How can we incorporate space watchers and holders into our groups without veering into policing?

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This write up was created in response to a question that was raised in our structure workshop when discussing roles that many grassroots groups include in their structure. The included information comes from existing organizer databases and resources by movement thinkers. Too often, organizing spaces lack an accountable person who can ensure space is held for addressing behaviours which perpetuate power over and replicate harmful norms. Taking responsibility is often left to those who have created harm (who, more often than not, do not see an error in their ways and continue the behaviour) or those who have received harm (who may not feel comfortable speaking up).

Space watchers and holders are a role included in the structure of many organizing groups, which aim to manage a space that is accessible to all voices, whilst encouraging healthy disagreement and discomfort. Implementing the role of space watchers and holders into an organizing space, and ideally rotating this role, ensures that responsibility for managing a space does not fall on the same marginalized individuals. This role can act as a support personnel for those who have caused harm, to notice and hold themselves accountable.

To avoid veering into policing behaviour or a punitive response, such as tone policing or only addressing certain individuals, we have developed an outline of exactly what space watchers and holders are looking for and how both watching for inclusivity and holding space for discomfort can be achieved. Many groups define this role using their own unique naming. However, most are looking for similar kinds of behaviours. This write up includes; the kind of space we are trying to achieve, what space watchers and holders are looking for, specific behaviours that mimic white supremacy culture in meeting spaces, space watcher and holder strategies that don't single people out and what to do if these approaches don't work.

What kind of space are we trying to achieve?

Marginalized students observed that when spaces are created for comfort, discomfort is discouraged, and thus we reinforce current power dynamics and jeopardize our ability to disrupt inequity. [1] Therefore, we describe what space watchers and holders are working to uphold as brave spaces rather than the commonly used phrase 'safe spaces'. Our goal as climate justice organizers should be to create environments which challenge the norms of capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy; the drivers of the climate crisis and forces which oppose the future we want to work towards. Striving to hold brave spaces means we can practice the values we want to hold in a future that is just.

Brave spaces exhibit the following common rules [2]  :

  • Agree to disagree: varying opinions are accepted
  • Owning intentions and impacts - learners acknowledge and discuss instances where a dialogue has affected the emotions of another person
  • Challenge by choice: learners have an option to step in and out of challenging conversations
  • Respect: learners show respect for one another's basic humanity
  • No attacks: where learners agree not to intentionally inflict harm on one another

Thus, space watchers and holders should not only be watching for the behaviours we want to modify, but also holding space for the behaviours we might not be exhibiting, such as pausing to invite difficult conversations rather than forgoing any form of unlearning.

What are space watchers and holders looking for?

There are certain behaviours that replicate white supremacy culture for space watchers and holders to look for. There are 5 main aspects of white supremacy culture [3]

  • Perfectionism, including worship of the written word, “one right way” and “either/or” thinking
  • Concentration of Power, including power hoarding, paternalism, and defensiveness
  • Right to Comfort, including fear of open conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress is Bigger/More, including objectivity, quantity over quality, and sense of urgency.

And of course, the 'obvious' behaviours (name-calling, shaming, insulting etc). 

Space watchers and holders are also observing for when space can be held to invite discomfort and healthy conflict, as described by 'brave spaces' in the previous section.

How does white supremacy culture show up in meetings?

Some examples of more specific behaviours space watchers and holders should look for include:

  • Speaking more than everyone else, or always having to respond to every comment;
  • Interrupting, both preventing others from completing their comments and inhibiting the flow 
  • Arguing and debating, taking focus away from collaborative and co-created outcomes and putting emphasis on individual views and opinions
  • Using vocabulary not everyone understands to assert knowledge superiority and marginalize those not able to speak in those terms
  • Asserting seniority, overriding a group decision with “this is how we will do this” 
  • Paraphrasing and re-framing other’s comments in ways that do not respect the original meaning or intent;
  • Harassing and insulting other participants, either through disrespectful or offensive comments, or through more passive-aggressive mannerisms such as eye rolls and exasperated sighs.​​​​​​​
  • Frequent 'self-listening': formulating a response after the first few sentences of someone speaking, not listening to anything from that point on, and leaping in at the first pause
  • Taking certain voices more seriously than others: always giving more weight and authority to certain people’s perspectives; checking out when women/poc are speaking
  • Invisibilizing marginalized folks: pretending that racism, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc. do not exist in our more 'evolved' groups. Saying things like: “We understand oppression, so this isn’t a problem between us” [4]

It can be a helpful group exercise to name the ways each of you hold power and privilege, and applying this to how that power might be expressed in meeting spaces. (Tip: perform a power flower activity in one of your meetings to initiate these reflections. The 'power flower' helps to illustrate our social identities and the ways in which we experience power, privilege, and oppression in intersecting ways). [5] Doing this exercise as a group helps to normalize conversations about power, and hopefully will help individuals reflect preventatively on how they themselves can contribute to a brave group environment.

We should also consider, when meeting virtually and performing these reflections, that some people have to navigate space, time, and other factors (e.g. care work, location, privacy) in order to be fully present and contribute. Space watchers and holders should ask group members about their accessibility-related needs to encourage a feeling of trust and safety in all members. For example, not everyone knows how to type quickly, navigate a computer interface, or use the controls in a virtual meeting. Those who are blind, deaf, hard of hearing, or disabled are left out when accessibility needs are not accounted for. People whose first language differs from that primarily spoken in the meeting may also have discomfort sharing ideas. 

Strategies for space watchers and holders that don't single people out [6]


Offer accessibility and accommodations support.  Ask participants to share if they will need translation, interpretation, or any other accommodations that would allow them to participate fully and meaningfully before the meeting. Be sure to include a reasonable time-frame for participants to inform you about their needs and for you to respond. Providing offline versions of meeting documents also allows those only joining by phone to have richer context and participation.
Communicate participation guidelines regularly to invite everyone to engage with respect 

Examples might include...

-Please focus on listening, and on appreciating what others are trying to say, not only on what you are hearing.

-Wherever possible, please refrain from multitasking on email or social media and strive to remain fully present and tuned in to what others are saying and feeling.

-Please assume best intent in everyone’s comments and strive to keep a constructive tone in your own.

-Please use simple, accessible language. In particular, please avoid jargon and acronyms, so that all may fully participate.

-When you speak, please make one or two points and then let others speak. We want everyone to have an equal chance. 

-Please speak for yourself and your organization when making comments, using “I”. Please don’t speak for the assembled group by speaking as “we”.

-Help us be mindful of the schedule and stay on time; we anticipate many people will have much they want to say, but please support us in moving the dialogue forward.

-Please indicate you want to speak by raising your hand on video; if you are not able to use or raise your hand, please feel free to speak up, but please try not to interrupt others.

-Stay muted when you are not speaking and please be mindful of background noise and join the call from a quiet location. With exceptions (e.g. caregivers, between work locations etc), but muting etiquette still applies.

Communicate the brave space we're trying to achieve

-Reminder that learning may involve the giving up of a former condition for a new way of doing things. It may involve stepping out and engaging in a conversation even when there is fear of getting it wrong. It can also mean accepting feedback about being told about an insensitivity, an uninformed perspective, or a micro-aggression.

-Reminder that sitting during these discussions about inequity may mean feeling vulnerable, exposed, frustrated, angry. 

-Remind of the 5 common rules of a brave space.

-Take a pause for a 'feelings check' to assess how members are feeling about raising concerns, sitting with discomfort, and working through conflict.

Safety mechanisms. Provide information for separate channels where participants can reach you or someone to help if they feel disrespected or unsafe. For larger meetings, provide a phone number, email, or other channel for immediate support.
Regularly validate other forms of knowledge beyond scientific, factual etc. Emotional/affective, experiential, and ancestral knowledges are legitimate and powerful in tandem with other knowledge forms.
Be attentive to times when you need to get off the agenda. It helps to address people’s underlying concerns.
When multiple participants are wanting to speak, employ a “talking stack”.  A talking stack is a list of participants who have indicated they want to make a comment or contribution. In virtual meetings, you might ask folks to leave a * in the chat. Let those who are joining by phone know that they can come off mute and say they’d like to be added to the stack. ​​​​​​
If someone in the meeting is being disrespectful or taking more than their share of space... Remind the group as a whole about participation guidelines as well as the outcomes you are collectively working toward. Name the problematic behaviour without attributing it to one individual, e.g. “I’m hearing a couple of folks interrupting others, please be respectful and collaborative, so that we get to hear from everyone and reach the goals we set out to achieve”. 
Ask for feedback. It helps to ask every so often how you are doing, and whether there's anything that could make the space feel better for anyone.

If these approaches do not work

If the individual continues to act counterproductively or worse, then you can politely address them by name, respectfully name what you are observing, and ask them to check their behaviour such as by inviting them to “listen actively”, again reminding that we want to hear from everyone and reach the group's goals. If a participant continues to negatively impact the meeting, you can ask them to leave, usually with a final warning. In these instances there is typically a 'cool off' period before the space watcher reaches out to hear from this participant and discuss next steps.

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