YWCA Week Without Violence is a global event with a local focus

Posted October 10, 2014

Written by Beth Lyons

On Monday, YWCAs around the globe will be kicking off Week Without Violence, an annual World YWCA initiative that challenges communities to work toward being violence-free.

While Week With Violence is a World YWCA event, the initiative is all about local execution and community context. Rather than having a mandated universal theme or focus handed down from a head office, community-based YWCAs (like our own YWCA Moncton, for instance) focus on local issues and needs. Events are planned with community partners and respond to the local realities.

In addition to being all about community context, Week Without Violence is also strength-based. While the very existence of Week Without Violence indicates that gender-based violence is a problem that must be named and addressed, the initiative is ultimately invigorating, hopeful, and focused on supporting communities to be violence-free.

In the past, I’ve struggled with using “strength-based” language (and, let me just say this upfront: I think the language we chose to use is important, communicates our values and beliefs). When I was first introduced to the concept, I scoffed at it, thinking that it was about taking a rose-tints-my-world approach to at best soften hard truths and at worst minimize struggles and issues.

It was only when I started working exclusively in the community sector that my negative impressions of “strength-based” language were challenged. Within the first few months of starting at YWCA Moncton, I attended a training on developmental assets for youth and received a proper overview of the “strength-based” concept.

The training facilitator explained that when considering the people and communities we serve, we can take a glass half empty or half full approach-but that we had to realize we couldn’t do anything half-empty part. We have to work with what we have.

It finally clicked for me: “strength-based” approaches weren’t about ignoring deficits, challenges, or hard realities, but about focusing on what resources, however limited, we have to work with to address them. “Strength-based” is about being able to take action, rather than being stuck. It wasn’t just about re-wording statements to sound nicer, but about framing issues and situations for change and transformation. I’d failed to extend my belief in the importance of language to the concept of “strength-based” approaches and had missed out on understanding it as a vital tool in community-based work.

Since that training, my understanding of the concept of “strength-based” has continued to grow. I had the opportunity to attend another asset-focused training with Dr. John McKnight, an Amercian who contributed to the development of Affirmative Action programs, worked as a member of the United States Civil Rights Commission, and is Co-Director of the Asset-Based Development Community Development Institute. Dr. McKnight focused his talk on identifying the overlooked talents, gifts, and skills of marginalized individuals and communities rather than focusing on perceived deficits. He guided us through exercises in which fictional example marginalized neighbourhoods transformed into resilient communities with resources to address challenges.

Thanks to the training with Dr. McKnight, I began to see that “strength-based” approaches were also about countering the damaging narratives that are often applied against marginalized persons and communities by institutions and authorities. The importance of “strength-based” approaches in feminist, anti-racist, and other social justice forms of organizing became obvious. Strength-based approaches are a form of resistance against oppression.

Despite my belief in the importance of “strength-based” approaches, it can be challenging to ensure that I’m always working from that place and sometimes I have to explicitly remind myself why this approach is important.

In the last 6 months, my commitment to “strength-based” approaches has been reinvigorated and taken to a new level by two separate learning opportunities with amazing queer women of colour activists and educators, Kim Milan and Farrah Khan.

I’ve written before in this space about the concept of “living speculative fiction” that these women introduced me to via presentations I attended. Drawing on the idea of speculative fiction (which is to say, fiction that depicts a potential future), these women suggest that we engage in the idea of living our own speculative fiction in the present moment. In other words: despite the challenges we face and must address, we envision the lives and communities we want for ourselves and start building them, right here, right now.

The speculative fiction approach they suggested resonated with me at once, but I didn’t immediately connect it to the concept of “strength-based.” With time to process the idea, however, it became clear to me that this is a beautiful articulation of strength-based approaches to not only community-based work, but life.

What could be more strength-based than working with what we have-even if it’s only a half-empty glass at this point-to start to build the future we want, now. What could be more strength-based than insisting that each of us has the capacity to engage in this work?

Week Without Violence is about that work. We hold events during the Week like Take Back the Night and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to not only state that gender-based violence is wrong, but to start building a community without it.

Beth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton, writes about equality issues and social justice.

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