Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Homeward Bound

So my States Odyssey is drawing to a close. I just need to squeeze the 67 teddy bears the girls wanted to bring into the six cases we have acquired along the way and survive the transatlantic flight + obligatory jetlag and I’ll have done it!

Along with all the information, inspiration and examples I have brought back about work, I have also learnt some of my own personal lessons along the way; namely:

1.Shout ‘YES’ to any opportunity

When Lyndon first suggested I apply to the WCMT, I started to play my traditional responses ‘Pie in the Sky’ ‘Won’t happen for me’ ‘Waste of valuable time’. But Lyndon’s sense of possibility and optimism has obviously rubbed off because underneath my pervasive, droning record was another voice that said ‘YES, why not? What the hell…’

So thank you to Winston Churchill’s family for setting up such a trust and advocating exploration and learning for our nation (www.wcmt.org.uk) and for giving me the grant. And thank you to Lyndon Johnson (my partner, not the US president) for always encouraging me to think bigger and bolder than I am totally comfortable with.

2. Trust that people want to support you

So, the award is sitting on my desk waiting for me to have my baby and get my brain (half-way) back. I have had another year off work to settle Iris Belle into the world and I am now going back to my boss to ask if I can take another six weeks off to go to the States…How will this go down? Will she fire me? Should I even ask? In the past, the possibility of rejection might have stalled my request but experience has taught me that my ever-supportive boss is open, positive and full of surprises. Thank you to Trish Harrison and WSCC for this time.

Also, I have been amazed at the responsiveness of all the people I have contacted in the States regarding this trip. Every single person I reached out to gave me their time, their energy and their ideas.

3. Take it personally

I have had some excellent professional conversations but running underneath all of them has been a sense of how violence or abuse of one kind or another has invaded their personal lives. It has made me conscious of bridging the gap between the personal and the professional – breaking down those boundaries. It has also given me a greater sense of responsibility towards helping create a peaceful community for all – starting with myself.

4.  Travel light

I always pack for EVERY eventuality and NEVER use half the stuff (yes, yes, ok, I finally admit it Lyndon now we’re home). It’s an important life lesson for me….

Thank you for reading my blog. I’ll publish the more coherent and professional version of my trip after the jetlag subsides….

Creative Interventions, California

I am relieved to be back in Marin County at my sister-in-laws after my Texan excursion – I lament my loss of solo adventure-seeking which has arrived with motherhood but also rejoice in the fact I have two very good reasons (three including Lyndon!) not to get lost.

After a weeks holiday in THE most gorgeous place on earth – Mendocino in Northern California, we are now back in Marin ready to pack up our six-week trip. But there’s still time for one last visit to a quirky organisation called Creative Interventions based in Oakland California.

Creative Interventions is a resource centre existing to create and promote community-based interventions to intimate and interpersonal violence, in alignment with the liberatory goals of the social justice movement. At the heart of this endeavour is the idea that the knowledge and solutions to solve the issue of violence is held by the people experiencing it, those witnessing it and by the communities in which it takes place. It also recognises that the solutions are situated in the very spaces and places that the violence occurs – within our homes, neighbourhood and communities. The idea is that we have lost a coherent sense of community and so have created a temporary community to retreat to when violence erupts– shelters, advocacy centres, foster care homes etc –but this is not addressing the root cause; the sense of dislocation, alienation and disempowerment people feel from their community – the reason they want to exert power and control perhaps?

Mimi Kim, Founder of Creative Interventions, has worked in the DV sector as an advocate for over 15 years.  She argues that the current, conventional remedies to DV as offered through the State, foster a sense of individualism, separation and dislocation. In short, when a couple involves the system they become ‘the problem’ rather than society as a whole and the only real way to achieve safety is for the victim to be separated from the perpetrator. There is little healing or resolution involved.

Creative Interventions started a research project called ‘The Storytelling and Organizing Project’ (2004) in which it invited the community to talk about alternative ways they ended intimate violence. The stories are told by survivors, by relatives, by friends, by community-groups, by perpetrators – anyone who had a story (for an example look at their website www.creative-interventions.org). Creative Interventions used these stories to build up a picture of how community-based alternatives can work. This informs their Community-Based Interventions Project which works to create and promote collective, creative and flexible solutions to fit the individual.

Mimi shows me the beginnings of a toolkit the organisation is working on that can be used by any member of the community. The idea is that rather then involving ‘an expert’ who comes with a one-size fits all solution, the community-member (eg. Faith leader, school teacher, friend, employer, victim) will use the toolkit along with other concerned members to put together an action plan. Creative Interventions will provide the space and technical assistance for this group to move forward with their plan.

Obviously, my mind starts to run towards the panic button, screaming ‘risk assessments!’ ‘safety plan!’ ‘child protection!’ but I try to quieten down enough to finish of our meeting. Mimi Kim is obviously clearly aware of these emergency lights going off in my head, she has been an advocate herself and knows all that and more. She is very clear that she is not offering a solution, she is offering questions ‘What would it look like if….’ questions that, in time, may offer an alternative to what we already have and for that I greatly admire her.

Liberation-Based Healing Conference, Austin Texas

Next up, I fly to Austin Texas, on my own! My anxiety at leaving Lyndon and the children for three nights is greatly heightened by the fact my sister-in-law is worried that I might get shot in Texas….Apparently Texas is a hard-nosed State. Luckily, I dodge the bullets and arrive safely at the two-day long ‘Liberation-Based Healing Conference’ in tact.

This excursion on my trip embodies the beauty that is The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Award (www.wcmt.org.uk). I really have no idea if this conference will be relevant to my research but it intrigued me as I did my internet research back home and I couldn’t let it go. So I decided to throw it in as a wild card, seeing as the trip is funded not by myself but by the generous grant of WCMT. I just hope the gamble pays off.

The first night in the hotel room, I can’t sleep. This is the most frustrating aspect of motherhood – well, one of them – I spend months and months yearning for my own space and the chance to slumber in bed in the morning without being karate-chopped in the stomach by two children competing to get the first hug; then when I get it, I can’t sleep because I’m missing them! Needless to say, I am up well before breakfast is served as my body has long lost the memory of what it is to slumber and arrive at the conference – exhausted.

The first day of the conference is frustrating to me. It feels like the presenters are speaking another language. They’re not, but the combination of lack of sleep, bad acoustics and very dense subject matter makes me squint to understand until my eyes hurt. It’s made more frustrating because I just know that in amongst these words is something relevant and exciting.

I am invited out to dinner after the conference with the presenters and conference organisers. Even though it’s the last thing in the whole wide world I want to do, I agree as (if you can remember from the beginning of this stream of consciousness) I am trying out the ‘yes’ approach to life on this trip (out of character but thought I’d give it a go). Thinking a mojito would help the flow, I drink two in succession. The next few hours I spend in conversation but I have no idea what language anyone is talking – including myself…

The mojitos might not have given me any insight for the evening but they do help me to sleep and the second day of the conference offers hope of understanding…here is what I understand so far….

Liberation-based healing is an emerging and transformational philosophy and practice for bridging community activism and therapeutic practice with applications to family and community violence, trauma, mental health, immigration, health disparities, and child welfare services. This approach to healing builds on the idea that problems are only ever really solved in community.

This national conference seeks to bring together practitioners and therapists, community activists and organisers, educators and faith community leaders for dialogue and inquiry focused on a system of relational healing that embraces critical consciousness, empowerment, and accountability.

Rhea Almeida, the Director for the Institute for Family Services, originated The Cultural Context Model of therapeutic work and this underpins the Liberation-Based Healing Conference. As I understand it, the Cultural Context Model recognises that everyone has a position in society which can be mapped onto a matrix of power, privilege and oppression. It looks at the way colonialisation has marginalised many sectors of society and how this sense of powerlessness causes dis-ease. Instead of looking at the individual as the problem, this model calls for social justice as a way to heal.

So, in practical terms, if a family present with a problem to the Institute for Family Services, rather than have family/ couple therapy, they are invited into a cultural circle in which they start to learn the language of power, privilege and oppression. Within a community (ie. other people who have approached the Institute and have joined the group along with group facilitators) they use film narratives, music, literature and other media to look at the impact colonialisation and other forms of oppression have on their sense of powerlessness. It then supports them to bring issues to the group and the learning comes from the responses of the community and the accountability they feel to that community.

The whole of the conference is too theoretical for me to come away with any practical sense of the outcomes of the Cultural Context Model but I am still convinced there is something relevant and interesting in this model – so I shall just have to look into it more when I get home. And that reminds me, I am not here to look for answers…I leave the conference with a headful of half formed ideas, a padful of questions and a fistful of business cards.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

From Boys to Men...

One area in which the States seem to have surged way ahead of the UK is in addressing the issue of abuse through enlisting the support of men and by engaging the people who abuse in a positive manner. They have ‘Men as Peacemakers’ (www.menaspeacemakers.org) which looks to foster and develop peacemakers through modelling, mentoring, storytelling and dialogue. They have the ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ (www.menagainstdv.org) in which the college sporting fraternity is coached by the athletic leaders and role models that domestic violence is unacceptable in order to foster a zero tolerance attitude amongst men and women on campus. They have the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org) whose mission is to improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion of children growing up with involved, responsible, and committed fathers.

Even Barack Obama launched his ‘Fathering and Mentoring Initiative’ (www.fatherhood.gov) in June this year. This is a partnership between the Administration for Children and Families, White House Office of Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, national Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, family-serving organisations and other leaders all joining together to show support for the fathers and children in the nation. Its goal is to encourage individuals, especially fathers, to be involved in the lives of their children, and to be positive role models and mentors for other children in their lives and communities.

The list of organsiations in which men are taking responsibility for the issue of healthy relationships is endless….

So it seems that in the US, they are opening up the dialogue with men about what it means to be a man, what does masculinity look like, what’s it like to be a father etc. And they are addressing the issue of domestic abuse through this avenue and offering hope to men. As always in the States, the language is upbeat, the role models are inspiring, the message is…there is room for you to change and we will help you.

So it’s appropriate that I am today talking to Juan Carlos Arean from ‘The Fathering After Violence’ Initiative as this is an organisation which is offering this message to perpetrators of abuse.

The goal of the FAVP is to help men who have renounced their violence to become better fathers and co-parents. In partnership with a consortium of BIPs (Batterer Intervention Programs) they are developing strategies and interventions to help fathers start to repair and heal their relationships with their children when possible and appropriate and in doing so this fosters a change in the men’s behaviour towards women.

They do not provide a direct service but have put together a framework for organisations to work with in order to bring the father’s relationships with their children into their transformative work.

They have also put together a powerful 15 mins film entitled ‘Something My Father Would Do’ which shows three men grappling with the issue of domestic abuse but breaking down the boundary between victim and perpetrator. It shows how abuse in childhood can lead onto being an abuser in adulthood and how that cycle is endless unless it is stopped.
They then organised with Child Contact Centers that the men coming into see their children would be called in half an hour early and put in a waiting room with this film is showing on a loop. I’m sure it’s non-judgmental and compassionate message has an effect.

My conversation with Juan makes me feel hopeful and excited for the future of men’s services. It’s a whole new way of tackling the issue of abuse and one that feels intuitively right but as Juan says at the end of our chat; it’s not about one initiative or program providing an answer it’s about the whole system – the courts, the community, the educators - being supportive of the healing of men who abuse. And, of course, there is the issue of funding and it appears that even though the thinking is starting to change in the States, there is still little funding available for this valuable work in these restricting times...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Project SARAH (Stop Abusive Relationsips at Home)

From San Francisco where we stayed with Lyndon’s sister, we make our way up to visit his aunt. We have decided to have a small road trip and drive through Yosemite Park, onto Mono Lake through Truckee and onto Quincy. This may sound like a small feat but when you have two children under 4 in tow, it’s a Herculean task. And, of course, just as we buckle the girls into their car seats, Iris’ two eye teeth decide to push on through. I spend the next few days trying to absorb the breath-taking beauty of the American landscape (see pictures at www.mccarthy-johnsonsinusa.blogspot.com) whilst craning my neck backwards from the front seat to attempt to pacify teething toddler.

We spend Halloween at Quincy. It’s big business out here. Thousands of kids dressed up as postboxes, busy bees, princesses, trees, zombies and witches take to the street and collect their ‘treats’ from the shopkeepers. Each shopkeeper spends over $100 on sweets to give away. Matilda loves it but we ration her to only a few sweets and slyly leave the bucket of sugar and e-numbers behind.

Whilst I’m in Quincy I have a few phone calls to people I’ve not managed to meet up with so far. Esther East is the Director for Project SARAH which is part of the New Jersey Jewish Family Services. I am interested to speak to Esther as Project SARAH (Stop Abusive Relationship At Home) has collaborated with Linda Mills to develop a Healing Circle as an alternative to the traditional batterer’s intervention they offer. It’s called a Healing Circle as opposed to a Peace Circle because it is not mandated by the courts – all the people who participate in the circles are doing so voluntary.

Esther explains that the Jewish community is well-placed to test the effectiveness of the Healing Circles as the majority of the women she sees are totally unprepared to leave their husbands, keeping the family together is paramount. Also the Jewish community is close-knit so the sense of community responsibility for any problem is huge.

The Healing Circles are used as one model of intervention and are never used exclusively. The Jewish Family Services offer a continuum of services and advocacy, family therapy and couple counselling are all used. They assess the appropriateness of using a Circle on a case by case basis.

Esther tells me of a recent case in which the Healing Circle has been used to good effect. The family has a multitude of issues including alcoholism and much physical violence and there are children involved. The child protective services are aware of the case but no action is being taken- they are just monitoring the situation. Because there is so much bitterness and accusations in the family, it’s decided that getting everyone in one room to say what they need and how they want to move forward would be beneficial. Both the mother and the father bring a support person along, along with their rabbi who knows them both well. There were also members of the Jewish community as part of the circle. The circle has been meeting regularly and the lines of communication are becoming less blaming and more responsive. It’s early days and Esther can not predict if this family will be healed but at least if they split up, the issue of child contact can be discussed amicably and outside the court system.

The Jewish Family Services of New Jersey have been facilitating Healing Circles for the last three years. Like the Peace Circles, the key elements are the offender having a sense of remorse and the aggrieved not feeling re-victimised; this is thoroughly explored before the circle takes place. Then, like the Peace Circles, each person has their turn to say how the harm done has affected them and their sense of well being and how the harm can be repaired.  The Healing Circles last for an hour and half each time and is repeated every week until the issue is resolved.

The Jewish Family Services offers a traditional voluntary BIP (Batterer’s Intervention Program) as well as the Peace Circles and she says that the shift in the perpetrator’s attitude is more profound through the Healing Circles method. She puts this down to the fact that the perpetrator feels more connected to his community, feels less ostracised and so is able to ask for support with changing his behaviours more freely. Esther also talks about how the person who has been harmed finds it more healing as they are able to take some control over the outcome and come up with some of the problem-solving strategies for themselves whilst having the community for backup and support. Again, the sense that true healing takes place in a strong community reverberates through our conversation.

Then we have a discussion about the different motivators for abuse and Esther concludes, ‘Well of course, there are the good, the bad and the ugly’. And I snigger (whilst thinking to myself, ‘well that’s not very PC is it?  Imagine a ‘good’ perpetrator…) but the phrase encompasses an important point – not all people who abuse have the same motivator and some people dearly do not want to be harming their loved ones – they just don’t know where to turn to for help – and neither do we yet,…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Center for Domestic Peace, Marin County 2010

We fly to San Francisco and I spend the next week with The Center for Domestic Peace; formerly known as MAWS (Marin Abused Women’s Services). The Center for Domestic Peace has changed its name in the last few weeks to reflect its expanding remit. It started life in the 1970’s offering crisis services to women who had been battered and has slowly evolved with the DV movement. Today its mission is ‘to mobilise individuals and communities to create safety, justice, and equality, transforming our world so domestic violence no longer exists.’ Again, that ‘changing the world’ motif.

The Center for Domestic Violence breaks down its services into three categories:
Firstly, Safety and Empowerment: this encompasses the hotlines, shelters, transitional housing, advocacy, support groups and classes for stopping violent behaviours.
Secondly, Co-ordinated Community Response which encompasses services which perform institutional advocacy and the engagement of other agencies and professionals.
Then lastly, Social Transformation – ways of changing society through capacity building and training.

On the first day, I meet up with Jennifer Lee, the TC-TAT (Transforming Communities – Technical Assistance, Training and Resource Center) Project Manager, she asks me to sign an Individual Peace agreement. This document is my pledge to engage in peaceful behaviour and to commit to being an agent of peace in my life. This highlights the shift in focus that the Center has undertaken signified by the name change. Rather than focusing exclusively on people identified as victims of abuse, they are expanding their services to incorporate everyone to commit to peace and to social change – starting with ourselves.

My meeting with Jennifer consolidates much of what I was introduced to in NYC. Namely; grass-roots mobilisation, community-led solutions/ action and capacity building.

Throughout my time at the Center for Domestic Peace I meet up with Encarny Aguado-Ansems, the Transitional Housing Manager, Ramon Manrique, The Economic Development Advocate and Graciela Rodriguez, the Operational Manager. Whilst I had productive and interesting chats with all of them, the time that will stay with me the most is my attendance at the Mankind class.

Mankind is the BIP (Batterer Intervention Program) of the Center for Domestic Peace. The BIP facilitator asks the guys if it’s ok for someone to observe the session. They all generously agree. I have some trepidation about attending this group as all the men are court-mandated and I know that amongst them are men who have been away for a very long time for what they did to their deceased partners; however, I’ll just be sitting unseen at the back of the room and no one will notice me, right?

The facilitator ushers me to the room and I nervously sit in a chair at what I think is the back of the room. But wait, the facilitator walks round the room and starts to write his name on the whiteboard above me. I have plonked myself centre stage and it’s as if the perpetrators are my audience. The facilitator then asks me to tell everyone why I am here and alittle bit about myself. They eye me suspiciously.

My introduction done, I slowly edge my chair towards the side of the group and try to make myself invisible but the facilitator doesn’t take my hint, Instead he proceeds to address the whole session to me – a recap over what they have already learnt over the last few weeks and all the men are watching to see if I understand. The facilitator explains that each participant is asked to conceptualise his abusive behaviour into an alter-ego name which outlines his chosen methods of abuse and then they go round the room and each tell me what their abusive persona is called.

‘I am a lying, manipulative, cheating partner’
‘I am a drunken, verbally abusive, hitman’
‘I am a mean-talking, unreliable, violent dominator’

Thank you I say, as each one finishes. Thank you, I nod politely and smile in my very British way. It’s a surreal experience to say the least.

I’m not too sure why, perhaps it’s embarrassment at the situation or the real desire not to appear voyeuristic or judgement but after all the men tell me their names and the room falls silent I hear myself disclose that I have been a victim of abuse and tell them that at times I also struggle with my abusive ways. They just don’t know what to make of that – so most of then look at the floor. Too weird for words.

What did I learn from this experience other than not to ask to attend such a meeting again? Well, as I look around the room I see a wide spectrum of men from all different backgrounds and all different situations. I see men who were struggling with addictions, abuse from childhood, poverty and lack of power in the society they live in. It would appear that many of them have had pretty traumatic lives to date. I can see that only a few of them are probably really motivated to change and that many of them were just sitting this out, bidding their time.

Non-Violent Communication and Restorative Practices

So our next stop is to New Hampshire. My family and I arrive at our new home for the next three nights - a quirky and chintzy B&B called ‘Enchanted Nights’. I am heading to Aryoloka Buddhist Retreat Center for a Non Violent Communication Deepening and Restorative Justice Work shop whilst Lyndon is off to immerse himself and the kids into the dazzling, bonfire of colours that nature burns up every fall in this area.

After New York, the pace is slow. We are staying in Portsmouth, with its New England-style wood-panelled houses with verandas and white-picket fences. Everywhere feels ordered, well-manicured and spacious. The first morning we find the local diner and indulge in the biggest breakfast ever known to man – porridge, fruit, pancakes, muffins, egg, bacon, maple syrup – Americans know how to eat a lot! It appears that the whole of the local community is in the diner and each morning we nod to the same faces, sit in the same seats and have the same breakfast (except on Sunday when they all pile in together after Church). The sense of community is palpable.

Aryoloka Buddhist Retreat Center is housed a two-dome structure tucked away in the forest. It’s a beautiful setting. The Non-Violent Communication workshop is illuminating for me and I take away the idea that in order for people to stop being violent/ blaming/ angry/ judgemental to others, they need to learn how to be truly non-violent towards themselves first. On the third day, a Circles facilitator talks to us about the use of circles for offending youths in Colorado and we ‘fishbowl’ a mock Circle. Jessica Dancingheart (the facilitator) has written the case study with me in mind. The scenario is an incident in which a teenager has hit his girlfriend (the first time) after she tried to take his dope from him in the park. I volunteer to role-play the young girl and the rest of the group take the other roles – the girl’s mum, the young offender and his father, along with two community members.

It’s an interesting role play. As the victim, I feel good that my boyfriend has a chance to repair the damage he has inflicted without getting a criminal record and feel secure in the fact that if he doesn’t comply with the actions decided by the circle that he will be taken back to court to be dealt with in the traditional ways. As each person is given the talking piece to say how the crime has affected them, I feel (as the victim) that the crime was not just against me. As I hear how each community member feels worried about letting their children to the park now, how they feel their community is less safe because of this incident, I start to feel less victimised. The emphasis is on the offender taking full responsibility for his actions and hearing how it impacted on all those around him. The action plan is a way of him repaying the whole of community and is based on his strengths – this teenager was a runner and so it was decided in the group that he should raise money for the local refuge by taking part in two charity runs as part of his pay back to society, amongst other reparations.

Obviously there are lots and lots of situations in which this approach wouldn’t work but I am starting to appreciate that thinking of ‘perpetrators’ as one homogenised group is not helpful. There are all kinds of people who become abusive and different approaches are required to address this. Food for thought.