'By Any Space Necessary' - research process
'By any space necessary' examines Black British women's free spaces in London. The research emerges from my interest in Black women's organizing and activism, personal reflections on events I attended in London - most notably the Black British Feminism Conference held in March 2015 at the British Cultural Archives in Brixton and the Black Women's Conference hosted in April by Black Women's Forum UK - and various conversations I participated in with other Black women. These events and conversations introduced me to the history of Black women's activism in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly organizations such as the Brixton Black Women's Group and OWAAD (Organisation for Women of Asian and African descent), as well as Black women involved in various forms of political engagement today.
I was especially inspired by the walking tour of Brixton, led by historian and Blue Badge tour guide, Kelly Foster, I participated in as part of the Black British Feminism Conference. During the tour, we visited 121 Railton Road SE24 (Image 01, below), the first squat started by Black women in the UK. Liz Obi, one of the original women to occupy the building, spoke of her experiences with the squat as a location for organizing meetings and the erased history of black women's influences on squatting culture in London. I became interested in the impact occupying the building had on the Black British Feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. My initial idea was to research what impact (if any) uncovering and reclaiming the history of this building could have on contemporary Black British feminism. The focus of the research shifted in response to readings on geography and resistance, in particular Pile and Keith 1997, which introduced me to networks of place within social movements (Routledge 1997; Chatterton 2010), as well as in response to additional conversations I had with other Black women about the project. The shift was also influenced by my exploration of the Olive Morris Collection at the Lambeth Archives. Through the collection, I was introduced to other places and spaces Black women created and utilized throughout the 1970s and 1980s as they developed Black British feminist identities. Using the archive helped me “build a more composite picture from different (partial) inquiries” (Savage 2011: 177) of Black women's creation and use of space in their organizing and resistances.
I was initially curious in researching the network of spaces Black British women associated with their feminism, looking at free spaces but from an overtly political point of view. I was drawn to mapping after reading about place-based histories (Hayden 1995) and wanted to explore mapping as a research method. For my first experiment with methods, I created a minimal, abstract map of Brixton (Image 02, below) to begin exploring the possibilities mapping would provide. The map was abstract to draw emphasis to the social relationships and characteristics of these spaces rather than their geographical location. I focused on Brixton in response to my initial interest in 121 Railton Road and the rich history of Black women's organizing in the area.
During this stage of the research process, I was a member of the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC), a group of mostly Black and brown women who came together to organize and host a rally to remember and celebrate the life and activism of Olive Morris. At the end of one of our bi-weekly meetings, I introduced the group to the research project and asked each person to fill in a map. The instructions on the map stated, “Please mark on the map 5 locations that you associate with Black British feminism. For each location, write the name of the place, the years you engaged there, and why it is significant to you”. The responses to the map (see Images 03, 04, and 05, below, for examples) and subsequent group discussion had a significant impact on how I continued the research process.
The first issue discussed was my use of the word “feminism”. A number of women in the group felt adverse to the term and stated that using this descriptor during the research would alienate many women who are engaged politically, whether formally or informally, but who do not identify as feminists. I was advised by the group to use “Black women's autonomous organizing” to describe Black British women's resistances. The second issue was my use of the word “location”. I used “location” in the instructions on the map but then verbally described what I wanted them to indicate as a “free space”, which illustrated the need to be cautious of the language used and challenged me to consider if I wanted to research place – physical location – or space – referring to social relations (Cresswell 2004).
As a second experiment, I contacted various Black women to ask if they would meet with me to discuss their free spaces – where such spaces were, what characteristics make up these spaces, and what impact such spaces have had on their lives. I contacted approximately 20 people via e-mail and Facebook messages and was connected to those I did not know via snowball sampling. A number of participants indicated free spaces that were not exclusively with other Black women. They stated that, for a variety of reasons, they are unable to share autonomous spaces with other Black women. Based on these conversations, I shifted from focusing specifically on Black women-only spaces to looking at Black women's free spaces more broadly. This shift created opportunity for a wider discussion about access to and visibility of such spaces as well as their possible limitations.
Mapping Black women's free spaces serves as a portal for the network of resistances that is created through these spaces. The spaces indicated on the map are only a small portion of the free spaces Black women create and maintain, and exist in context with the wider network of such spaces in London. Mapping is used throughout the research process in two central ways: “as a set of practices, as well as an end goal” (Perkins 2007: 136). Participants were able to decide which version of the abstract map they wanted to fill in, as shown below.
Images 07-09. Images of map completed by participants. Documentation photo taken: 23 August 2015
The idea of collating the responses and data from the abstract maps into a digital map format came from my goal that this could be a living project - a way for larger audiences to engage with the research and an opportunity for more Black British women to participate and add their stories to the collection.
The first version of the map recreated the template used for the paper map participants filled in (Image 10). However, this map relied too heavily on the geographical location of the free spaces.
Upon further consideration, I decided the map should portray the three main elements of the network that is created through free spaces. The first element is the clusters that are created from the geographical locations of the free spaces, indicated by the positioning of the spaces on the map. The second element is that there were a few spaces described as free spaces by multiple participants. The third element is the shared characteristics that exist between the spaces. Through these characteristics, we are able to understand what defines free spaces for the Black women who participated in the project and what characteristics are necessary to create new free spaces, thereby expanding this network. These characteristics are designated by different colors surrounding each circle and a key on the map detailing the characteristic associated with each color (Image 11, below).
The color-coded circles help to visualize what characteristics make an individual space a free space for Black British women. They are overlapping to reflect the connectivity of the radiance that emanates from this network of free spaces. Thicker circles (see detail in Image 12, below) represent multiple people describing a particular characteristic as an attribute of the space.
The research developed from a point of positive interest in free spaces and their impact on Black British women's experiences. However, using mapping and audio narratives as research methods raises interesting new questions about the fragility and temporality of free spaces, their dependence on physical space, and their accessibility. It highlights untold narratives about the free spaces Black British women have created for themselves. These narratives often remain untold simply because the women who hold them have not been asked or provided the opportunity to share (Sowinski 2015). The aim is to “communicate with” the spaces and the women who create, maintain, and thrive in them; learning and engaging with this network while also (re)placing Black British women's mark on political and contemporary resistances in London. The research process also “enables new realities” through the opportunity for the creation of more free spaces (Law and Urry 2004). This is done by showing the network that already exists, ideally inspiring others to create their own free spaces, and providing some tools through which to do this by sharing characteristics that are necessary to create a free space for Black British women.