In part one of this two-part “Feminist Fredericton” series, I introduced Leslie Kern’s Feminist City (Between the Lines Press, 2019) and interviewed city councillor Kate Rogers. In this second and final part, I ask Kylie Bergfalk, the Research Coordinator for Sexual Violence New Brunswick and board member of the NB Media Co-op, about how she perceives Kern’s book to be applicable both to her life of activism and community support, and to Fredericton more broadly.
Social caring networks are at the heart of Feminist City. Kern illuminates relationship-building as the tenet of safe and accessible spaces. When I spoke with Kern in April, she told me that “different kinds of kinship networks can be a way of thinking about how we set up our cities, our social relationships, and our social safety nets in ways that don’t rely so heavily on the traditional, hetero-patriarchal family with all of its issues and problems. If we can imagine our cities as places where everybody has a variety of options of family, then the potential for safety in a broad sense is really enhanced by making those relationships more robust and better supported by our cities.”
Kern speaks directly to gendered violence in Feminist City in a chapter titled “City of Fear.” She writes, “The constant…threat of violence mixed with daily harassment shapes women’s urban lives in countless conscious and unconscious ways. Just as workplace harassment chases women out of positions of power and erases their contributions to science, politics, art, and culture, the spectre of urban violence limits women’s choices, power, and economic opportunities.”
About the #MeToo movement, Kern writes of “rape myths,” the false ideas that not only perpetuate sexual violence but also enforce victim blaming in lieu of approaching survivors with compassion and necessary, specialized care. Rape myths also carry an embedded geography—the “mental map of safety and danger that every woman carries in her mind. ‘What were you doing in that neighbourhood? At that bar? Waiting alone for a bus?’ ‘Why were you walking alone at night?’ ‘Why did you take a shortcut?’ We anticipate these questions and they shape our mental maps as much as any actual threat.”
Bergfalk said that the networks she has and has not been able to create and develop, first in Toronto and subsequently here in Fredericton, have been integral to her perceptions and experiences of urban safety and freedom. “Thinking about communities of friendships,” Bergfalk said, “I didn’t encounter them in Toronto. The safety concerns in the two cities are, perhaps, not so different. As a woman, you have to protect yourself in an urban space. In Fredericton, where the principles and practices of feminist cities are able to thrive, I’ve been able to become less guarded and can have positive interactions with people on the streets.”
In her role at SVNB, Bergfalk recognizes the power of showing up, of building and maintaining relational networks: “Preventative work is funded provincially, but there is room at the city level for more action.” Specifically, Bergfalk pointed to the need for financial support for the city’s counseling programs. “The work begins with and within these relationships.”
According to Bergfalk, the SVNB has been steadily building its relationship with the municipal police force, which participates in SVNB training programs in order to effectively respond to victims and survivors of sexual violence. She saw this relationship highlighted when, while canvasing Bergfalk’s neighbourhood near Wilmot Park after the murder of Clarke Greene, a police officer asked her where she worked. After telling him she worked for SVNB, the officer thanked her and said, “That is such important work.”
Recalling the conversation, Bergfalk said, “That is such an amazing on-the-ground tribute to the relationship building that my colleagues have been doing for the past decade, but the relationship between SVNB and the police is not a friendship for friendship’s sake. It has been built toward the political end of supporting survivors’ healing. It’s a part of the fabric that we’re weaving.”
Bergfalk is also quick to point out that SVNB is a predominantly white, female-led organization and that other Fredericton groups consisting of migrant workers, immigrants, and/or other people of colour may not have the same sense of ease when it comes to such relationships.
Kern, too, acknowledges her privilege. She writes, “Starting from my own body and my own experiences means starting from a pretty privileged space. As a white, cis, able-bodied woman I know that in most cases, I have the right kind of body for moving through the post-industrial, leisure, and consumption oriented modern city.”
Though Feminist City is written through a critical, theory-heavy lens, Kern injects the book with her own experiences, making what might otherwise be a hyper-dense text read much more like a memoir or series of personal essays. And just as Kern acknowledges her privilege, the personal stories she’s chosen to reveal in context to “asking women’s questions” urge readers to reflect on how their own bodies and accompanying privileges might operate in urban (and non-urban) spaces.
If, as Kern posits in the book, building a feminist city is necessarily asking women’s questions, then Bergfalk’s questions might be: “How do we take care of people? If support of our care workers became a tenant of all organizations in our community, how would we be able implement that?”
Care work—which is often feminized and characterized as being women’s work—has played a vital role in the world’s ability to tend to its populations before and during the pandemic, and care workers will continue to be essential to our post-pandemic world.
Social services like SVNB certainly fall into care work, but so do issues of housing equality and child care. “Market relations really govern those areas,” said Bergfalk. “They don’t govern sexual violence.” Writes Kern, “decades after trenchant critiques of how cities and suburbs fail mothers and other caregivers, the same problems remain. Under neoliberalism, most of the ‘solutions’ generated for those problems have been market-based, meaning they require the ability to pay for extra services, conveniences, and someone else’s underpaid labour. Very few changes, especially in North American cities, have re-imagined and re-worked the built environment and other aspects of urban infrastructure in ways that take care work seriously.”
About care work, Kern has a lot more to say, and Feminist City is, in no small part, an homage to the many care workers that have been struggling to navigate and feel seen in urban spaces for centuries. “We tend to ascribe value to jobs not only in terms of what the job is but also in terms of who does it, and if that work continues to be done by a majority of women, young people, recent immigrants, and people of colour, then there’s a chance that such work will remain undervalued in the future. People have gone from relatively disposable to, suddenly, essential. Your average grocery store worker, for example, is doing the kind of labor that is seen as easily replaceable: you don’t have to pay them well, you don’t have to protect those workers. That has been the ethos of that sort of work, and now, all of a sudden, these are essential workers, heroes. The question is, will that last past the pandemic?”
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for The RAVEN Project and recently graduated from the University of New Brunswick with an M.A. in English.