Transforming the Culture of
Advocacy for Social and Economic Justice
- December 2003
Loretta Pyles, M.A.,
- 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.
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
- 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
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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
(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
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).
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
- 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
- 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
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