Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Uncomfortable Overlaps

A few years ago, I sought counselling from a feminist organisation. I had effectively untreated and quite serious PTSD from events earlier in my life, and there were a couple of other smaller stresses on me at that time. I've never had a good time with counselors; my previous experiences had ranged from outright homophobia and pretty significant verbal abuse to my pissing them off for reasons I simply couldn't identify. Suffice it to say that I didn't try again until I really needed to.

Said feminist organisation was the only option - at least that I was aware of - that was possible given my budget. I wasn't comfortable with it from the start; I knew people whose employment or voluntary work brought them into contact with it in a professional capacity. Rationally, most of the people I had in mind were caring and supportive - or at least capable of acting so. But every week I sat in the waiting room on the verge of throwing up from the fear that I would meet someone I knew and explain that I was not there in my usual activist role. However much I believed there was no shame in being there, I was utterly ashamed.

This post is an attempt to untangle, both from personal experience and a more theoretical standpoint some of the issues around the uncomfortable intersection between the activist community and the provisions and receipt of services (none of these are ideal terms, but I lack better ones). And the first point is criticism. Because my experience wasn't good. It involved - and I won't go into the details - significant amounts of implied victim blaming, repeated dismissal of my disabilities, telling me to do things I'd explicitly identified as triggering and ultimately - when the counselor left the service -  dropping me when I was in an obviously incredibly vulnerable state without any kind of follow up.

Yet I really hesitated about writing this post. It's been brewing in my head for a while, and I'm still not sure if I'll actually click 'publish'. And one of the reasons is I feel uncomfortable criticising this organisation when I know many people who do important work to support it. I don't think I personally know anyone who works or volunteers there, but I could. They're the sort of people I organise events alongside, go to meetings with, march with. It goes against a lot of instinct - even though the only place my criticism gets personal is against that one counsellor - to criticise when we should be standing together against some scary common enemy, or something like that. Moreover, I know this organisation and others like it are horribly underfunded and need support - and they do help a lot of people and I really don't want to undermine that in any way. It's not a new, or an unusual quandry - how to criticise from within a marginalised group or perspective without reinforcing that coming from without, but I think it has a particularly concerning place here.

The second point is about supporting people who are within activist groups. This is a much bigger topic than I have the scope for here, and a lot has been written about it. But all I've found is centred on two things; one is when someone is being supported with an issue that relates to the group (for example abuse by another group member) or short term support - such as someone being triggered within a meeting. I don't necessarily consider this a bad thing, or that activist groups should be taking on long term support roles - in fact, I think often the danger is taking on too much and it is better to draw a clear line around what can and can't be done well. But where activism and service provision are mixed, things can become problematic, and I'm not sure a lot of people involved even note this as an issue.

Part of this relates to heirarchy. This is not to discount the hierarchy present within activist organisations, and part of this is personal - I really struggle with interacting with medical and related services and I tend to thrive in environments where I get to talk loudly, organise things and play with websites and mailing lists. I appreciate this isn't universal. But the movement of the same people, involving the same issues, between the fuzzy, ill defined and informal roles and heirarchy of informal activist groups and the really clear cut roles of (say) counsellor and client is not necessarily an easy one. And then - more simply but perhaps hard to resolve - simpler issues like confidentiality and how relationships change between spaces.

I think also, there are different stories told in service provision and activist groups. I'm sure there are a lot of exceptions to these, as there are people about whom they are true, but as much as anything it's the assumptions that are made that's relevant. One, by (generally charitable) service providers, is of the client who comes to them with a problem; usually there are multiple things wrong in their life. They are helped by the organisation, they grow in confidence. They volunteer for the group and become a campaigner on the issue they experienced. The other story is - well I've found it most common in socialist groups, particularly around sexual orientation, but I think it's wider than that - of people who participate in activism for a cause, perhaps defending people they care about, perhaps because it relates to something else they're involved in, perhaps seeing it in pretty abstract terms initially. It's that involvement that gives them the knowledge and confidence to address it in their own lives.

And there are problems - probably for both groups - in reconciling these two stories. It was really hard to explain that yes, I'd organised a reclaim the night march (hey look, there's the poster for it on the wall right there), yes, I'd blogged for the best part of the year on victim blaming, but that doesn't mean that I haven't internalised a whole lot of these ideas.

The third angle I wanted to talk about was exclusion. Whilst the counselor crossed some very clear lines with me, as others have done, I'm increasingly seeing my general negative interactions in terms of my disability status. I didn't fit into the typical mold of people they catered for, and they didn't cater for me. The lack of acknowledgement or understanding of this is what makes it particularly problematic, but even with that, it's exclusionary.

I'm reasonably confident in my response to groups that deliberately discriminate against groups of people (it ain't positive). I also recognise that they cannot provide services to all people, and that there are legitimate limits to what they can and can't do. But this indirect exclusion becomes more difficult when there are discrepancies between a funded service provider that may well have a mandate to meet the more typical needs of the majority, versus a dynamic where questioning such exclusions is a discussion that comes naturally to some of the members.

On a personal level, I found options that worked for me and I am doing much better now. Options that required having someone to help me research them, and a disposable income, both of which I had, neither of which should be expected. On a more general level... once again, I feel only that I have a whole heap of issues to raise and no solutions to offer, but it's a start.

Comment direction: no speculation about the identities of individuals and organisations involved please. It makes me really uncomfortable and isn't relevant. I ask you to remember that this post represents my thoughts and experiences and not necessarily those of anyone else at THM.


LudditeJourno said...

Firstly Anthea, thank you for posting on such a difficult and personal subject.
Secondly - I'm so, so sorry to hear you had such an awful experience in a feminist organisation. That is profoundly unacceptable.
Thirdly - I don't subscribe to the idea that we shouldn't criticise discriminatory behaviour within marginalised groups. How do we support say, young queer people in abusive same-sex relationships if we pretend intimate partner violence is only perpetrated within opposite sex relationships? So I'm glad you've written this, though sad and horrified you had to.
One of the things that makes service improvement slow in areas that trigger PTSD is the fact that it is so difficult for people using the service to name unacceptable or discriminatory treatment. That's even assuming, as you say, that those organisations have the resources (funding, trained staff, suitable premises and ways of engaging with people) to make necessary improvements - which is sadly far from the case.
I'm glad you've found something now that works for you.
Much, much respect.

I.M Fletcher said...

Hmmm, you've obviously put a lot of thought and effort into this post and descriptions or groups and people you've worked with, and so I will try to make any remarks not sound to callous or flippant.

I have to say though, have you tried a group from the "other side"? Perhaps something run by a church group? I know you'll probably greet the idea with pure horror, but you might be surprised how caring some of these people can be - even those who don't necessarily subscribe to your way of life. The groups that I'm talking about don't exist for reasons of activism. They're there to help people, and most of them do it very well. Plus, it's not like you're going to know anyone there, are you?

I'm not trying to be smart or flippant (as I said above), but, well...it's worth a try isn't it?

anthea said...

LJ - thank you for this and for your email <3

anthea said...

I.M. Fletcher - it may surprise you to know that I don't consider church groups to be from the other side and I may well know people there; there are Christians within my immediate group of friends (though I take your point that the chances of overlap are significantly lower). I know people - queer, feminist women, no less - who have got support from within religious groups they find helpful, though it depends very very much on the church in question.

Though I don't think it (based on the little you know of me) is an unreasonable suggestion, I wouldn't feel comfortable with a church group personally. But that's not really the point; I'm not in need of services of this type now. What is is that people still feel quite legitimately excluded from services provided by the most open, welcoming churches there are, simply by reasons of faith or lack thereof. Which is why I don't think we should be looking to religious groups be the default or only option for things like that.

"even those who don't necessarily subscribe to your way of life" - this makes me think you may not be talking about the open, welcoming brand of churches, though.

Maia said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's really interesting, and I think important.

I agree with LJ - that fighting for everyone being included is really important, but also the reasons that doesn't happen.

I guess I have a kind of tangential thought - about 'support' as a political concept - which both relate to and possibly completely derail this conversation.

I remember in about 2007 - when I was hearing about 'survivor centred responses' to abuse - I also heard about 'survivor centred support' and linked to this was the idea that it was politically important to give personal support to abuse survivors. The implications (as I saw it) was that relationship was based on solidarity rather than friendship. The importance of survivors support people can be seen in some discussion of radical justice which talk about the survivors support people and assumes she has some.

Then the raids happened - and obviously that could go in many directions. But again the lines between political support and solidarity and personal support were really blury. And in the end what that meant for me is that I was in these entirely unreciprocal friendships - with people who were accepting my support, but couldn't, or wouldn't, reciprocate. And that ended as well as you'd expect.

And I got a lot more boundaried between my idea of political support and solidarity and personal support and friendship. I now believe some sorts of support can only come through a reciprocal relationship. That relationships can't just be one way. And that political support and solidarity is a very different thing.

The way I see this as relating to your points (you know you've gone off in a tangent when you have to say that) - is that it's another example of the messy relationship between political work and personal support - that those don't just exist in service organisations (although obviously they do exist in service organisations). And the politics around support are really complicated, and often not really thought through.

Hope that isn't just a massive derail of my issues.