It is not uncommon that people pass by life without taking the time and space to actually feel what they are feeling. Whether that is because of how big and crowded our cities are, because of all the information being bombarded at us by social media or simply because no one taught us its importance or how to do it, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that education about and empowerment of our emotional capabilities are not modern society’s fortes.
The popularization of the idea of man as a rational being not only pushed our emotions away from our attention but also demeaned them. In the dichotomies that shape our lives, rationality and its built-in false idea of neutrality was associated with power, strength and masculinity, and was portrayed as something valuable. While sensibility and emotions were associated with vulnerability, fragility, femininity and nature – aspects most often uninvited to the spotlight of community life in patriarchal societies, at least not in celebratory ways.
The effects of that frame are infinite, and they cut through varied dimensions of our lives. From our intimate struggles to how we structure the foundation of our communities, such as the frames we create for providing education or health, for example.
Our raw emotions and our sensibility are often greeted as persona non grata, especially in our public lives. Despite that, undeniably present in us, they are the ignition for our thoughts and decisions. And so, the emotions we have are at the roots of how we conceive space and how we occupy it.
Consequently, empowering people with access to tools that support the listening and recognition of their emotions, as well as effective and meaningful communication, promotes the creation of more inclusive spaces.
In July 2023 Namla partnered up with De Meevaart in a joint effort to investigate social inclusion in the neighborhood home in the Indische Buurt, located on the east side of Amsterdam. The format – a boot camp for fast ethnography – combined methods from anthropology and design into a framework that was sharp, objective and strict, particularly when it comes to time. Participant groups had to then come up with an intervention for the proposed topic, based on what they could gather from it after a week of research.
In a group formed by six anthropologists and one artist, the atmosphere that set the tone for the beginning of this journey was of doubt, confusion and apprehension.
De Meevaart is a buurthuis, or a ‘neighborhood home’, as some of my informants translated. In its English translation ‘meevaart’ means “to sail together” and what this bottom-up initiative does is to offer space, and gather initiatives and members of the local community that are interested in offering or participating in a myriad of activities such as dancing, cooking and art or language classes. De Meevaart’s goal is to unite people and move together towards a more solidary future.
While writing this I am reminded of the words used by the organization’s director when explaining to me what the goal of De Meevaart was:
‘The goal is that people walk out better than they came in’
Beautiful, and simple as that. Or at least that’s what he made it sound like.
I entered the space of De Meevaart thinking about inclusivity. I remembered being there before and feeling good, but the memory didn’t have much more definition than that. What does that feel like, to me? I think about feeling welcomed with everything that I am and that I am not. I think about feeling like I am important to those around me, and that how I feel matters. I think about being able to participate in things that make life meaningful to me.
My body warms up with the images that come up, following my thoughts, when I imagine those needs being cared for.
The director of the buurthuis joined us in the first hours of the boot camp to fill us in on their perspective of the issue. The director had not been born in the Netherlands but grew up here. He lived most of his life in Amsterdam and had been active in the neighborhood initiatives taking place in the Indische buurt for at least half a decade. A joyful person, he showed up to work in relaxed jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops – which altogether gave me the impression that he must live nearby as if anything else he might need besides those three items of clothing would be either right there at De Meevaart or in reach just across the street. It seemed to me that he was a very approachable person, an impression that was confirmed, in the following days while I was there, both by the observations of my colleagues as well as my own and by the remarks made by visitors and staff with whom I spoke.
When I asked the director of De Meevaart what inclusivity meant for him, he said he believed a place was inclusive when you’d walk into it and “feel like your senses have been stimulated in a positive way”. His answer was jaw-dropping to me. I was completely surprised by the sensibility of it. In fact, as soon as I heard it, I was transported to the warmth I felt when I thought about what inclusivity meant to me.
Having trailed a path in which I moved through many frames and knowledge that emphasize the living body and the embodiment of experiences has made me aware of a systemic alienation from the body. In my experience, it is still rare that someone will explain something such as ‘inclusivity’ by using the senses, which is why I was so surprised by his answer. I felt a tingling sensation run through my body, which I understood as the excitement of feeling connected to him and believing that our way of looking at things was perhaps closer than it seemed.
Fieldwork – the tension space
My team for this week’s challenge consisted of myself and one research partner. We shared a migrant path, both of us coming from an economically less privileged country where we had a reasonably privileged life that did not suffice, and which we decided to trade for a life as a student migrant in the Netherlands, with all its privileges and hassles. Besides that, our stories had other parallel points, such as a similar taste for music venues and outfits, as pointed out by some of our colleagues. Most importantly, we had both been working for the same harm reduction organization, a Dutch NGO whose mission is to promote health and increase the legal status of people who use drugs.
His path trailed through psychology, anthropology and harm reduction, and mine through anthropology, harm reduction and non-violent communication. Through different but similar paths we both learned to pay attention to emotions, communication and embodied experiences. When the time came to choose a research topic we were both intuitively attracted to the possibility of approaching social inclusion by looking at the inclusivity of people who are already a part of that community, which allowed us to make the most of our stay and proximity to the research field.
When introducing the concerns regarding social inclusion to the research teams the director of De Meevaart brought up the disconnection between groups that form the Meevaart’s community as a trigger or catalyst for conflict. The lack of connection was perceived as something that could stir conflict, at worst, and that at best, was of no help preventing them. He moved on to tell us a story about a conflict that came up between distinct groups. This story was for my partner and me the trigger that steered our research towards conflict. What kind of impact do conflicts have on inclusivity? How do conflict, and conflict management strategies affect inclusivity?
While the director moved on to tell us more about his perception of inclusivity it became clear that many tensions that take place in De Meevaart are obstacles to inclusivity. The multitude of nationalities that come together in the buurthuisonly begins to point out the diversity in place. And as usual, with differences come disagreements, and tension.
We live in a world dominated by brutal inequality, where different value systems are in power and where people might have competing interests, or simply very different ideas and desires. Someone’s idea of a safe space might be a threatening scenario for someone else. Securing inclusivity in such contexts is complex, and in De Meevaart the same conditions apply. So inclusivity is not necessarily a smooth process – and it will most often bring up friction and conflict. How do we deal with those?
We followed the trail of conflict management experiences as a gateway to investigate social inclusion. When we started interviewing people in De Meevaaart It became noticeable how asking about conflict was a trigger for discomfort. People were most often either dismissive, showing a desire to get off topic, or they would make associations with escalated conflict. No one immediately mentioned lower-level conflicts. The stories I heard mentioned “drug abuse”, “police”, “expulsion” and so on, prior to “disagreements”, “discomfort” or “miscommunication”. Despite that, we ended up learning from staff and volunteers that it was often harder to deal with minor conflicts, or frictions, as we later started calling them.
Frictions are lower-level conflicts, situations of discomfort without a clear-cut response or immediate solution. When a drunk visitor became aggressive to one of the employees, or when one verbally assaulted another, behaviors that clearly disregarded the rules, the staff in charge of safekeeping seemed to find it easier to manage the situation. There was a protocol to follow and guidelines for it.
However, in situations of discomfort or disagreement in which actions were not explicitly against the rules, or could not easily be judged as wrongdoing, it was harder to care for it.
That’s where we turned our focus to emotions.
I will share one of the stories we heard that can paint a good picture of friction. One frequent visitor of the center was an older woman from the neighborhood who appeared to bother other visitors. How she approached them, her body odor, and her appearance, were all things mentioned by the person who told me this story as things they believed bothered others. I remember the director telling me that inclusivity is when people’s senses are stimulated in positive ways. How can staff and volunteers care for everybody’s senses, in this case? According to the same staff member, the woman was also very kind and generous. They told me their affection for her and their belief that she should feel welcome in the buurthuis made it hard for the team to deal with the complaints they heard about her. In this conflict, or friction, those responsible for safekeeping the place felt the tension between the comfort of some visitors and the somehow annoying presence of someone they also cared for needed to be addressed.
We looked into what kind of support was offered for staff and volunteers to deal with similar situations. Training was indeed offered to prepare them to deal with conflicts. However, it did not suffice to support them when dealing with friction. As a result, when people are emotionally implicated in friction, systematic problem-solving skills that do not account for their emotions leave them hanging.
When hearing the stories we heard in our fieldwork, we realized that the challenge to inclusivity we’d like to work on was how to improve the quality of people’s experiences when dealing with friction and the emotions that arise from it. We decided that our intervention would approach emotional knowledge and supporting language and communication approaches.
How can we help them?
Concept and Product
We narrowed down a few things we believed could help them come a long way. The first was to empower people to self-regulate. The second was to empower people to communicate their emotions with assertiveness. The third was to have a clear message about the desires and goals of De Meevaart for the communication of the community.
To frame our solution we were inspired by the window of tolerance, something that my partner and I know from our times working with harm reduction. The Window of Tolerance is a term and concept based on neuroscience that describes the optimal “zone” in which we can exist. That zone is characterized as the space in which we can self-regulate, be curious in the face of discomfort and retain our sense of presence. Therefore we wanted to offer staff and volunteers access to tools that would help them increase their window of tolerance. We based our proposal on techniques and knowledge deriving from mindfulness, also used in harm reduction interventions, which is a technique that aims to bring practitioners to an advanced state of awareness of the present, paying attention to feelings or emotions, sensations and the environment. Non-violent communication, an approach to communication that focuses on non-violence and that is based on core concepts and principles such as the universal human needs, the need for connection and contribution in communication, and the premise of the interdependence of people, was also established as a pillar for our intervention.
Even though we were focusing on staff and volunteers, we understood that efforts would likely not yield much improvement if visitors were left out of this process. So we wanted to create a product that would cater for staff, volunteers and visitors as well.
We decided to create a booklet that would offer an introduction to the vocabulary and practices of non-violent communication and mindfulness. Besides that, the booklet should also be a means for De Meevaart to explicitly share with the community their ideals for communication. The idea was the booklet could give content about emotional knowledge and point out ways in which people could practice more assertive emotional communication, first independently as awareness and self-regulation, and then with others when they would exchange and negotiate strategies to address any friction together. The graphics and format were meant to give the booklet versatile features, such as dividing the content into pages that could stand alone and be used as posters, which could be spread on the walls of De Meevaart.
When testing the product, a couple of things came to our attention.
The first was input from a designer who was there to help with prototyping. They pointed out the possibility of using colors and non-written (graphic)signs to be able to present the content even to an illiterate audience. That instigated in us a desire to pursue the investigation of which other formats we could use to effectively share the content we had, in order to make it more inclusive. Unfortunately, the timeline of our bootcamp did not allow for us to go further with this, but it was noted as one of the biggest limitations of our proposal, and possibly one of the priorities for further investigation.
The other important input we had was that many people reported that the content was not new to them and that they already knew those things but other people didn’t, and that made it a good and relevant intervention. To me, this feedback had a reassuring effect. It reassured my confidence in the idea that most people understand the value and the positive effects of assertive communication, even if they might not have the resources to see it through. The fact that it was recognizable also points to the possibility of it being easier to assimilate.
In our “messy kitchen” – a beautiful way the organizers of the boot camp used to name the messy, and sometimes ugly, part of the process – we were exposed to the possibility of framing a “not-to-big of a problem”. The input that the content was known touches on a concern we had during the process, which was simply: “What if our problem is not big enough?” In a way, to me, this concern connects to the same thought process that made people think of escalated conflicts before considering friction as something worth the attention. But sometimes the smallest or most delicate efforts can be the revolutionary ones. What we propose with our intervention is that people do not take for granted the impact that tension and friction have on inclusivity. Imagine the impact of never again fighting over the dirty dishes. Does that make you envision a positive impact worth pursuing, or not? Besides, if we are able to deal with minor-level conflicts, or friction, that sure informs us and prepares us to deal with escalated conflicts.
Rapid ethnography has many challenges. However, despite the impression that it is too different from longer ethnographic research, the limitations are quite similar. Research will always be insufficient, whether it takes ten days or ten years. Reality is constantly changing and we are not able to keep up with it, nor would we be able to comprehend it and describe it fully at any time. We will always lack. Regardless, that should not push us out of doing it. It will always be insufficient, but it might just as well be worth it.
What moves me towards the desire to propose this intervention is the understanding that interventions to increase inclusivity have to aim to include people with everything they are. There is no such thing as partial inclusivity. To include people while not including and welcoming their emotions is not partial inclusivity, it is not inclusivity at all.
Our bodies are a vital expression of our existence, and the emotions we feel can not be put apart from any of our lived experiences. Once we can deal with our emotions and the vulnerability it takes to express them by securing a safe space for connection and communication, we will really be on our way to co-create truly inclusive spaces.