The Inclusive Code Podcast - Episode 6: Safe Spaces, Compassion and the Power of Creativity with Alexandros Popis

In our most recent episode of the Inclusive Code Podcast, we were joined by LGBTQ+ activist Alexandros Popis to discuss everything DEI.

Alexandros is a Community Engagement Specialist at InterNations and has been an active voice within LGBTQ+ communities across Europe for years. Always looking to connect and mobilise people towards furthering inclusion and diversity, Alex was an invaluable guest and shared brilliant insights with us.

Covering topics such as the myth of true safe spaces, how everyone should look to educate themselves, and the power of art and creativity.

Warning: this episode contains descriptions of graphic violence.

To listen to the full episode with Alexandros, click here or follow the preview below.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey?

Alexandros - I'm from Greece; right now, I live in Berlin. Before that, I was living in Athens, where I worked for underrepresented communities, especially those from the refugee and migrant populations.

I was doing a lot. At the same time, I was trying to finish my master’s in cultural studies and queer arts, and I was involved in various projects, both in my hometown, Saloniki and in Athens.

I always wanted to move to Berlin, but it became a need to move out of the country back in 2020. That's when I moved to Berlin during COVID.

What drove you to want to get involved in supporting these communities?

A - I feel like if you're a queer person, you have a sense of the world more quickly. You develop these mechanisms that other people say, "Oh my God, they're so smart" because we always have to think about something to say. I feel that, as queer people, we want to find our tribes and our people.

For me, community work, both in my daily life and for my projects and everything that I wanted to do after that, has been an integral part of who I am as a person. I was always involved with these projects.

From the sense of creating queer art exhibitions to doing parties for the queer community going to demonstrations, and creating performance art and installations with friends that are also artists and just doing our thing.

At the same time, due to the socio-economic-political situation in Greece, which is not that known, I feel it has become more and more of a struggle to be there because, to give you an example, I was living in Athens, it was the centre of the city, artsy lefty, also kind of a queer neighbourhood as well. At one point, I'd leave the house and see an army of policemen who were harassing people on the street. I have tons of friends of mine who have been harassed like this.

The reality of homophobia

Warning: This section contains descriptions of graphic violence and murder.

A - These kinds of situations eventually led to the police and some civilians actually murdering someone in broad daylight. A person from the queer community, which, of course, was brought to the media as "Oh, they were a junkie" that wanted to steal something. People just kicked the hell out of this person and kicked him to death in broad daylight.

It just so happened that this person had done so much for the community. He was an activist. He was an activist for HIV-plus people. He was a drag queen, a writer, and a very well-known person. Because it could have been anyone, and we wouldn't even know if it was someone less known, let's say.

The good thing, if there is a good thing out of that, is that it kind of changed the scenery. It created this sense of community and showed us how we should take care of each other and look after each other.

Due to the collective grief and everything and all these demonstrations and things that are happening after his murder, it changed the scene. But after that, I felt that things just, at least for me, seemed to go on a downward spiral, and I felt I couldn't possibly breathe enough. 

I felt like I couldn't be myself. I was striving to be a version where I was allowed to express my true self 24 hours a day and not make any exceptions for anyone. Also, this is a journey as I'm getting older and everything, and it felt like I couldn't really do that because I started to feel scared and intimidated, and I felt that I basically needed something else at that point.

That's the reason, let's say, behind this move to Berlin. I arrived here in 2020 during COVID-19, which was a very weird choice, I should admit. I started trying to find my way here and see what was happening. I got involved in some projects here in Berlin, too. I found some people, and we tried to build something. I got involved in different workshops and also in performances we did, which were about cruising and different bodies.

I'm trying to live my authentic life here. It's not heaven on earth. Let me be clear about that. We see what's happening right now in Germany. It felt like the correct thing to do. And I still stand by my choice to leave Greece.

OH - I'm so sorry to hear about your friend and the member of the community. Sadly, it's not the first story that I've heard. I just wish it didn't have to be like that, that this is even a thing anyone would have to witness or go through. I can't even imagine what the aftermath was like, not being able to fully be yourself and feeling like you're not allowed to do that on a political and personal level. 

Before you've mentioned that you don't think there's such a thing as a 100% safe space. Do you still feel that way?

A - Yeah, I stand by that 100%. I don't ever believe that there is this concept of a safe space. There's this great thing that's happening nowadays, which is basically that in the last few years, we're starting to bring into our vocabulary all these words like patriarchy, toxic masculinity, inclusion, and diversity, which I think is great. They need to be in this discussion.

Also, language is something that we create. It's not something that is there, and we shouldn't touch it. It's something that evolves through time, people, cultures, ideas, and everything else. But I often see the concept of "Hey, this space is safe."

But I've also had these experiences myself going into places that claim to be safe, and they felt quite unsafe to me. I'm pretty sure that they say this for marketing reasons or if you want to brand yourself as inclusive to everyone you say you have safe spaces. But hey, big news, you may not be inclusive.

But I think that it needs to get to this stage and this point where you create safer spaces; you just need to have different people with different views and people who actually care about these sorts of topics and don't want to promote them for their own reason. That will be good for their team, their organisation, and their company.

Then you need to have people that actually care. And by caring, I just mean it in a broader cultural, social, corporeal, emotional, affective and intellectual sense. It basically means everything.

You need to let underrepresented people and their voices be heard. So often, someone in a powerful state or someone with more privileges says something that drowns them out. But you have to bring everyone into these discussions. You have to learn how to give and receive feedback, how you want to make yourself, your community, your projects, the things that you connect with your work, art, and whatever you do in your life; you have to connect them to those people around you who have their own experiences and their own beliefs.

And if you can take a step back and be this active listener, that's because caring also starts with ourselves. There's this intersectional Black writer-poet, Audrey Lorde, who said caring about yourself isn't self-indulgent, it's preserving and protecting who you are. And that alone is political.

If you care for yourself, you should care for other people. You should. I think it's natural if you do things to go a step further and develop yourself and evolve yourself and hear what's happening here, other people's stories, because our narratives shouldn't be a linear thing that we know and have experienced. It should be about sharing and creating this sense of community.

OH - 100%. I think there is empathy, but also being able to relate to people, even if you haven't lived it. And I think it's only beneficial to hear other people's stories and learn from them rather than assuming we know everything.

With so much information at our fingertips now, what do you think about people saying they're unwilling to learn or get informed?

A - I just get straight out mad with that. Because this is something that we joke about and don't joke about at the same time with my friends, as we say. We're not here to educate this rich white man. We're definitely not here to do that. The resources are there; as you said, people can make an effort to take the time to just see something that they're not aware of. I mean, no one knows everything. We know so little about things. There are so many things that we can discover.

I feel that if you're on this side of the table, it gets so tiring. I mean, I was one of these people who, because I'm an idealist, wanted to bring this information and just force-feed it to people. But at some point, it's not like that. I shouldn't be doing the work they should be doing.

OH - Yes, 100% this. This became a huge thing in the pandemic; I remember seeing it when the Black Lives Matter movement became very big, and people were expecting Black creators to just suddenly educate them on Black history, and that was just completely wrong. it's not your job. It's not anyone's job to educate them, especially given that these are people whose ancestors have experienced these things in the first place

It's a bit of a strange thing, but you know, for some people, I guess it's there. It's what they think should happen next. But I think again, coming back to the empathy and the fact that information is at our fingertips.

A - Yeah, exactly. It's weird because you mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything is somehow connected, and I'm hearing for basically gay people, let's say gay men. There's this narrative that I was hearing a lot back in Greece that, you know, you see gay people everywhere.

They're on the television. They're doing shows, and they're doing their thing. They're fine. You know, they're there. So it's OK. They don't have any problems. And I'm like, sure, Karen, but they do.

I feel when people do that, they just avoid seeing all these exploitation legacies that are historically produced for the minorities and the underrepresented communities, the prism of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and even, I would say, mainstream or white feminism. Maybe it's just like seeing the world through a specific lens. It's not like that. It doesn't happen like that, sadly.

OH - When you were talking about that, then this visual just came into my head. It is impossible for anyone nowadays to walk like this like you have blinders. Sorry, this is actually a podcast. I should probably explain what I'm doing with my hands. So, to actually put blinders on your eyes just doesn't work. You can't just look ahead and expect no problems to be there because no matter how great your blinders are, there is going to be something that you will inevitably see. And I think we just have to acknowledge that as well rather than run away from it and actually see what we can do to help because it's just unavoidable these days.

The digital age and the power of being informed

A - We're in this digital age; activism is also happening through social media, on our screens, and in everything else. Very significant actions or whatnot are happening. We shouldn't look down on this sort of information because it's everything. You don't need to go to the library and get a book. It could be good; it could not be. Maybe it's not your thing. You can watch a movie. You can go to TikTok and Instagram and just let yourself get educated; there's no wrong or right way either these days.

OH - No shame in learning from social media. We need to put those tools to use while we have them. 

As someone who's so creative, what role has art played in your life?

A - I feel that I have always been interested in the arts. I'm such a music geek, I don't play any instruments or whatever, but I've also been involved in music projects as well, but that's a different story.

It started with that, and due to me being a nerd, actually, because I was watching so many movies and I wanted to explore this side of things and being a bit of a theatre kid, I started getting involved in many projects because I feel it's this inner need to be part of something because I feel like an outcast or like the weird kid that is 10 years old and listens to Bjork, for example.

So it started like that, and because these were the first spaces that I felt 100% accepted by the other people starting as a young kid. It then went to this trajectory, the trajectory of "OK, I love that. Let's explore that a bit." When, at some point, I got confident with who I am as a person in this world and my sexuality and everything, all my different intersectional identities, I just wanted to find like-minded people and create something.

Because even for the most boring job stuff that you have to do, sometimes if I work with someone and I vibe, this is the best time for me. I really love it. Even more so when it's about something that's interesting and has to have something and can create an impact of some sort.

I was always fascinated by that. And I never stopped doing it. From time to time, I took a break because of life, but I never fully stopped. I'm getting involved with small projects here and small projects there, and if there are performances going on I'll get involved.

So I'm very invested in this side of things, and it makes me happy. It makes me be me. 

OH - That's great to hear. That's exactly what you need. And I think art as a whole can be so many different things.

But I think it's interesting how the school system prepares us for a corporate lifestyle where we end up working this many hours. 

Most of us sit at a desk, and we work on a computer, some of us more repetitive than others and art kind of gets lost a little bit there, especially for people who have very strict schedules of nine to five who don't have that much time to let out that creativity.

I feel like art has been perceived as a distraction from the sort of work that we are taught to do from very early on.

Because it breaks the mould. Because it means that we're creative. It means that we think differently. It means that we have more ideas. It means that when people come together, they're actually really strong because we come up with incredible ideas. Whether that is a performance, a piece of art, a song, or anything that could potentially look a little bit different than the standard set programme for our day-to-day. 

I think most of the people who have started revolutions or movements are people who think outside the box and view things a little bit differently. Thinking outside the box itself is so creative, anything that's outside of this day-to-day, outside of the things that we're used to, outside of our comfort zone. So it's something that I think slowly people are starting to realise that we kind of need it to survive, to feel happy, to feel more connected.

Because when we're kids, I mean myself, I spent my whole childhood putting on performances for my family, drawing all over the place whenever I could. My mom had to buy finger paint for me and my sister for the cement walls that were outside when they were building the house because we kept drawing on the inside.

She would put us outside with finger paint and just go bonkers. There you go. And then wash it off, or the rain will wash it off. That is something that came intuitively to me as a child. But we kind of put away that intuition, as I want to do things with my hands. I want to feel connected to something by sitting at our desks, keeping busy, putting our little blinders on, and just looking ahead. And then we're too tired to act on it.

That creative energy goes into something corporate that may be a little bit more boring. So it's very interesting to see that. Do you think there is a little bit of change in that just from your perspective? I was just wondering if you agree with what I just said: It's kind of like something that is intuitive and that we are taught to put away.

A - I will go on the other side of the spectrum, and they'll say that people won't stop making art. Whatever is bestowed upon us, whatever other people say, whatever society does with this prism of individualism tells us that we need to be successful, be productive, do this, do that. Whatever, we won't ever stop doing art.

This is something that won't change. I feel that during times of crisis, the global crisis that we are all experiencing right now with everything that's happening nowadays, artists are more and more important.

But at the same time, you mentioned something about childhood, and that's a very interesting point because I feel that for me, on a personal level, it's exactly that because I'm like a child again. I'm a kid. I want to play and get there; getting in this parallel universe somewhere with other people just brings me to these memories and to the inner child in me and brings back all the positive feelings I remember having as a naive little child. And I think that's beautiful.

The school system and everything may cause us to leave these lives, but it just takes someone who says something that will trigger it; if you have it in you, it will trigger something in you. If it triggers something in you, it's the first step. And after that, I think it's how you allow yourself to get to this side of you that wants to be creative.

OH - 100% I agree. I totally agree with that. Yeah, it's interesting how that works, lots of the triggers are not necessarily conscious when we do mention things to people and they're like, "Ohh I get that."

What's one thing you wish you saw more in the world?

A - How about we care? How about we slow down a bit? Get some time for ourselves. Reflect, listen, and I don't know, call a friend or make a new friend, or if you see someone outside who's lonely. I mean, in big cities like Berlin, I see it all the time. I feel so alienated at times, and I thankfully have people in my life, but it's inevitable. I feel that living in big cities is how it goes.

You lose something, you earn something else. If you see someone lonely, talk to them, say something nice, and make a genuine compliment. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Just be nice

OH - Yeah, I completely agree with that. That's a very nice reminder. And make art, please. We need more art. We do. I'm on it. I'm on it. 

That's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for your time, Alex. I really appreciate it.

A - Thank you so much. Thank you for doing the podcast. I'm very curious to hear all the episodes. Thanks for inviting me.

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2nd July