Creating Our Own Spaces - Intersectional Co-Working At BIWOC* Rising

By Janice Faith Heinrich
Art by BIWOC* Rising

With over 150 coworking spaces – a number that is still growing – Berlin has become the European pioneer of a new working culture. Unfortunately it’s not a surprise that these are spaces where discrimimation is on the agenda and women*, transgender and non-binary individuals cannot work and connect safely. Loubna Messaoudi recognised this lack of space and brought BIWOC Rising* into life.

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It’s Berlin’s first intersectional co-working and community space for BIW*OC and TIN*BIPOC and aims to promote social, professional and economic advancement through an intersectional community by creating a safe(r) work and social club. DADDY met Loubna (she/her) and staff member Lin Diaz Maceo (they/them) about co-working spaces, founding a non-profit in Germany, the future of BIWOC rising and more.

What was the last job you did/project you worked on before launching BIWOC* Rising? What have your personal experiences in the workplace been so far?

Loubna: I think one of the reasons why I founded BIWOC* Rising was experiencing racism at my previous workplace, a white NGO. They claimed to have an anti-racism and intersectionality focus but in the end, I got pushed out of the workplace. This experience was the tipping point for me. I knew that other branches and workplaces were racist, sexist, and more. But they weren’t pretending to be any different. The experience shocked me because they were always pointing fingers at other people. But when it came to them, even though they knew that what they were doing was racist, they just said “Well, we have to do what's best for us”. Then I knew that there’s no workplace in the mainstream spectrum that has open structures, that is going to be a place where I would like to work. So I needed to create that workplace myself.

Lin: I can relate to that experience. I used to work in hospitality, business and the media industry and what I noticed is that in a lot of places I became the token WOC. I'm good enough for them to say, “We have employed a Latine, we have employed a genderfluid person, a disabled person… but they never did anything to make my job easier. I had to work twice as hard to be acknowledged in the same way as my average white, able-bodied, cis co-workers. They just showed up, did their job, and were given the same or more recognition as well as a higher salary and an unlimited contract. I had to fight for the bare minimum, which almost pushed me towards a burnout.

When I started at BIWOC* Rising, I noticed a lot of freedom but also that I had to unlearn a lot of things I've internalized about myself. For example how I define work, productivity, community and my own value. Questions like how do I want to show up to work and how do I want to be treated there? I now have the opportunity to explore the answers and regain self-confidence.

Tell us a little bit about how BIWOC* Rising came to be. Why do you think now is an important time? 

Loubna: There are definitely many reasons. One is that we need a work environment that's actually designed for us. White structures, even if they have the best intentions, aren’t really for us because we aren’t sitting at the decision making tables. We need exclusive spaces so we can learn how that works, learn more about ourselves and gain that confidence that Lin was also talking about. If you enter a room and you can identify yourself with each person in there, it’s so different from entering a space as the only person that’s going to be seen as “other”.  

Another reason why we need more spaces like ours is gentrification. We are being pushed out from the city center. Kreuzberg/Neukölln was historically built by migrants and artists and didn't have that capitalistic background before it was sold to investors. Now people are pushed out not only from their homes, but also from their workplaces. Places like flower shops and nail salons which are mostly owned by women or people of colour. We are losing a lot if we are not occupying the space we need. We are hoping that we are going to build a strong network together with our cooperation partners, other groups, collectives and associations that are already doing this work so we can grow together and become more and more independent of this patriarchal, racist capitalistic system.

Lin: I want to come back to the question of why this space is important right now. When we talk to our co-workers, a lot of them have families waiting at home – either the ones they grew up with or their chosen families. Working from home is a lot more difficult for them than for example their white colleagues. 

A lot have also been excluded from opportunities due to the pandemic, especially since many of them work as freelancers and within artistic communities. They told us that they needed a space where they could work without being observed and where they could feel safe because most other spaces couldn’t provide this. Especially now, during the pandemic, it was important to us to create a space for our community.

Why do you think co-working spaces are so important? What makes a good co-working space and what can we do to make them safer?

Loubna: Safer spaces are a really big topic for us and we know that this is going to be a continuous learning process. We opened our doors on October 1st and with more people coming in there are lots of different needs that have to be met and considered. At the moment we are offering a mandatory awareness workshop with our cooperation partners so we can learn to understand what each person needs to feel safe and to create a code of conduct together. We just had that workshop last week for the first time and will continue to do so regularly, in order to have these rules about how to use the space and how to treat each other so that everyone feels safe. Of course mistakes will be made but I hope that this is a space where it is safe enough to unlearn and learn new things. With that, we will grow more and more and the space will become safer. We aren’t claiming that we already have the solution for everything straight away. But this is how we want to build this network and community together. We really want to work on a level with our communities so we are involving everybody who wants to be involved.

Lin: Community is at the center of everything which means we need to have these decentralisation processes. That includes centering the needs and boundaries of our community and to actually listen to each other. We need to reflect where we may have overstepped boundaries or where there are potential conflicts and how we can work with conflict in a good way. Conflicts will come up because there is no safe space in itself, there are only safer spaces and those spaces need to include conflict.

How are you making BIWOC* Rising accessible?

Loubna: We are still working on that, because right now accessibility isn’t perfect. The most obvious one is entering the space which isn’t always easy. We have a lift, but it is a transportation lift which means people can't just use it as they please. They need to contact us and we need to open the door and help them get up. This is already limiting accessibility and then the bathrooms aren’t wheelchair accessible either. We are trying to get funding to change these issues, hopefully next year but unfortunately there are limits to our resources at the moment. 

Some of our members needed a screen so we got one or two but we don’t have the money to provide laptops, for example. If we have people who need that, we hope they feel comfortable enough to tell us and then we’ll have to see if we can get enough donations and find cooperation partners to finance these. This topic is very important to us because we do claim to be intersectional and we want to be that as far as we can, but we do have limits. We definitely hope that we will get more and more inclusive over time and have the accessibility to become truly inclusive one day.

What was finding a place for BIWOC* Rising like?

 

Loubna: It was a pretty stressful process, especially because everything needed to be done so fast. When we had that Okay for our fundings we needed to find something straight away. Since there are no laws that protect people who are looking for commercial spaces, the landlords can do whatever they want. We had been promised an affordable but they left us hanging for weeks, didn’t respond and then all of a sudden almost doubled the price. In the end, we now have this space, which we just found online. It is very expensive and we wouldn't be able to afford it without any funding. And because we only have a limited contract there's always the risk that we might get kicked out in a few years and they are also able to raise the rent as high as they please. If they do that, we will have to leave anyway. All in all it’s really hard to afford a small business in Berlin.

Lin: This also reveals a gentrification wall because if we’re for example talking about the issue of accessibility, spaces that are even level are more expensive than other spaces and it depends on who rents it out. If we’re talking about mobility issues and chronically ill people, we have to look at old buildings. They often have uneven steps or certain features that are only made for able-bodied people, which makes accessing the space very difficult.

What is it like to found a business as QTI*BIWOC in Germany?

Loubna: From the beginning, it was clear for me that this is a nonprofit project because it is very important to have spaces that are financially accessible. We are offering this space free of charge on a donation basis, so whoever is able to donate is welcome to, and whoever isn’t can still use the spaces they need to. It’s different from having a for-profit business because we are depending on fundings and grants. This is really tough, especially as a feminist group because only 2% of the grants spectrum is going to feminists projects. And that number includes white feminists, so we have no idea how the number really is for feminists of color. Nevertheless, we were lucky to receive fundings from Demokratie Leben, which gives us the safety to actually build something for the next three and a half years. 

We've always been seen as a niche. It’s a lot of work to educate people along the way and to explain why this space is necessary. You are always surrounded by white people because they’re the ones with the money, the ones giving away the grants… Everything that relates to finance is pretty much a white space. I had a few encounters where I really thought, I don't want to be here anymore, but there were also a few that surprised me, where people were actually listening. Hopefully they’re also going to educate their peers and then there’s going to be a system change at some point.

Let’s get to know your team. How did you find each other and how do you work together?

Loubna: We’re still in the process of building our structures. I’ve been here since the beginning, which was two years ago. Cérise Carson has been organising our mentoring program since July. When we got the funding in early August I quickly started looking for the right people to join our team. We made an announcement on Instagram, Facebook, and some other accounts and that’s how we found Lin who’s taking over social media, PR and many other things. Lana, is the program manager for BIWOC* Impact. We also have an assistant, July. She's a student and helps out with the daily stuff. We are still in the process of getting to know each other, building everything up from scratch. It takes a lot of time and some overtime as well but it really is a great team and I couldn’t be happier. For the first time I feel completely safe within my work space.

Lin: I was looking for jobs in the middle of writing my MA thesis and I was freaking out. The big question was: where do I actually want to work? Where can I work authentically, without having to hide any of my identities in order to make other people feel comfortable. Then a friend of mine sent me BIWOC* Rising’s IG post and I dropped everything to make the video for the application. They invited me for an interview and already made me feel so safe, that I knew immediately: this is the space I want to work in. I get along with the team really well and I know that I can safely utter my needs and boundaries and they will be heard and accepted. Working here is a very big thing for me.

Tell us a little bit about your mentoring program. How does it work? Did you have any mentors growing up? 

Loubna: Unfortunately I didn’t have any mentors myself and that is exactly why this idea came up. Talking to a lot of people of colour, especially women and migrants of colour it became apparent that we often go through the same difficulties. Unfortunately it feels like each generation is starting again from the beginning instead of learning from each other which is because we don't have these visible structures in our communities and are lacking resources. Both of those are systematic problems. There are a lot of amazing people who have been doing work here in Berlin since the 80s but the new generations just don't know that. That's why we had this idea to bring people from different generations together so they can learn from each other. It’s especially important for young people who are still looking for guidance, and it doesn't matter what it is specifically. It could be work-related, i.e. how to write applications, but also life-related… We're trying to find mentors and mentees who fit together. It’s not so easy to find mentors though, because it is free labour and time is often an issue. Our communities are already doing so much care work and volunteer work that's mostly not seen by the mainstream. The mentors who don’t have so much time can opt in to do a one-time event like a workshop with several mentees and we also have a mentor speed dating format where we have a few mentors and the mentees rotate so they can all meet each other.  The idea is really to make our work visible and provide representation for the younger generations.

You’ve already organised several workshops and networking events. How have those been received so far? What are some topics you’d really like to cover or that people would like you to cover in the future?

Loubna: What people request changes frequently but I have the feeling that a lot of people in our community are coming from the artistic area, so everything that has to do with writing is on top of the list. However, we are trying to cover as many things as we can. We do have a focus on empowerment in the labor market and workplaces because I think there is a lack of that so far. Soon we’ll have a workshop with a lawyer about the anti discrimination law so that people actually know what they can do when things go wrong at the workplace. What we hope for is that people will come to us more and more with requests for what they want because like I said, this is a community space and we don't want to decide for everybody. Right now we have this space as a resource we want to share, so everyone who wants to facilitate a workshop or event with their topics of interest and expertise is welcome to do so.

You’re also offering Intersectional Anti-Bias and Empowerment Training. What are your experiences with companies so far? Is there an actual willingness to learn and understand? What do you think companies need to do to avoid tokenism and actually embrace diversity and inclusivity?

Loubna: We’re planning to follow two different paths. One is really focusing on our community because I really feel like we have results straight away and aren’t wasting our energy. Secondly, since a lot of people are asking us for education anyway and we don’t want to do that for free, we are also offering workshops and training.

The results have been really mixed. I was fairly surprised by one bigger, international company where people were very willing to learn and had even done some of their own homework. It’s still hard because the change those companies need has to come from the top. They really have to change their structures which is a process that won’t be done overnight. What they need is commitment, focus and at best a five-year-plan. Most of the companies want to see results right now. They look around and realise that they’re not so diverse, so they want to know how they can hire more people of colour. That is obviously not the solution so we have to ask them how they’re going to offer these people a safer space. There even was an incident where other facilitators had racist encounters with members of the company during an anti-racist training. Also a lot of people don’t want to pay accordingly or claim they don’t have the budget for these kinds of training. So everyone wants the image of diversity but I would say that in Germany we’re still so far away from actual diversity and the work, resources and education that’s behind that. 

Lin: In the end it’s usually about what the leadership of a company finds important and what not. At one of my former workplaces they claimed that they didn’t have the budget for anti-racism and mental health workshops. So I said, BIPOC, especially trans and disabled women* of colour are the most targeted people in the workplace and they need access to mental health providers. It’s all connected. Especially during the pandemic I’ve witnessed that many employers expect their employees to show up resilient and the same as before but they do nothing to create a safer space. To me, it comes down to commitment. How committed are they to actually reflect, to re-examine their power structures and to redistribute power and wealth? It’s an unlearning process that includes becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s transformative justice. 

Loubna: It’s not only that they’re uncomfortable with unlearing stuff, it’s also about power. If you want to change something you have to change its structure, which is also going to change the power dynamics. “Power-sharing” is a new, trending term – and people are scared of it. Even though there’s no mention of “giving up power,” that’s what they hear. People who are in power don’t want to change that, which is why it’s so difficult for women* to get leading positions, for example.

What are your visions for the future of BIWOC Rising? Do you want to focus on the local for now or are you planning to make this a national/international network at some point?

Loubna: The vision is to expand what we have, because BIWOC* Rising is about building networks and community in order to fight existing power dynamics and structures like the patriarchy, racism and capitalism. We want to build this network Europe-wide because we all have similar issues with the people who are in power. We want to grow and build our own little systems so we don’t have to depend on the existing ones. Of course BIWOC* Rising can’t do this alone but hopefully we will have a lot of cooperation partners and organisations and learn how to put our resources together, to work on the same thing at the same time instead of being divided in little groups. We really have to learn to put our egos aside and make space. Intersectionality isn’t just between BIPOC’s and white people but amongst everyone who has a privilege and can use this privilege to help other people. I hope BIWOC* Rising can be a space for this, first in Berlin and then at some point internationally. 

Lin: I see BIWOC* Rising as a place for growth. Somewhere where we can show up, be seen, be heard and connect with each other. I want this to be a nourishing space, a vital space where people can come together and create amazing things.

Photography by: Nella Aguessy @bigmotha

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