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  • Liam Salmon

When Your Safe Space Grievance Turns Into a 90-Day Probation




 

Welcome back to the hypothetical situation. A general disclaimer that this is a work of fiction. Any events described are, at best, an amalgam of several different stories and perspectives. But realistically - anything that may resemble a real event is purely coincidental.


That being said, let's dive in.


As seen in the last episode:

  • You've witnessed a safe space violation from an artistic leader.

  • You email the artistic leader asking for clarification, and they ask you to talk to them in their office. You respectfully declined because those interactions, those one-on-one conversations, are, realistically, part of a series of other safe space violations.

  • They insist on meeting in person.


This is where you make a big mistake: you suggest to them that a board member should be present for this meeting and give them the agency to schedule this meeting themselves. At this point, you've gone through at least a year of self-gaslighting yourself, blaming yourself for all of the crappy working conflicts you've had with them for over a year, and still have a shard of belief inside of yourself: maybe all of this can be fixed.


It turns out that the leader and board members have a series of preparatory meetings while you go through two weeks of radio silence.


If you could go back and do things differently, you'd contact the board member yourself and go over the artistic leader's head entirely. Looking back now, you can admit that what stopped you from doing this in the first place was a misplaced sense of loyalty. Or perhaps not misplaced. However, giving the leader this amount of freedom only ends up backfiring later.


Later, looking back on it now, you wonder if you should report them to equity. Not because you want to, but because it doesn't seem like there's literally any other route available at all.


Regardless, rehearsal continues. You avoid each other or try to be as cordial as possible. All the while, the date will dwell on you: next Wednesday. Next Wednesday two representatives from the board, the executive director, and the artistic leader will meet with you in the board room.


During this time, you're early one day for rehearsal, so you set up your laptop and plug away some emails. You occasionally chat friendly with the executive director. A surprise: the artistic leader shows up early and is surprised you're there so early.


Later that day, you receive a passive-aggressive e-mail saying that "this is a workplace" and that "you are not welcome in the office until the meeting." You leave the e-mail unanswered but invite the leader over for donuts you bought the show's team later that day. The artistic leader declines.


It's Wednesday.


You were so anxious you barely slept. But you foresaw how much anxiety and mental load this meeting would have on you, so you did a very smart thing. You wrote out responses to all the hypothetical scenarios in your head. Yes - you disasterize. You think of the worst. You write your responses on paper for many different possible outcomes.


It's a good thing you did.


The board members explain that 'one of them is there for you and the other one is there for the artistic leader.' This is, at best, a lie. They presented a full agenda for this conversation in front of you, one that they neglected to send you beforehand. Isn't this supposed to be about your safe space grievance?


From the agenda - most, if not all, of your worst fears were confirmed. So you swallow your fear and get ready to fight.


"I am surprised to see an agenda when I wasn't presented to me before this point," you say, verbalizing and telegraphing every single part of your thought process.


What follows is a series of ostensibly meaningless words.


One board member's statement, "We appreciate the faith you have in this organization by initiating this meeting today," sticks out to you even today. That sentence remains carved in the back of your head. Because now, truly, you have no faith in this organization's leadership or board.


The leader reads out a pre-typed apology that amounts to: "I'm sorry you were upset."


But you're in fight mode. "That wasn't a real apology," you actually say.


Normally you're a pretty docile person. Quiet even. That's not the you that you present today. You are the only advocate you have in that room. So: you advocate.


After about 10 minutes, the conversation shifts to you and your 'performance.' Spoilers: one of the takeaways from this conversation is that you are put on a 90-day probation.


Through all of this, you think: okay, fine. Let's turn over a new leaf. Let's actually try. The fallacy of this hopeful thought is that the artistic leader will also try - like even at all. For the entire 90-day probation, the artistic leader gives you the silent treatment and refuses to really acknowledge your presence.


So, towards the end of the 90 days, you hand in your resignation, which, somehow, surprises everyone.


Throughout this time: the executive director slowly realizes what's happening and actually encourages you to wait until the artistic leader fires you so you can sue for wrongful termination.


The executive director becomes, at least, someone you can commiserate with through a three-month slog. But overall, a fire burns inside of you: You know you're right. You know you were mistreated. It's black and white at this point—cartoonish even.


So you leave on to other pastures.


You overhear the executive director also trying to initiate a safe space complaint after you leave. They end up finding another job, and two board members resign.


And the artistic leader remains an artistic leader to this day.


But what you have now is a list of people you know you can never trust: silent board members and a person you still don't really understand to this day.


 

This is an extreme version of the reality of what it looks like when you follow through many theatre's safe space grievance procedures. This story isn't based on just one event, or indeed any events at all. Any references or similarities to actual events are purely coincidental and are instead meant to encapsulate several artists' experiences, thoughts, and safe space conflicts.


So where does that leave us? What can we do in the face of the injustice these systems have on so many, especially young, artists?


Continue fighting. Continue advocating. And overall: be smart out there.


You should assume:

  • A board never has your back.

  • HR is on the side of management until proven otherwise. (Actions speak louder than words).

  • The offender will never 'play fair' and always try to stack the odds in their favour.


It's not the most optimistic or encouraging takeaway, but it is realistic. We have to stop letting people get away with these things. If that means fighting and bringing out a side of yourself, a strength you never really thought existed, then sometimes that's what it takes.


One of the biggest takeaways from an experience like this is finding your strength. You are always stronger than they think you are. And most of the time, they will do anything in their power to demean you, make you feel small, and try to make you forget that strength you have.

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