In this New Thinking podcast, Dr. Oliver Williams brings questions of race, faith, and incarceration into a conversation on domestic violence. Drawing on his work with both victims and perpetrators from African American, Latina, and other immigrant and diasporic communities, Dr. Williams examines the import of cultural responsivity in the justice system’s response to domestic violence.
This product was supported by Grant No. 2013-TA-AX-K042 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, or recommendations expressed in this podcast are those of the speaker(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The following is a transcript:
AVNI MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Hello, this is Avni Majithia-Sejpal at the Center for Court Innovation. You're listening to the New Thinking podcast. I'm here today with Dr. Oliver Williams. Dr. Williams has been working in the field of domestic violence for over 30 years. He is a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and the Executive Director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community. In addition to authoring numerous research papers and a book on the subject, he was invited to the National Advisory Council on Domestic Violence in 2000 and has provided technical assistance and trainings on the subject, both in the US and internationally. Dr. Williams, welcome.
DR. OLIVER WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me, Avni.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL:You have written extensively about the need to understand domestic violence through the lens of race. Can you explain why race is significant?
WILLIAMS: When I started working in the movements, you didn't see a lot of men of color coming into batterers’ intervention programs. You didn't see much outreach to get them to come into the programs. When we were beginning to talk about domestic violence, largely they were talking about mainstream populations, but also the way that we talked about solving the problems. Early studies talked about the disproportionate rates of domestic violence in African-American communities. Dr. Lettie Lockhart and Dr. Robert Hampton and Dr. Richard Gelles ended up redoing some of the studies and found out the rates were still challenging with regard to the African-American community.
If you go about doing the work without hearing the challenges that exist within different communities, you miss something. I think that you also see a reluctance to participate or what I've heard people say over the years, "They're not talking about me. It's not my voice in the discussion," or, "That's not the way that I experience it."
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What are some of the challenges that people from minority communities face when they go through the domestic violence court process?
WILLIAMS: That's an interesting question. We did a project for the Office on Violence Against Women that looked at that. We did focus groups with Latinas, that were both national and immigrant-refugee. We also had African-American women and then we had African women. For the African-American women, they felt that there was little empathy for their experience. They had some concerns with how the judge made decisions. They felt like some more of the challenges, in terms of dealing with things, were put on their shoulders. The thing that was interesting with Latinas was the fact that sometimes what the court would do, particularly if their partner could go to the country of origin, if the judges could get them out of the courtroom, then they felt like justice was served. The women tended to feel as though that gave him an upper-hand because he can sneak in the country or he could go back home and then harm family members. There was a lot of discomfort associated with that.
The other thing too was the fact that they wanted to see justice served to the person that had done the harm and they felt like there was a challenge in terms of making that happen. I think there's also issues with regard to language. Is somebody translating things accurately? Those are some things that courts need to be informed about.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: This project that you're referring to is the cultural responsiveness project that you did in collaboration with the Office of Violence Against Women and the Center for Court Innovation. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?
WILLIAMS: We went to the Latina shelter program and they helped us to organize a group of Latinas to have a conversation with. The people who were the interviewers were fluent in Spanish, and the women spoke in English and in Spanish. It was very powerful because the women were very emotional about their experiences. The same thing with African women, were expressing the challenges that they were experiencing in the court and how difficult it could be for them, the injustices that they experienced, same thing with the African-American women. That's where we started. Next, we ended up doing data analysis on the responses. Next, we ended up going to judges who represented various cultural communities. Some were African-American, some were Asian, in particular Korean, and the others were Latino, and had a chance to pick their brain in terms of the things that they saw and what they thought they could do and that the court systems could do generally, in terms of improving those circumstances.
They reported on the fact that there were judges whose intentions were good, but were uninformed, and so they also offered recommendations on what to do and how they could become more culturally responsive. Then we put those things together. We asked each group to come up with stories about what they experienced and we put those things into scripts and we had it acted out and then what we tried to do is to come up with alternative responses. What could a judge do differently? What could they do in terms of thinking about the challenges of the population? What could create a better outcome where justice is served, but at the same time where you don't subject the woman that comes to you to a situation where she has to deal with such injustice? We were able to pull together the stories of the women, the judges’ recommendations, but also key informants from each one of the communities. That will be on Vimeo.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What does it mean to be culturally competent?
WILLIAMS: How I think about it is that you're informed enough about the community to know what things you need to confront, but also what things that you need to respond to. You have to hear the stories of the community that you're serving. If it's LGBT communities that deal with different challenges around violence, if you're dealing with Asian or South Asian communities, to hear stories of Native American women who have challenges both in the Native American court but also in mainstream courts in the United States. Each one has a set of challenges.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: You have worked with both victims and perpetrators. How does it differ?
WILLIAMS: In working with men, the voice of the victim is always in the back of my head. When I see issues with regard to victims, I just wonder a few things. One is the trauma that she goes through, but also and I've heard this from women over the years, is they really want to know how to heal. They want to figure out how they can move beyond these experiences to a level of balance and peace.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I want to talk now about the Safe Return Initiative. As I understand it, the initiative addresses the challenges faced by African-American men returning to their families after incarceration with the aim of preventing domestic violence and strengthening the family. Can you tell us a little bit about the need to work with men returning from prison?
WILLIAMS: Between one-third to one-half of the men going to prison had some experience with domestic violence in their life. We broadened it, not to just focus on men that went to prison because of domestic violence, there were men that went to prison for a range of issues and they come out. Some of the men, we know, who have been violent and abusive, won't change, but we know that some men can. The other portion of that was we weren't clear that battered women's organizations knew the narratives of the women whose partners or former partners went to jail and what their challenges and what their experiences were. Another area was really understanding her story and trying to figure out how do you end up supporting her if he comes out, whether she wants to be with him or whether she doesn't want to be with him? What we tried to do is come up with a range of issues to take a look at. One, most prison programs didn't really have any focus on batterer's intervention. They had what they call "victim impact statements." Victim impact statements were not a program to talk to them about changing their violent behavior.
Secondly, we realized that even if you did have a prison program, it didn't mean that people had a connection in the community that they were returning to. For women who were in relationships with these men, they didn't have a connection to battered women's programs, they didn't have insight about whether or not they would even identify themselves as a victim of abuse, but also exploring questions to challenge what it means to be in a violence-free relationship.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I'm also interested in the intersections of domestic violence and religion. You have said that the black church is a crucial space through which domestic violence interventions can happen. Can you elaborate on that for us?
WILLIAMS: One of the things that needs to occur is that we need to have primary and secondary prevention in communities, but not law enforcement as the only consideration. What we ended up doing was making connections with churches that did programming around the issues of domestic violence. They can provide proper guidance to men about the way that they should behave, but they also should be able to respond to women who have a crisis of faith as a consequence of their victimization. We found churches that have a rape crisis line at the church, a shelter program that they're connected with. They'll work with men who batter and then the men come back and start working with you. We've also tried to have a conversation with imams and so Islam is another part of our effort to speak with faith communities.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: In your view, what are the most urgent concerns of the field of domestic violence today and what do you think the next steps should be?
WILLIAMS: One thing, I think, is to understand from the perspective of people who represent those communities. I think more research by people who come from the various communities and then more discussion about that. I think that cultural diversity in different communities also are evolving and so what will be useful for them in terms of the way that they see the world and engage in our community? The question becomes, has our knowledge and the way that we look at serving them expanded? I think recognition that knowledge isn't static, that it's evolving.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Thank you so much. That has been a very instructive conversation.
WILLIAMS: I hope so.
MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal and I've been talking to Dr. Oliver Williams about the field of domestic violence and the need to address the concerns of minority communities. To learn more about our various projects and those of Dr. Williams, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks so much for listening.