Fixing the glitch

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"Self-care". Illustrations by Paru Ramesh

"Self-care". Illustrations by Paru Ramesh

For the past few years, I've committed to doing the conventional New Year's resolution on my birthday rather than on 1 January. My resolutions or “intentions” so far have been reflective and inward-looking rather than about the external. For instance, finding more peace, being more focused, and this year it is self-love, also known as self-care.

So it was a pleasant coincidence to fly out to Nepal for the Take Back the Tech Camp 2018 on my 27th birthday, to not only collaborate with inspirational women but explore how we embed self-care in our activism and organisations. I was kindly invited by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to join 20 women from around the world because of my work as founder and director of Glitch.

It was a pleasant coincidence to fly out to Nepal for the Take Back the Tech Camp 2018 on my 27th birthday, to not only collaborate with inspirational women but explore how we embed self-care in our activism and organisations.

Glitch is a not-for-profit organisation that exists to end online abuse and to ensure that the online space is a safer arena for all to use, particularly women and girls. The evidence is emerging that online abuse adversely affects an individual's health, the nation's democracy and human rights. There are three important strands to our work, awareness, advocacy and action. Part of our work is delivering our flagship training programme on Digital Citizenship. This is primarily delivered to young people to raise awareness so that they exercise their agency in order to navigate the online world in a positive, critical and respectful way. Digital Resilience is our other training programme, for women who are wishing to or who have entered public life. Online gender-based violence (OGBV) is unfortunately an inevitable part of that. So while we campaign for online environments to be better, we must also up-skill women on ways to be safer, prepared and better protected online. We hope by doing so we will see an increase in women confidently enacting their human rights – to stay and engage in online digital spaces without fear or intimidation.

 

Through my work not only do I meet with women who have faced or are facing trauma, but I also have a responsibility to safeguard our awesome Glitch volunteers. Therefore my reflections on self-care have not just been about caring for myself but creating an environment of self-care for others.

 

As an individual and as a public person, as a daughter, sister, friend and if you like, as an activist – self-care, for me, is primarily about setting boundaries in order to flourish. This is something that was heavily emphasised during the Take Back the Tech Camp. Self-care is not what capitalism has reduced it to be, expensive holidays, retreats and yoga (although I do love a good massage). It is about understanding yourself and the boundaries you need to put in place, in order to be the best you. To be safe, calm and inspired. Establishing boundaries is not easy. It requires persistence, and understanding of oneself and the environments you work in. Boundaries are about putting in place norms, such as how often you are online, or if your activism or work involves a lot of delivery or being online, are you carving out those spaces to decompress and to be offline?

 

Do you need to set boundaries around oversharing? I certainly needed to. As part of my work with Glitch I frequently share my story of the online racist and misogynist abuse I received when a video of a speech I made at the European Parliament was posted on a neo-Nazi website. I want to tell my story to help other women and to bring about changes, but I was telling my story way too often and in way too much detail, so that I was essentially triggering myself. When sharing my story in training workshops, I am also responsible for holding that space, so by triggering myself, I am also not giving my best to the young people and participants we work with.

As part of my work with Glitch I frequently share my story of the online racist and misogynist abuse I received when a video of a speech I made at the European Parliament was posted on a neo-Nazi website.

I've now learned to share a lighter version of my story. The reality is this doesn't work for some media outlets, some conferences, or speaking opportunities that want a victim story. Well, then those opportunities, as shiny and exciting as they may be, are no longer for me.

 

There is something to be said about women, particularly black women, being portrayed as a "victim" or someone with experience rather than expertise. I am done entertaining that misconception, but that is for another piece. This is a boundary I am now very committed to and have shared with my friends and Glitch trustees. They too respect and support me and have initiated wider conversations about how we embed self-care in our organisational culture and work. So we now also include a self-care element to our training workshops with women. And they have, so far, said that was their favourite part of the whole session.

There is something to be said about women, particularly black women, being portrayed as a "victim" or someone with experience rather than expertise.

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"Self-care". Illustrations by Paru Ramesh

"Self-care". Illustrations by Paru Ramesh

If we want our organisations to be sustainable, particularly in the turbulent times that we are in, if we want to meet our ambitious goals, to take back the tech, to fix the glitch, to end all forms of gender-based violence, then we must take the time to truly embed self-care into our work. We have a duty to our members and supporters to do so. We cannot afford to burn out or wait to burn out before we think about self-care. Self-care in our work and organisation has to be about preventing activist burnout in the first place. This would involve re-imagining and challenging the capitalist, patriarchal definitions of work and productivity.

 

In our journey of self-care we must explore self-love and forgiveness and be kinder to ourselves. How we speak to ourselves every day in our activism and when we make mistakes is an indication of our self-love. Are we repeating and internalising the oppressive words used against us? We must learn to make allowances for our own mistakes and the mistakes that professional allies and activists will make.

We must learn to make allowances for our own mistakes and the mistakes that professional allies and activists will make.

Self-care in activism, particularly when fighting oppressive power structures such as sexism and racism, is also about forgiveness. As woke as we all try to be, we've been conditioned to operate within oppressive power structures and that requires work every single day to unlearn these behaviours. This also means we will inevitably make mistakes. We must never condone bad behaviour. But if 2018 activism becomes about cancelling women and allies for reckless actions they are genuinely willing to learn from – which is becoming very easy to do on social media – then we are guaranteed to run out of activists.

Why? Because no one is perfect.

If 2018 activism becomes about cancelling women and allies for reckless actions they are genuinely willing to learn from – which is becoming very easy to do on social media – then we are guaranteed to run out of activists.

Recently, I've been learning to not cancel or call out EVERY one but instead to call feminists in and give professional forgiveness. Obviously, if rogue feminist activists refuse to listen and become a real threat to the feminist movement and/or individuals, then of course they should be cancelled. It is important to hold on to the fact that the greatest of activists sometimes say and do bad things, and by the same token, even career-climbing activists can at times say the right thing, and even be on the right side of history.

 

My favourite definition of glitch comes from Cambridge Dictionary: “a small problem or fault that prevents something from being successful or working as well as it should.” I think that nicely sums up the state of the internet and technology today. There are glitches that are preventing the internet and technology from fulfilling their potential and we all have a part to play in fixing these glitches, the key one being online gender-based violence. I also use it for my organisation’s name because when we look back on this period in time, I want us all to be able to say that the rise in OGBV was only a “glitch” in our history. Meeting these inspirational women from all over the world, who are reclaiming technology and online digital spaces, gave me a renewed hope that we will fix the glitch.

There are glitches that are preventing the internet and technology from fulfilling their potential and we all have a part to play in fixing these glitches, the key one being online gender-based violence.