Erika Siao, Head of Community & Partnerships · Nov 7, 2022 · 4 min read
Photo above: Land of Unlearning at the Sum of Us festival.
I know what magic feels like: It’s spending 3 days at a queer festival in the woods where I can be completely cut off from outside communication, make new friends at the “Trans Bodies & Friends Celebration Swim” at the pool, and together attend an open-air classroom labeled “Land of Unlearning” for a workshop called “Draw Your Bits.” I’ve never felt so liberated and happy to be queer as I did that weekend. From dance parties to tear-filled speeches to campsite bonding, I experienced queer joy in big and small moments everywhere. Surrounded by other proudly out LGBTQ+ women, non-binary, and trans folks, I felt ecstatic and proud to be there. I was seen, held, and free.
It was not easy for me to find such a magical and liberating community. Against hustle culture, individualism, and rising isolation, intentional communities like the Sum of Us Festival (SOU) create spaces for the magic and joy I felt by resetting of the “rules” of human behavior. They challenge us to reinvent ways of relating to one another in kinder, more compassionate, and more cooperative ways. They create containers of self discovery, wondrous connections, and infinite possibility. They give us permission to express vulnerability and form truly authentic relationships.
This experience got me thinking: How can we create more of these liberating spaces?
From my role at the Bloom Community App in the last year and a half, I’ve worked with hundreds of community groups across the country serving LGBTQ+, ethically non-monogamous, kinky, consciousness, creative, and otherwise alternative communities. From these organizations, I’ve learned three lessons about how to spark interpersonal magic within a community:
One way events and spaces can become mini-utopias is by being very specific about who they are for. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker makes the argument for “generous exclusion” — the idea that “if everyone is invited, no one is invited.” Parker writes that bounding a gathering makes it more purposeful, and is also essential for the diversity within the group to be truly seen and held. For the Sum of Us festival, the event is specifically for “LGBTQ+ women, trans identities, and gender expansive folks.” These communities lack spaces to be themselves outside of the fewer than 25 lesbian bars left in the US, and many participants clearly appreciated the container the festival created for them to freely explore.
Marginalized groups particularly need specificity because they are often excluded — either explicitly or implicitly — from the mainstream. For instance, much of the Bay Area sex-positive scene has been dominated by white folks. In response, BIPOC groups have formed their own spaces to connect and play including Express Yourself and Kinky People of Color. Nationally, the Black and Poly Facebook group has 29k members in it to discuss polyamory from a Black-centered perspective.
Being specific does not necessarily always mean delineating by racial or gender identity, but it should challenge the hosts to set clear intentions for the space they are creating. Activity-based events do this by centering the activity and encouraging folks to connect around it. For example, The Optimist Collective hosts wellness gatherings such as breathwork workshops. In order to opt into the event, attendees must want to participate in and contribute to the shared experience, so as to not detract from the experience of other attendees who are fully showing up for that activity.
For longer-lasting spaces and communities that are larger than a single event, it helps to prominently list out a set of overarching values or principles that community members can rally around. This ensures that the space created is safe and open for the intended audience and clearly sets the tone of the community and the behavioral standards members will be expected to uphold. It also means that the people who are attracted to your community are the ones who are already aligned on core principles.
The best communities do this with clarity and intention. For instance, the Sum of Us festival repeats their 10 principles on their website, marketing materials, and throughout the festival:
These principles are both specific and open, as well as accessible to everyone who resonates. Values like “Zero Judgement” and “Celebrate Intersectionality” create an inviting and inclusive atmosphere, particularly for folks with marginalized identities or who are still figuring it out. “Choose your own Medicine” and “Creative Self-Expression” allow for an adventurous space where community members can chart their own paths, while “Community Collaboration” and “Consent Culture” set the tone of interactions between community members. “Leave No Trace” is a call-out to the event being hosted in nature, in tune with the surroundings around it.
In order to maintain the values that they’ve set out, the best communities build accountability mechanisms for members to actually uphold them. This includes defining an accountability approach and thinking through what repairs need to happen when a community violation occurs. By holding members to high and clearly stated standards, communities can create a safe and comfortable environment for members to thrive and play.
One example is Bonobo Network’s Consent & Accountability Policy. As one of the largest sex-positive communities in the Bay Area, Bonobo lists their values as “consent, care, accountability, restoration, and support” and their accountability approach as defined by “risk awareness” and “harm reduction.” They further specify that their standard is “repair” — which does not mean expecting individuals to be perfect or punishing folks for their actions, but rather “to reduce harm and foster healing and resiliency” in alignment with restorative justice principles.
In addition to defining these principles in an explicit and articulate manner, the policy outlines detailed processes for what happens when community violations occur — including who exactly is involved in inquiries and interventions, and the steps that can be expected. For example, Bonobo’s Incident Report Form is reviewed by a Support Team of community members, who have specific guidelines for their inquiries, and they even created a process where members can file reports against Bonobo leadership with an independent party without fear of retribution.
Communities that create intentional spaces for liberation specify who the space is for, clearly state their shared values, and articulate accountability mechanisms to uphold those values. These practices allow community members to be their whole, authentic selves and engage with each other in meaningful ways. In doing so, these communities give us a taste of the world we want to we want to live in. By forming cooperative structures and restorative ways of being, we can prove that we are capable of something better. As we strive for collective liberation, our communities can lay the groundwork for how we organize and treat each other.