Transforming the Culture of Advocacy for Social and Economic Justice (2003)

December 2003
Loretta Pyles, PhD
Tulane University School of Social Work
6823 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70118
The linkage between domestic violence and poverty has become more evident in recent years as evidenced in the fields of battered women’s advocacy, social welfare policy, and research. Recent studies have focused on the prevalence of domestic violence among welfare recipients (Purvin, 2003; Brandwein, 1999), and the barriers to battered women’s safety and self-sufficiency, including barriers generated by abusers (Davis, 1999; Raphael, 2000) and barriers generated by the welfare system itself (Hagen & Owens-Manley, 2002; Postmus, 2002). Little has been written, however, about what how we ought to approach the work of economic advocacy on behalf of survivors (See Schechter, 1999). In other words, the question - what should be the guiding philosophy and associated strategies for promoting economic justice for survivors of violence? – has yet to be answered in a systematic way.
Contemporary social scientists and cultural theorists write about social movements as cultural phenomena, whereby “movement culture,” like other forms of culture, is characterized as the learned and shared values, styles, behaviors, language, traditions, and symbols marked by a specific ideology or set of beliefs (Johnston & Klandermans, 1995). Likewise, there is a culture of advocacy within the battered women’s movement. The strengths and weaknesses of the set of values, behaviors, language and traditions, i.e. the culture, involved in the systems advocacy performed within the battered women’s movement will be explored and critiqued as a way to assess our current abilities to do economic justice work.
In this paper, I will explore the culture of advocacy in the domestic violence movement, unpacking what I believe constitute the strengths and barriers to effective advocacy. The strengths of the movement have been its commitment to address multiple oppressions, feminist practices of grassroots organizing and egalitarianism. The barriers stem from a romance with identity politics and an attachment to false constructs such as “advocates” versus “the system” and “us” versus “them.” Furthermore, in recent years the movement has more narrowly defined itself as being solely concerned with women’s violence, thus losing opportunities to work in coalition. The ability to work in coalition with anti-poverty groups and welfare systems, for example, is an important indicator of whether we are on the path to achieving social and economic justice. To achieve these ends it is necessary for advocates and other practitioners to develop skills to address the “multiple and interlocking systems of oppression” (Russo, 2001) and stand in solidarity with a diversity of oppressed persons, advocates, perpetrators and systems.
Drawing on insights from feminism (Russo, 2001; Morales, 1998) and the philosophy of deep ecology (Macy, 1991a, 1991b; Naess, 1989), which emphasize our interconnectedness with each other and the fact that we are often simultaneously both oppressed and oppressors, I will present some ideas to serve as a guide to doing social and economic justice advocacy. These ideas begin by recognizing that the violence in women’s lives is only one aspect of their realities and calls for a more expansive notion of identity in the culture of advocacy. By standing in solidarity with advocates for a range of causes with a multiplicity of intentions and ends, we will be more faithful to our original mission of ending not just sexism and violence, but all forms of oppression.
The Culture of Advocacy in the Contemporary Battered Women’s Movement
It is important that the story of the culture of advocacy not be reduced to a monological construct; rather one should recognize that its aspects are diverse and in constant flux. Nonetheless, in order to understand and in due course transform the culture of advocacy, it is necessary to portray some of the important trends and cultural components of systems advocacy practice in the battered women’s movement.
The history of the battered women’s movement has been written about fairly extensively (Schechter, 1982). Domestic violence workers have advocated within multiple systems, in addition to providing direct services to battered women, such as counseling and shelter. According to Russo (2001), the strengths of the culture of advocacy have been its “passionate anger, astute analysis and resilient resistance” (p. 7).
One of the defining characteristics of the movement has been its ability to raise consciousness amongst women (Ferree & Hess, 2000). Unlike the early women’s movement in the nineteenth century, which never generated a feminist consciousness or addressed the collective inferior status of women, the contemporary movement fostered a "radical awakening" (Reinelt, 1994, p. 3), a “conversion” experience (Davis, 2001), a sense of “we-ness” or what Ms. Magazine called a “click” experience (Ferree & Hess, 2000, p. 28). The virtue of this process of gaining a collective identity was that rather than beginning from a theoretical construct imposed by men or others with power, women began with their lived experience and then developed a framework for organizing that made sense to them.
A key outcome of the process of consciousness-raising was the emergence of non-hierarchical and collectively structured organizations (Ferree & Hess, 2000; Schechter, 1982). These structures were congruent with the radical feminist critiques of the patriarchal construction that supported violence against women (Walker, 2002). However, these collectives have been difficult to sustain, draining the emotional resources of many of its members (Ferree & Hess, 2000; Reinelt, 1994). While having the laudable goal of ensuring equality, non-hierarchical structures, in some cases, "perpetuated powerlessness, bred resentment, and created divisions within the movement" (Ferree & Hess, 2000, p. 73).
Since much of the advocacy work in the last 25 years has occurred in the context of formal organizations, there are innate constraints. As Ferree and Martin (1995) write, "a movement organization is not a contradiction in terms, but it is, by definition, in tension" (p. 8). Sometimes, the survival of organizations has misguidedly become the goal of advocacy efforts rather than the means (Ferree & Martin, 1995). In order to ensure survival, many feminist organizations have become allied with traditional social service approaches and state agencies (Russo, 2001, p. 9) in order to maintain funding and other kinds of security. This has placed restrictions on agencies’ abilities to do systems advocacy. Another barrier to doing systems advocacy, has been the increased attention to therapeutic strategies and thus decreased attention to “improving the service delivery system and developing policies and programs that address the social structural and sexist origins of the problem” (Davis, 1987, p. 306).
There is an interesting dialectical dance that occurs in the battered women’s movement advocacy culture, an oscillation between working in coalition as a way to achieve advocacy goals and working in isolation to preserve ideology (Arnold, 1995). Advocates have worked in coalitions by learning the art of compromise and learning to frame their issues within the dominant discourse by softening or omitting language. While battered women are faced with a variety of issues, e.g. the need for legal assistance, income, education, child care, and health care, in order to receive funding from state and federal agencies, advocates are often forced to frame the issues in such a way as to emphasize only the need for immediate physical protection for battered women, a much more palatable cause for many conservative and moderate legislators and funders (Ashcraft, 2000). Battered women’s advocates have often chosen to act in coalition to get work accomplished, forcing them to conceal ideological differences (Arnold, 1995).
On the other hand, working in coalition with agencies and individuals who do not always share the same ideological views has been difficult for many advocates and advocacy organizations. Part of this may be a result of the principal framework used to explain violence against women, namely patriarchy and sexism. When faced with contradictions to sexism as the primary explanatory framework for violence against women, leaders within the advocacy culture have "tended to ignore or deny the complexities involved, or to minimize their significance" (Russo, 2001, p. 9), in order to preserve movement ideology. This tension between preserving ideology and being open to different opinions about violence is an ongoing one.
Also challenging within the movement has been the tension between grassroots advocates and “professionals,” including social workers, and individuals working in the legal system (Davis & Hagen, 1988). According to Walker (2002), “the contentiousness within the battered woman’s movement has created deep divisive suspiciousness since its inception” (p. 88). Davis and Hagen (1988) were acutely aware of tensions within the advocacy culture and called for alliances between social work professionals and the grassroots sector.
Critique of the Culture of Advocacy
The intersection of domestic violence and economic injustice, has come to the forefront for the battered women's advocacy community recently, particularly as the effects of welfare reform on battered women have become clearer (Postmus, 2000; Davis, 1999). An important question has emerged - how can the battered women’s movement advocacy community connect in a more systematic way with individuals working toward economic justice, such as welfare rights organizers and the welfare system itself? (Schechter, 1999) One of the unique characteristics of many social justice movements in general in the last 30 years has been their fragmentation from each other rather than their unity and cohesion (Thompson, 2002). So, the domestic violence movement is not alone in its problems in connecting itself to other movements.
Clarke (1996) attributes this fragmentation of social justice movements to the “postmodernist story” which “stresses a cultural transition from monolithic to diverse” and includes “greater diversity; the proliferation of difference; de-diffferentiation; indifference; the plural, contradictory, fragmented subject…” (p. 41). This has translated to what some call identity politics or what Clarke (1996) calls “the politicization of difference” (p. 42). In the case of women's movements and the battered women's movement in particular, women’s differences were celebrated and thus the basis for women’s political identity became rooted in difference (Williams, 1996). Russo (2001), while astutely aware of the historical reasons that lie behind identity politics, also sees the problems with it and calls this politicization of difference “the exclusionary, limited and sometimes dangerous politics” of the women’s movement (p. 6). This political premise has, in some cases, inhibited the creation of coalitions and alliances across gender, racial, economic and sexual identity lines. It is as if the women’s movement and advocacy culture have created an identity based on righteous indignation (Morales, 1998).
While some battered women’s advocates have done a good job of working in collaboration with others, particularly with the criminal justice system in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently within the welfare and health care systems, the battered women’s movement has intermittently excluded critical systems in its vision for systems advocacy. These partners include many of the systems that battered women encounter – child welfare, the schools, religious communities, the welfare system, housing and job development agencies and neighborhood based organizations. Schechter (1999) encourages advocates to “hear what our collaborative partners are saying about us” (p. 7). Battered women’s advocates, she writes, have been described as “suspicious and cynical” because they “refuse to acknowledge their limits…they think they can do everything” (Schechter, 1999, p. 7). “Being with them is like trying to get into the most exclusive women’s sorority” (Schechter, 1999, p. 7).
This divisive aspect of the culture of battered women’s advocacy may be better understood by unpacking the underlying philosophy, what is likely a false construction from the outset. Collins (1990) writes: “In a system of interlocking race, gender, class and sexual oppression, there are few pure oppressors or victims” (p. 194). Thus, the idea that “the system” (e.g. the welfare system) somehow consists of people who are pure oppressors is false. For example, some welfare administrators, who advocates often view as “the enemy” or “the oppressor,” actually may be trying to survive domestic violence themselves in their own homes, just as perpetrators of domestic violence work in the battered women’s movement. Also, many advocates who work for non-profits view government funding agencies as "the other." However, the relationship between non-profits and government agencies is clearly one of interdependence, as non-profits are often funded by such government agencies, even though government agencies have been constructed as entirely separate, and vice versa. What follows is a need within the culture of advocacy to mend the divisions between “us” and “them.”
One of the great strengths of the culture of battered women’s movement advocacy is, in fact, the almost conversion-like experience that seems to happen to individuals as they become part of a collective movement. While this strict adherence to ideology may be what breeds the problems just discussed, the sense of “radical awakening” is still a powerful virtue on which to foster a culture. In addition, though non-hierarchical decision-making has largely disappeared in the movement and been replaced by “professionals” who tend to have a decreasing amount of “first-hand knowledge of violence and grassroots activism” (Russo, 2001, p. 8), reconnecting with this practice may help to transform some of the internalized oppression. Though making the move to more professional organizations with traditional hierarchical modes of decision-making may have been necessary in the historical development of the culture of advocacy, it is time to look in greater depth at what these hierarchies have done to the movement. One example of this is that within the advocacy culture there has been a failure to acknowledge the ways in which individuals are different from each other and the ways in which individuals oppress each other. According to Moraga and Anzaldua (1981):
Each of us in some way has been both oppressed and oppressor…We are afraid to see how we have taken the values of our oppressor into our hearts and turned them against ourselves and one another. We are afraid to admit how deeply 'the man's' words have been ingrained in us (p. 32).
In considering the barriers to addressing economic justice issues within the movement, it is critical to look to our analysis or story that we tell about domestic violence. Our analysis has always been, and for good reason, that domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. But, what study after study has told us is that domestic violence occurs more often for women who are low-income and poor (Purvin, 2003; Bachman & Saltzman, 1995; Curcio, 1998; Raphael, 1996). So, what are we to make of this phenomenon? What does it imply for our analysis? And how does that influence what our advocacy strategies should be? Meier (1997) argues that our analysis that sexism and patriarchy are the sole causes of violence has blinded us to the fact that poverty aggravates domestic violence situations. In middle-income families, where there is domestic violence, she argues, economics can be used to control women and so resorting to violence may occur less often. When low-income and poor men do not have the power of economics to control their women with, they may be more inclined to resort to violence to control women, including the sabotaging behaviors that they are known to engage in to prevent women from working. We have failed to see the bigger picture of the effects that poverty has on violence against women. While obviously, we want to hold men accountable for their violent behavior, we must acknowledge the fact that men of color, and economically disadvantaged men who are lacking employment are oppressed as well. This is why it is necessary that we really listen to what anti-poverty advocates are telling us.
Transforming the Culture of Battered Women’s Movement Advocacy
It can be argued that a cultural conversion is happening on multiple fronts, particularly in the realms of social constructionism (Gergen, 1999), environmental philosophy (Naess & Rothenberg, 1989) and spiritual thought (Morales, 1998; Dass & Gorman, 1990). Rather than focusing on just one particular philosophical perspective, a vision for transforming the culture of advocacy will be presented, pointing to several intellectual traditions that are consistent with and reflect such a vision. The previous discussion suggests that the strict adherence to us/them dichotomies often promotes adversarial relationships and prevents coalition building. Therefore, this vision offers an antidote to this blockage and involves two components – adopting a more expansive notion of the self and acting in coalition with others.
Expanding the Notion of the Self
While battered women’s advocates have certainly resisted many problematic features of patriarchy, we have unfortunately often perpetuated traditional frameworks for understanding group identity and ultimately that of the self, i.e. separate, static notions of the self. This has translated into many of the problems discussed with identity politics and “us versus them” issues in advocacy culture. By investigating how deep ecological thought and postmodernist thought deconstruct the idea of separate selves, a relational and interconnected notion of the self that is ultimately more reflective of reality emerges, thereby providing a more effective framework for collaborative advocacy.
Deep Ecological Perspectives on the Self. The term “deep ecology” was coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973 (Naess, 1989) and has recently been introduced into the social work literature (Besthorn & Canda, 2002; Besthorn, 1997). By “deep” ecology, Naess was referring to a spiritual approach to ecology, based on radical biocentric equality, distinct from other more anthropocentric approaches and that asked “more searching questions about human life, society, and Nature” (Devall & Sessions, 1985, p. 215). Deep ecology, like many postmodern philosophies, such as social constructionism (Gergen, 1999), objects to the Cartesian ontological bifurcation, or the divide between self and other, or mind and matter, that constitutes some modernist Western and academic culture. For deep ecologists, the dichotomy between self and nature and self and other that has been expressed through much of Western philosophy, culture and institutions, is an egregious misconstruction. According to deep ecological thinker Halifax (1993), “if we look deeply, we find that we do not have a separate self-identity, a self that does not include sun and wind, earth and water, creatures and plants, and one another.” (p. 137). According to deep ecology, the idea of a separate self-identity is a cause of the environmental destruction perpetrated by humans onto nature (Devall & Sessions, 1985), the sexist domination perpetrated by males onto females (Warren, 1993) and the racism carried out by white people onto people of color (Bookchin, 1993). In this respect, deep ecology is in line with feminist, Afrocentric and other writings on oppression in the social work literature (e.g. Weick, 2001; Schiele, 2000; Van Den Bergh, 1995).
Identification is an important aspect of deep ecology. It refers to understanding that “parts of nature are parts of ourselves. We cannot exist separate from them” (Naess, 1989. p. 10). “We must see the vital needs of ecosystems and other species as our own needs: there is thus no conflict of interests” (Naess, 1989, p. 11). Identification, then, is a process whereby the individual self comes to identify more closely with a larger self. This argument can apply to other systems that are sometimes seen as separate from us, so that we come to understand that legislators’ needs are ultimately the needs of advocates and the women we work for. Identification is then, the “widest interpretation of love. In love one loses part of one’s identity by gaining a greater identity” (Naess, p. 11).
Social Constructionist Perspectives on the Self. Gergen (1999) posits a position he calls social constructionism that deconstructs the injurious, dichotomous modernist paradigm in favor of a new construction grounded in relationship and dialogue. He holds that the self or identity is never final and always fluid as pragmatic uses of word, intonation and gesture are always subtly shifting. So that, “who one is depends on the moment-to-moment movements in conversation” (Gergen, 1999, p. 80). Thus, the self is an _expression of relationship and is neither fixed nor solitary. Through his analysis of language, Gergen (1999) holds a relational view of the self and asserts that "relationships stand prior to all that is intelligible" (p. 48).
Others in this intellectual tradition also posit a more fluid concept of the self. Foucault (1989) argued that the self was historicized and that we are all captive to what he calls "regimes of truth" or the prevailing norms of a particular society at a particular historical time (See Chambon, Irving & Epstein, 1999). Bakhtin (cited in Irving & Young, 2002) holds a similar view, criticizing modernist monological thinking and positing an unfinalizable nature of the self. The self is unfinalizable because it is constantly participating in an open-ended dialogue (Irving and Young, 2002, p. 23). Applied to the advocacy culture then, the idea that there is a fixed “me” (advocate) and a fixed “oppressor” (them) is resting on a shaky foundation.
Dass and Gorman (1990) caution helpers against finding themselves in “helping prison” where one becomes trapped by his or her own self-righteousness and comes to over-identify with one’s role as a helper, or advocate, in other words, the previously mentioned trap of "us versus them" dichotomies. They offer release from this prison:
“When our models of who we are fall away, we are free simply to meet and be together… [our] separateness dissolves and we are united in compassion (p. 38).”
In the feminist literature, Roman (1993) calls for a shift from identity politics to a “politics of coalition,” i.e. unity that is grounded in difference, rather than sameness, advocating for a relational politics of dialogue, or what Morales (1998) calls a politics of inclusion. This vision can attend to problems of individual and group oppression without the fragmentation that has often been associated with it. By looking into the misconstruction of other movements, advocacy causes, and social systems themselves as “other” or even "lesser" than its own, the battered women’s movement can find ways to make linkages that will "expand the visions of both their movements and our own until we find the point of collaboration" (Morales, 1998, p. 125). Standing in solidarity with everyone – legislators who seem to only be concerned with the bottom line, bureaucrats who “just don’t get it” - comes from "the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest" (Morales, 1998, p. 125).
By adopting a wider concept of the self, one can come to understand this “deep identity with the wider reaches of life” as a motivation for action (Macy, 1991a, p. 185). We may come to understand social systems in the way that deep ecologists understand the forest, for when one understands that the Amazon forest is a part of him or her, i.e. the external lungs of the universe, one chooses not to cut down the trees in the same way that one does not cut off one’s own leg. Like the forest, we are the social systems trying to protect itself. We are all constantly participating and thus creating our social systems and it depends on us to heal them.
In the context of advocacy, it is fairly easy to advocate for the oppressed, for the victim, but what is much more difficult is for true compassion to appear and to advocate for everyone, including the oppressors and the perpetrators. Everyone exhibits behaviors at times that are oppressive, controlling and hurtful to others and as one investigates the ways in which he or she oppresses others, then one can have more identification with others and compassion for the systems he or she works in. A mutual shaping and reciprocity between helpers (advocates) and the helped (systems) is critical to change (Imbrogno & Canda, 1988). Without efforts at self-transformation, we are at risk of merely creating an "illusion of change" (Canda & Furman, 1999).
In summary, the traditional framework of battered women’s advocacy can build on the strengths of consciousness-raising and working in coalition, as well as overcoming its strict adherence to identitiy politics and its practice of us versus them. By bringing in new conceptual insights such as the deep ecological, interdependent or relational self, and the necessary process of identification with the whole, we are presented with a new idea of resistance. These new insights can bring to the battered women’s movement culture a new framework for advocacy that entails expanded self-interest of battered women's advocates, the process of self-identification and a new politics of coalition. Though a complete transformation of the omnipresent patriarchal culture is obviously beyond the capacity of advocates, it is possible to resist that culture by re-claiming a space for themselves that is empowering and effective.
If advocates within the battered women’s movement were to heed the call for a self-intervention and adopt a new framework, what would this new culture look like and what new attitudes, skills and approaches would they need? First, advocates need opportunities for advanced training on advocacy and collaboration. Collaboration does not mean colluding with an oppressive system, it merely means meeting other systems where they are. Second, agencies can begin to heal the wounds that exist between their agencies and other key systems. Within this process, it is critical to emphasize both the common and differing goals of advocates and “the system.” Finally, advocates in the movement can start with themselves, looking into the power and internalized oppression that has been perpetuated in our organizations and assess whether or not the way in which we do our work each day is conducive to our vision of social and economic justice.
This critique of the culture of advocacy has focused on the problems of identity politics and “us versus them” dichotomies. The strengths of the culture of advocacy have been emphasized, including the emancipatory aspects of consciousness-raising and the egalitarian and participatory organizational models that have arisen in the advocacy culture. It seems the ground has been paved for a transformation of the culture of battered women’s movement advocacy, building on the strengths of the current culture and drawing on insights from other intellectual domains of thought. These insights include (1) expanding the very idea of the self and thus the “advocate” from one of self-interest to a more expansive one, culling insights from deep ecological theory (Naess, 1989) and social constructionism (Gergen, 1999); and (2) nurturing the spiritual impetus behind advocacy, drawing on thinkers espousing ethics of love and compassion (Morales, 1998; Dass & Gorman, 1990). Because working in coalition is a vital solution to addressing multiple forms of oppression, these insights can help provide a new framework for advocacy for battered women’s advocates and social workers as they look to make connections to other social movements, such as to economic justice movements (Schechter, 1999), thereby actualizing their stated commitments to social justice.
The culture of advocacy will not transform the society that promotes violence against women unless it transforms itself. Otherwise advocacy, social change and reform is merely “‘turning over the dung heap,’ the dispossessed taking power with the same ignorance and self-serving as their oppressors” (Macy, 1991b, p. 215). As we step up to the task of pursuing economic justice for survivors of violence and others, we can be better equipped than we have previously been to meet our collaborative partners and help move everyone toward a more compassionate, just place. This holds promise for transforming current oppressive social policies and practices that perpetuate poverty and injustice.
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