Community Consultation & Collaboration: A Historical Background
As defined in the original proposal, the FREDA Centre began as a consortium of various community groups representing the interests of front-line agencies, and academic women from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. Both groups were and still are committed to the struggle against violence. Given the feminist framework of the research proposal, the consortium hired a community advocate to consult with women around the province regarding their research needs, and ways in which the research centre could facilitate the achievement of those needs. A centre was established at the office of one of the community partners so as to make it more accessible to women’s groups. It was named Feminist Action Research on Violence against Women (FARVAW).
The community advocate endeavoured to get in touch with a cross-section of women in BC and the Yukon. She consulted widely with community groups and women’s organizations in the Yukon, BC’s Lower Mainland and especially those based in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island. The advocate’s consultation was unprecedented in that it charted and articulated the wide range of concerns that BC and Yukon women’s groups had regarding the funding of further research. FARVAW’s research mandate was dismissed as just a replication of the efforts of the National Panel on Violence, and the BC Task Force on Family Violence (1992). Women’s groups repeatedly stated that they were frustrated with the federal preoccupation with research given the vast cutbacks to basic programs serving women who have suffered from violence. In fact, the National Panel on Violence, dubbed among the women’s groups as the ‘$10 million panel’ was seen as basically reiterating what the groups already knew and had experienced first hand. The groups wanted funding for basic services. They were highly distrustful of governmental, especially federal, initiatives of any kind.
FARVAW suffered from this condemnation of previous and existing policies emanating from Ottawa. The fact that the Centre was necessarily associated with university researchers also fuelled the suspicions of many front-line workers. Unfortunately, justly or not, Canada’s universities are repeatedly viewed by activists and policy makers as largely irrelevant or, worse still, as merely self-serving in the area of violence research. The prevailing skepticism about the value of governmental and university initiatives was identified as a major obstacle for FARVAW. Based on her consultations, the advocate submitted a report to the consortium steering committee. She stressed the need to cultivate the goodwill of community groups. FARVAW’s stated preference for participatory action research which would be defined by the community and serve the interests of the community was stressed as the only tenable option. Further, the community advocate’s report recommended that the Centre concentrate its efforts on addressing the needs of ‘hidden’ populations, those women who are additionally marginalized because of their race, class, sexual orientation and/or disability. These communities have often been excluded in research studies of every sort.
The intersection of various forms of disadvantage was a clear area of concern for policy makers and front-line workers. The conclusions of the advocate’s report confirmed some of the worst fears of the consortium. There was understandably renewed debate about how to reconcile a seemingly contradictory mandate: devising research programs that would simultaneously meet the needs of the front-line and policy making community committed to the improvement of the lives of women and children, and the conventional criteria of acceptability on the part of government and universities. While goodwill was never entirely lost, community and academic partners felt highly constrained in their relationships. In effect, the same debates and concerns which were expressed to the advocate occurred in the meetings of the consortium.
In March, 1994, after a period of critical evaluation, the original consortium of community and academic representatives dissolved, unable to find ways to reconcile the findings of the community advocate’s report with a continuation of the group as it was then structured.
In mid-1994, in consultation with the funders, the group of academics revisited the original goals of the research proposal. They then set about to restructure the Centre to better achieve them. The members of this group committed themselves to engaging in and encouraging participatory action research with women’s groups. In particular, the group members reiterated their commitment to bringing university-based researchers together with community women to address issues of violence. In keeping with this commitment, the research Centre was renamed the Feminist Research, Education, Development and Action Centre (FREDA), and its location moved to Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre Campus in downtown Vancouver.
A decision was taken to move beyond the initial stage of community consultation into a series of cooperative research initiatives. This signaled a new beginning for the Centre. The renewed energy and commitment of the original founders was more than matched by community activists, who now that the terms of the relationship with academics had been clarified, were eager to support the new Centre.
A FREDA workshop on violence, which was sponsored by a partnership of organizations and agencies actively responding to violence against women and organizations involved in community education, was held in the Comox Valley. Women from seven different communities, some very distant, attended. They included: staff and clients of transition houses; community activists; and agency workers.
The success of this workshop led to the development of a collaborative research project with the North Island Network, a network whose very formation was a direct outcome of the workshop. The resulting report, entitled, ‘The North Island Network Resist and Heal From Violence’ was subsequently published and distributed by the Centre.
Developing the community advocate’s earlier contacts, a similar consultation based approach was undertaken in the Yukon. Again, the research needs of front-line workers and agencies were paramount in defining the research. This investigation culminated in a research project entitled, ‘A Yukon Pilot Project on Men’s Violence against Women,’ which was subsequently published by the Centre.
Through existing connections with one of FREDA’s partners, the UBC Centre for Research in Women’s Studies and Gender Relations, contact was developed with one of the oldest immigrant women’s organizations in Canada, the India Mahila Association (IMA). IMA proposed a collaborative partnership on a project dealing with a needs assessment of South Asian women who are victims of violence. The IMA had the assistance of UBC based researchers in undertaking their unprecedented investigation. The result was a report entitled, ‘Spousal Abuse in the South Asian Community’, which was subsequently published and distributed by the Centre.
Through contacts originally established by the community advocate, FREDA sponsored a research collaboration with the Helping Spirit Lodge Society, to determine the need for a half-way house for aboriginal women exiting from prisons in BC. This included an assessment of the needs of aboriginal women offenders with respect to conditional release from prison and parole contingencies. This project is still in progress.
Since the beginning of 1995, a number of other collaborative research projects similarly based on a close partnership of academic and community research interests have been developed and are at varying stages of completion. The projects reflect FREDA’s ongoing commitment to empowering community groups, e.g., the Vancouver Lesbian Connection, the Philippine Women Centre, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, Carnegie Centre, the Laichwiltach Family Life Society, the Association of First Nations Women, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), the Vancouver Association of Women and the Law (VAWL), and others to identify their own priorities and to develop sound research plans.
As previously mentioned, with the dissolution of the original consortium the ongoing partners regrouped and reorganized the Centre. Core areas for research were identified as: education, assessment of needs, and evaluation of intervention strategies. For each research project, policy implications are highlighted and brought to the attention of relevant policy makers. A steering committee with equal representation from community and academic interests has been created to set policy directions and coordinate activities. In order to realize the Centre’s goals, other community partners were identified and asked to join the steering committee.
Additional resources in terms of space, technical and audio-visual support through Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus, have substantially increased the Centre’s ability to develop outreach programs. As well, the downtown location serves to make the Centre more accessible and visible to service agencies, and women’s organizations.
FREDA’s Advisory Committee consists of academic representation from the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, as well as the School of Nursing and the Centre for Research in Women’s Studies and Gender Relations, both at the University of British Columbia.
Community and front-line representation consists of members from the following organizations: Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN); BC Coalition to Eliminate Abuse of Seniors (BCCEAS); BC Institute Against Family Violence (BCIFV); National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) Regional Committee; Stepping Stone Vision Society; Westcoast Legal Education Action Fund (LEAF); and Women against Violence Against Women (now WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre).