Taking Up Space (@Sipa and beyond)

By: Sean Hansen

As I surveyed the room, I watched a sea of Libyan activists and NGO workers -- from varying backgrounds, customs, and organizations -- as they struggled to reach consensus. Through our translator, I listened as the distinct dialects and language barriers misconstrued communication, making collaboration feel strained. 

I was attending a week-long conference on gender-based violence (GBV) services in Libya, this past June. In the throes of the ongoing civil war, GBV is a major problem in Libya’s conservative culture today, and the conference sought to bring together local and international actors to improve healthcare services for GBV victims. As I raised my hand, hoping to point out some shred of commonality, a thought occurred to me:

I was the only white man in the room. It felt like a glaring observation -- my presence suddenly symbolic of something deeper and more significant. I lowered my hand, resigned to shut up and reflect on what my attendance at the conference meant.

As one of only a handful of non-native Arabic speakers in the room, and at a conference focused on an issue that overwhelmingly faces women and girls, I became more conscious of the space I was taking up. I decided to just listen; to absorb what the other participants came to say. Mindful of my presence, my voice, and the space I was occupying.

Reflecting back, my entire summer has made me profoundly aware of the privilege and space I take for granted. As the only male on an incredible team of strong and inspiring Libyan women, I’ve become hyper aware of injecting my voice in a collaborative, non-domineering manner. By nature, I’m already a quiet and reflective person – a listener rather than a talker. But this summer I’ve come to fully appreciate the significance of subordinating oneself, in order to empower -- and learn from -- those around me. 

The many consultations and interviews we facilitated for Libyan women and children has helped me to be cognizant of not only how I am perceived by others, but how I would like to be perceived by others.

These realizations have also led me to reflect on the atmosphere that SIPA cultivates, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As privileged students, we have access to opportunities that we often take for granted, which implicitly encourages us to fill these spaces.

At a competitive school like SIPA, expectations and assumptions can easily render an air of self-importance; of the outspoken student, or the policymakers with the ‘proper’ experience and skills and knowledge that lends itself to pontifical opinions and dogmatic statements. The belief that we need to fill these spaces with our thoughts, because if we don’t, someone else will. 

SIPA certainly contributes to this. I’ve seen students admonished for not participating enough in class. If you don’t speak, it can be interpreted as a sign of unintelligence or intellectual laziness. Yet I’ve also seen the seemingly altruistic peacemaker belligerently berate his peers for their beliefs or misplaced values. 

As an aspiring humanitarian worker, I’ve come to appreciate how integral active listening is to peace-building; asking the right questions, and cultivating an environment in which those around us feel comfortable interposing with their experiences, needs, or concerns. This concept of reflective practice is probably the biggest takeaway I’ve gleaned from my classes at SIPA thus far. Recognizing that no matter what level of experience, knowledge, or understanding of an issue one may have, there is always something else to be learned from listening to others.

As we prepare to return to school with our summer experiences in hand, we’ll all be met with the inevitable chorus of “how was your summer?!” While SIPA can pressure us to emphasize our success or impact, we should all take the time to reflect on our experiences, beyond the immediate scope of the work we did. Our placements may have been meaningful, but what space did we take up? What lessons did we takeaway? Was our impact necessary, or sustainable? How did we balance the cultural dissonance of sightseeing on the weekends, living on a compound, or socializing primarily with expats?

As graduate students, it can sometimes feel like we’re all fighting for a seat at the table. But being conscious of who should fill that seat is key. Or once we’ve decided to take that seat, realizing that having a seat is as much about listening as it is contributing. We don’t need to command every space we’re in. It’s important to lean in sometimes, but other times we can sit back, and just listen.