A Letter From Our Founder: What is a Brave Space?
Last weekend, I was invited to participate in a photo series in Chicago for #TheBanshees, an anti-harassment photography project created by artists Kate Warren and Maggie Famiglietti (each involved in SLVT CULT), through the creative group, Cliche Collective. Under the downpour of the Midwest rain, we took to the back alley of an art studio in our stilettos, mesh tops and bustiers, each dressed in items we typically wouldn't wear for fear of unsolicited attention. At first, it was awkward—we were giggly, huddled under umbrellas, unfamiliar with each other. Shy, we staged a couple of group portraits and attempted to loosen up. We chatted about times we felt unsafe in public or around those we trusted. But those stories were laced with grief. I began to wonder if any of us could perform anger on cue, since it was apparent that we had each been subject to sexual assault and abuse in ways that had left us hurting and sensitive.
I didn't wonder long. While we were figuring out our next pose, an onlooker began photographing us through his apartment window. Watching the flashes of each shot from the street, we collectively howled. Ollie, one of the event's co-organizers, thrust her umbrella up at his window, and he quickly shut his blinds. Experiencing that moment as a group, the ice was somewhat broken. And the reality of what we were performing set in.
Cold and wet, we were each pulled away for single portraits. We stormed at Kate, fixating on her lens like we would on an attacker, funneling our frustration into her camera, middle fingers flying. We screamed. We kicked. We cursed. And as we cycled through our individual sessions, we talked about #metoo. We talked about what we do when we're actually angry. We talked about our own problematic issues with violence and abuse. Then, with the rain coming down a little harder and the mood softened and reflective, we headed upstairs to chat about the concept of "safe space" and each answer the question: What is a brave space?
For some of us, a brave space looked like home. It looked like trust and love and friends. For the organizers, it looked like the photoshoot. For me, it looked like a #bossbabesATX meet. We didn't really reach a consensus, because safety and comfortability are personal. We did agree that "brave spaces" are still dangerous and that safety was and hadn't been guaranteed, even in the spaces we feel safest. So, are we ever safe? If not, what is a brave space? And if if those spaces are personal, how do we make one for larger groups? And if they still could be dangerous, hell, why should we? Are we destined to be governed by fear?
I've been thinking on that for the last few weeks. I do believe in the power of free will, in the power of trial and error and iterating until you learn how to be better. I do think it's OK to call people out and, in turn, accept when you've also made a mess of things. I think it's good to be loud, despite the consequences. Yet as I explore these things I believe, I am confronted by my own dissenting voices. Voices that tell me it is safer to stay inside, to stay home and to stay TF out of things that might get me into trouble, that might disrupt. So, how do I advocate for safety, without also opening myself up to danger? How do I create spaces that allow for diversity of opinion, without policing opinion out? And, in a very real sense, if safety is on me to create, am I responsible for the behavior of my former abusers? Should I have been the one to enforce boundaries? Have I ever been safe at all?
As existential as that seems, they're the kinds of questions that keep me up at night. Our concepts of safety are embedded into our built and social environments, these written/unspoken agreements that guide how things work. They're created by people—created by us—and governed by a set of rules. Our daily interactions are part of larger systems (regulatory systems, social systems, economic systems, etc.) and they're put in place for our safety. We make coalitions, follows rules, participate in politics, etc. to ensure our own financial, physical and mental protection.
And, of course, they're not perfect. It should come as no surprise that these systems have been largely formed by the most powerful (straight, white, rich men). Thus, it can also be assumed that these systems likely leave out the consideration of other voices, like anything largely dominated by one group, there will always be a margin of error... oversight. And moreover, it can also be assumed that any abuses of power will be magnified once this system is in place at scale.
When we hear that violence against women, sexual assault, lack of inclusivity, transphobia, racism, etc. occurs within and through systems that have been created to keep us safe, we're shocked. "Society," "the industry," "the patriarchy" become targets, and we're pointing fingers. We oppose it. We create a distance. We claim we would never, have never and could never. Or we completely disengage from the topic in its entirety, feeling protected by our own social circles, our own little bubbles. Yet we know this is how rape culture and violence against women survives. So, who is to blame, and how do we begin to repair?
After sitting on this for a while, I'm in the camp that thinks there's no right answer, but there are things to be done. These systems are our bubbles. They're actually our friends. It's me. It's my dad. It's my grandfather and my mother. It's my best friend from college. It's everyone we know, and it's everywhere we go, and it's on us to shape them into something better. That's not to say that everyone we know and love is evil. Or that victims and survivors are responsible for allowing abusers in. Or that some spaces are not safer than others. (I can definitively say that spaces governed by women, in my experience, have been more safe for women-identifying people.)
Rather, I'm learning it's not binary or black and white—that safety is not a destination or a sticker or something we achieve by programming compassion and praying for goodness. It's a gray area of daily bravery. It's a risk, and sometimes we suffer that risk. It's often doing something that actually combats the dominant narrative, speaking out of turn, standing up to those who are more powerful. It can be big, like exposing your abuser to the world, or it can be small, like reacting to anger with love. Which means that in the process of being brave, in the process of protecting ourselves and experiencing life, we might and do get burned. bell hooks says it better than I can:
“I’m pretty critical of the notion of safety in my work, and what I want is people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk because I think if we wait for safety, the bell hooks that wasn’t sure if she could get on the stage with Janet Mock would never have gotten on that stage. The bell hooks that was afraid of ‘what if I use the wrong words, what if I say the wrong thing’ would have stopped myself. And so to me, I’m very interested in what it means for us to cultivate together a community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love—there is no love that does not involve risk. I’m a little wary because white people love to evoke the ‘safe spaces’ and I have a tendency to be critical of that, but I do believe that learning takes place in the harmonious space, the space that you and I are embodying tonight.” at 49:00-50:05, bell hooks “A Public Dialogue Between bell hooks and Laverne Cox
I'm with bell hooks. Safety from judgment from harassment, from racism, from abuse, is a privilege—and with privilege comes responsibility. It's not a given, but the lack of it shouldn't hold us back. We cut ourselves away from really important things, like love and excitement and curiosity and boldness, when we refuse to operate unless we're guaranteed a level of certainty.
So, what is a brave space? To me, it's recognizing our blind spots. Using privilege to expose abuses of power and protect those who have been abused by it. It's confronting the problematic nature of our own identities, cultures and faults (like whiteness, machismo or greed). It's setting boundaries and enforcing them. It's accepting that our friends, our lovers and ourselves may be abusive, and that we have to hold all accountable. It's taking a risk and hoping to be understood, respected and cared for. It's education, empowerment and sharing information. It's wildly loving others, without knowing you'll receive the same love in return.
That answer's not new. But I'm hoping that my understanding of brave space (and general uncertainty about being human) might encourage you to reach your own answer. Because as someone dealing with trauma from two abusive relationships, it's not an answer I'm particularly satisfied with. It's just the only answer I've got.
So, be brave. And to my fellow survivors, be as brave as you can.
With love and tacos,
Jane Hervey is a creative producer, activist, entrepreneur, writer and performance artist. Originally from the Rio Grande Valley (956 por vida), Hervey moved to Austin to study at the University of Texas. After earning her Bachelor's of Science in Journalism and pursuing a career in freelance writing, Hervey began searching for resources and a space to ask professional questions. She hosted her first #bossbabesATX meet in 2015, hoping to foster community and connection between self-identified women in Austin, Texas. She now runs the nonprofit and its festival, BABES FEST, while managing her own production studio, Group Work. As an intersectional feminist, her personal and professional life are dedicated to improving community infrastructure, retooling systems of collaboration and changing cultural economies to create equal opportunity for women and girls.