Monthly Archives: December 2008

Feminism/s and justice for all

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What I believe, what I write, what I research, and what I think — all these have all been profoundly influenced by my social location.

I recognize that my life experiences have been shaped by my white skin and class privilege. But I also occupy marginalized social locations: I’m a woman, I’m queer and I have a disability. I’ve come close to sliding off the ledge into the abyss of poverty when serious illnesses struck my family. My experiences of oppression on all these dimensions have often caused me to feel pain, desperation, and rage.

Despite all this, I’m still very privileged. I always “pass” as a straight woman and my disability is invisible. And my experiences of oppression do not mean I know how oppression is experienced by a trans woman, a woman of colour, or a woman with a visible disability.

I’m picking my way carefully through this post, because I don’t want to play the oppression olympics. Nor do I want to speak for anyone else but myself. I don’t pretend to be fully conscious of all aspects of my privilege. In fact, my sense of entitlement and my taken-for-granted assumptions still slap me in the face all too often.

Nowadays I critique white feminism, but many years ago, it changed my life. It helped me to name and combat certain gender-based oppressions in my life. Feminism was my personal entry point into understanding social power relations. But my passion for social justice forced me to seek a better framework. Other women’s stories were often so very different from my own and feminism was not sufficient to help me understand their experiences.

Intersectionality theory gave me the theoretical framework I was missing; anti-oppressive practice translated it into practice. Not only did these perspectives broaden and deepen my understanding, but they also turned the lens back on feminism and my own privilege as an educated white woman.

It’s time for me to shut up and listen .

I want to listen to the voices of women of colour, women with disabilities, trans women, older women, working class women, and many others. Some of them are represented in my blogroll.

These are my teachers at present.

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The plight of immigrant women from eastern Europe

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I live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities the world. Almost half of Toronto’s population is foreign-born. While most immigrants are visible minorities, there are still a substantial number coming from eastern Europe. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research on this group.

In recent months, I have met a number of women immigrants from eastern Europe. Their stories have deeply affected me.

These women came here with hope and the expectation of a better life. But instead, they are worse off. They bitterly regret their choice to immigrate. Encountering barriers to decent employment, they have become impoverished, exhausted, and depressed. And they have lost the hope  that brought them here.

Their despair is such that they pour out their stories to a sympathetic stranger. What strikes me is their profound sense of betrayal.

Most of the women I’ve met are well-educated professionals in low skilled jobs. According to a recent Statistics Canada report, immigrants are university-educated at double the rate of native-born Canadians. Yet among recent university-educated immigrants, 28% of men and 40% of women held low skilled jobs in 2006, compared to 10% and 12% of native-born Canadians. Even among immigrants who have been here 11 to 15 years, 12% of men and 24% of women held low paying jobs in 2006, according to the report‘s authors Galarneau and Morisette. So there is not only a gap between university-educated immigrants and native-born Canadians, but also between males and females.

The women I talked with all said that if they could, they would go back. But each of them faces major obstacles.For example, one woman’s husband had a heart attack while visiting the U.S. and the medical bills mean she now has to work two jobs. He is unable to travel.  Another woman and her husband immigrated with a young child, now a teenager, who no longer speaks the language. They feel that their child’s needs require them to stay here.

Language is an issue for many of these women. When they immigrated, they were unaware that their credentials would not be recognized. They had to immediately take low-paying jobs to survive. There was no time or money for English language courses. Although their English has greatly improved over the years, they still have major limitations that prevent them from getting better jobs.

I’m not sure what aspects of this situation I want to study. In part, it depends on what has already been studied and what is still unknown. But I do know I’m very moved by the plight of these women.

There is one aspect that intrigues me. All the women I spoke with expressed overtly racist ideas. They blamed visible minorities, particularly blacks, for the crime and poor living conditions in their neighbourhood. In their view, blacks are “animals” and “garbage”. They also are very angry with people on welfare, who are “lazy” and “getting a free ride”, whereas these immigrants are working themselves into exhaustion at any jobs they can find in order to survive.

I believe that exploring these women’s attitudes would contribute to intersectionality theory on racism. The intersection of race, immigration status, downward social mobility, gender, language skills, health, age, all seem to play a role. However, I’m not sure how much it might contribute to expanding their options for a better future.

I know these women feel that they are invisible and that their voices don’t count. What do they have to teach us about their experiences that might help their own lives to improve as well as the lives of other kinds of immigrants? I plan to explore this question in this blog in the weeks to come.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Unequal Research Partnerships

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Anti-oppressive research requires engaging all the voices around the table. But not all voices are equal, due to power imbalances throughout the research process. Nor is everyone equally equipped to join the conversation.

It’s relatively easy to analyze this problem. But it’s really hard to change the power imbalance.

Let’s start with the analysis. Here are three reasons why university-based researchers have more power than community partners.

1. Research knowledge is considered superior to practice knowledge

Most social work researchers I know would take issue with this statement. Instead, they would say: “They’re equally valid, but different forms of knowledge.”

Where have we heard this before?

Men and women are equal but different. That’s why women are better suited for domestic life and child rearing and men are better equipped to provide financially for their families.

Marriage and civil union are equal but different. Gays and lesbians will get all the same legal protections as married straight people. Only the name is different.

People of different cultures are equal but different. Everyone is equal in society, but different people have different cultural practices.

Yeah, right.

We should be suspicious of the “equal but different” argument, because if someone thinks they need to make this point, it’s probably because things are not equal.

Let’s face it – research knowledge is valued more than practice knowledge. Some of us may be trying to change this fact, but there is definitely a hierarchy of knowledge. We are still children of a positivist legacy, no matter how much we would like to deny it.

2. Practitioners lack specialized research knowledge

Research relies on specialist knowledge. With this specialized knowledge, researchers know how to develop a research project.

Practice also relies on specialist knowledge. With their expert knowledge, practitioners know how to help people with problems.

The issue is that we’re all working together to develop a research project. This means that the researchers’ specialized knowledge allows them to set the agenda, name the issues, and make the decisions. If others don’t have access to this same language, they cannot have a meaningful voice. They aren’t able to contribute equally.

I’ve belonged to large research teams with community partners and practitioners around the table. The discussions are all conducted in research language. I was raised in a bilingual home and I was taught that it’s very rude to talk in a foreign language in front of others. I cringe when this happens. And I always wonder how the practitioners feel. In their place, I would probably feel powerless, inferior and angry.

3. Researchers usually control the money

Research projects involving university researchers usually are funded with public research grants. It’s important for university researchers to be doing peer-reviewed research projects, otherwise they may not count as research in the university’s eyes. And the only people who can apply for the major research grants are university researchers with PhDs.

Sometimes attempts are made to “equalize” the relationship, by transferring some of the funds to the community partner. But the grant as a whole is controlled by the university and the researcher.

I think it’s obvious how unequal access to funding creates power imbalances.

By now, you may be thinking, “But we can’t do anything to change these situations.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

In future posts, we’ll discuss how to do anti-oppressive research under these conditions. I hope you will join the discussion, because I don’t have any better answers than you do. But by sharing our ideas, we may all become a little better at anti-oppressive research.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

What is your social work practice?

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I used to think there was a contradiction between “PhD” and “anti-oppressive social worker.” Living in the poorest areas of two major cities, I would open my front door, look down the street, and wonder how I could justify getting my PhD. I had chosen to live in solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed. How did getting an elitist degree fit into this picture?

I’ve come a long way since then. My research and teaching are my anti-oppressive practice.

I’ve had to develop my own model of academic social work practice. Parts of it have been consciously worked out. Other parts are still more intuitive. So I thought I would begin writing about it here. This will be one of the themes of this blog. It’s something I feel very passionate about.

Another aspect I want to explore is how blogging fits into my social work practice.  I know I want my blogging to bring something of value to others. We’ve all just seen how Barack Obama used new technologies to help mobilize an entire nation. So how can they enrich my own practice?

These first few posts are introductory. I’m trying to define my themes, find my own rhythm and voice for this blog. My intention is to craft mini-articles that are useful and stimulate dialogue. If anyone else in social work is doing this, I would love to hear from you.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Ph.inishe.D!

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I reached the Ph.inishe.D line! Today I submitted my PhD to Grad Studies.

Now what?

Is there really life after the dissertation?

Too tired for jubilation, but I do feel hundreds of pounds lighter. This arduous rite of passage is actually over. It’s hard to believe.

Almost immediately after submitting, I feel all kinds of ideas bubbling and burbling and spilling over. How to push my conclusions further. Articles I want to publish. Spin-off articles from the thesis. New research ideas.

Life is wide open! And I’m more than ready to move on.

Welcome to my blog.