Creating Accountable Spaces in Participatory Projects

Over the last twenty-five years of working in the local and international development sector, I have continued to reflect and evolve my practice on what it means to create a safe/r space. I have moved from focusing and facilitating activities to build safe spaces, to building safer spaces, to brave spaces and now I am focusing what it means to facilitate accountable spaces. In this post, I will unpack what all of these concepts mean, and how we can move towards building (safer, braver) more accountable spaces.  

When engaging with practitioners and/or individuals from under-represented equity-deserving communities, practitioners and organisations will often share promises of ‘safe’ spaces to encourage participation in their development project. Practitioners will often follow up with an activity to develop a safe space agreement. A list of things that participants identify as important to the space being safe. Many safe space agreements will include things like: 

  • Mutual Respect
  • Please do not interrupt others.
  • Listen actively, instead of just waiting to speak. Please use a pen and paper to record your thoughts, if necessary.
  • Be mindful of your total talk time and, if you are comfortable, speak up to add to the conversation.
  • Give everyone a chance to speak, without unnecessary pressure.
  • Give credit where it is due. If you are echoing someone’s previously stated idea, give the appropriate credit.
  • Ask for clarification — do not assume.
  • Speak for yourself. Use “I” statements and do not share others’ lived experiences.
  • Words and tone matter. Be mindful of the impact of what you say, and not just your intent.
  • No discriminatory language. No racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. 

What are safe spaces? 

A safe space is a place or environment in which a person or group of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.  The idea of a safe space fits with the development principles of PSEAH (Preventing Sexual Exploitation, and Harassment) and ‘Do No Harm’.

Unfortunately, safe spaces are impossible to create. I write this not just because there have been horrific incidences of abuse and sexual violence reported, but also because you can’t predict people’s behaviours and thoughts. You cannot guarantee that people feel complete safety, due to unexpected points of view, challenges, and biases.

One of the assumptions made in the narratives about safe spaces, is that discrimination and stigma are always one directional. For example, that men discriminate against women, that development practitioners discriminate against community members, white people towards black people and people of colour. My experience working with equity-deserving-communities is that interactions between people and the power different people hold are complex. That is not to say that power doesn’t exist, or that there is not a collation between identity markers and positions of power. But that the ideologies that reinforce social norms and positions of power are insidious and direct our everyday social interactions. They are more common and it is constant work to ensure that the power of people – and the power of social norms, are identified and acknowledged.

For example, here are some experiences from workshops, meetings and groups that I have facilitated. 

While working with Pasifika feminine third gender / trans women on the discrimination and exclusion that people with diverse SOGIESC face in humanitarian contexts, I brought up the issue of (cis-gender) lesbian corrective rape. Members of the feminine third gender / trans women group joked that (cis-gender) lesbians should be so lucky.  

While working in partnership with a LGBTIQ+ CSO from a capital city in SE Asia with a rural feminine third gender / trans women group. The group included in their safe space agreement to not use phones or smoke during the workshops. The in-country LGBT CSO partners used phones and smoked cigarettes during workshops disregarding the safe space agreement made by the workshop participants.  I had to remind them incalculable times throughout the project, creating tension between myself and the partner organisation.  

Working with a feminine third gender group in Asia, I invited a HIV/aids CSO partner to a workshop to help the community identify allied stakeholders.  The HIV-aids CSO representative took up lots of time and tried to talk over people about sex work in moralistic and disempowering ways, rather than stick to the agreed agenda of documenting stakeholders.  

Working with women in SE Asia in a WASH project, saying in our workshop that brought together women and people with disabilities, that we shouldn’t worry about people with disabilities being able to access public toilets -they should just go home. 

 Working with women in a WASH project and inviting a women’s organisation to speak about the importance of including women in WASH projects saying that poor communities should be fined for rubbish dumping – even though the women in the project can’t afford and access sanitation services, and how very little options for removing rubbish.  

Working with intersecting group of women and people with disabilities in a WASH project over several years, I would hold two different workshops for a week for each visit: women in the morning, and people with disabilities in the afternoon. We had a shared lunch break so the participants could interact and discuss shared experiences and commonalities between their work – building solidarity. About six months in, one women with a disability had a change of schedule and couldn’t attend in the afternoons. We discussed it and I asked if she wanted to come to the morning (women’s) workshops. She said she didn’t think that was a possibility because I had led her to believe she could only attend the disability workshops. (That was a huge learning for me)  

These are just a few examples of my experience facilitating meetings and workshops with community members where people (including myself) have reinforced long held norms that are disempowering, discriminatory and can contribute to people feeling unsafe and or challenged. Norms such as classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, patriarchy and anti-sex worker beliefs to name a few of the norms above.  

Safe spaces do not explicitly outline what is expected to create an environment that supports equity-deserving, under-represented communities, and it implies that all people / communities are the same. That there are no power differences within and between participants. Or that participants themselves can say and do things that cause harm to each other or facilitators. Further, it implies that facilitators and GEDSI workers / partners are somehow immune to unconsciously reinforcing norms.  

Yet, “safe space” persists as a term used in Gender Equality, Disability & Social Inclusion (GEDSI) discussions and tactics. For spaces designed for engaging, communicating, learning and rejuvenating communities, safety is not the best goal. Safety is necessary for preventing abuse, harassment, and triggering others, but the process of working with people in community development contexts is not always a comfortable or safe experience. It requires a willingness to step outside one’s own comfort zone, identify and unpack the the social norms embedded in communities, and to be challenged, and ultimately change the way we see and behave in the world. 

Acknowledging that no space can be completely safe, the term ‘safer space’ has become popular, to communicate that no space can ever be 100% safe for all people because everyone’s requirements to feel safe are different. It also reflects the fact that discrimination and harassment can and do occur even in spaces where norms, policies and procedures have been put in place to prevent such behaviour, and that the work of increasing safety is an active process that should never be considered done.  

What is a brave space?  

The concept of a brave space was popularised by Brene Brown. It focuses on people showing up and being seen and speaking their truth. Brene’s work is based in her world famous research – and I used this research to find ways to have hard respectful conversations to make the changes needed to support equity deserving people in aid contexts.  The idea of a brave space really resonated with me. The need to speak up and share lived experiences, differing cultural, religious, and political world views (even in small communities like specific islands in Eastern Indonesia or Fiji, there are often many different cultural, religious and political views).

None of us, whether GEDSI workers, partner organisations or community / religious leaders, know what the equity-deserving- community participants are thinking, feeling, experiencing. What their strengths and needs in a specific project are. All we can do is assume unless we ask, and work to build trust so that community members actively participate.  

It is important to highlight some critiques of brave spaces. I have heard people saying that brave spaces are often exhausting, and that the very concept ignores the reality that under-represented, equity-deserving communities must remain consistently brave to participate in spaces. I have heard it being called a ‘bravery burden’ and imply that brave spaces do not incorporate social justice principles of alleviating burdens faced by marginalised and oppressed communities — rather, it asks more – it asks people to be brave while educating others. 

My firm belief is that communities can only be rejuvenated when we are working in participatory ways. That communities have the most to gain and the most to lose from development projects. A brave space is a space where everyone – including project workers, partner Civil Society Representatives (CSO’s), Organisations of People with Disabilities (OPD’s) and Right’s Holder Groups (RHO’s), and the equity-deserving community members, alongside anyone else connected to the project, feel comfortable learning, sharing, and growing.

Brave spaces highlight the importance of being brave enough to enter spaces where you can be your authentic self and share lived and professionally learnt knowledges to work together to rejuvenate communities.  I am of the firm belief that brave spaces are needed to fulfil our ideals, principles, and reason for being practitioners. Further, I think it is important to recognise and embrace friction as evidence that multiple ideas are entering the conversation — not that the group is not getting along.  Brene Brown says that in the context of brave spaces, social justice is the “full and equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs.” Essentially, we create a space where everyone actively participates, without necessarily agreeing. 

The challenge here, is proving to equity-deserving communities that you are trust-worthy. That you can be trusted to work in participatory ways that are not token, that are full of integrity and respect. Working in ways that are non-judgemental to people’s learning journey, and that are generous toward people understanding that norms are so often invisible – and that it is understandable when people – equity-deserving community members, partners and practitioners- unconsciously reinforce norms.

 I think that we should have safer and braver spaces, but in my work, I see these agreements being developed with little accountability towards equity-deserving-communities in these workshops. Little accountability to needing to build trust, work in empowering ways – and work in ways that support the leadership of communities. I hear the critiques and proposition, and have pivoted to creating safer and braver spaces, and working to also create accountable spaces.   

What are accountable spaces?   

Accountability means being responsible for yourself, your intentions, words, and actions. It means entering a space with good intentions but understanding that aligning your intent with action is the true test of commitment. Accountable space guidelines allow for practitioners, partner organisations and equity-deserving communities to agree on a set of actionable behaviours / actions during the discussion real-time and after the meeting / workshop / event. It allows people to align their well-meaning intentions with impact through a collective set of guidelines. Accountable space guidelines do not place an unfair burden of bravery. They do not create mythical promises of safety and unicorns. They place an equal amount of onus for all to behave equitably and inclusively, to foster a deeper understanding of diverse lived experiences in real-time. 

So, how can we create accountable spaces?

I have been working on this tool and would like to share what I have been doing. (Acknowledging that it will continue to change and evolve as my knowledge, skills and practice evolves).  To align one’s well-meaning intentions with actions, use these guidelines to transform your next workshop / event / gathering into an accountable space that fosters an inclusive and impactful exchange.  

What needs do you have to make your time and space safer, accessible, and more inclusive?What needs do you have? How your needs can be addressed?
Practical/ environmental needs?  
Emotional needs  
What information do you need to feel safe/r? To make everything more accessible and inclusive?   
Are there any other needs we have missed? 
How can we be accountable to ensure everyone’s needs are met as much as possible? 

I have been using this table within my work of late, acknowledging that the individual communities I am working in have individuals with different needs and identities. For example, in one project, I am working with a group of blind / low vision women. Some of the women also have intellectual disabilities, some are neuro-diverse, about half of them have diverse sexualities, (are lesbian or bisexual) yet they all identify as blind or having low vision. Some prefer bright spaces, some experience pain when there is bright light around. Some read braille, some don’t. Some don’t understand neurodiverse traits, and feel comfortable with heterosexual norms. Before we can even focus on the project at hand, it has been a profoundly rich experience to unpack the norms, and bring people together around common values, development goals and to work together benefiting from the diversity of lived and professional experience.

Pro tip: Include accountable space guidelines in your event’s registration process, so attendees know these guidelines before entering the space. This also gives diverse attendees a chance to share their needs with your group proactively. For example, a translator or sign interpreter that is also a member of the diverse SOGIESC community, so that the translator, sign interpreter doesn’t use discriminatory language because they don’t know any better. Or an on-site trauma specialist to ensure equity deserving communities do not incur additional secondary trauma by hearing lived experiences that highlight oppression, discrimination etc.