Survivor-Centered Research: Towards an Intersectional Gender-Based Violence Movement
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Much has been written on the imperative of intersectionality within the fight for women’s equality and in efforts to end gender-based violence. However, data continues to show that women and LGBTQ people of color experience heightened and more severe instances of both state and interpersonal violence. What lessons can domestic violence and sexual assault advocates and researchers learn from intersectional theory and frameworks to help reduce instances of violence, reduce barriers in accessing resources and create safety nets for communities? This paper seeks to explore the roots of historical violence against communities of color, the current trends in anti-violence research and service provision and strategies for engaging in intersectional community based research.
KeywordsIntersectionality Gender Racism Research Advocacy
Those of us working to reduce communities’ experiences of intimate partner violence, and to support survivors of violence, understand that there are systems of power and inequity within personal relationships that cause and exacerbate violence, and make help-seeking difficult. In addition, there are systems of power and inequity outside of the relationship that scaffold intimate manifestations of violence. Years of deepening research and advocacy have uncovered the prevalence and gravity of gender-based violence. However, often missing from our research and analysis of gender-based violence is its connection to other interlocking and mutually reinforcing systems of oppression, power and inequity. Intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991) allows us to examine the unique ways gender overlaps and connects to survivors’ experiences of race, health and ability, immigration status, sexual orientation, housing status and other marginalized identities.
In my own work as a social worker, a survivor engaged in a practice of healing and providing supportive services in community with survivors of violence, and later as a researcher and policy analyst, I have learned two things to be true: that those of us who live at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities experience heightened violence, that we are creative, and that we are often already implementing community-based, lifesaving interventions to reduce violence, access safety and heal ourselves and our communities. The lack of research and data to validate our nuanced experiences is not due to a lack of story-telling, information sharing and problem-solving in our communities. Instead, the lack of nuanced and disaggregated data about our lives often stems from a lack of historical and socio-political context from researchers themselves. This lack of context inhibits the ability to identify questions that drill down to the root of our needs. Further, disengagement with community partners, particularly non-traditional partners outside of mainstream anti-violence organizations, and a lack of deep understanding about the intersections of our identities contributes to the lack of data and strategies with the potential to move the needle on violence. This paper briefly explores the historical and contemporary contexts of violence against marginalized communities. It ends with discussing ways researchers and practitioners can shift their work to embrace survivors voices, anti-oppressive research and holistic practices.
Many survivors of violence share common experiences across racial, ethnic and class lines. These shared experiences have allowed researchers and advocates to frame a collective understanding about the dynamics and cycles of abuse, and to develop theoretical frameworks: Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (Felitti et al. 1998), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Lindauer 2002), Rape Trauma Syndrome (Tannura 2014), and their precursors; Battered Women’s Syndrome (Walker 1989) all point to common themes about power, control and violence. However, due to complex, often antagonistic histories with varied systems and institutions, some communities are at higher risk of experiencing violence in their lifetimes, and have a more difficult time accessing the life-saving resources they need to get and stay safe, and to heal. Survivors of color and Native survivors, LGBTQIA survivors, survivors with disabilities, and survivors who live at the intersections of all of these identities often experience compounded instances and impacts of violence. Race is particularly salient, because race, when combined with other marginalized identities—gender, sexuality, immigration status, almost always becomes a primary determinant of disparity (Williams and Mohammed 2009). Current trends in homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and instances of domestic violence all point to the fact that people of color bear a disproportionate burden of negative health and social outcomes through systemic, not personal failings. Intersectionality can be used to research and understand the roots of violence, the barriers and resiliencies to seeking help from violence and social responses to prevent violence and provide safety nets for survivors. Further, it can help drive an anti-violence agenda that truly centers the most marginalized survivors.
A Web of Inequity
Survivors of color are navigating a complex web of social inequity stemming from long-standing policies and laws, often guided by biased research. From this nation’s early history of colonization, slavery and unethical medical experimentation on Black bodies, to the criminalization of sex work, which allows for racialized and gendered police profiling and abuse of transgender and cisgender women of color, the roots of personal and state violence against marginalized bodies are well-formed. Further, the unintended consequences of past domestic violence and sexual assault laws and policy have often disproportionately impacted women and girls of color (Sherman 2017), leading to increased policing in communities of color, mandatory arrests, escalation of violence and excessive force by police officers and other first responders to domestic violence calls. While transgender and cisgender women of color, and particularly Black women, are more likely to experience death as a result of domestic violence when compared to white women, they cannot always depend on the police to keep them safe (Jones 2014). In fact, though Black women and girls are only 13 % of the female population in the United States, they account for 33 % of all women shot to death by the police (Librescro 2015). Women of color experience violence at the hands of partners and at the hands of the state simultaneously. Any anti-violence research and intervention must center these historical and contemporary realities. Black women and other women of color and Native women are more likely to live below the poverty line, more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner (Petrosky et al. 2017) and more likely to experience various forms of criminalization compared to white women. And while gender-based violence happens across class and race, poverty and unemployment have been shown to exacerbate domestic violence (Larkin and Renzetti 2009). When research and interventions do not take this reality into account, the damage for women of color can be fatal.
Systems Upholding Abuse
Women and LGBTQ people of color face numerous structural barriers that maintain hegemony and make help-seeking more difficult. Common barriers for survivors include fear of criminal justice systems, lack of a financial safety net, religious and culturally imposed barriers, fears of deportation, lack of adequate child care services, lack of low-cost housing options, and skepticism of social service institutions. Women of color, particularly Black and Native women, have a long history of entanglement with social systems such as child protective services. Survivors bring historically founded fears of children being taken away when engaging with court systems where protection orders are filed, or stigma from social workers when accessing psychosocial supports to heal from violence. This is also true for immigrant survivors today as they are faced with the choice of silently enduring abuse or seeking support from institutions and potentially facing xenophobia, threats of deportation and family separation. Current systems continue to fail the most marginalized survivors. It is not enough to understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence. We must understand all systems that uphold abuse and make it harder for survivors to get and stay safe.
What Movement Shifts and Pivots Are Needed to Ensure that the most Marginalized Survivors Get their Needs Met?
The anti-violence field is called to utilize an intersectional framework to conduct research, provide services, evaluate programs and engage in advocacy. An intersectional praxis understands the importance of centering advocates and researchers of color, and survivors themselves. Often, conversations about diversity and inclusion within the gender-based violence field focus on dimensions of difference with an underlying message that clients are the “other” and those engaged in research, advocacy and helping professions are from groups with historical and contemporary access to institutional power, i.e. white, straight, cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied, formally educated, etc. Very few resources exist which discuss the unique experience of research and practice done in community by researchers or practitioners from those communities. Before many of researchers and practitioners begin work, we have already received a message about who the “helpers” are and who the communities are that need our “help.” Intersectional theory can help reduce the “us” versus “them” framing, and minimize the false line in the sand between survivors and researchers. Survivors voices should be treated as valuable and core to research about violence. Survivors, in fact, are often the first researchers; gathering information from other survivors, creating peer support networks, strategizing ways to stay safe, and disseminating information to others.
By the very nature of the work, advocates and researchers are frequently working in communities overwhelmingly impacted by poverty, generational trauma, legacies of slavery and racialized discrimination, and unequal distribution of resources. In short, researchers and advocates are often working primarily in communities of color; communities with varied experiences, languages and histories. Advocates and researchers of all backgrounds are trained, to varying degrees, in cross-cultural understanding and critical race theory. But advocates and researchers of color bridge the gap between theory and lived experience and can help flatten the hierarchy inherent, but not compulsory in the field.
Further, anti-violence organizations and the advocates within them often act as gatekeepers, enforcing laws that were intended to marginalize the very communities they are charged to support and work alongside. Researchers and practitioners in the anti-violence field are not exempt from the biases of the broader community as it pertains to race and class. We determine who is eligible for specific services and distribute resources. We determine eligibility criteria, restrict hours of service, and create and enforce punitive rules including curfews, job requirements, “no contact orders” and mandatory case management. We decide who can participate in the community advisory or client board, and disregard, or actively push out clients seen as “troublemakers” for their lack of gratitude, for having a disagreeable attitude, or for questioning authority. As researchers, we may marginalize community wisdom and insight under the guise of ensuring our research is “more rigorous.” Or we may fail to pivot our research when the themes being revealed become “too complex.” Researchers, advocates and organizations may often recreate the same power dynamics they seek to dismantle through silencing dissent and delegitimizing survivors’ voices. Our work must resist gatekeeping and instead move towards a holistic, intersectional, survivor-centered model. In order to do that, research should be a key component in shifting the movement, understanding context, advocating for policies that work, and engaging in best practices to reduce and end violence for the most marginalized survivors, and all people.
Direct services and advocacy must be amplified with empirical research and data to create lasting social change. For example, if our work is to be authentically survivor-centered and led, what organizational practices do anti-violence organizations need in order to support survivors seeking services and survivors working within the organization? Research can help us understand best practices in the field, and give voice to the experiences of survivor advocates. If we have seen through survivors’ stories, that calling the police escalates violence for women of color, research can help uncover the alternative tactics already taking place that may help survivors access safety. And if we have learned that the strain of poverty may increase instances of domestic violence (Larkin and Renzetti 2009), what research might we invest in, to help us understand violence prevention, and how might issues of economic justice be tied to race, gender identity and sexual orientation?
Without disaggregated data about women and girls of color and other marginalized populations, the depth of our disparity and marginalization is lost. Research is a form of story-telling. Communities are the experts of their experience and are provide nuance and complexity to their story that is often missing when told by outsiders. When we disaggregate data by race and gender and when women and girls of color are engaged in the research process at all levels, data sets begin to acknowledge the social, political and historical contexts of their lived experiences. And by expanding our notions of data to include all of the ways we share information, including through oral histories, comedy, music, and other cultural expressions, we create a more robust picture of community needs and resiliencies. Central to research is asking questions which reflect real stakeholders’ needs and interests. To do that, we need the people most impacted by the problem and by the interventions at the table.
We knew, when we saw the destruction of our communities, that mass incarceration was unfairly targeting communities of color, we knew, when we shared our stories with one another, that women of color are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence homicides. We are just beginning to have research and data to validate our hunches, and our lived experiences, however, we must take the voices of communities seriously and follow their lead as they connect the dots and weave together systemic realities that may otherwise be missed. In order for our research to work, it needs to look different than it has in the past—it needs to be human-centered, participatory and community based. And it needs to be rooted in shared leadership, curiosity, justice, reflection and action, so that survivors lead the way and do not get left behind. The purpose of research is to ask questions, identify assets and gaps and make change. It is meant to be a changemaking and liberatory process, not static or dehumanizing.
Special thanks to Dr. Nkiru Nnawulezi for support in the preparation of this manuscript.
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