This interview conducted by Marthe van Singelenberg appeared earlier in Dutch in the online magazine Bewogen Stad. Read it here.
Fairspace is a civil society organization dedicated to creating safe and inclusive public spaces for all. The vision of this organization is an inclusive society where everyone feels safe in public spaces, regardless of gender, ethnicity, gender or expression thereof. Whether it’s changing experiences on the street, in bars, nightclubs, in schools or in the workplace, Myrthe van Gestel, as public safety officer within Fairspace, is committed to all programs that deal with safety in public spaces. In this interview, we talk to her about the work of Fairspace and how she believes we can make cities safer and more inclusive.
From what urgency was Fairspace founded?
“Laura Adèr and Eve Aronson founded Fairspace from the Dutch branch of Hollaback!, an American organization that deals with street harassment. This organization, now called Right To Be, was particularly committed to criminalizing unwanted behavior in various forms. Laura and Eve felt that more needed to be done with prevention and awareness. In the Netherlands there is too little talk about street harassment or how it is normalized. Women still often have to be brought home by someone, text someone when they get home, or go down the street with their keys in their hands. The idea of the founders was to put street harassment on the agenda and prevent it as much as possible.”
What do you do at Fairspace?
“I’m public safety officer, which means I’m in charge of all work around public space. I coordinate our Stand Up program, through which we organize bystander intervention trainings. These are aimed at the people who witness unwanted behavior in public spaces, but don’t know what they can do. In addition, I establish contacts with parties interested in the trainings, such as municipalities, colleges, universities and hospitality owners. I also arrange activist work, such as attending demonstrations, street actions and media appearances.”
What was your personal motivation for joining Fairspace?
“I volunteered at Amnesty for the Let’s talk about yes! Campaign. We were fighting for better legislation around rape and sexual assault. This was mainly lobbying and I wanted to get involved in implementation. At the same time, I had begun to pay more attention to the forms of transgressive behavior that I experienced or saw happening on a daily or weekly basis. Forms of street harassment like hissing and staring, for example, seem subtle but are actually very bad. You can also form prevention on those more subtle forms more easily than on more serious forms of harassment such as sexual assault. It’s a good start to addressing undesirable behavior.”
What is Fairspace’s approach to preventing these forms of street harassment?
“In public space, we do bystander intervention and cocreation. Bystander intervention consists of the trainings we give. The premise is that public space belongs to everyone, while research shows that it is not equally safe for everyone right now. The responsibility to solve that should not lie with those who experience unsafety. But how do we reach those who cause it? We often don’t know who they are. But we do know that often several people see something happening and feel that something is wrong. They experience all kinds of cognitive thresholds that make them not intervene; from not daring, to personal and contextual factors such as height, gender, who they are with, etc. Some people simply don’t know what they can do. With our bystander intervention training, we target everyone, because everyone sees something happen from time to time. We provide tools to intervene in a safe and comfortable way.
The cocreation pathways are more focused on specific target groups. We find that for the bystander intervention trainings we still attract mainly white university students. We apply an intersectional approach in designing the cocreation pathways, looking at the factors that influence one’s perception of public space. For example, research has shown that streets are more unsafe for women of color than for white women, and also more unsafe for LGBTQIA+ individuals than for people who are not. We try to come up with solutions together with the groups it concerns. For example, we did a project with women of color, where we went together to see how they experienced the street and what they needed to feel safer. With this group, one of the issues was how the police responds to street harassment. Here you can see the differences between the groups, because we had not heard this with white women. The group of Muslim women we worked with in Rotterdam needed to talk more about Islamophobia and sexism, but also about transgressive behavior within the community. In these kinds of projects, we always bring in knowledge from the target group as well, because we don’t have it. The project with boys from Rotterdam gave us insights into the other side of the story. They told us what it is like to be ethnically profiled by the police or what it does to them when women avoid walking by them. Unfortunately, we can’t do these kinds of projects as often as we’d like because there isn’t always funding for them and they take a lot of time. Even though this is precisely the customized approach we want to provide.”
What has Fairspace achieved with its approach so far?
“With bystander intervention, we have already achieved a lot. We recently had a process evaluation conducted, which showed that after the trainings, people felt more capable of intervening in cases of street harassment. There has been a lot of lobbying of municipalities to broaden the approach beyond criminalization and focus more on prevention and awareness. More and more municipalities are now doing just that. A national action program has been set up and, thanks in part to our lobbying at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Safe Cities program was initiated. From the co-creation processes came recommendations that we gave to municipalities, but we do not know exactly what has been done with them. We want to make sure in the coming years that bystander intervention training becomes more specific for certain target groups.”
Would you call Fairspace’s approach feminist?
“Feminism to me means equal rights for all. So yes, I am definitely feminist and Fairspace’s work is done from a feminist perspective. Our starting point is that public space is for everyone and everyone has the right to move freely, no matter who you are or what you look like. More and more young women are addressing feminist issues, increasing our relevance. The #MeToo scandals of recent years have, painfully, also contributed to our existence. Transgressive behavior always happened, but it has now come to the surface and there is a lot of media attention about it. Especially at companies we notice that since the scandal at The Voice of Holland there is suddenly interest in our trainings. The danger, though, is that they think it’s solved with one training course; of course it’s not. Organizations need to start looking closely at their corporate culture.”
Do you know any examples of campaigns that have worked well or impressed you?
“We often use in our trainings a campaign video made in London that we think is very good. The campaign is called Have a Word. This video is aimed particularly at male bystanders. We find that it makes a big impression, especially on boys. Stand Up, the bystander intervention campaign we developed, is part of a global campaign developed by Right to Be. A short online training for bystanders was developed for that, which also works very well. You can find that on our website.”
What does an ideal safe and inclusive public space look like to you?
“Of course, it would be ideal if you were never harassed. And if you are, that someone intervenes. An ideal public space is one where everyone pays more attention to each other. That there is always someone who stands up for someone who has difficulty walking. Or that if my wallet falls out of my pocket, the person walking behind me picks it up. That people do little things for each other to make each other feel safe, that doesn’t have to be big at all. I’m sure there are physical aspects of public space that make people feel safer, such as lighting or less hostile architecture. It’s interesting to think about how to design space so that people feel safer.
One aspect in this is taking up space. Some people take up much more space than others. Of course, we know the examples of manspreading or large groups of guys taking over a space. I think awareness is very important in this case as well. If you explain it to them, boys often don’t realize that their behavior creates feelings of unsafety. Men who walk behind a woman at night may be aware of the effects of their presence on the woman, even if they mean no harm. To make the woman feel safer, for example, they may walk on the other side of the street. Or stand still for a moment and give the woman a little more space. Or just make contact with a friendly gesture, depending on the situation. When I’m running, I pass through a lot of parks and notice that some men’s behavior influences my experience. Sometimes someone just makes contact for a moment, sometimes they stick their thumb up, sometimes they stare at me. Sometimes I just want to be left alone at all, but that also depends on my mood. You can never fully know how others feel, and besides, you are never fully responsible for the other person, but you can consciously think about it.”
How can people reach you and what do you offer for people who are interested?
“You can request the bystander intervention training through the website. For student associations and study associations, it is free with a minimum of 20 participants. You can send me an e-mail, also if you are interested in a co-creation process.”
What do readers, who still know little about safety in public spaces, really need to know? What can they do themselves if you experience something?
“If you see something happening on the street and it doesn’t feel right, there is always something you can do. If you want to know what, take the short online training on our website!”