Being safe in advocacy communities – ideas from women


I recently was invited to run a workshop for health advocates (not just diabetes) who are affiliated with health and community organisations either as employees or volunteers. I was asked to primarily focus on safety in advocacy communities – both online and in person. All participants were women. This was interesting to me because the workshop was open to anyone who was a health advocate – not just women. I could see why, after a few short minutes in, it was women who were keen to come together for this topic and talk about it in a safe space, with other women. 

I was delighted to be involved for a couple of reasons: 1. It’s important and 2. I know that when I run a workshop properly, I walk away learning a lot. And this was a topic I wanted to learn about. I set about developing a very vague program that would leave a lot of time for experience sharing and co-developing ideas that could be used by everyone in the room. I had a few discussion starters and things that I think have worked for me, so they formed the basis of the workshop, but most of the suggestions came from the day and with permission, I’m sharing some of the ideas here. 

Before I do that, though, I want to highlight the overarching message was that health communities and groups are really important and really valuable. I know I frequently talk about not needing to love everyone in the diabetes community, and how critical it is to find the people you want to be around, who are supportive, who build you up, who you build up and who make you feel safe. That squad becomes sacred. Everyone else spoke of the same thing. One woman mentioned that it had taken her years to find the right people in her health community before truly understanding how peer support can be so beneficial. Many mentioned that it took time to work out exactly what they were looking for – was it friendship, solidarity, advocacy mates, opportunities to grow professionally? There are as many reasons to ‘do’ peer support as peer support models!

But even knowing that, it came as no surprise that every single one of the dozen or so women participating in the workshop had examples of where they had felt unsafe, vulnerable, targeted, or exposed in their own health communities. As stories were shared, there were frequent looks of recognition and heads nodding. Many said it was the first time they had ever spoken about these experiences. And others took time to warm up, asking several times if anyone would know what they had said – worried that they may be identified. This reminded me a little of the Ascensia Women’s Diabetes Social Media Summit I facilitated last year. I’d probably done close to a dozen of those before and each one involved a lot of social media outreach while the event was taking place. But this event was different. This one, was not quite as open. As facilitator, it’s my job to read a room, and the reading I got was that there were a group of women who wanted to share in private. And so, we did. As happened again at this recent workshop. 

None of the ideas I’m sharing will identify anyone, and this post has been reviewed by the people who attended. Safety of the women is my primary concern. So, here are some ideas that may or may not be of use to folks out there:

  1. You are not alone. Feeling unsafe in a community group can feel isolating, especially if there are cliques and groups that seem to form alliances. But there will be others you can turn to – often outside the group. I know I have turned to people outside the diabetes world at times to learn about how they have managed certain circumstances. It’s fascinating just how transferable things can be and how universal others are!
  2. There are reasons that functions such as block and mute are available on all social media platforms. But go one further. By blocking certain accounts, you may still see people you would prefer to distance yourself from. Mute their name, their account handle and, if they are associated with any specific words, terms or hashtags, mute those too. (So, want to not see my stuff? Block #LanguageMatters and mentions of coffee, stripes, bookstores, baking and red lipstick.) 
  3. Keep records. Even of things that seem irrelevant. I have an online folder where I collate anything that has ever made me feel unsafe or helpless. It’s shared with others, so they know what’s going on. 
  4. Talk to your workplace or associated organisation. This was one of the points that I wanted to raise. As all participants were either employed by, or volunteers for, health organisations, they have access to several services to support them if they feel unsafe. Perhaps they can use the organisation’s EAP which can be a terrifically helpful resource. It’s also important that those records you keep are seen elsewhere and there is a timeline of when things happen, and they are reported in real time. I do this a lot, mostly because it helps to talk to someone. Sometimes it’s done proactively. Other times, it’s after something happens. For example, the first time I spoke about DIYAPS and a slew of HCPs made formal complaints about me daring to talk about something so dangerously off label. Or the time a diabetes educator wrote to my employer after I called them out for tone policing me. There have been the multiple times people in the low carb community have become aggressive and threatening. Or just weird. There have been times when I’ve spoken with the CEO or other senior managers about situations and as well as being great sources of advice and comfort, it also means that they have an idea of how things started and are going. Oh, and it means there are few surprises!
  5. Walk away – for a bit or a lot. No one is obliged to continue to be involved in advocacy spaces or being part of a community if it is not working or if it is feeling unsafe. 
  6. Go incognito. My name and face have always been associated with the advocacy work I do because that is what I have chosen. But there are times that I wish I’d come up with a nifty pseudonym (Blossom?) and a cute meerkat picture. I know that probably wouldn’t have been possible considering the number of quite public facing things I do means there’s limited anonymity. But there are lots of super effective advocates who are anonymous when doing any online work, and that is absolutely an option. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to do any media or presentations. It just means not linking the public stuff to your socials. A couple of women at the workshop do that, and I somewhat embarrassingly squealed when I realised that they were amazing anonymous campaigners I’ve learnt so much from over the years!
  7. Learn the anatomy of gaslighting. It’s an artform, but it’s a predictable one. And expect to be gaslit if anyone ever takes objection to what you do – especially if the source of that objection is from a group that is used to not being challenged. Don’t believe me? I present exhibit a: #AllLivesMatter and exhibit b: #NotAllMen. The term gaslighting was coined to refer to misogynistic abuse and manipulation and it often presents that way these days. Learn how it works and you’ll be astonished at how frequently it is used to disempower women.
  8. Be prepared for your work to be challenged; to be told you’re not good enough; to be told that you are not worthy; to be told that your work is irrelevant and insignificant; to be criticised for your successes and to be diminished. The first time that happened to me, I was crushed. Now, it’s only mildly soul-destroying. (This isn’t to say that people can’t disagree with your work. Of course, they can, and they will. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s when your work is dismissed and disparaged, and you are personally targeted that it can be especially challenging.) 
  9. Cry. This was my suggestion. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really helps. I think it just comes from the idea of giving myself permission to not have to be confident all the time and to admit when I am feeling especially vulnerable. When there were weird emails coming to me about fundraising activities, I spent a lot of time bawling. 
  10. Be public about how you are feeling and your experiences. This is a tough one, because it can add being vulnerable onto an already vulnerable situation. But if you are able to assess if it is going to help you get through it, go ahead. 
  11. Ignore it. That sounds naïve considering some of the points I’ve shared, but we all agreed that in some instances, this does work and is the best way forward (albeit with keeping notes). 

It is undeniably true that women face a lot of rubbish online and a lot of that is from men. Women who dare to be strident, vocal and stand up and are confident often get it more. We see it everywhere. But I will add that as a straight, white cis woman, I know that the lousy behaviour I’ve experienced is nothing compared to women of colour and people from the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m so grateful to people from those groups who are bravely sharing the horrible attacks they receive and absolutely feel that doing what I can to support them, listen to them and believe them is essential.  

The women in the workshop are so committed in their advocacy efforts. It seems unfair that they have had periods where they’ve felt unsafe or targeted. I know how hard it is. Maybe the tips in this post might help others and if they do, great! And if you are reading this and prickling because you object to what you’re seeing, please remember that these experiences are from women who have had a tough time. That doesn’t in any way delegitimise what you have experienced. But I hope that everyone does understand and accept that in living with the patriarchy and with internalised misogyny pretty much part and parcel of everyday life, women do face an unfair share of rubbish, including in advocacy communities. 



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