On coworking and diversity

Around the world, coworking spaces invoke the movement’s five values – collaboration, sustainability, community, openness, and accessibility – and see this as an ideal framework sufficient to create a value-driven place, and thus distinct from the supposedly old-world. But the concept seems to reach its limits as soon as it meets the absolute demand of social diversity. The topic has experienced a general revaluation in recent years, as can also be seen in the broad criticism of so-called identity politics by some corporate leaders and (conservative) politics.

Instead of ignoring or denying diversity, criticizing the recognition of other people’s needs only as avoidance of coping with ambivalence in our society, we should understand what a historical achievement the admission and appreciation of any form of being different is. For the philosopher John Stuart Mill being different, developing an individual identity that deviates from the norm is the core of our Western understanding of freedom. And freedom is the core of the coworking movement because none of our values can work without it.

#1: Open spaces are not enough.

The essence of the principle of openness realizes that a thing can be different from what one thinks or assumes, as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer put it. It is expressed through curiosity and tolerance for what is different, probably what any coworking space would ascribe to.

While it sounds honorable to welcome everyone regardless of their defining characteristics, this is not enough for an individual who deviates from the norm to feel free and comfortable. The norm is also omnipresent in open spaces if we want it or not. Most of us are the norm.

Openness defines too little to provide an orientation structure. This unspecific situation can be perceived as freedom by individuals representing the norm. But not by someone who experiences the norm’s ambivalence. A feeling that cannot be understood but only experienced.

Therefore, the goal pursued through openness, that everyone is offered the opportunity to use the spaces, must be expanded to include the principle of inclusion. Coworking spaces will only be accessible when they acknowledge, respect, and adapt to diverse people’s needs.

#2: Shelters remain necessary.

In shelters, minorities can develop culturally and connect with people who have had similar experiences without fear of discrimination and violence. The purpose of safe spaces is to prevent encroachment by a dominant majority and to protect discriminated minorities.

It is about creating an inclusive environment that tries to prevent discrimination but is aware of it. The concept emerged in the 1960s in the United States within the second feminist movement, which was primarily directed against discrimination against women, especially mothers.

First Battered Women Shelter in 1977 in New York City. 
Photo: Rosie Mackiewicz. Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection
First Battered Women Shelter in 1977 in New York City. Photo by Rosie Mackiewicz. Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection.

The concept of shelters was also adapted by other civil rights movements and has since been implemented by many identity politics groups. Today, there are shelters for people with various psychological, ethnocultural, social, or gender needs worldwide.

As long as discrimination is part of everyday life in our society, there will be a need for special shelters for minorities to emancipate themselves. In this context, exchange among those affected is a relevant experience and cannot be equally facilitated in open spaces.

#3: We need inclusive spaces.

To embed diversity in coworking spaces, perhaps as a sixth principle of the coworking movement, we need to make these spaces more inclusive. That requires a better understanding of the issue, starting with our language, how we behave, and how our behavior may affect others.

We need to understand how, for example, a place inclusive for older people or women may not be so for BIPoC* (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) or gender groups. How diversity plays out in a coworking space is something we all have yet to work out together.

There can never be a one hundred percent inclusive space, but any space can be much more inclusive than it already is today. That can start with aspects of accessibility for people with disabilities and can also mean providing spaces for mental health needs or older people’s needs.

Solidarity with the struggle of different identity-political groups for recognition and equality can be openly shown, and this can also be additionally addressed at events in a coworking space. Employees of the coworking space should also be sensitized to diversity issues.

Conclusion and outlook

Through many small steps, coworking spaces can become more open and truly inclusive to people. But the beginning is recognizing that diversity exists and the extent to which our places and our behavior are not yet prepared for it so that we understand what we still have to do to make it happen.

When members of diverse identity-political groups feel welcome in our coworking spaces, and not only as a part of our coworking communities, on equal footing with the norm, but being different is the prevailing norm in this place are closer to that goal.

It is to diversity in the coworking scene that I would like to devote this year. I will start with an interview with Tash Thomas from the »Coworking IDEA Project«, which I will publish on my blog next week. Conversation by conversation, I would like to open up the topic and make it more visible to others.

Note: If there are gross errors or inaccuracies in the text, I am sorry. English is not my native language. It is not my intention to say anything inappropriate on such a sensitive topic. I would be pleased about any hints on mistakes and how I can correct them.

Header image: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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