Visitors to Wave Pool, a converted fire station in Camp Washington and now thriving “Contemporary Art Fulfillment Center” gathered together for a collective discussion that centered around the tricky tasks of defining “safe spaces,” and wrestling with the social implications of gender and sexuality. Downstairs in the gallery space, signs and protest props from the Women’s Marches covered the gallery as a part of the Still They Persist exhibition. Artifacts confront their audience from all angles—the walls are tiled with signs, Miss America-esque sashes hang above viewers’ heads, and even a “bloody” styrofoam tampon equipped with googly eyes hangs out at about hip level on the gallery floor. It’s a perfect segway into the night’s highly anticipated discussion, which would include community figures Rachelle Caplan, Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Key Beck, Kendall Jolley, Aalap Bommaraju, and Cortnie Marie.
Following the rest of the foot traffic upstairs, the exhibition’s political atmosphere was quickly dampened with the emptiness & audible silence of the room. Metal chairs had been formed into a circle around an experimental sound piece created by Wave Pool’s current Artist in Residence, Natusha Croes that hanged over a bouquet of flowers garnished with a bundle of burnt sage and rocks. Once everyone had taken a seat, event organizer Rachelle Caplan stood in the circle and signified the opening of the conversation with a sharp ring from Croes’ instrument and another small piece that sat at her feet. This is Caplan’s espoused way of opening up the conversation and making a safe space for her participants.
Read aloud from her notes, Caplan explained that “safe space” is the concept of establishing an area, usually in public places such as a college campus, where an individual will not be subject to criticism, discrimination, or harassment of any kind—typically with marginalized groups in mind—in the effort to offer support against those trying to infiltrate such places without personal consideration and a respectful attitude.
Caplan continued to define a “brave space” as very similar to a “safe space” in that it can help to establish a safe area, but goes the extra mile to encourage open mindsets and an attitude of openness to dialogue about risky subjects. Brave spaces, the event organizer suggested, offers the chance to educate individuals about various perspectives and encourage conversations to create a safe environment for everyone.
Caplan is not a stranger to safe spaces. As a matter of fact, since 2015 she has spearheaded Ladyfest Cincinnati, which promotes a safe space concert-watching environment as part of their diverse line up of female-fronted bands. The musical minute of meditation before and after the circle seems like a tie-in to her roots with Ladyfest and the Traveling Sound Caravan project with People’s Liberty.
On each chair was a set of two typed handouts. One broke down the rules of the circle, it emphasized that sharing was by choice, and to operate with the utmost respect for everyone in the circle. The second flyer had five question prompts that would then be used for each complete cycle of the circle.
Once the conversation had begun, Caplan plucked a stone from the centerpiece in the middle of the floor, under the bouquet of flowers. This object would serve as the group’s speaking stone, and allow each participant equal privilege to speak as it was passed around the circle. Caplan read each question prompt from the typed cards, and the stone was then passed to the left in the circle. Nobody was obliged to speak, but everyone was guaranteed an opportunity to do so.
While this process ensured equal opportunity to talk, it was difficult to facilitate a discussion since by the time a thought or two would resonate, the stone was already being passed away from an individual and the next question would begin another circle rotation. Hence, the window of opportunity was slim.
However, there’s sometimes more weight in the listening than there is in speaking at times, and this kind of event felt like one of them.
The individuals in attendance included unidentified guest speakers: local curators, activists, and organizers of support groups of their own. These individuals were not introduced until the very end of the open discussion, to avoid creating any hierarchy amongst the participants, and to avoid any initial intimidation.
With LGBTQIA+ presence in mind, discussions of mis-gendering and initial assumptions of sexualities were a pivotal part of the evening’s conversations. One of the many takeaways from the evening’s discussion was that there is a clear difference in making an accident and learning from it, and intentionally continuing to disrespect other individuals. Allowing oneself to be educated on a subject demonstrates maturity, and also a general respect for human dignity and self-determination—regardless of one’s personal or political beliefs.
There were moments of real wisdom in the circle, and an overall emphasis on empathy. The group came to a consensus that the only killer of safe spaces are those who “infiltrate with insincerities”. Safe (or brave) spaces facilitate growth of acceptance as a community. To enter the safe space and disregard everything, it seems, is not only a jab at these marginalized communities, but is according to many of the evening’s participants, the equivalent of being two-faced.
In our current American political climate, speaking circles as such as this one are important in encouraging some of the basics of being a compassionate human being. Clearly, being supportive is a skill that many have yet to conquer. That being said, this writer’s take away is that real support comes with mutual respect and conscientiously avoids personal attacks.
Written by Macartney Greer