A Review of Battered Women’s Support Services Forty Years Commemoration Event
Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver BC
November 25, 2019
By Dr. Michelle La Flamme
Often in front-line social justice work, people are all too busy doing the work to take time to breathe and look at what has been have achieved. However, on November 25, 2019, visionaries in the fight to end gender-based violence gathered to commemorate forty years of the BWSS (Battered Women’s Support Services) in Vancouver. On this night, the decadent and visually stunning Orpheum theatre was filled with powerful social-justice advocates and bright and creative women who are dedicated to moving forward the agenda to support survivors of gender-based violence.
The purpose of the evening was to recognize what has been done to date and to provide inspiration and strategies for a renewed commitment to women’s empowerment. Leaders from many sectors of society, educators, politicians, clients, students, social-justice advocates, artists, and public intellectuals mingled together for this one night to look back at what was accomplished during the last forty years at BWSS, to consider the present moment of the “ME TOO” movement and to chart new paths into future activism to address gender-based violence locally and globally. That is a tall feat for one evening! Even getting everyone seated proved a challenge but once the show started the room was filled with electric energy that was palpable. Independent Producer Barbara Chirinos should be commended for this diverse programming and the high production values of the show. The visuals, the lighting, and the stage was used to great effect and the sound cues were entirely on point. It was a very well-produced show with inspirational content throughout. The BWSS motto “Safety changes everything” was shown on a slide for the majority of the event reminding people of the importance of the last forty years of work done at BWSS and providing a visual link that connected everyone in the room to the overall goal of the gathering.
In the opening, Musqueam (Member of the Musqueam Nation and BWSS Board Member) Cecilia Point reminded us that that we are “doing the work of the last seven generations for the next seven generations”. The event had a throughline stemming from this moment in the opening and that is, recognition for the knowledge keepers and feminists and social justice advocates who broke trails in order to make life easier for women who are survivors of gender-based violence. The empowering message that opened the show manifested itself through a celebration of the numerous ways that women have created community for other women. Contemporary, singer/songwriter Tonye Aganaba took to the stage with her guitar in hand and filled the space with her vocal melodies, blessings, and comments. The powerful Indigenous three-part harmony group M’Girl added to the resonant power of the evening. While gracing the space with songs that lifted the spirit, Rem Morrisseau reminded the audience of “the importance of making hope actionable” and this inspirational call to action was also at the heart of the evening.
After these opening acts, a documentary on the last forty years of BWSS was screened, opening with a collage of images connected to key moments in each wave of the feminist movements in North America. Following this, the video featured specific women who were connected to the BWSS from its early years to the present. We learned from individual women who had a vision about how to create space for women when core funding was not available and everything was done on a shoe-string. Hearing these trailblazers speak of the vision they had to create the BWSS and learning about the numerous people who have been trained and mentored by women in this space was very uplifting! In addition, the documentary showed several speakers who offered nuanced perspectives on the utility and evolution of BWSS. These voices ranged from visionaries to front-line workers, to volunteers, to board members who reflected the central principles of the organization and all expressed their commitment to creating more safety. Some speakers addressed the evolution of the organization in very candid ways including the shift to more inclusivity, the addition of Indigenous paradigms and ceremony, and the inclusion of support for the trans community. Two threads connecting the opening performances to the documentary included the important link between colonization and violence and the essential need for intersectionality in our analysis of the complex problems surrounding gender-based violence.
The documentary briefly explains some of the work done at and by BWSS. The organization offers numerous resources including counseling, training programs, the crisis-line and they deal with 13,000 direct calls a year which is only a fraction of the women affected by gender-based violence. This statistic alone hints at the need for continued resources and vigilant programs to address gender-based violence.
The featured speaker was Tarana Burke who is cited as the founder of the ME TOO movement. By the time she came to the stage the crowd was eager to hear her pearls of wisdom and she absolutely inspired the room to consider the direct effects of social justice activism in the move towards ending gender-based violence. The interview was staged well with Angela Marie MacDougall sitting comfortably on stage with Tarana in large chairs making the format feel natural. It was as though we were witnesses a living room conversation between these two amazing, intelligent Black women. Both are invested in institutionalizing change for thousands of women and inspiring social justice advocacy by creating space for women’s stories to come to the light in their different, but complementary, professional roles as change-makers. Burke cautioned us to be mindful of how our stories of gender-based violence are used in social media. She suggested we should be very cautious about posting narratives of trauma without a clear result or purpose in mind. While she adamantly expressed that it is “important for our stories to get told” she was also clear that we must also “tell a new narrative”- one that was not simply the traumatic sexual violence we may have experienced. Highlights from her talk included Burke stressing the need for self-care and her encouragement that we remember to engage in the cultivation of joy. Burke suggested that we must strive to be mindful of our emotional and spiritual needs and foster self-care as we pass into and through the trauma inside these narratives that are surfacing. Burke declared that she is mindful that not everyone has the same access to tools for “self-care” but she firmly believes that this deep healing part of the struggle toward emancipation should be acknowledged as part of the goal. She firmly stated that “healing and action” are required and she encouraged every one of us to find ways to “generate healing and joy for yourself”. In terms of the utility of the ME TOO movement, Burke said that the global ME TOO movement has brought multiple instances of gender-based violence to the attention of many in the mainstream, causing a paradigm shift.
MacDougall discussed the link between colonial violence and gender-based violence facing Indigenous women and girls in Canada and Burke reflected on her recent experiences with Aboriginal women in Australia. Burke and MacDougall also discussed the precarious position of undocumented migrant workers in the US who are ever more reluctant to disclose violence due to their complex relationship with authorities and their particularly vulnerable position vis-a-vis immigration officials. How can we create support for these vulnerable communities and work with advocates in these communities to extend resources? There is still so much more work to be done and, as ardent feminists, we must always ask who is not at the table. Burke said that the ME TOO movement was also introducing the concept of healing and the importance of speaking to truth to a larger audience than the hundreds of thousands directly affected by gender-based violence. She used the shift in thinking about cigarette smoking as an analogy to inspire us to consider multiple modes of engagement and to remind us of the multiple visions and interventions that are required to move us towards shifting the culture around gender-based violence. Her voice was resoundingly clear when she said “don’t stop!” to the crowd of inspired women raising their hands and voices in a resounding standing ovation. At this moment, like several others during the night, I felt goosebumps as I recognized the power of this historical scene and the larger global movement that is a part of this cultural shift.
The interview between Angela Marie MacDougall (Executive Director, BWSS) and Tarana Burke was layered and complex and it was a very hard act to follow. A young dance troupe came to the stage to enact an uplifting set of dances and songs that seemed to speak back to Blacksploitation films with a cross between the power of Jackie Brown and an homage to Charlie’s Angels! However, it was difficult for me to link this exuberant performance to the strategic planning inherent in the interview that was the highlight of the evening. The close of the night returned to Indigenous drumming as Wildflower Women of Turtle Island Drum Group sang us out with the Women’s Warrior Song. I thought it would have been better to have them close on stage rather than from the orchestra seats where the power of their voices was diminished in the daunting space of the Orpheum theatre.
Women were clearly afire with empowering messages at the close of this evening and many greeted each other in the lobby filled with enthusiasm and renewed commitments and strategies to ending gender-based violence. It was truly electrifying to share this experience with so many powerful women. As I left the theatre, two themes emerged for me. The words of Pointe rang in my head, reminding me of a principle that activates my life choices, “our job is to leave something for the next seven generations” and secondly, Burke’s voice as she wisely stressed the importance of “getting the story out of your body” and yes, even this must be done by whatever means necessary.
Michelle La Flamme hails from unceded Coast Salish territory. She is a mixed-blood woman who is a passionate educator and an ardent social-justice advocate. She is proud to have been a Director at the Justice Institute of BC in the Community and Social Justice Division tasked with a mandate to Indigenize the institution. In her personal and professional life, she is dedicated to moving forward strategic policies around Indigenization and being a mentor. She has also been teaching students about Canadian literature and Indigenous drama for decades in university settings. In her downtime, she enjoys riding horses, singing and spending time with her grandchildren.