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Book review by Ruth Pluznick

Conversations about gender,culture, violence & narrative practice:Stories of hope and complexity from women of many cultures

Book Review by Ruth Pluznick



In this review Ruth Pluznick speaks to her own journey of therapeutic and community practices and some of the dilemmas and considerations of the intersection of gender, culture, and violence.

I work at a children’s mental health center in Toronto, part of a rich network of services for children, youth and families facing all the problems in living that might be expected in a city of 3 million people in diverse arrangements of race, culture, class, and gender relations. At my agency, I first learned and practiced ways of working with youth and families that reflected the dominant cultural values of the family therapy field. On the positive side, we were able to shift the focus of our work from “problems within people” to “problems between people”. There was still a bit of mother-blaming when things went wrong and also the idea that families must be tricked or goaded into change, as it was assumed they really preferred things the way they were, even when life in the family was characterized by anger or despair. “Professionals” had naming rights for problems and expert opinions about solutions. Extended families were sometimes included in conversations, generally because it was believed they contributed to the problem. They were not utilized as consultants for the ways things could be. Most importantly, the models of family therapy that informed our work suggested that all families were the same, or ought to be. Differences and diversity were noted, and the subject of some interest, but did not significantly affect the “hypotheses” that directed our work.

It is of course impossible to work with children and families without addressing violence in relationships. For those of us in the family therapy sector, this was somewhat problematic as systems theory conflicted with the protocols of women working in shelters and services for women and children who had experienced violence. These workers let us know that they would not be would be making referrals to our program unless we agreed to provide individual (instead of family) therapy for “victims and perpetrators”. It was also their belief that we needed specialized training. We agreed to this because we were committed to the safety of women and children. “Safety” became paramount in this work, and – according to protocol – the involvement of child welfare and police in circumstances where safety was compromised. Concerns regarding the impacts of criminalization on families and communities, or the meanings of these responses to violence in the marginalized communities were not yet part of conversations with colleagues. The skills and knowledge of marginalized communities was missing from the conversations about what could make a difference in the lives of families or to persons and communities who were subjected to violence.

Outside the therapy room, Toronto was undergoing dramatic transformation that would inevitably impact on our taken-for-granted practices. Whereas in 1931, 81% of the city’s population was British in origin, by 1996 only 16% of Torontonians identified as exclusively British. Toronto had become home to peoples from 169 different countries of origin, with 48 ethnic groups having at least 5,000 members and could now be characterized as a city of immigrant and Diaspora communities (Siemiatycki, Rees, Ng and Rahi, 2001). We were not seeing significant numbers from these communities at my agency and this was a concern for us.

At about the same time, a report on the status of care for gay, lesbian bi and transgendered youth in residential care in Toronto was published. It was titled “No Safe Beds” and brought attention to the risks these youth faced in the places that were meant to help them. In my own agency, a young boy, sorting out questions about gender identity, was placed in our group home and had to ask where he could safely hang his dresses as he was given a roommate who might object; regrettably, we had not considered in advance what this might mean for him. We were beginning to understand that our practices might be unintentionally devaluing of lives outside the mainstream clientele.

Last, but certainly not least, while Toronto is home to the largest community of First Nations peoples off-reserve in Canada, we (and the children’s mental health system) were serving only a small number of youth and families from this community. Poverty and racism have big impacts on this community and these were not problems that got addressed at that time at my agency. Our ideas and practices were proving to be exclusionary and this was not in keeping with the purposes and commitments that brought us to this line of work.

It was time for a change and we looked for ways of working that would reflect what we valued for our personal and professional lives. The Family Centre of New Zealand came to town and their construct of a 'just therapy' resonated for us. David Epston and Michael White (and his colleagues at Dulwich Centre) brought ideas and practices of narrative therapy which further shaped our preferred directions. Through Family Centre and the Dulwich Centre, we were invited to deconstruct dominant professional stories of ‘the way things should be’ and to take interest not only in the events in the lives of people and community, but also the meanings they ascribe to them. This allowed us to shift from a centred role as “experts” to a decentred position as partners with youth and families for what it was they wanted for their lives and relationships. For the first time, our “clinical” conversations began to include the context of race, class, culture and gender and issues of power and privilege. Whereas once we had considered it a success to extend the focus of our work from individual to family, we now spoke of moving from family to community (for example, we opened programs in local schools instead of downtown and developed wraparound programs to engage friends, family and neighbors in helping networks) .

This new direction brought to the agency many youth and families who might not otherwise engage with a “traditional” service. A challenge remains, however, in the work we do with women and children who have experienced violence, an area of practice where “professional” ideas persist and continue to influence (for example, the concept of individual responsibility; the belief that police and courts can best insure “compliance” or “safety”; notions of professional liability, etc.). These ideas capture our imagination and “obscure” other ways to keep women and children safe. For this reason, I truly welcome the arrival of, Conversations about gender, culture, violence and narrative practice: Stories of hope and complexity from women of many cultures. The stories provide an alternative discourse, giving ample evidence that a change is needed in the way we respond to violence against women and children (particularly those in marginalized communities) and providing a platform for very exciting community-based initiatives).

It would be possible to read only one story in the collection and come away with new ideas and, hopefully, new questions. But the collection as a whole will add so much more to the richness of understanding of the intersection of gender, culture and violence. For instance, I now more fully understand the complexities of working within your own community when it is marginalized (Aya Okumura, Mimi Kim, Sekneh Hammoud–Becket; Pat Durish), in particular the challenge of naming problems of violence within cultures without contributing to negative stereotypes in the larger community; the dilemma of finding ways to represent yourself and community and its unique culture and gender arrangements when what is required to get service is “acculturation” to the host country’s ways of doing things; the difficulties of being understood when the constructs used to make sense of gendered violence do not ‘fit’; and the need to name racism or discrimination at times and places where its presence might be felt but denied. Mary Pekin, Manja Visschedijk and Genna Ward also remind me that it is sometimes difficult to discern patterns of patriarchy and abuse within our own cultures as we have been trained to see them as ‘the way things are’.

As I often work with women from other cultures, I also appreciated the writings of the women who were working with communities other than their own (Heather Johnson and Angel Yuen, Lisa Berndt, Mercedes Martinez, Maisa Said–Albis.) and found inspiration in their efforts to find creative ways to link and connect people to important figures in their own families, histories and culture. The commitment to question their own ideas and practices for biases and their desire to ensure their practices were not further minimizing of the voices that most needed to be heard resonated with my intentions for my own work.

Pat Durish, a fellow Torontonian, gave me much to think about in “the complexities of same sex partner abuse” as she turned upside down some of the assumptions underpinning the work with violence in heterosexual relationships, in particular, the rejection of binary categories of man/woman, victim/perpetrator and the challenge it poses to conventional understandings of power in relationships. She also highlighted the diversity of experiences and meanings within the community (despite the shared identity as a community marginalized by definitions of gender and sexuality) and how this impacts on collective efforts to address issues of intimate violence. These, and the effects of marginalization itself, offer opportunities to (in Pat’s words and I agree) “re-examine the framework within which we have come to understand violence and abuse in all intimate relationships.”

Also, nowhere is the privatization of problems of violence more evident than in the protocols and “treatment” of those who perpetrate. The stories of working with those who have enacted violence (Nancy Grey, the African Nova Scotian Communities, Julie Sach, Heather Johnson and Angel Yuen) links the violence in relationships to the violence in the broader society in ways that invite a description of men and women who have used violence to be experienced as one of us, not one of them. Humanity restored, it is then possible to build on preferred visions of self and relationships and to draw upon the lived experience to help others in the community to also address violence. The community itself provides the leverage for making things right. The documentation of knowledge about violence from African Nova Scotian communities will hopefully be circulated for further conversation and action around the world.

I believe this is a world class collection of stories. At the end of the book, I find I have new ideas and hope to draw upon. I am more than ever drawn to the concept of collective responses to violence, and I find myself thinking about something that Tamalie Kiwi Tamasese said on one of her many visits to Toronto, “we have to find ways to work that capture what cultures do right with respect to gender equity.” This is that opportunity. Between the covers of this book are documented the stories of women from many cultures, reflecting their skills and knowledges to address violence against women in ways that acknowledge the unique gender and culture arrangements in the communities where they live or work. Included in the stories are initiatives to draw the hopes and dreams, values and commitments of communities to look after their own. The stories of the Women’s Patrol of Yirrkala and Gunyangara and Creative Interventions in Oakland, California will be with me forever.

I close with a quote from Mimi Kim, who sums up for me the beauty of collective responses “If stories of courageous acts of everyday people can be collected in one place, documented, analyzed and then turned back to our communities, what further community interventions will be inspired?”  

I will take from this book a solid appreciation of the role that community will, and must, play to address issues of violence. I don’t expect my work, or the work of my agency, to ever be the same again. For that, I give thanks to the many women who contributed to this collection and to the people and communities who allowed their stories to be told.

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