Transformational Conversations for Social Change

by Rosa Elena Arteaga and Angela Marie MacDougall

For 32 years, Battered Women’s Support Services has been a progressive and, dare we say, a unique organization that has been working to empower women from a feminist, intersectionality, decolonizing analysis that informs our practice.  We trust our foundation and we are creating knowledge and making transformation in each moment.  We implement knowledge and contribute to knowledge in every moment.  We might hear something that deepens our practice and analysis in the morning then apply that knowledge in the afternoon for betterment of our work on all the levels individual, relational, within community and for institutional and social change.  In our direct services, our goal is to end violence against girls and women through the individual work and collective work by creating independence the opposite from linear “professional” relationships with a support worker, therapist, psychologist, social worker where one person holds the boundary, the knowledge and the power.  So we have been creating methods and approaches that centralize the power with women, battered women, and sharing the power as a collaboration as we are all living in this world together.

Women who access BWSS transform. That process recognizes their desires, feelings and needs.  Women who access support continue to deal with oppression that grows from the actions and messages from and within society, institutions, relationships and communities and women seek tools to deal with their lives on an ongoing and daily basis.  This includes bearing witness to their private experiences of trauma, assisting women to meet their own needs, understanding their feelings, raising their children, taking action and more.  The effects of trauma, ongoing oppression actively work to disempower and debilitate women.  This continues well beyond an hour counselling session.  So what we are doing is assisting women to more effectively engage with their worlds well beyond that hour.  What we have learned from women was their desire to have a deeper understanding of their own process of transformation and how to resist abuse, violence and oppression so we reflect back women’s process of change  and one of the tools we use is our own approach of narrative therapy.  Our own approach that includes the work of  Kimberlé Crenshaw who initiated the feminist sociological theory of Intersectionality and Mapping the Margins and feminist decolonizing practices including the inspired work of Andrea Smith.

Narrative therapy is a contemporary and mainstream adaptation of oral traditions that have been a part of the human experience, albeit centralized within Indigenous knowledge, since time immemorial.  Therapy, in general, is an individual process devoid of a political context with limitations and (we might argue) negligible social change.  Our adaptation is based in acknowledgement that the personal IS politicalThe term “narrative therapy” sees the “therapist” as a collaborator with the “client” in the process of developing richer and thicker verbal descriptions of her experience.  In this process, women are asked questions to generate experientially vivid descriptions of life events that are not currently included in the plot of her story of violence, oppression and abuse. Questions that engage her in active participation in re-writing her story, which is actually not a story, it is her life.  One of the tenants of narrative therapy, originating from the philosopher Michel Foucault, is that “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”.  Which is basically to say the the problem originates outside of the individual.  One of the functions of abuse and oppression is to internalize the self as the problem. So our work is to assist women in externalizing and objectifying the problem, placing the problem in a social and political context, making sense through investigation and evaluation of the problem including who benefits from her having the problem.  Transformative conversations help women clarify for themselves an alternate direction in the life to that of the problem, one that comprises her values, hopes, life commitments, strengths, feelings, needs and desires.

Aristotle is attributed to have once said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” So we call this Experiential Learning, the process of making meaning from direct experience. Collective Knowledge is the idea that in a BWSS support group we learn when we hear ourselves talk and we learn by listening to others.  Talking and listening provides us new ideas that connect to the thoughts that move around in our heads that are neither fully formed nor implementable. It is only when through experiential and collective process of a support group experience that women build on a process of self awareness and conscious raising.  At Battered Women’s Support Services, we apply experiential learning and collective knowledge.  For example through this process women identify their needs, create goals, take action and change their circumstances (get safer, get jobs, leave abusers, breaks cycles, challenge ministry for children and family development, win in family court), women go into their communities and contribute to affect change in other women’s lives (create support groups in their own language, advocate for other women, provide information and resources about violence for other women) as well as, a number of women implement this knowledge within their work with other services and institutions (get law degrees, become social workers, start businesses) at a national and international level. Transformational conversations are conversations and the outcome is action and ultimately change…social change.