In our blog this week, Jennifer Chen Speckman, Director of Westside Domestic Violence Network (WDVN) and current participant of the Strong Field Project Leadership Development Program, urges readers to break the binds of the "single stories" that can often dominate, define, and stifle movements. Only when full stories are told can true understanding, engagement, and solutions emerge. Do you agree?
In her TedTalk titled, “The Danger of the Single Story,” Chimamanda Adichie discusses how she grew up reading British children’s stories where “they ate apples, played in the snow and talked about the weather and how lovely it is that the sun came out.” She discusses her experience as a young girl growing up in Nigeria, aware that stories included people that were not like her. When she came to the United States as a young adult, she discovered the single story that the Americans would have about her, one of beautiful landscapes, wild animals, and incredibly senseless wars and violence; a land and a people waiting to be saved and pitied. When speaking about meeting her college roommate, Adichie states, “She felt sorry for me before she even met me.”
In our community, we have our own version of single stories. A tragic shooting happens and we desperately grasp for the one narrative which will help it all make sense and never happen again. Single stories exist everywhere. Black boys in hoodies are dangerous and must be shot. A woman who is abused by her partner is labeled as “co-dependent.” A boy learns that he must be aggressive to be a man. Undocumented families are a problem either to be eradicated, pitied, or saved. As an Asian American woman, I am astonished how often people have marveled at how “good” my English is. Viewing a person through one lens, limiting that person to a single story, denies the person’s full human existence. Adichie makes the point that, “keeping with one story limits one’s ability to understand, engage, or connect.”
So what does this notion of a single story have to do with domestic violence?
Domestic violence is what people aren’t talking about. News stories reference estranged spouses, “high-conflict marriages,” or “custody battles,” but never domestic violence. In the discussion of differing priorities—whether it be gun violence, opportunity youth, mental health, education, or child welfare—it is essential to comprehend why it is so uncomfortable to acknowledge the larger picture—the one where the complexity of a domestic violence dynamic operating in a single household can wreak such havoc in the world. Prescribing a single story to the situation creates comfort. We pretend we know how things stand for other people. Assigning space for multiple stories opens our eyes to oppression, systemic failures, and incredible human cruelty. People don’t want to think about it. However, research shows us that we cannot ignore it and we cannot afford to assign a single story.
Adichie’s talk directly applies to the mission of the Westside Domestic Violence Network, which has long been dedicated to the hard work of sustaining a multi-systemic approach. The WDVN is more than a training entity. Our mission, since 1995, has everything to do with sustaining reality beyond a single story. The WDVN was created out of the understanding that no one person can be the solution to domestic violence because it is not a single story. The WDVN has been gathering people and engaging in collective impact for the past 18 years, eliciting a multitude of stories. But we have more to collect.
In our last conference, “Exploring the Status of Women—Globally, Locally and Interpersonally,” over 80 women and men gathered to examine political and personal stories to survey where we stand today. We did this because, if we do not know where we’ve been and where we are, how are we to know where we are going? In order to evolve as a community, we must challenge our default buttons and reject the single story in order to claim humanity for ourselves and each other.
The single story divides and silos us. We become locked in the stereotypes we have grown so comfortable with which have closed the door to communication. This exists as a personal and a professional challenge. When we come to the assistance of children and families who are experiencing domestic violence, how do we make sure that we are not operating on a single story? Do we approach the battered mother and judge her to be a woman who failed to protect her children? Or can we take in the multitude of things she is doing every second of every day to navigate the complex landscape of coercive control she is enduring?
So where do we go from here and where do the solutions lie?
First, we must come to the table with openness and curiosity to find our client as a multi-faceted human being, a full picture of historical legacies, power dynamics, social norms, political forces, and personal perspectives.
The next step is to empower children, families, and adults to find the multitude of their personal narratives. Research conducted by Sara and Marshall Duke at Emory University shows that children who have a strong sense of family narrative demonstrate greater self-confidence and resilience than those without. (“The Stories that Bind Us," New York Times). Historical contexts of oppression and resilience matter, and connection to those complexities result in empowerment. How are children to find their family narrative if their family is marginalized and shackled to a single story?
Finally, we must acknowledge that domestic violence exists in our society in part because of the oppression of the single story. The oppression of women and children has existed since the beginning of human history; not too long ago, women and children were considered property and what happened in the home was private. We cannot think that such oppression will be eradicated easily. The WDVN challenges the community to view domestic violence as a confluence of stories about power dynamics and oppression, permeating all elements of historic legacies, life, well-being, family, and community. We ask that members of the community reflect and support every child’s and parent’s right to exist beyond a single story. The ability to allow for many stories ultimately will foster a community which is strong and empowered in mind, body, and soul.
Jennifer Chen Speckman, LCSW, is the Director of Westside Domestic Violence Network (WDVN) and has worked in the nonprofit sector for 17 years. WVDN works to create a more cohesive safety net of survices for survivors of abuse by increasing networking and collaboration amongt professionals across the system of care. Jennifer is a current member of the Blue Shield of California Foundation's Strong Field Project 2014-2016 cohort, for which CompassPoint delivers the leadership development programming. Read more about the Strong Field Project here.