Going Against the Grain: Survivor Centered Practices Learning Circle

In 2017, the Blue Shield of California Foundation assembled a peer learning circle consisting of representatives from seven innovative domestic violence organizations with survivor-centered projects. W.O.M.A.N., Inc. was proud to be asked to serve as a member of this peer learning circle, it was an opportunity I fully embraced. Throughout our months together, the circle’s members embraced curiosity, active listening, and transparency as we discussed elements of a survivor-centered approach to ending domestic violence. One can view survivor-centered services as existing on a spectrum, with one end being truly survivor-centered, and the other end of the spectrum centering an imbalanced power dynamic between advocate and survivor. The peer learning circle sought to break away from these oppressive power dynamics, and with the habits that bolster them.

What does this look like? To be survivor-centered, we need to understand that survivors have a variety of options, stories, strengths and challenges. When we truly center survivors, we are mindful of how our power as gatekeepers and advocates shows up in our relationships with survivors. There is not one specific practice to inform this work, however, members of the peer learning circle created helpful evaluative questions and tools to implement this approach.


Beyond our circle’s concrete outcomes, the individuals in the group forged personal connections along the way. Perhaps due to the high level of trust, we discussed power dynamics common in the work, at our organizations and with program participants. As a part of this discussion, we surfaced the dire need for self-care and combating vicarious trauma commonly experienced by those providing anti-domestic violence work. Not dealing with these issues makes survivor-centered programming nearly impossible to implement.

For me, there were some key findings unearthed as a part of this work and other efforts that spoke to my experience in the field. They aren’t necessarily new findings, but can be pivotal and serve as a good reminder for us doing the work, and to those of us who oversee it.

  1. Overworked, stressed, isolated staff often turn to well forged patterns and systems. These systems can include overly-harsh screenings, denial of services and an inflexible stance, grounded in overarching policies and practices. These inflexible practices are commonly rooted in capitalism. Furthermore, these worn out patterns commonly marginalize and other survivors of color, survivors who identify as LGBTQ, who don’t speak English and/or are immigrants without documentation, for example.
  2.  Spaciousness is required when implementing structures liberated of the systems of oppression listed above. To create that spaciousness, support from organizational leadership is required. Special efforts must be paid to help advocates feel empowered, creative and secure. Encouragement must be given so advocates trust they will not be reprimanded for veering away from replication of troublesome patterns noted above.
  3. Survivor-Centered programing requires a deep level of insight on behalf of the advocates who provide and support it; organizational leadership needs to support this insight by doing their part in helping create environments which are brave. Concurrent conversations about power and privilege are helpful when implementing survivor-centered programming, as are discussions on implicit bias, liberated gatekeeping, systems of oppression and anti-oppression. Efforts must be made to ground these conversations in how they apply not only to domestic violence and unhealthy relationships, but why and how they can play out in an advocate’s experience in supporting survivors. These conversations, this work must be seen as staff development and resources must be allotted to ensure that these conversations happen.
  4. Resources to support advocate self care are also pivotal. A symptom of vicarious trauma is inflexibility and adherence to policies, whether they are helpful in a situation or not. Those dealing with vicarious trauma often have little sympathy or empathy for others who are traumatized. These symptoms and other can lead to at best, a lackluster response to survivors, and at worse, further survivor traumatization. Organizational leadership with the authority to do so should work on creating supportive policies such as ample mental health days, support for work life balance, staff appreciation and ongoing education that supports identification and treatment of vicarious trauma, and other creative and adaptive options to support staff mental health on an organizational level. It is not a question of IF advocates will deal with vicarious trauma, it’s a question of WHEN they will deal with it, and organizational leadership must take a proactive stance on the matter.
  5. Finally, organizational leadership must encourage emerging leaders. This may involve handing over decision making authority in certain circumstances, or asking key advocates for their input before you make a choice that will impact work on the ground. Consider how you hold the power you have, when you yield the floor, when you don’t yield the floor and how you can help others develop in doing so. Make special note of women of color on your team, and inquire how they interrupt the work, what their needs are, and if they feel at home in the organization. We know that Black women are historically marginalized in our field, both in leadership positions and as program participants. Pay special attention to ensure that at least some of the leaders you seek to develop are women of color. Latina women are among the lowest paid in the state; check your pay scales to ensure that they are making a wage that mirrors their white counterparts at your organization.

To read more about the peer learning circle and survivor-centered work in the domestic violence field, please read the report.

Jill Zawisza,  W.O.M.A.N., Inc. Executive Director



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