Organizing social space as if social relations mattered

  • June 13, 2014

Care & Community

If a society beyond capitalism is to stand any chance, we will have to forge different social relations and create new forms of social organization.

What if we continually organized our social spaces as if social relations mattered? What if we dedicated ourselves to being enthusiastic lifelong learners and thus better schooled for revolutionary openings, to better be the kind of people who just might be able to supply the staying power for a better society—one where we and our communities are always, also, becoming better?

You may protest here, countering that it sounds self-evident to do so—as in, “Of course we are deeply concerned about the social relations underpinning our social spaces!” Yet I urge you to really think back on your own experiences for a second. Too many of us have had the displeasure of walking into a space for the first time, and getting blank or hostile glances as our welcome—and it usually goes downhill from there. We tear each other apart in so many varied ways in our social spaces, along so many lines of hurt already inscribed into our bodies by white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy, ableism, settler colonialism, classism, overdetermined identity politics, and a long lineage of other violences. It’s frequently assumed that the tag “social space” (or radical bookstore, collective café, bike co-op, and so on) has already done the work for us, as if we are already those perfect actors in our perfectly alternative places.

The conundrum of remaking ourselves as we attempt to remake society appears to stymie us here so much faster than in places with greater vestiges of communal lifeways. It also erects an extra-high hurdle for US social struggles and movements: can we rise above the learned behaviors inculcated by the mythical origin story and its related American dream of the lone individual making it against all odds, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, as entrepreneurial pioneer? Can we surmount the way we tend to instrumentalize each other, “valuing” other people as mere things in relation to our cost-benefit analysis and accountability ledger sheet of strategic organizing and movement needs—relations that have been naturalized in us, made subtle and almost invisible, by capitalism? It’s too easy to blame the police or state repression alone for why our projects, much less movements, fail. They fail us, and we fail them.

We’ll always fail in ways, of course. But if we don’t allow others—and ourselves—to make mistakes; if we see mishaps as aberrations or, worse, a condemnation of the whole of someone’s being; if we believe that failure and success are separate, stable moments; and if we think that being human, being imperfect, is in itself wrong, then we’ve already lost. We’re already lost.

This is all the more reason that it’s imperative to rediscover each other, yet in the fullness and complexity of our imperfections, and recognize that such imperfection will be inherent in the revolutionary transformation of present-day society—made up not merely of hierarchical institutions and systemic exploitation but also damaged social relations. It is, then, our perspective on failure that matters.

A teacher-artist friend, Carla, observed that her goal is, in fact, to have projects fail. That is, she remains open to the likelihood of failure and hence how we might do that well. Her clear-eyed notion grasps the generative attributes of missing the intended mark. Carla’s failures-in-action are amazing to behold, drawing out the best in people, for themselves and toward others. She creates spaces of collaborative empowerment with others, without knowing what will emerge, and strives to curate various contexts in which people can discover the potential of those spaces and themselves together.

Sitting with Comfortable Discomfort

Such experiments-in-failure mean that we continually take risks, seeking a palpable sense of security by not always playing it safe. Such uncomfortableness nudges us to explore the edges of one’s knowledge and worldview, experience and habits. This entails trying out practices that reach toward the ethics we value, even if we trip and fall a lot. It looks like the transparent trial and error of constituting the types of projects and communities that we think we wish to be embedded within, with intentionality, alongside people who are continually eager to self-reflect, and with similar intentionality, and be just as open to constantly tinkering with and even ending such experiments well.

If we’re failing well, we will stretch ourselves past all those numerous, subtle socialized behaviors that seem to thwart the best of our intentions and rhetoric, perhaps allowing for inklings of how to better shape better worlds. We’ll have plenty of light bulb moments as well, illuminating ways forward that also nourish us now. And if we’re lucky, the connectivity we’re so longing for—self-love and social love coupled with love’s intimacies—will make its presence deeply, solidly felt. Everyone won’t be equally enamored with each other; but maybe we’ll be able to be neighborly toward all. We’ll remember what it means to be human again, in relation to others who are human too.

This is all well and good in words. But what does it look like in the hardscrabble of practice? What is it that allows this to begin to happen? What creates the ground for bonding and building? For knowing, with far less doubt than at present, that there are others in this world who will have your back, especially through the longest, darkest of days?

My friend Carla who is open to failing, or intentionally passionate about what I’d call “sharing vulnerability” (something that increasingly seems a pivotal political act and indeed direct action), was one of the co-organizers of the Social Spaces Summit, held in the Unceded Salish Coast Territories (known also as Vancouver) in November 2013, along with the wonderful crew of Dani, Anthony, Kelsey, LeyAnn, and Nick. The summit was a three-day gathering of about fifty people, all part of various collectively run spaces, mostly in Canada, but with a sprinkling from the US Pacific Northwest and beyond. The organizing collective borrowed a few local political spaces, used for other ongoing purposes, for this convergence, with no intention of hosting the event again. The idea was to experiment with this summit for a second time—they’d organized the first one the previous year—and hand it over to another collective in another city, then to be envisioned as this new organizing body saw fit. (In fact, folks from Calgary gladly agreed to flesh out and host the next one.)

As I would come to realize over the three days, the whole point of the Social Spaces Summit was about organizing as if we matter as people for our own sake and toward each other. Surprisingly, delightfully as I would discover, it had almost nothing to do with organizing or talking about physical social spaces.

Undoing and Remaking Ourselves

The welcome circle set the tone from the get-go. Or more to the point, it modeled how we might practice vulnerability as a way to undo ourselves. Even the eating setup forced a connective discomfort. The small tables served as silent facilitators for informal, randomly selected “breakout groups”; the warmth of the welcome and food functioned as icebreakers; and lively chatter arose, as if people had been friends for a while. Two of these new friends at my small table spoke with me about their newfound idea of the revolutionary potential of “slowness,” and what that might mean for crafting new relations in a new society, in contrast to the high-speed, high-tech sensibility that feels like it increasingly produces isolation.

As our plates emptied, the three of us felt increasingly knit. We also realized that we were all being hosted at the same collective house, so decided to test out slowness by meandering there together. A fifteen-minute walk took us at least thirty minutes, with us pausing to appreciate a community garden at one point and some amazing bushes outside some homes at another point. Curiously, we rarely exchanged information about our respective spaces in any of the workshops. Conversely, we unexpectedly shared more and more about ourselves, which meant grappling together with all the goodness and damage within us.

We avoided the pragmatics and mechanisms of setting up and sustaining our spaces back home—a softer version of the hard instrumental logic of present-day society, and one that doesn’t concentrate on who we are as people but only what we have to offer to help someone else’s project later, say, or the cache of how cool our space might seem from the outside. We dived deep into the new forms of sociality that should be the raison d’être for them—the messy, complex, poignantly beautiful social ecology that just might underpin self-organized projects and places.

That, in turn, brought us into intimate contact with all the systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression that we, too, embody, but in the most mutually of understanding ways, allowing each of us to make mistakes and grow. Or better yet, it permitted us to collectively wrestle with, spill a few tears over, and laugh together through all types of difficult situations on a face-to-face level as we increasingly got to know and trust each other.

The linchpin here was that the “failings” of each and every session were foregrounded. The sessions were all experiments in how struggling toward new relations is coequal with struggling humanely through the ways that patriarchy, ableism, and colonialism, to name three, dredge up all sorts of bad behaviors, hurt, power imbalances, and friend-enemy dichotomies within our social spaces and political projects. These then serve to replicate or exacerbate the -isms we dream of destroying. Instead of jumping down each others’ throats when mistakes were made—calling out, shaming, or banishing—we used these alleged slipups as constant gifts, presenting us with the social glue and found materials for collaboratively bringing new social relations into being in the here and now.

This wasn’t accidental, as I indicated above in discussing the curation put into the welcome circle. It seemed, in fact, to percolate through most of the organizing details. Many of us out-of-towners, for example, were strategically housed in specific homes for the summit. The organizing collective tried hard to place us not only in overnight housing that would meet our individual physical needs/desires; it also strived to find hosts that we would “click” or resonate with, politically as well as personally. Moreover, when any of us first arrived for the summit, an organizer (or two, or several) made sure to greet us warmly and introduce us to others. Such small acts of friendliness breed other acts in return, establishing a culture in which it starts to seem second nature to be sociable, even over the course of a few days. Again, this isn’t revolution per se, nor sufficient to end hierarchy. But it definitely is the needed healthy soil for both.

Likewise, it appeared far from accidental that all the workshop facilitators were provided the necessary healthy ground on which to boldly test out their notions of other ways of being and behaving. This established a culture of shared vulnerability, a willingness to undo ourselves in front of each other, and a corresponding empathy toward each other. Or if someone was rusty at empathy, the summit created a climate for practicing it, unlike in present-day society, which doesn’t support us in thinking or acting empathetically—which is, at heart, a way of truly seeing and acting on our shared humanness, and thus a threat to divide-and-conquer forms of social control.

The summit organizers did this by urging people to try things they hadn’t done before, without knowing what would happen. Workshops facilitators were afforded the freedom to share and be themselves. This freed us all to want to compassionately and forgivingly work through all the many (many!) awkward moments that arose over the three days—moments of unintentional hurt and at times what might be dubbed political incorrectness. In turn, this set free new social relations, or what could be seen as embryonic elements of a new society. And it generously handed us all take-home inspiration for how to intentionally strengthen social relations in our social spaces.

Hands-On Openness

In writing and rewriting this, I’ve realized how difficult it is to capture the qualities of kindness that people are capable of in person. And even the act of attempting to portray it already does those nuanced relations of care a grave injustice. In the information age, we’ve almost forgotten that human communication—our very psyche—is retooled along with various technologies, including what we now consider the “social” to consist of. That people increasingly long for authentic connection and caring communities, and increasingly have almost forgotten how to practice that in person, with tender patience and slowness, only further underlines the critical role of nurturing spaces of collective vulnerability and compassionate experimentation.

Besides letting various workshop presenters experiment with new ideas—and thereby wander into honest failures that they felt comfortable sharing transparently with all the participants, especially once they inadvertently noticed it themselves—the second way that I and others began to practice more human social relations was through workshops that stressed hands-on exercises.

For many people, such hands-on exercises can feel embarrassing, eliciting “performance anxiety” or “one-upsmanship.” Usually, icebreakers are mechanical, compulsory activities. They are a game to help us remember names, without any of the actual qualities of the person, or they unintentionally serve as triggers, bringing up -isms and hurts, but the “fun” and “laughter” of the icebreaker makes it feel inappropriate to raise what feels like not-so-fun, serious stuff. And because facilitators typically conceive of icebreakers as fun, there is little care or curatorial thought put into them in terms of how they build on each other, how they build trust, and how they could be exactly the spots where we start crafting substantively new, different forms of sociality. Icebreakers can be cold places indeed, frequently shutting us down.

I thus almost always avoid any hint of icebreaker or hands-on games, suddenly finding as gracious an excuse as possible to make a temporary exit. But in the spirit of experimentation, and especially pushing my own comfortable discomfort, I participated in such workshops at the Social Spaces Summit. When carefully curated, with aspirations of conjuring new social relations in social spaces, I discovered that such exercises can work magic toward those always-in-process ends. (In fact, I surprised myself by how much I, too, was opened up through hands-on activities, despite bracing myself to hate them—so much so, that a couple weeks later, I even used one of them as a relevant piece of a short workshop intro I was giving at a new social center, where the exercise worked to further “socialize” the space and us strangers there.)

The Beginning of the End

Carla and the Social Spaces Summit collective allowed for and encouraged mistakes and failures through allowing for and encouraging experimentation. They gave us all permission to be the imperfect humans who we are, and to see that we all fall into the traps laid by our socialization in a society structured around racism, patriarchy, ableism, ageism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and all sorts of social relations (not to mention systems!) of domination. We all have the capacity to hurt, insult, and trigger each other, to do violence against each other’s minds and bodies, and bring out the worst sometimes, even if all that is far from our intentions. That we have so few spaces that specifically hold us, collectively and individually, in a warm embrace as we try to undo ourselves, our socialization, is our greatest failing, though.

So the tenderly curated ground at this summit to meet each other on the terrain of truth, dignity, and shared vulnerability was rare indeed—and a success that we rarely experience. We generated a space of sociality through our sociality at this summit, and one that felt more genuinely anarchist(ic) and caring then the vast majority of actually existing anarchist projects that proclaim shared principles on paper.

That everyone stepped up to that challenge—fiercely yet kindly chose not to retreat — was not because the organizers handpicked a remarkable group of people. It was because the culture that we are capable of creating together within our spaces does matter to who we are all able to become, and thus what kinds of caring communities we are capable of starting to practice and, I trust, more frequently constitute. Neither is Carla or the summit organizing collective remarkable. What distinguished them was their perspective on how one might achieve a society without hierarchy, but with freedom, dignity, democracy, and love. They aspired toward goodness, generalized and determined by those facing each other in person, instead of a predetermined set of what anarchists (or any political actors) are for and especially against. Or to put it another way, the summit for me became a way of enacting social goodness as dual power.

Being good to each other, forging new social relations in the shell of the old, isn’t going to end capitalism, smash the state, or nix all oppressions. It is nevertheless the prefigurative half of this herculean task. We also simultaneously need to constitute and experiment with new social organization. And both will only be as “good” as the dialectic between the goodness we struggle toward in our individual and institutional practices, growing, affirming, and reinforcing each other against all the hierarchical, oppressive horrors that batter us on all sides.

The end of capitalism won’t be a single, magical new day or jumping over a barricade to a rainbow-perfect society. It will be a series of fits and starts, unsteady, haphazard, and hurtful at times, across peoples and communities, until we reach an epoch that can safely be labeled something beyond capitalism. And if we’re lucky, and really good at perpetually testing out forms of goodness, maybe it will be something approximating a far more caring society, filled with egalitarian social relations and social organization.

As I said earlier in this essay, I know that I haven’t done justice by a long stretch to describing “organizing social spaces as if social relations matter.” The one and only way to do so is to try it out for yourself in person. You’ll know when it’s working because you’ll feel it, like many of us did in the miraculously grand spaces of Occupy and other uprisings. So let’s all get going to boldly, imaginatively, sometimes with success and oftentimes with failure, give it a friendly new go in our favorite real-life spots of everyday anarchism.

A longer version of this article can be found at the author’s blog.

Notes: I want to thank the summit organizers for their care and curation. I’m particularly grateful, though, to two of them, Carla and Nick, who gave generously of their time and smarts to help edit this essay. Carla’s writing can be found via @joyfulcarla. The Thistle Institute, a radical alternative to the university and organizing entity for the Social Spaces Summit, can be discovered at, and you can check out the Purple Thistle Centre for youth arts and activism at

Cindy Milstein

Cindy Milstein is a collective member with both the Institute for Anarchist Studies and Station 40 (a social center) and is actively engaged in anti-eviction organizing in San Francisco.

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