Building better, safer autonomous spaces

In light of recent events on online spaces targeting both collectives as well as prominent individuals, this article addresses safe spaces and how autonomous groups’ vision of solidarity and advocacy can be realised.

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One of the things I was most excited for, when coming to ANU, was the opportunity to get involved with the various ANUSA Departments and Committees. Campus advocacy, I told myself, would pave the road to my own BNoC-dom (BNoC = Big Name on Campus). Attending meetings and engaging with the online spaces familiarised me with not only the initiatives of the Departments, but also the importance of autonomous collectives** and online spaces. I understood these to be safe spaces for people, united by oppression arising from their identities, to discuss their experiences, and be comforted by solidarity and community.

Collectives and Departments are far from homogeneous, and members choose to engage for various reasons and in many different ways. Some are more established (such as the ANU Women’s Department), while others are small but rapidly growing (the Women of Colour Collective). The diversity of identities and experiences in these spaces enables education and empathy, and I myself have benefitted greatly from being a part of some of these groups. This, however, is just my experience – not everybody has had positive experiences in these groups, and these sentiments are certainly valid as well. While it is not in any way desirable for members to have adverse experiences in these spaces, feedback allows for the positive and preventative improvement of these spaces.

The mystery and drama of anonymous ‘confessions’ pages is definitely excitingI love receiving messages in the middle of tutes that say, “Omg Sumi you’ve got an ANU crush!”, which sadly hasn’t happened many times – but things can sometimes turn nasty. ANU Rants was*** one such page on Facebook, where people submitted their complaints about the university their issues with general student life to the admin, who posted them on the feed. Negative opinions targeting the Facebook groups of the Women’s Department and Women of Colour Collective have recently arisen, concerning matters such as ‘censorship’ (the removal of posts or comments due to a violation of the Women’s Department’s safe spaces policy) and discomfort with the tone within the group. In some cases, content from within the autonomous spaces have been quoted or shared without the consent of the original poster or Facebook group.

With the exception of the International Students Department where all International students are automatically members, Collectives and Departments embrace an honour-based system where students who self-identify with the group are welcomed into these spaces under the expectation that they will respect  its autonomy: what happens in the group stays in the group. When this trust is violated, it puts the safety of members at risk, as their words, or even mere engagement in the space, are exposed in a way that is beyond their control, and wishes. Furthermore, it also serves to undermine the tone of empathy and solidarity that many people join these groups for in the first place.

The arguments in defence of the posts on ANU Rants come from the same place as anti-content/trigger warning sentiments: people should be able to say whatever they want, in the name of ‘freedom of speech’. This does not take into account the fact that words can have a very real and concrete effect on people’s lives, and that objective discourse generally comes from a place of detachment from this impact. For example, an ableist meme – which has since been removed by Facebook after it was reported – was posted on Stalkerspace and discussion arose surrounding whether the admins should down the post. This is something that will be discussed further in the near future as the forum rules are revised, according to an admin. The number of people who appreciated the humour of the meme is irrelevant, however, as it was a joke at the expense of persons with disabilities.

The appeal of ANU Rants – and other similar pages like ANU Crushes 2.0 – is that submissions are anonymous, through a Google form, and these statements are posted by the admin(s) of the page. This means that there is no way that the relevant ANUSA Officers/Facebook group moderators can know who has violated the autonomy of the safe space and take relevant action. This is an unproductive outlet for expressing views, as members of the safe spaces implicated in the rant would have to seek out such posts and choose whether or not they are comfortable with having these discussions in public comment sections, which may not be something they are comfortable with.

Unfortunately, the university has not been very helpful in this situation. The ANU’s only response was to contact ANU Rants to request that they remove the official ANU logo from their profile picture and indicate in their ‘About’ section that the page was not affiliated with the university. I was surprised to learn recently that the ANU does have a social media policy,**** and in the future it would be beneficial if the university were to, in the interest of its students’ safety, consider enforcing this policy. The ANU has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to support and engage with ANUSA in keeping sub-group within the university – official or unofficial – accountable for content which has put students in situations that have compromised their safety.

It is the responsibility of students, therefore, to take such feedback and opinions to the autonomous spaces that they have grievances with. Admittedly, it can be intimidating to write a critical post about a collective/department within that said group, as the post is likely to receive backlash from loyal supporters who have benefited from the space, but there are alternatives. The ANUSA Departments all have email accounts managed by their respective Officers where feedback can be sent, and a fake email account can easily be created if students should prefer to keep their identity private. This allows the Officers and their executives to take action as quickly as possible, while simultaneously respecting the autonomy of the space.

In the future, Departments and Collectives may also choose to take independent action in implementing anonymous feedback avenues managed by the admins of online spaces or executive members.

While everybody is ultimately entitled to their opinions, and nobody is under any obligation to provide feedback to improve autonomous spaces, it would be immensely helpful if students did. No student should be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. No student should be subject to attacks, online or offline, in both public or autonomous groups. After all, these groups are for us, and it is important that these are as inclusive and welcoming as possible, and that they continue to grow, adapt and improve.

If you have any feedback, positive or negative, below are the names and contact details of ANUSA’s Departments and Collectives.

Disabilities Students’ Association: sa.disabilities@anu.edu.au – Tom Kesina (2016), Aji Sana (2017)

Environment Collective: sa.environment@anu.edu.au – Zoe Neumayer (2016), Georgia Dee (2017)

Ethnocultural Department:***** sa.ethnocultural@anu.edu.au – Aditi Razdan & Rashna Farrukh (2016), Rashna Farrukh (2017)

Indigenous Department: sa.indigenous@anu.edu.au – Braedyn Edwards (2016), Makayla-May Brinckley (2017)

International Students’ Department: sa.international@anu.edu.au – Harry Feng (2016), Winson Win (2017)

Queer* Department: sa.queer@anu.edu.au – Fred Hanlin (2016), Gabriel Scott (2017)

Women’s Department: sa.womens@anu.edu.au – Linnea Burdon-Smith (2016), Holly Zhang (2017)

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**Collectives differ from Departments: Collectives may be sub-groups of Departments, the Women’s Collective, for example, comprises active meeting-attending members of the Women’s Department (all women- and non-binary identifying students). Collectives may also exist without an affiliated Department, such as the Women of Colour Collective, whose members are represented both by the Ethnocultural Department and Women’s Department.

***The Facebook page was taken down on the 6th of November. The events mentioned in this article took place over the few days preceding this date.

****https://policies.anu.edu.au/ppl/document/ANUP_000785

*****The Ethnocultural Department, previously a Committee, has elected its first Officer for 2017. The page is currently managed by members of the Ethnocultural Committee executive.