Tag Archives: power relations

Black, female, poor, mentally ill — and incredibly strong



Introducing Marissa

My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.

Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.

Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.


Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness

In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.

Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.

Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.

In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa  with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).

Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.


What happens if she has a relapse?

She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.

Something is really wrong with this picture.


The need for community support

Marissa is not  a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.

Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.

I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.

But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.


Additional reading:

Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association

Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)

Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009



Unequal Research Partnerships


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