Whether you are managing a team in your company, a committee in a non-profit organization, a classroom, or an online space, we have all heard about how important it is to have safe spaces. There is, however, a common misconception that spaces are safe, just because we say that they are. While it is crucial that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in any given space are announced, it is not enough to state the safety of a space alone to warrant it as such.

Safe spaces are, in fact, carefully and ruthlessly curated.

It might surprise some folks to hear this but I learned this fairly recently from a community member in a space I had built as part of an interfaith circle I co-facilitate. I think it is important for us to mark these turning points because too much of community organizing rhetoric is immersed in people just “needing to know” rather than reflecting the actual (often challenging) process of learning as we go.

At the beginning of the event, I proclaimed that this was a safe space for everyone to feel free to share their experiences, speak their minds, and be vulnerable – and I meant that. What I naively hadn’t taken into consideration was the other people in the space (it was a public event) and that they might not share my acceptance of others or the parameters of what I feel constitutes safety.

In fact, the community member who pointed this out to me made it very clear that her non-binary child would be unlikely to feel safe in a space dominated by members of conservative and orthodox religious communities who were fairly likely to shun them or worse. And she was right. Her kid would not have been safe there, because as soon as she said that, I looked around the room and I did note people who I remembered to be openly discriminatory and hateful towards such folks.

I was in a compassion bubble.

And it was, mercifully, popped. I suspect it has something to do with me never really having good boundaries as a kid and a tendency I have had my whole life to project myself and my worldview onto people around me. I thought I had gotten better at dealing with that but I was wrong.

Since that time, I have paid more attention to spaces I know are also considered “safe” and have taken note of how such a label came to be placed there. Several feminist groups on Facebook, in particular, have a long list of rules to follow and hurtful terms that are prohibited – and every new member of the group is supposed to read through this pinned post and then comment on it as acknowledgment of their having read and understood its terms. It is a social contract that is put front and center. When respected, the rules allow for authentic and vulnerable interactions to take place in a way that might otherwise be challenging or impossible.

It made me realize that not only was I assuming that everyone is as willing to accept other ways of being in the world as I do,  but I also had no safety plan in the event that something went wrong.

A safety plan is essentially a series of actions based on hazardous “what ifs” in any given scenario. This, of course, is based on what we deem to be unacceptable words or behaviours in a space, whether that be in person or online. And ultimately, the plan is in place in order to prescribe our reactions and, I would think, in order to overcome any fear paralysis or inability to act in the event that something very disturbing occurs.

I remember at the first Black Lives Matter – Edmonton town hall meeting, a young Black woman was voicing her opinion about the topic at hand and an old white man from the back of the room started yelling in a degrading manner that she ought to raise her voice and speak up when she’s talking to us. Everyone froze. You could feel how uncomfortable the room was. And without skipping a beat or a moment’s hesitation, one of the co-founders of what would become Black Women United YEG stood up and told that man to keep quiet or get out. She interrupted his very abusive tone and manner with such a fierceness, my mouth literally hung open. She then called out the folks who began apologizing for him, even as he showed zero remorse.

She knew what to do when the contract of the room was violated.

Why?

She had seen it countless times before. She could guess where this might be going and she knew that if she didn’t interrupt it, it might escalate. She knew that the first trespass is a violation of the sacred safety of a space. And she had zero tolerance for that.

I was in awe because I had grown up in a state of bewilderment that had gotten me into some pretty scary scenarios. I, like many others, had been socialized to diminish my intuitive voice, to ignore blatant red flags, and other such concerning self-permeability in the name of not making things awkward. The result was consent and boundary violations to my personhood, again and again. And I was never taught why this was happening or how to defend myself against it. I was confused and let down every time it happened.

Later, I was fortunate enough to take violence de-escalation training with the same amazing woman and one exercise in particular jumped out at me as memorable for the same reasons. We were instructed to put our hand on the leg of the person next to us and they were supposed to tell us to take it off in an assertive and vocal tone. As we went around the circle, all of us were laughing awkwardly and weren’t exactly as assertive as we should have been.

It was our social conditioning showing – the kind of conditioning that doesn’t keep people safe.

Rather than just doing the exercise as we were taught that it can be effective in stopping unwanted behaviour, we shrugged things off, unable to assert autonomy over our own bodies. That is, until it came to her turn. I put my hand on her knee and, again, without skipping a beat, she put the fear of God in me, growling for me to take my damn hand off her knee.

I wanted to applaud. I was in awe again.

But honestly, it just made me realize how let down we all are by what we have been taught and what has been deemed more important for the public school curriculum or for our households. Why isn’t it mandatory to teach folks about behavioural patterns of narcissistic predators and how they groom vulnerable people? Why aren’t we taught the typical behaviours of people with implicit bias or who are overtly racist? Why isn’t economic or labour exploitation taught in school so we can recognize it when it happens? Why aren’t we taught that our safety and that of our children and our colleagues and our community members is more important than anything else? More important than the customer always being right or the benefit of the doubt being awarded to one who just rubs us the wrong way. More important than the reputation of an organization in the event that it needs to cancel a meeting to keep its personnel safe. More important than the feelings of a sorry abuser whose behaviour never changes.

Why have we been taught to put our safety last? Everything comes before it: money, love, the feelings of the ones who harm us – even if they lack basic human empathy.

The answer to these questions is simple: systems that exploit are designed to be exploitative and they are upheld by those who benefit from them.

I have noticed, since drawing up rules and safety plans for the business I run and the committees I chair, that people tend to breathe a sigh of collective relief when the plans are brought out. They know how important these things are preemptively.

And the ones who huff and puff about them? I have my eye on you.

Next time, we will discuss practical steps to creating social safety plans, particularly in community organizing settings.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

I attended a conference in the field of child and youth care at MacEwan University this spring. Prior to opening comments, the emcee addressed the crowd. His initial words were somewhere along the lines of “before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 land”.  Because this was the first time I had heard this acknowledgment, my initial reaction was that it was neat to hear; however, I assumed it was said because there were many people in the room that were First Nations, and many employees of agencies who serve First Nations people (myself being in both categories). Furthermore, I assumed this acknowledgement was directed more particularly to the First Nations individuals in attendance, as a thank-you-for-giving-up-your-historical-land sort of thing. It was fitting and appropriate and I’m sure that most in the audience accepted and understood the acknowledgment.

Now, I wonder how accurate these assumptions were. Did all the attendees understand the reasons behind recognizing treaties? Do I? Given that I come from a lineage that means I am both colonizer and colonized, it is a topic I better be clear on.

So, what is a treaty? On a basic level, it is an agreement between the Government of Canada and First Nations people whereby tribes gave land to the government in exchange for certain “privileges”, such as pockets of land and hunting/fishing “rights”. At least…that’s how the Government explains them. Accounts from the other side, however, tell us that these treaties were coercive and forced upon First Nations tribes while settlers started moving into these lands and encroaching onto the food supply. First Nations signed the agreements, and many accounts indicate that this was done primarily because agreeing to the treaties was necessary for survival. In total there are 11 treaties signed.

My city, Edmonton,  is within Treaty 6, but I can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the land underneath this city does not remain that of First Nations people? The answer seems to be that Treaty agreements meant that land was to be shared between settlers and First Nations, and the way of life of each was to be respected and maintained. However, as time went on, Indigenous people were pushed onto small pieces of land within the Treaty territories, called reserves, which was part of the overall colonial project to erode their connection to the land and their way of life. The widely diverse and rich cultural practices of Indigenous peoples were lost. Or, like the land, stolen.

Why should we acknowledge this? Because this land is both stolen and shared – stolen from the Indigenous people who lived here long ago and now shared between those with lineages that settled here and those with First Nations lineage who remain. In my case, I embody both. Yes, now shared, although most of us would never know this and shared in way that does not maintain or respect the Indigenous ways of life found here, as was promised. In fact, what we see today is the continued segregation of First Nations people,  spatially and socially.

“The ground on which we walk is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors”

– Chief Plenty Coups

So, what do treaty acknowledgements do? Treaty acknowledgements serve as a reminder that this land is shared imperfectly, and that we have real commitments to fulfill towards one another. They also remind us of the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada, and how we are or ought to be working toward reconciliation as a society.

Fast-forward to this fall, where I was a part of a performance. I don’t believe it was attended by many First Nations individuals, yet the organizers still acknowledged Treaty 6 territory. This time I better understood the importance of the acknowledgment, and that it not only serves to remind that the land was taken from First Nations people, but it moves us away from segregation, towards an imperative of sharing the land and experiences, while appreciating and embracing cultural differences. It is a small gesture with profound impact. This time, when I heard that acknowledgement, I recognized that I am both settler and indigenous, privileged and segregated, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, and I continue to work through those divisions within me, represented by the land I walk upon and the society I participate in.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

As a non-Muslim ally, you might be watching the current state of affairs with regards to how Muslims are treated in the West, in Western political rhetoric and while being massacred in their homelands, and you just might be wondering what you can do about it. Or at least you should be wondering that. It is entirely understandable that you might feel overwhelmed by the deluge of hatred being lobbed at Muslims these days and you might not even look to yourself as the source of the antidote to this hatred. But you are.

Here is a quick list (literally off the top of my head) of 20 things you can easily do to combat Islamophobia starting right now. You might look at some of these items and think you lack the capability to do some of these things but I am here to assuage some of your concerns. Firstly, you don’t have to do all 20 at once. Combatting Islamophobia is an ongoing and never-ending process. Islamophobia has been an issue since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, and it periodically rises and falls depending on a lot of converging factors. We happen to be at a time when Islamophobia is at a fever pitch, mainly because of geopolitical problems and hideous orange cheeto-puffs who think they can say whatever they want when running for the US presidency.

The second thing to bear in mind is that yes, you can do all of these things. There is no magic to becoming an activist. It isn’t something you study in University (although studying a lot of other things helps build the necessary mindset because: “knowledge = power” but that is beside the point). Anyone and everyone with a kernel of compassion in their heart can help do many of the things contained on this list and would go a long way to fulfilling your duties as a non-Muslim ally. Yes, you have duties.

If you are wondering how and why any of this applies to you, know this: Muslim or not, Islamophobia affects all of us. It divides our world. Its end logic is genocide. If you want any part of making this world a better place and preventing harm against a marginalized group (which, frankly, should be all of you out there), then this list is for you. Get on it.

Self

  1. Call it what it is. And know where it comes from. Some people are hesitant to use the word Islamophobia. Heck, I even attended a lecture recently by washed-up writing troll in which he declared that Islamophobia is a term created by all Muslims to apologize for Daesh. What?

Islamophobia is real. It affects Muslims every single day. There are a lot of definitions for it rolling around the ol’ internet but mainly it is “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” as well as describing an attitude that addresses “the discriminations faced by Muslims that [can] not be explained by their race, class or immigration status.” Although, I would like to point out that the latter points often go hand-in-hand with fear of Muslims and ignorance of Islam.

This is going to sound really harsh but one has to remember that, sometimes, describing the facts is difficult to accept: part of knowing where Islamophobia comes from is recognizing that it is a cultural problem. Islamophobia dominates in white, Western culture. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will list now:

  • As hard as this is going to be for Westerners to accept, we are way more isolated than other cultural groups. We tend to be withdrawn and get most of our information about other cultures from mass media rather than actually interacting with them. Add to this fact that the mass media is far from impartial about Muslims (in particular) and the air is rife with possibilities for Islamophobia. Misinformation and a lack of information are some of the largest contributing factors to a prejudiced worldview. Simply recognizing this fact is crucial to moving forward.
  • Islamophobia does not have its origins in white, Western culture (after all, the first Islamophobes tended to be members of whichever dominant culture Muslims found themselves in), however, it is fairly common to this culture because (believe it or not) white, Western culture tends to define itself on what it thinks it is not. And historically, because of close proximity and the legacy of colonialism, the “others” against which white, Western cultures have defined themselves are, not surprisingly, Muslim cultures.

Why is it important to recognize in which cultural contexts Islamophobia typically dwells? Well, if we know where something flourishes, we can better address it. If you are a white, Western, non-Muslim, the chances are much higher that Islamophobia is part of your subtextual daily narrative, particularly if you consume mass media in any way (which is most of us). It might even be an intrinsic part of how you define yourself without your realizing this to be the case. Learning that and recognizing it is critical to challenging that narrative and then abolishing it entirely. It is also important to recognize how certain cultural contexts will create negative associations with groups we perceive as “Others” at an unconscious level in our minds.

  1. Look inward at your implicit bias. Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people, as an example.

  1. Do a de-bias cleanse periodically. Yes, this is an actual thing and it represents the ultimate responsibility taken by an individual seeking to live in a way that reduces their harm on others. You can consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself. Other important steps include:
  • Raising awareness of implicit Islamophobia
  • Identifying and acknowledging differences between you and Muslims and knowing that those differences are OK
  • Checking your thought processes and decisions for bias
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment. These tend to force reversion back to stereotypical associations in our mind and therefore habitually harmful behaviours.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms. Get your friends to tell you how you are doing. It’s a thing and will likely inspire them to begin this process in themselves.
  1. Educate your children. Prejudice starts young and begins with the messages we are taught in adolescence. If these messages of prejudice are consistent growing up, the possibility of growing up Islamophobic is very high. Educating your children includes teaching them about Islam and Muslims directly (yes, you can do this! There are many resources out there!), visiting a mosque as a family, getting to know your Muslim neighbours, attending Ramadan fast-breaking meals (iftar), and much more. Educating your children about Islam also means a less-direct approach by which you limit the negative messaging around Islam from coming into your home. This means scrutinizing what media your children are consuming and replacing it with more diverse educational options. If you think that is too much work, take one look at the state of our world right now and recognize what could have been prevented if even a few more parents did this.
  2. Visit a mosque and speak to people there. Don’t be shy. Mosques are typically inviting places – albeit they can a bit disorganized. Recognize that most Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing and trying to convert people so you don’t have to worry about any uncomfortable conversations or ulterior motives in people being excited that you have appeared. Introduce yourself to people inside, let them know why you are there, maybe watch a prayer in action. You will be shocked at the response when people thank you for taking the time to learn about Islam and Muslims. And you might just learn something and make some new friends to boot. A mosque is more aptly called a “masjid” or “Jamia” in Arabic – meaning a place to gather together to submit oneself. This doesn’t only mean a place that Muslims put their faces on the ground to pray – often mosques are community centers which house language classes, knowledge courses, counselling services and much more. If you live with a mosque in your community, you are more than welcome to join in the community activities provided therein.
  3. Join an interfaith coalition. There are a great many of them and they are always looking for more participants. If you do not belong to an identifiable religious group or you consider yourself an atheist, fear not. You are still welcome. Approach organizers and find out how you can contribute to the conversation and, most importantly, learn from members of other faith groups. You can take that knowledge back to your family and your communities as well.
  4. Become friends with Muslims. This is easier than people realize. First of all, you might already be friends with a Muslim and not even realize it. Not everyone is “visibly” Muslim as the media would have us believe. Second of all, visiting mosques and joining interfaith coalitions is a sure-fire way to meet them. The next step is initiating friendship – not so that you can have your token Muslim friend that you reference every time someone mentions anything about Islam or says something Islamophobic, but simply to branch out, know someone from a community and way of life different than yours. Muslims are just like regular people because they are people. Some Muslims may be more approachable and socially adept – others, not so much. Regardless, taking the initiative to get to know others and forge lasting bonds goes a long way to bridging false differences and divided communities.
  5. Visit a Muslim country. Who doesn’t love traveling?! Of course, you want to pick one of the few that is not on fire right now, but visiting a Muslim country is one of the quickest ways to learn a whole lot about Islam and Muslims and to see that they are just living their lives like the rest of the world. Speaking in generalizations, you are bound to get some delicious food and incredible hospitality along the way. Plus, hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day is beautiful and a totally unique experience. Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and many others are on the list of those filled with wanderlust so be sure to get them on your list too!

Preventative

  1. Interrupt Islamophobia every single time you encounter it. This is the principle behind the recent anti-discrimination #makeitawkward campaign. Every time you hear someone uttering falsehoods about Muslims, or generalizing about Islam: speak up. Every time you are watching a film or television show with others and Muslims are depicted in a harmful light: speak up. It doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require follow-up. A simple “That kind of harmful stereotyping is unacceptable here” will do. It takes practice to be assertive but once people realize that being prejudiced around you is not allowed, they might think twice about doing it altogether.
  2. Start a conversation circle in your community. Do you know people who are scared of Muslims or hate them? Why not take a tiny bit of initiative and start a discussion group? There are surely organizations in your community that would be willing to join forces and support such an initiative but really it doesn’t take much more than getting some people around a table to have a conversation. The power of this kind of initiative is in its simplicity. Making safe space for people to be real about their concerns and simultaneously un-learn harmful behaviours is a crucial way forward.
  3. Meet with local Muslim leaders to find out what they need. Yes, you can do this all on your own. It will likely help you to understand how interrupting Islamophobia can best be done and how to initiate conversation circles to exact actual change. By backing those actions up with knowledge of what marginalized people need from their mouths directly is extremely powerful. Start by asking at the mosque and keeping your eye on local media stories to find out who the important Muslim leaders are in your community.
  4. Spread the word on social media. Don’t be afraid to share positive stories about Muslims on your social media accounts, even if you don’t have a single Muslim friend or ally on your page to back you up. You do not have a single need to respond to haters so let them fill the comments sections how they want – for every ten haters your posts attract, there are likely double that amount of sensible people, watching in the shadows, learning from the information you put out there and changing their worldviews as a result.
  5. Talk with family and friends. Painful conversations need to be had around familial prejudices that you will no longer stand for. Be direct and unemotional letting your family members and friends know that you will not stand for Islamophobia in your midst. Or ask them to explain their Islamophobic jokes because you don’t understand why they are funny. Be compassionate and patient. With time, love and kindness will conquer anyone – it is just a matter of being consistent with your message. Interrupt prejudice every time it arises and don’t be afraid of being the only person standing for compassion and justice in a room full of your peers.
  6. If you’re a business owner, hire Muslims. Diversify your staff. Give others the opportunity to learn about Muslims through proximity to their coworkers. Just make sure you educate yourself first on typical Muslim etiquette and holidays, and if there is anything you are unsure of, just ask them. Most Muslims with culturally-sensitive employers would have nothing but respect for someone who took the time to learn what makes them comfortable in their working environments.
  7. If you’re a journalist, share good news about Muslims. Take the time to find the positive stories (and there are plenty) that have Muslims at their heart. Use these narratives as a way to counter the overwhelming deluge of Muslim stereotypes found in mainstream media today. At the very least, use measured and mindful language when writing about negative stories that might involve Muslims and be aware of double standards employed against them when they are not even involved. A case in point is the fact that the term terrorist is only associated with acts of violence perpetuated by Muslims, whether or not that individual acted alone or was mentally unstable. In the cases of white violence, mental illness excuses pervade. Changing those narratives subtly by vocabulary shifts has a bigger impact than can be measured.
  8. Don’t be afraid to plan ways to educate others about Islam. Do you belong to a church group or youth organization? Do you sit on the board of a community league? Why not take your social position within specific organizations as an opportunity to advocate for some knowledge about Islam to be disseminated. This could mean bringing in a Muslim lecturer to talk about Islam generally; it could be facilitating interfaith dialogue; it could be joining forces with Muslim organizations to get advocacy work done. Whatever you decide to do, you can take seemingly small, simple opportunities to make a world of difference.

Reactive

  1. Stay calm and step in when it is safe to do so. When something terrible happens to Muslims in your community or a Muslim in front of you, the first step is to remain calm. Do not panic. Someone hurling insults at a hijabi on the train might become violent but they are less likely to do so if other people step in. You do not even need to address such a person. Simply sit down next to the Muslim person and engage them in conversation as though you have known them your entire life. They know why you are helping them and they appreciate it. Stay with them until their attacker stops and leaves.

If a Muslim is being physically attacked, start hollering and get others to do so too. Get someone to call 911 immediately in the meantime. Get someone else to take pictures of an attacker. Get the group to lay into them to stop violence against their victim. If you are alone and witnessing an attack, stepping in while screaming and swinging will usually send someone running. Being witnessed has the power to send an attacker running alone.

  1. File a report. This is crucial for agencies that are trying to track data on Islamophobic incidences. In Alberta, you can file a report with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council Islamophobia hotline at 1-800-607-3312. They will then refer you to either mental health professionals, legal counseling or law enforcement agencies to take appropriate further action.
  2. Contact the police. Although many agencies such as AMPAC will forward some incidents to police for charges to be laid or further investigation, you can always take it upon yourself to also file a police report of a specific incident you witnessed or came upon. Anti-Muslim graffiti, hate flyers and other such issues qualify as Hate Crimes under the Canadian criminal code (not “free speech” here!) and should be prosecuted as such.
  3. Thank other allies and join forces in denouncing hatred. Once you start on this journey, you will find that you are not alone. A great many other allies from all walks of life are taking a stand against Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. When those individuals and groups do so, take the time to thank them for their efforts and note that they do not go unnoticed. Solidarity against hatred is the way of the future and allies are a crucial part of dismantling the systems which allow for it to continue.

nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.