Do The Work: Women In Cities International

Welcome to Do The Work Vol. II, where I will be interviewing individuals involved in organizing, educating, and supporting communities. For the first instalment, I talked to Kathryn Travers, the director of Women in Cities International (WICI). WICI focuses on making urban public spaces safer and more inclusive for women through participatory safety audits and awareness campaigns. I am kicking off the second part of the series with WICI because their work addresses the important intersection of community conversations and policy change to combat gendered harassment and violence.

Sara Kloepfer: How does WICI’s mission take form in concrete initiatives? What are the sort of projects you do?

Kathryn Travers: The first thing that we do is try and build a case. That means working with different groups of local women to try and give them the tools to document the issues that they face in their city. One of the tools that we use a lot is called the Women’s Safety Audit Walk. It is literally a checklist that you can go through to audit a space. So you can say, is there enough lighting here, is the lighting on the street for cars, is it on the sidewalk for people, are there areas where people can be hiding, if I needed to access help could I, are other people using the space, what are they doing here if they are. That helps us build a case around what women are experiencing in the city. That’s usually the first step, to even say that there is an issue. If women are not feeling safe in specific areas and if they are able to articulate why, then we’re in a good position to also have them be the ones to say what they need to transform the spaces to make them safer and more inclusive for them to feel welcome to use.

SK: Can you tell me more about Right to Campus?

KT: Right to Campus was developed just under a year ago, and the idea was to take this concept of the right to the city, which was first put forth by a sociologist called Henri LeFebvre, it was la droit la ville. To apply that approach now to a campus, what does that look like? What does an inclusive campus look like for everyone? Especially for women and girls, but more broadly beyond that, how can we make it an inclusive space? So again looking at the physical structures, the built environment, the factors that people appreciate about the campus or that they don’t like. Fundamentally it’s about more than that. Yes, we can look at how to change the built environment, but at the end the day, there’s a whole culture that allows this violence against women and street harassment to take place. If we want to be transformative in our impacts then we have to be working at multiple levels at the same time, all the time. Right to Campus, one of the first things that they did was actually work with the McGill Frosh coordinator to train all of the Frosh leaders about how to have a more inclusive Frosh. Over the summer there’s a small team of McGill students who are going to be working to develop a handbook for students and for the administration of the university to teach them how to implement some tools about the Right to Campus.

SK: Why do you think it’s important to focus on college campuses?

KT: It’s a really unique space in a city. A college campus is almost like a sub-city within a city. People who go are spending a lot of time there, so they really have a chance to appropriate that space as their own, which is different from the rest of the city and it’s almost like a neutralizing ground for the people who are from here and not from here, because everyone’s learning it together. Because it is its own small, insular community, I think that’s even more reason to try and make it a safe and inclusive space for everyone. But it’s not. Joe Biden and the Obama administration put a lot of attention on it. And through different campaigns, really through social media, it gained a lot of traction. Then through mainstream media, a lot of terrible incidences, in Canada as well, also put a spotlight on sexual violence on campus. It became something that was acknowledged, not something that’s new, but now something that people are more able to agree happens and that it’s not okay, and it doesn’t matter if you’re on the swimming team. And I think that was a transformative moment.

Beyond that, for a lot of people it’s also the first time that you’re not living in your parents’ house, that you’re living on your own and you’re more independent as a citizen or a resident of a place. I think we can build a certain responsibility within that, for ourselves and for each other, that shared sense of responsibility that we are co-creating the space, and the environment, and the atmosphere, and what that looks like socially and spatially. It’s empowering, and I think universities are a good place to do it because of the diversity that’s represented and because it’s that fresh slate moment. If you’re able to really reflect on how you’re contributing to make this community safe and inclusive for everyone, then you take that with you when you leave your college campus. It’s also a time when people are learning and critically reflecting on all of these topics and questions with their peers.

SK: How do you try to balance ideological goals versus strategic and tactical implementation? What do you think is more important — or are they equally important?

KT: I think everything is equally important, and for a number of reasons. Our approach is always one of partnership. So partnering with groups on campus, or with local organizations in different cities, or even with government sometimes towards implementation. But really letting people who are users of the space own a project and program. With that also comes a responsibility on our part to make sure that when we’re recommending, we talk about things like quick wins and cheap solutions as well as long-term or high cost infrastructure programs. We are always looking to do multiple things at the same time because we know, for example, that if we ask the city to add street lighting to a park, that needs someone from the council to first put it forward. Then you need to have a meeting on it, then they have to vote on it, and then that has to get tabled to next year’s budget, which then needs to be decided on, which then needs to be implemented. So you’re looking at a multiple year delay. The ways around that are two-fold. You can definitely do things like quick wins, which could be anything from painting a mural, which we can do ourselves, or doing awareness raising workshops and trying to engage different users of the space in different ways.

One of the projects we did was with women living in informal settlements in Tanzania and their streets didn’t have names. They felt unsafe because they couldn’t tell people where to go if they needed help. So a quick, low-cost win for them was to take planks of wood where they painted names for streets, and the city then recognized it, and now the streets have names. Then on the opposite end of that, we worked with a group of elderly women in Gatineau and they really wanted to use a park, but they didn’t feel safe. We were in touch with people from the city council, who had already approved a budget to upgrade the park. So we worked with them to audit the park with the women and formulate the women’s ideas into recommendations in the language of urban planners and that was used as a basis for redeveloping that park. That was a $1.2 million budget, so we were strategic about an entry point in that case.

SK: How do you approach initiatives that are not in North America differently or similarly to those that are?

KT: I think our general approach is the same, which is “I’m not an expert of anything, I cannot go anywhere and tell you what should be done in your community to make it better.” I think that’s a really problematic approach that happens in development. Our approach is that if you live in an area or if you are a daily user of a space, you acquire a certain expertise by virtue of that, because you know it intimately. You know around your neighborhood for example, why you walk home one way versus another way and often at the root of those things are actually safety concerns. That’s a lot of why we talk about safety as the entry point for looking at broader issues in the city. With that in mind, of course there are certain adaptations in terms of language, literacy, there’s a whole gamut of things.

I was working on a project as part of the UN Women global program, working with informal vendors in the markets in Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby. In Port Moresby, about eighty percent of the informal market vendors are women. And the rates of violence against women are staggering, the rates of literacy are really low, and there are 800 languages spoken, so finding common language can be a challenge too. We wanted to teach them about the audits, we were asked to come and do that, but it really required an overhauling of the whole tool. Whereas before we usually would have our checklist, everyone takes notes, you compare them after, and there’s a rating system. You can’t do that, because we don’t have a document that people can read and they can’t write the notes. So we did voice recordings at each of the stops and developed a system of icons that were easily recognizable for people. Then we developed a color-coded sticker system for them to do the ratings and then narrative form really came through the audio recorders, the help of interpreters, and a lot of hand drawn maps. There are some adaptations like that of course.

SK: Has your approach as an organization changed at all since the U.S. election or any areas of focus that you think are more important now?

KT: We’re all collectively very pissed off and terrified. I’ve been in several conferences and stuff like this since the election and one thing that I find personally a little terrifying is that the new objective that seems to be taking root for any of this work is to maintain the status quo. It’s not even to eradicate the gender pay gap, it’s to keep what we already have. And having that as a new long-term objective for me is terrifying because that is steps back. To hear some of the people who are speaking to that, who have been leaders in the movement, who have been fighting for fifty years for this, to have them also speaking that language of “we need to maintain the status quo, we can’t move backwards and this is what we’re fighting for now,” instead of fighting for more and for actual equality, is scary to me.

SK: What are some things that people who want to be allies can do?

KT: To listen. Listening is a really big first step and validating other people’s experiences and acknowledging that they happen, that it’s not your fault, I’m sorry it happens, and to be there in the best way that you can be to be transformative. If you want to be a good ally to women, it’s not just about being a goody ally in the moment, especially men with their peer group is a really good place to try and change the conversation. Be basic, but patient. The thing with having these hard conversations is that safe space to express yourself freely. Usually if someone is able to explain things well, you can understand a bit more about where they’re coming from, that’s where you can find some common ground to then move forward. Just hearing another person’s experiences and understandings of things and sharing yours too, which is maybe not something they’ve been exposed to, that can be transformative. But I think the challenge in a post-Trump world is that tensions are so high for all of this, so finding that safe space is hard.

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