A few years ago, I moved to a new town and decided to volunteer at the local radical infoshop in order to connect with like-minded folks. Despite my best efforts to engage with others in my three months of volunteering, I only befriended one person, and left feeling bitter and confused about my experience.
Towards the end of my stay, I found validation at a political action where I got to know a fellow protestor. As we spoke of our reasons for being there, we discovered that we shared a lot of the same frameworks, though we used different words to describe them. However, he was really surprised when I self-identified as an anarchist; despite being curious about the ideology and making several efforts to engage with and learn about the community, he had never met a friendly anarchist before. I responded by reassuring him that friendly anarchists did, in fact, exist, though I was also struggling to find them in this town. We went on to have an awesome afternoon of political (and non-political) conversation, and I’d like to think we both learned a lot and had a good time.
My experiences sparked my interest in the question of inclusiveness. Was I right to expect the infoshop’s community to be more welcoming? What does inclusiveness even mean? As a small experiment, I emailed a number of my friends and asked them what they thought about the concept.
Together, their insightful responses sketched out a rough theory of inclusiveness. In spaces with a purpose, inclusiveness means the minimization of barriers to involvement for those with whom the collective is striving to connect. As such, the standards that determine whether or not a collective space is inclusive are not universal; they depend on who the collective wants to include and in what capacity they want to include them (or, for that matter, whether they actually can include them. A radical mental health collective, for example, may not be equipped to accept folks with severe emotional distress into the team of organizers, but may be interested in listening to their needs and supporting them with resources.) Once a collective has reached consensus on these questions, it is possible to construct a plan for inclusiveness.
Such a plan should be thorough and specific. Deeply inclusive spaces go beyond avoiding obvious deal-breakers like racism, transphobia, sexism, violence, homophobia, ableism, classism, and other acts which erode participants’ safety and foreclose on participation. They also go beyond taking thoughtful steps like ensuring unisex bathrooms, providing wheelchair accessibility, and offering childcare. At a queer anti-racist collective meeting, being inclusive means noticing when the couch spots next to transgender folks fill up last, and taking steps to reverse that tendency. In multi-lingual environments, it means providing adequate translation and conversation spaces. Furthermore, inclusiveness doesn’t just mean knowing who your audience is, but taking steps to be an audience for others. Inclusiveness means listening carefully to peoples’ needs so that they may include you in their spaces; it means stepping back from leadership roles to provide supportive services like dishwashing or childcare.
With this definition in mind, I returned to my infoshop experience. As I understand it, infoshops traditionally strive to distribute resources (meeting spaces, theory and ideas, local information, coffee) among those who are interested in anarchism. Staffers at infoshops help visitors make sense of the resources and the space while maintaining basic boundaries around what is and isn’t acceptable in these environments in order to ensure safety in these spaces.
When I asked my friend Samara why she thought folks were so aloof at the infoshop that I visited, she replied that many staffers come from customer service backgrounds which enforced happy demeanors among employees. She elaborated, “When your ability to perform happiness becomes more important than your own happiness, acting happy can become a very painful thing. In response to this, many of us are trying to weed an oppressive type of faked happiness out of our personalities, and figure out how to reclaim the performance of happiness for ourselves”.
I agree that the pressure to act happy could be corrosive to the social fabric of any radical space. However, while I would not like to see our communities force their members into insincere, artificial inclusiveness, the lived reality is that whether I’m working the register at a collectively owned business, staffing an infoshop, or opening up my home for a meeting, folks will feel more comfortable if my friends and I engage with them in a kind and welcoming fashion.
There is a middle ground between faking happiness and alienating visitors. The problem with customer service culture is that it commodifies and sterilizes happiness, joy, and connection into artificial friendliness and feigned concern. For me, a backlash against customer service culture would transform the artificiality of it, not the friendliness.
For example, when I worked the register at a collectively-run business, I challenged myself to practice honesty and empathy with customers in an effort to subvert the saccharine alienation of traditional capitalist workplaces. In my interactions at the counter, I never lied about my feelings, but also maintained a genuine interest and investment in the well-being of the folks who visited. When I wasn’t feeling interested or invested, I would ask my shift-mate to work the register while I worked in the back. This way, I was able to meet my needs for open and honest expression and personal space while still creating an environment where visitors felt acknowledged and connected. While my anecdote is in no way a one-size-fits-all prescription, I hope it communicates one of the many ways in which we can collectively and individually support the missions of our spaces while also meeting our own needs.
At its core, inclusiveness depends on listening to others’ needs and being available for input, feedback, and requests. In practice, standards for inclusiveness may evolve as individuals’ needs arise and intersect, and while total inclusiveness may not be possible, taking active steps towards creating inclusive spaces will establish a foundation for creative, diverse, and deeply meaningful radical projects.