The #MeToo civil rights movement is creating an opportunity for communities of all types to develop new ways to resolve conflict. As more people feel empowered to speak out against sexual coercion, harassment and assault, many social groups are reflecting on their collective values and how to uphold them. For event organizers, effective mediation and risk reduction is especially important. They are responsible for the safety of participants at their parties, conferences or festivals. At events I organize, we practice a form of Radical Risk Reduction, which makes the most of the limited resources available to settle disputes. Our goal is to develop sustainable systems for resolution that have the greatest impact.
Many of the safety protocols that I help develop rest on the idea of community education and mutual responsibility. I am one of the founders of the Women’s Visionary Council (WVC) an educational nonprofit organization which hosts the Women’s Visionary Congress and other gatherings of women researchers, healers, artists and activists in the psychedelic community. After launching these events in 2007, WVC organizers began receiving reports of women being sexually abused by leaders of ceremonies that use ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances. In response, the WVC released in 2014 a series of safety tips for people participating in these gatherings.
Our safety tips advise people to work with female facilitators or male/female teams and conduct due diligence to check out the reputation of the shaman or healer they may work with. Participants are also encouraged to consider the safety of the substance dispensed, check out the ceremonial site, secure safe lodging, attend the ceremony with a trusted friend, identify mechanisms for accountability, practice setting good boundaries, and evaluate how they are touched during the ceremony. These recommendations have been widely reposted and translated into several languages. Chacruna has created their own version of these tips which focus on ayahuasca ceremonies.
Reducing the Risks of the Psychedelic Renaissance
In the years since the WVC began considering the safety of women at psychedelic ceremonies, there has been a rapid expansion of interest in psychedelics and other non-ordinary states of consciousness. Driven by media stories, popular books on psychedelics, and publicity by groups like MAPS, millions of dollars are being raised for research into psychedelic-assisted therapies. In response, the WVC now supports other forms of education – such as proposals for the creation of a professional association for psychedelic therapists to create codes of conduct and hold practitioners accountable to ethical standards. This type of oversight could also moderate the impact of businesses and organizations that are entering this market which may or may not have the capacity to self-regulate.
While psychedelic-assisted therapies are presently attracting a lot of attention, most people will not engage with these substances in a ceremonial or carefully controlled therapeutic environment. Most people will have – and have always had – psychedelic experiences in social settings where they engage in unsupervised, self-experimentation. Growing interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics has prompted increasing numbers of people to procure these substances in underground markets and use them in social environments. At parties anywhere in the world, chances are good that someone is ingesting some sort of mind-altering substance in addition to alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
As interest in psychedelics expanded, members of the WVC community became aware of an increasing number of overdoses linked to the use of psychedelics and other substances. We also saw an escalation of accidental poisonings from adulterated substances, especially materials cut with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In response, the WVC created in 2015 a series of risk reduction workshops.
These workshops teach participants how to administer Naloxone or Narcan which blocks the effects of opioids, especially in cases of overdose. Instructors distribute Naloxone kits at no cost to people receiving this training. Trainers also demonstrate how to properly operate a milligram scale and employ volumetric measurement to accurately calculate dosage and prevent overdose. They also show how to use commercially available reagent testing kits to test for the presence of potentially deadly adulterants and reduce risk from misidentified drugs. Some event producers offer testing services onsite. This approach has the potential to attract unwanted attention from law enforcement, but can be carried out and publicized discretely.
Five years ago I co-founded another organization, an event production company called Take 3 Presents that creates immersive art parties. Together with our collaborators and producers of other events, we began to think about best practices to support risk reduction and community mediation. We developed these ideas for organizers of social events, but they are useful for other kinds of communities as well. The easiest kind of social gatherings in which to effectively manage risk reduction are private, invitation only events. The strongest models are gatherings where new attendees must be sponsored by an established participant to attend. This approach increases accountability. People avoid inviting friends who might make them look bad. Removing alcohol from the event to the greatest degree possible also supports risk reduction. Event producers can choose not to run a bar and still allow participants to bring personal quantities of alcohol – as long as they themselves don’t set up a bar at your event. Reducing alcohol consumption limits potential profits, but it significantly decreases the potential for illness, injury and consent violations.
Instead of a bar, an event could offer a teahouse which gives participants an opportunity to be in a social space without alcohol. I founded the Full Circle Tea House as a collaborative community art project at the Burning Man arts festival in 2011. This teahouse is now run by a group of volunteers who offer tea, empathy, water, soft pillows and a place to rest – sometimes providing 24/7 service. The act of being offered a tea cup, receiving it, drinking tea, and putting down your cup for a refill, brings you into connection with others and with yourself.
Safety and Mediation Teams
Tea servers are one of several potential safety teams that organizers can recruit and train. Those producing events of significant size or duration should also consider hiring professional medics and staff a quiet space for focused care. You could hire the Zendo project or develop your own similar crew based on this model. It’s also helpful to ask someone to lead a sobriety support group at your gathering for those who choose to remain sober. Instead of hiring an outside security service to patrol your event, organizers can create a volunteer ranger crew drawn from past participants who can be trained to uphold community standards of health and safety. The Burning Man Festival does this with their Black Rock Rangers.
Developing safety teams from within your own community helps organizers create and uphold a set of common values. This is especially important when creating protocols to deal with sexual coercion, harassment and assault. Organizers can start by forming a rapid response team to react swiftly to consent violations at their events. I also recommend forming a group of mediators who consider complaints from participants and help organizers make decisions to support community safety. If a participant wishes to make a complaint through the legal system, that is their right and they should be supported. But some people don’t trust law enforcement to investigate and some communities can’t afford to hire lawyers to settle internal disputes.
I support the idea of creating mediation teams who are comprised of participants trained as therapists, counselors, social workers – or those with similar backgrounds. They have the professional skills to help organizers develop protocols for gathering information about a dispute and consider critical procedural questions – such as whether to consider anonymous accusations or allow accusers to conceal their identity from the accused. Such people can also help organizers develop systems to publicize how to report consent violations during events and also incidents that take place outside events.
To further support consent culture, organizers can work with professional counselors to host workshops about consent during their gatherings. Announcements about the event could also include support for affirmative consent. Such language could say, for example, “Make sure that every ‘yes’ is a ‘hell yes.’ A ‘no’ requires no explanation or qualification.” Creating a culture of respect and consent is important, but it is not enough to help ensure safety. To take a serious stand against abuse and harassment, communities should designate who is going to make decisions about excluding participants for violating community agreements. If nobody is willing to take that responsibility, it’s very possible that no action will be taken. People may be abused without recourse which can create trauma and pain within the community. Conversely, if too many people take part in collective decision to exclude a participant, this process may delay or dilute firm action and exhaust participants. The capacity to engage conflict is a limited community resource.
I prefer a system in which a mediation team of two to five people gather information from parties in a dispute and make a recommendation of possible action to event organizers. If the organizers are running a business to hold the gathering, the owners of that business have a legal duty to make the final decision. This process should take into account that people may attempt to intimidate or manipulate those trying to settle the dispute. This may be especially challenging for women engaged in this work who may need to overcome socialization that encourages them to be accommodating and agreeable and retreat from conflict.
If a decision is made to exclude someone from an event, friends of that person will often lobby the organizers. They might insist that the person in question is a terrific human being, that they didn’t mean it, that they deserve a second chance, that the process is flawed, or that mediators or organizers are bad people for making this decision. If this happens to you, don’t take it personally. It’s important to act with firmness and clarity. Consider also setting a blackout period for considering disputes three weeks before an event unless the incident takes place within that window.
Communities will have different responses to these difficult situations. Some will embrace a form of restorative justice for the accused and the accuser. Other communities simply remove those who violate their values from the invitation list. Social banishment is a very old idea. There remains the difficult question as to whether there should be an appeals process or a path back to the community over time. Mediators could decide, for instance, to exclude a participant for a period of time and then evaluate what efforts they have made towards personal evolution and resolution with the people they have harmed.
While organizers may want to exercise compassion in these cases, they should also consider a system in which there is no path back. This is not because they are infallible judges of human frailty. It is simply that community members may have limited time and energy to consider whether someone has taken the appropriate steps to reform their behavior. Instead of attempting to provide such therapeutic services, organizers could consider a system in which people banned from events are referred to outside professional therapists. They could also set aside a budget for a limited number of counseling sessions for those who have negative experiences at their events and need support.
Finally, organizers should determine how they will or will not publicize these decisions. They could set boundaries on these conversations and say, for example, “This decision is final. I am not going to engage with you about this on Facebook, or here at this community event. Let’s set another time to talk.” Or perhaps organizers will decide not to publically discuss the matter. If organizers have been empowered by their community to act, it’s their right to make that decision.
Sometimes, people who are removed from a community threaten to sue for defamation. It’s helpful for organizers to have a lawyer they trust give them legal advice through this process. If a person’s name is removed from an invitation list without any public information about why this action was taken, this reduces the chances for a defamation case and other forms of retaliation against the accuser, mediators or organizers. Other communities may choose to publically shame people who are removed and publish an account of their transgressions.
However your community chooses to act, taking responsibility for the safety of participants at events is an opportunity for communities to decide what their values are and how to uphold them. These measures require a commitment to stand up and act in the defense of others. Communities that endure through times of social upheaval learn how to resolve conflict. Effective safety protocols reduce the potential for social discord and harm. Train and empower people in your community to create a system that works for your culture. Feel free to share the WVC’s manual on Radical Risk Reduction for Community Organizers. Budget carefully the collective energy you have available to resolve conflict. Build resiliency. Practice Radical Risk Reduction.