Resonant Voices Featuring Shawna Potter

Spotlighting the important work of those who are changing the landscape of our music scenes without playing a single note…

In the five years Shawna Potter has spent training people on creating safer spaces—from leading workshops as the cofounder of the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback! to educating attendees at last year’s Warped Tour through the project Safer Scenes 2017—she has noticed that everyone has the same question.

“The number one thing is, ‘What do we do?’ What do we do if someone says they were harassed?” Potter says. “I realized that people have really good intentions, and they want to do the right thing, but they need to be told, ‘Do these things.’ They need something tangible to wrap their heads around, like an action they can take, not just ‘Be cool to a victim.’ That’s not enough.”

This need for something tangible led Potter—lead vocalist of the feminist punk band War On Women—to write “Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide,” released June 5 via AK Press. This 43-page pamphlet offers practical, detailed advice that can be implemented in any community space—from punk shows and piano bars to game nights and improv groups—by anyone involved in the space. “Whether you own a space, run it, work for it, volunteer for it, or just patronize it, this pamphlet is for you,” Potter writes in the introduction.

In three short chapters, she outlines how to create a welcoming space, how to respond if someone is harassed or assaulted in your space, and how to be accountable. She also includes an appendix on alcohol—a topic that is frequently brought up in sessions she teaches—and a resource section with organizations, hotlines, networks, and websites.

“A lot of what I talk about when I do trainings is giving people permission to do something, letting them know it’s more important to do something than to maybe read the situation wrong,” she says. “And here’s how to avoid overtly reading the situation wrong. Here’s how you can do it in a subtle way so that there’s less embarrassment. I try to get them over that feeling of, you might be embarrassed if it’s actually just a couple and they’re play-fighting. It’s worth it to know that she’s going home safe [rather than] not do or say anything and wonder if she’s OK.”

Sexual harassment is not a new issue, and Potter is the first to point out that much of the information in her guide has been around for years. But due in large part to the #MeToo movement, as well as the continuing work of organizations like Hollaback! and Green Dot, how people react to gender-based violence is changing. “It seemed like, finally, everyone else—not people who are traditionally victims of gender-based violence—their ears were finally open,” Potter says. “They’re finally really listening, really getting it, how serious of an issue this is, how common it is for those of us who are potential victims. They’re finally ready to do something about it instead of just saying, ‘Yeah, that sucks.’”

Photo by Josh Sisk

Potter plans to expand the ideas presented in her pocket guide into a book due out in 2019. She plans to provide more real-life examples people can learn from and apply in their own lives. “That’s what people have been really craving. ‘Tell me all the things I could do in this one situation, so I can find the thing that works for me,’” she says. “Everyone has a different personality type. Not everyone should be the person confronting a harasser, and that’s OK. There are things to do for every personality type and every perceived sense of safety in any given situation.”

If phase one was educating people on gender-based violence and phase two was teaching them how to prevent it, for Potter, phase three is making it all second nature. “When you have that community standard of what’s appropriate in our space, guess what? Everyone rises to the occasion,” she says. “So, harassment will happen less. And when it does happen—because there are always assholes—it won’t impact victims in such a heavy, negative way, because it will be so much easier to say, ‘You’re nuts, get outta here. You can’t say that,’ and know that people have their back when they do that.”

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