what did I know about working with perpetrators of assault? I went to the meeting not knowing what to expect. I left feeling like I had just breathed pure, undiluted oxygen for two hours.

It was early June, almost a year ago. I didn’t know a person in the room except for Stevie – but I could feel the energy prickle my skin, passionately delicate and oh-so-insistent. PSU members who were about to step back from the collective for various reasons – school, family, needing space, etc – talked about the history of the group, the Points of Unity, etc – and then we all went around and talked about why we were there, present in the room on this random Sunday evening. I had never even been part of an activist group that was so committed to process that we wrote down our organizing principles! And here I was – invited into a space that would never ask me to justify why I identify as queer, that would never question the “validity” or experience of being a queer woman in a f***ed up relationship with another woman, and would not only demand but value my voice, my agency, and my ability to articulate and respect my own limits. Although I was initially intimidated by my lack of relevant “experience,” the energy and interests of everyone present very quickly had me doing some quick internal surveys. Fine, I had never worked in this “field,” either academically or politically. However, the work I had just heard described to me was based on listening skills, relationship building, the belief that behavior can change, complex, radical, and queer-oriented analyses of power across multiple communities and potential identities, resource development, grassroots education, and a commitment to building a more sex-positive and responsible culture.
I was down with that.

Our work isn’t about fixing people. First of all, a perpetrator has to want to “work on their shit” – that’s our colloquial umbrella phrase to refer to a perpetrator who is willing to engage with us on the issue(s) at hand. The shit can include, but is certainly not limited to: a specific incident or [repeated] behavioral pattern of emotional, physical and/or sexual assault with an intimate partner or random stranger (or any person on the interpersonal spectrum in between), substance and alcohol abuse, mental health, and any number of other influencing factors. We are not “professional” therapists or social workers or health care professionals – we are a collective of individuals with all sorts of organizing experience(s) and interests and committed to radical social change. We share and constantly engage with an evolving analysis (see our Points of Unity for some examples) which influences not only how we approach situations and perpetrators as unique experiences, but also with our own internal group dynamic and intro-collective processing.

We don’t often “find” situations (what we call each separate “case,” usually involving a perpetrator, a chain of events, and some request for action and/or resources) – situations usually find us. Since we’ve been around for a couple years, we don’t have to do much self-promotion, and in reality, don’t have the member-capacity to do high-volume work. What happens most often is either a perpetrator will contact us, having heard about us through some workshop, friend, referral, etc and initiate contact and somehow communicate zi’s desire to “work on hir shit,” OR we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator via a shared situation with Philly’s Pissed. [I’m using gender-neutral pronouns here for two reasons: 1) PSU seeks to support and be an ally to trans folks in whatever ways we can, and part of that is being conscious of how we use basic pronoun language; and 2) We don’t want our language to perpetuate the myth that sexual assault is limited to heteronormative situations in which the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the survivor. Anyone – regardless of gender – can be a survivor or a perpetrator of assault.]
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We do not have a magic “perpetrator-free” stamp that absolves someone from whatever pain they have caused another person or community; we work to build an honest and accountable space with perpetrators. This demands a good faith effort from both directions. I have friends who upon finding out about the subject of my Sunday night meetings, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? why perpetrators? none of those programs ever work.” Valid response. But PSU isn’t a program. No one is more aware than we are that we can’t work with every perpetrator. In some cases, perpetrators are also survivors of other situations. We try to see the whole person and the whole situation, however complex, and remain aware of our limitations.

It isn’t easy to go step-by-step through our process, since it’s different each time. Typically, we’ll begin to work with a perpetrator either through a referral through Pissed or because someone will email us directly and ask for help or resources. We meet weekly, and commit to “tasks” – whether it’s contacting someone about a workshop, working on an article for a zine, doing research, working on a situation, or being the group’s email checker for the week. We do a decent job of checking our mail, and it’s the responsibility of the email checker to not only check the emails, but to respond based on the time sensitivity of what is emailed (either a “do you need to talk so someone in an hour” or a “can we check in about your request at our meeting on Sunday, which is four days away” type of response). Every meeting starts with a personal check-in and ends with a check-out, and includes a mixture of debriefing current situations and “tasking” new situations, discussing or planning upcoming workshops, projects, or proposals, or doing internal educational work. Committing to work on a situation depends upon what information we know, who can do the work – not only logistically, but also with respect to personal limits and triggers.

We understand that we have to have the capacity and resources to be an ally in the specifics of any given situation. Sometimes, we don’t. We are learning that it is one thing to offer advice and recommend resources and try and connect folks with local support over distance (we get a lot of emails from people in all parts of the country), but that working with perpetrators over distance is incredibly difficult. We always work in teams on situations, so working over distance in teams requires phone calls, chats, and all manners of creative communication and scheduling. When we are able to work locally, we set up initial meetings in public places where everyone feels safe. Whether working locally or over distance, we are committed to centralizing survivor demands. This can look like making sure that copies of therapy receipts are available to whomever needs to see them, facilitating meetings with community members, or helping write letters of explanation/apology.

We’re not passing judgement on having long-distance relationships – but we are slowly realizing that the intimacy and honesty and reliance upon our gut feelings and intuition that we base our work upon is exponentially more facilitated by engaging with perpetrators face-to-face. It’s just a different dynamic. Working with perpetrators, situation by situation, requires that we are continuously checking in with ourselves (individually and collectively) about where we are at, what we need, how we feel, what hurts, what is too much, where is the wall? We can do, feel, and trust this more when we operate in real time.

My commitment to PSU is the healthiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with an activist collective. I don’t have to feel guilty about my time limits – for example, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to go to an actual meeting in at least a month because of my work schedule, but my ability to commit to write this article and pull together resources for this zine is internally embraced as a valid part of our work. My emotional boundaries are respected – and furthermore, my efforts to even articulate my boundaries in the first place are appreciated as necessary. People step up and step back on a week-to-week basis. Literally. I was a little dubious that this function of the collective was actually the truth, but I personally have been proven wrong multiple times. I have learned that working with PSU demands a lot of honesty. I have to be honest with myself about my own triggers, limits, boundaries, needs. I have to trust my friends in PSU to help me both identify and respect what I can and cannot do. I have to be able to hear each of their own capacity for our work. I think our commitment to healthy activism works because we centralize it at our meetings (by framing with personal check-ins and check-outs), we have pre-existing/outside-of-PSU friendships and shared/local social networks that are incredibly powerful, and because there is a shared common and radical analysis of power and oppression – which informs not only our Points of Unity, but also our ability to just be there for each other and create a safe space (which isn’t to say that we don’t work to develop that space and challenge ourselves). I can only speak for myself, but I know I approach relationships (whether platonic, intimate, or somewhere in between) in a fundamentally different way since I joined PSU.

I am a more confident and thoughtful communicator and I stick up for myself and my boundaries, needs, desires, and dreams a hell of a lot more. Our space is safe, but we are not stagnant – and neither is our work nor our process.

Drop us a line at phillystandsup.safe@gmail.com.

Cross-posted from the whirlwinds project by team colors

TRIGGER WARNING

This collection of resources and writing deals with the subject of sexual assault, which may have intense connotations or bring up difficult feelings and memories. Please consider reading this when you are in a safe space or have some one available to talk to about the material if necessary.

Philly Stands Up- Our Approach, Our Analysis
by Esteban Kelly

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Our point of departure is drastically different from mainstream analysis of sexual assault as it pertains to both survivors and perpetrators. In Philly Stands Up we always begin with an assessment of how we can support and take direction from survivors of sexual assault. Though the vast majority of our organizing is direct work with perpetrators, our view is that these efforts are perhaps the most important way that our group supports survivors and, by extension, the community of radical organizers of which we are a part.
Our project is an enabling project. Healthy individuals and safe spaces provide the basic foundation and capacity for people to kick ass in reconfiguring our society into one characterized by socio-economic justice and compassionate interpersonal dynamics.

When a sexual assault is committed, the entire community is affected. As organizers, addressing the harm to survivors and the community is an important way of sustaining organizing more broadly. Thus, three fundamental approaches to our work:

– A steadfast commitment to supporting survivors through centralizing their needs to assert control and power in their lives and surroundings. Also, because Philly Stands Up is firmly against violent retribution in principle, we focus our energy into creating positive mechanisms that validate and support survivors.
– The belief in the particularity of each sexual assault situation, and with it, a unique effort and opportunity for the perpetrator to better understand physical, sexual, and emotional boundaries and communication
– The intrinsic importance of humanizing perpetrators; to be grounded in compassion as a source of strength in persevering through very difficult work and transgressing the ubiquitous alienation that haunts everyone affected by sexual assault situations.

In Philly Stands Up, we tether our work to reaching out to perpetrators of sexual assault while maintaining the centrality of the survivors, from whom we take our cues in determining the actions and progress that need to transpire for the overall healing in assault aftermath. The key mental shift that sets us on a new path in sexual assault community organizing is in refusing to distance ourselves from perpetrators of sexual assault, or even to presume that all perpetrators could be characterized by a particular moment of awful behavior.

It was only after we had spent time working with perpetrators (and of course survivors) that our current analysis really took form. On the one hand, in the aftermath of a sexual assault survivors can feel a loss of power and control over their bodies, their environment, their lives and their community. Our work, therefore, is grounded in helping to empower survivors (directly or indirectly) by aiding them in feeling safe and by assisting them in exerting control over their selves, their space and the world around them. On the other hand, the perpetrator has lost the trust of the survivor and the community. This trust is not just lost in terms of sex, but also in terms of social relationships, politics, and solidarity.
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Those directly and indirectly affected by sexual assault are reluctant to trust the perpetrator as an organizer, worker, neighbor, performer, leader, roommate, or peer. So our work in Philly Stands Up is to help rebuild trust. To interrupt what may be patterns in the behavior of perpetrators of sexual assault. This commitment to work with rather than punish or criminalize the perpetrator is imperative to them once again becoming fully functional, trustworthy, and participating members of the community. In some cases survivors may still not want the perpetrator to be in their community. In Philly Stands Up we do what we can to support the wishes of the survivor and see the work of restoring trust and responsibility to perpetrators as essential to any community in which they will end up living. For that reason, one of the main functions we provide in our community is as a buffer, where we can distinguish ourselves as a more appropriate space for perpetrators to vent their concerns, frustrations, and perspective while coming to terms with and understanding the implications of their actions. In this way we hold perpetrators accountable for their analysis and behavior, and prevent future assaults by facilitating personal growth on both fronts.

One of our main contentions with most standard treatment of perpetrators of sexual assault is that they are typically dismissed as criminals. We call for a closer look at the people, their behavior and the social dynamics that surround sexual assault to be considered much more thoroughly in order to effectively rectify the damages that result from sexual assault situations and ultimately prevent them from occurring at all. In our experience, when pre-established structures like this are in place, people called out for sexual assault have been less likely to cling to defensiveness and denial since they can trust that there will be space for things to be worked out, and they are also less likely to fear immediate physical harm.

In taking a closer look at typical responses to sexual assault beyond radical communities, we noticed that perpetrators are rarely factored into the daily lives of the community at large. Instead, perpetrators are punitively shuffled off to various criminalizing apparatuses (strongly linked to the prison industrial complex), and left out of what we see as highly gendered social services, which focus almost exclusively on (non-trans) female survivors. It must be clear that our group does not outright refute the resources (legal, social, and otherwise) that are available for these women. We certainly recognize the importance of such services and see other local organizations as allies by and large in our work. However, in doing so, we remain acutely aware of the limitations of their impact, most notably in losing sight of the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of sexual assault, and in neglecting to serve the diversity of classes, genders, ethnicities, linguistic communities (e.g. English & Spanish speakers) and so on, that do not neatly coincide with the target population of certain women-only resources.

Those of us in Philly Stands Up refuse to pretend that sexual assault only constitutes a certain action among certain persons (i.e. rape of women by men). Anyone can be assaulted. Anyone is capable of transgressing somebody else’s boundaries. Our analysis (which is by no means a “definition”) encompasses and extends beyond rape- in its most strict sense- to include any situation that a survivor identifies as a breach of a particular boundary, or a lack of consent in a sexual situation. We distance ourselves from the criminal justice outlook that demands “objective facts” be presented to a judge and jury, a trend we have seen in our community, and many others. Philly Stands Up goes beyond that, seeking to reconcile all of the pieces of a situation. We acknowledge that clarity and guilt aside, people involved in the messy business that we find ourselves in are hurt, and feel that something painful and difficult has transpired, whether or not it would be “legally” recognized as assault. And regardless of the specifics, there are relationships that need to be healed or perhaps kept apart with community support.

It is worth noting that as organizers in Philly Stands Up the other half of our work is a proactive campaign to stimulate and embolden “a culture of sexual responsibility.” This is a broader preventative educational project that includes a multi-sited animation of intentions, actions, and expectations that raise consciousness around all moments of (potential) sexual behavior. This is ambitious, but vitally important work. In this other mode of our work, we create workshops, trainings, and consultations where we try to stimulate deep commitments to clearer communication that fosters consent and mutuality. When we are invited to speak at conferences, or to campuses and grassroots groups we don’t show up tell other people how communication is done, but rather help to tease out the local character and specificity of each group or community’s norms of conduct to maximize mutual understanding and respect for personal or group boundaries. In spite of the heavy work that addressing sexual assault necessitates, we see all of that balanced by assembling working, positive models of consent. Hence one of our (many) unofficial mottoes: Consent is sexy! Each of us can be enablers for people in our lives to find new and particular ways to enact that. Imagine positive sexual encounters declined, postponed, and felt, unspoken, signaled, whispered, and yes, beckoned in a multitude of articulations.

Finally, the type of work we do in Philly Stands Up should not be ghettoized and left to the purview of sexual assault organizers from city to city, but incorporated into the routine functions of any organizing collective. Through an explosion of our project- to holistically heal communities and invigorate sexual responsibility everywhere, all of the time- we strengthen one another as organizers with deeper trust and more salient accountability. We believe in spaces, where sex and physicality are varyingly turned down, spiced up, and deal with confidentially but forthrightly. That honesty can and should be as much a part of our organizing as the daily decisions we make to upend injustice in order to exist in this world in radically new ways.
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