AMC2013 SafetyTeam report-back: One more step towards building the world we want

If the AMC is an experiment in making the world we want to make happen for four days in June, how do we deal with potential violence and harm during that time? SafetyTeam is the AMC's attempt to begin to answer this question.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, coordinator of the AMC2013 SafetyTeam, shares her reflections below.

One more step towards building the world we want

by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

This AMC marked my second year of coordinating SafetyTeam. SafetyTeam was born out of the transformative justice work that's been happening at the AMC over the past few years, including the "Growing Safer Communities" tracks in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, with no official "transformative justice" track, we turned to trying to put the work into practice.

At the AMC, there's a big feeling of love in the air. People look out for each other, ask if you're doing ok and move up in ways I haven't seen happen at other conferences. We created the SafetyTeam in order to address the question, "what would happen if someone was sexually assaulted at the AMC?"

I feel excited about SafetyTeam because I feel like it's part of the AMC's work in building the world we want, and that it's part of our long term work to put transformative justice into practice. We are actively building our capacity to respond to crisis and harm without violence. In putting SafetyTeam together, I was inspired by the work CUAV (a queer and trans anti-violence organization in the Bay Area) did to support folks in responding to violence and harm at their SafetyLabs and SafetyFest in 2010 and 2011. At SafetyFest, a multi-day festival with many workshops and performances, each event has a SafetyTeam, a crew of two or more folks in place who would, for example, be people you could go to if your abusive ex showed up at the event. This didn't necessarily mean kicking someone out (though it could); it could mean crisis intervention, de-escalating conflict and doing safety planning and grounding with folks.

This is how we've done it at the AMC so far: In 2012, we recruited 15 volunteers for SafetyTeam and asked two people each to commit to 8 hour shifts during the conference. SafetyTeam members had the "safety phone" number (a Google voice number), ported to their phones during their shift. The number was in the AMC program book, and printed on the back of name badges. I got leopard print fanny packs for team members and filled them with M&Ms, bandaids, motherwort tincture, rescue remedy, advil, tampons, and handouts of local crisis resources (the closest hospital, cab companies, and crisis lines for abuse survivors and folks experiencing extreme mental health states.) We also included handouts by UBUNTU on "Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault," the Icarus Project on supporting folks in crisis, and Vanissar Tarakali on body-based practices during crisis. We had volunteers on call during parties and evening events, who wore sparkly purple armbands in addition to having the SafetyPhone number ported to their phones. We let volunteers, front desk staff, and the Healing Justice Practice Space know about SafteyTeam. Notes from the training we did can be found here.

What we noticed afterwards was that some shifts received no calls, but after some workshops that addressed abuse, violence or harm, hella people needed somebody to talk to (for example, in 2012, after the screening of Secret Survivors, a film examining childhood sexual abuse from a transformative justice perspective). We also realized that while we received no reports of assault at the AMC, many people said that having the SafetyTeam in place helped them feel safer. I think of it as "prevention as cure." I'm much more likely to freak out worried that my abusive ex will show up and wild out if there's nothing in place addressing this than if something is there.

This year at SafetyTeam, we did things smaller and smarter. Instead of having folks assigned to specific shifts, we looked at the workshops and focused on the ones where folks talked about violence and abuse, and made SafetyTeam members available then. We still had the phone on throughout the conference. We had more calls and folks reaching out for help in year two than in year one.

We also realized some new things. For one, you can't always tell which workshops will trigger folks just by looking at the program. Some folks were triggered after a comics workshop, for example, because some of the amazing comic artwork shown was made by young women of color survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Second, we realized that there is a need to build in more skills building for workshop facilitators to learn how to bring in active listeners and resiliency practices into their workshops.

Finally and most importantly, we realized that this is a multi-year process of folks getting used to us being there and getting comfortable with reaching out. This year, we had more workshop facilitators, track coordinators and folks reaching out for support than in year one. Perhaps this was because it took another year to get folks over the initial hump of "SafetyTeam? What is that?" We worked more closely with the Healing Justice Practice Space, because so many folks gravitated to it already as a space where they would go in a crisis.

It's my hope that we keep figuring out and getting better at everyone responding to crisis, that more and more people feel more confident that they would know how to intervene and support someone if things went down, without having to rely on the cops as our first response. I also don't want to become the only person who knows how to do this – I want the knowledge to spread horizontally outward, emergence-style. In the past year, I've seen SafetyTeams take root at the 2012 Femme Conference, at the Civil Liberties & Public Policy Conference and many other places. At times when I've felt discouraged at the state of transformative justice, it feels great to see this as a concrete step that we are taking to put our theories into practice.

If you are interested in learning how to create a Safety Team, getting training materials or volunteering for next year, please email brownstargirl@gmail.com.

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