Finding Your Windows and Mirrors

Building empathy and broadening your perspective will only happen by engaging with people with different backgrounds in a safe container.

By: Melissa Wong

One year ago, my business partner Sandy and I opened up the doors to New Women Space, an events-focused community space with all women and femme-led programming.

From day one, our conversations centered around a commitment to diversity of both programming and people. We imagined New Women Space would hold events around a multitude of topics—everything from professional development classes to social justice community organizing, creative workshops and performance-based events. We also knew we wanted the space to be inviting and accessible to people of all interests, gender identities, ages, races and personalities.

We began with both high hopes and low expectations. We didn’t know if and how our mission would resonate within the smaller radius of East Williamsburg or the larger New York City area. Who would show up? Would people show up?

Fast forward to today… New Women Space has hosted over 200 events, built an active following of 5,000+ people, and we just signed on for year two of our lease.

Looking back, we really had no idea of how important our humble space would come to be. Nor were we aware of how running a diverse space would require consistent empathy building practices.

The Importance of Empathy Building

At New Women Space, we recognize that our greatest potential to instigate positive social change is not by simply offering an approachable space, but, even more so, by inviting and creating a conscious framework for difficult conversations.

It’s easy to avoid conflict with joy-centered, positive programming around a shared interest. But what happens when the focus of an event itself is dissenting opinions?

Several months ago we hosted a Now What? Town Hall—a day of facilitated conversations about the breakdown of intersectional feminism surrounding the Women’s March. We knew this event would introduce delicate topics and that we needed a strong moderator to create a safe environment for both the panelists and attendees.

It was at this town hall that panelist Cydney Gray introduced us to “Windows and Mirrors,” a concept originally introduced to them by their friend and mentor Renée Watson, and one we now use as a framework for understanding different kinds of events.

Cydney explained that a “mirror” is when you are with other people that you can easily identify with, they may share similar life circumstances or identify with similar descriptors. A “window” is when you are looking into some other identity by being in a space with those that you don’t easily identify with. They advocated that we need both.

Mirrors help address our deep-seated human need to belong. But if we only remain in our comfort zones, we contribute to the world being more and more siloed into insular bubbles. We need windows to stretch ourselves and do the hard work of trying to understand someone else’s standpoint in order to grow.

Trying to understand where someone is coming from is critical to any design process—be it a product, service or community. A designer needs to fully understand the audience they’re designing for in order to best address their needs. This requires, at minimum, active listening and, more ideally, active participation—both of which benefit from having intentional structure.

Creating Your Container for Sensitive Conversations

Organizations need to cultivate a sense of belonging (mirrors), while also encouraging learning and growth through a diversity in thoughts and perspectives (windows).

Whether we’re talking about identity politics or trying to brainstorm the best way to solve a product or service design problem, participants need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and feelings and benefit from having a designated person to monitor the conditions for them to do so safely.

One of the biggest reasons we’ve been able to live up to our mission of making New Women Space accessible to all kinds of people is because of the safe container we’ve created.

A “container” is an environment created through a set of explicit or implicit norms that inform participants on how to make quality contributions and how to do so in such a way that allows them to discuss difficult topics without getting hurt.

Our container was not created overnight. Initially, Sandy and I selected values that resonated with us for the space and posted them on our website. However, as we’ve grown our community and learned more about what it means to lead in a way that serves others, we’ve had to embody our values in practice.

What follows are the steps we’ve taken to create a safe container for empathy building conversations and how you can do the same in your place of work or play.

Ask For Input

Collaboratively create community guidelines.

We were delighted when our call for programming coordinators resulted in the onboarding of 15 community organizers who agreed to help bring unique and varied events to New Women Space.

At our onboarding for Program Coordinators, we asked for their help in drafting the community guidelines for behavior expectations at New Women Space events. Their suggestions were conglomerated and helped us to create our master community guidelines, which are now posted throughout the space.

As organizations scale, we see a trend of codifying culture in handbooks. It’s unrealistic to think that just because a company says that it has a set of values, there will not be subgroups within an organization with different perspectives on how that company embodies those values. To create greater enrollment from more members in your organization, simply invite fellow peers and employees to take part in the creation process of your guidelines or handbook. This happens by surveying any available opportunities for more collaboration to be introduced to company practices, rituals and codified language.

Hold People Accountable

Designate moderators to enforce community guidelines.

It’s great to have a shiny, collaborative list of guidelines or company values. But they’re absolutely useless if not put into practice. This is where trained facilitators play a critical role.

Facilitators or moderators have the job of making sure that the guidelines are adhered to. They often act as mediators in the event that people on different sides of an issue become heated or start interacting in an unproductive way. You can birth new moderators by training your management teams in conflict resolution, facilitation and de-escalation practices.

At New Women Space, we have held a de-escalation training for our programming coordinators and volunteer staff. We’ve also sent a call out to our volunteer list for those willing to help be “vibe moderators and safety escorts” for particularly sensitive events. Moderators are asked to help check on any attendees that are feeling uncomfortable and wish to speak to someone or to safely walk them somewhere.

Even if no need for de-escalation arises, or a moderator goes uncalled upon, simply knowing that they’re there can make people feel collectively more at ease.

Practice Often

Create opportunities where people can experience “windows” into others’ experiences.

Sandy and I were struck by the “Windows and Mirrors” framing as a way to understand the kinds of groups we host at New Women Space. It made us think more seriously about how we could actually encourage more perspective-sharing events like the Now What? Townhall to take place.

Building empathy and broadening your perspective will only happen by engaging with people with different backgrounds. We aim to be a place where that can happen safely and believe anyone involved in the creation of in-person or digital spaces can too.

So, How Is Your Organization Doing?

Where are you creating safe containers for groups to meet and be open/brave with one another, for them to feel seen and heard?

Where are you creating safe containers for different stakeholders to gather, share perspectives, ask questions, voice dissent and walk away with more empathy?

If the answer to these questions is “nowhere…,” where can you welcome more opportunities for you and your peers to practice empathy building? And what is holding you back from doing so?



About Melissa Wong:

Melissa Wong is driven by the desire to make meaningful connections between people in a time of beeps and bops. She spends most of her time co-running New Women Space, a community event space that houses accessible, life-affirming programming led by self-identified women, femme, queer, trans and gender nonconforming people living in New York City. She has worked for an array of hospitality businesses, and has supported creative communities like Kickstarter, SoundCloud and Seth Godin’s altMBA alumni. Her current quandary: How to live a less calendared life?

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