Juan Carlos Areán speaks with Amirthini Keefe, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project (DAP) in Minneapolis, and Sadie Cunningham, intervention and prevention program therapist at DAP, about centering racial justice in abusive partner intervention programs and organizations. The group discusses how survivors and people who cause harm are affected by oppression and how centering racial justice can create holistic interventions for people who cause harm.
When we hire folks, we let them know, get ready for the ride because we are asking you to come here and do this really hard work with other people and also do this really hard work within yourself. Which is why we ask for that social justice impact statement. And so as an example, we have a leadership position posted right now and someone said, "I'm going to pull myself out because I don't want to write that statement." And so for us we're like, great, because you would not survive here if you can't do this at the beginning of your journey.
As of January 2023, we changed our name to Center for Justice Innovation. Though originally recorded under our previous name (Center for Court Innovation), this transcript has been updated to reflect the new name.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
JUAN CARLOS ARÉAN: Greetings. My name is Juan Carlos Areán, and I'm a program director in the Children and Youth team at Futures Without Violence. We partner with the Center for Justice Innovation on the Abusive Partner Accountability and Engagement Project, an initiative funded by the Office on Violence Against Women. We provide training and technical assistance to communities across the country to help them enhance abusive partner intervention and engagement strategies. We have been producing a podcast series focusing on innovations and trends in abusive partner intervention programming, also known as battering intervention programs.
Today we're going to talk about centering racial justice when working with people who cause harm through intimate partner violence. And today I have the great pleasure to be joined by Amirthini Keefe, the executive director at the Domestic Abuse Project, or DAP, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sadie Cunningham, intervention and prevention program therapist at DAP. Thank you so much for joining us today. So let's start with you Amirthini, tell us a little bit about DAP's work.
AMIRTHINI KEEFE: So DAP was started in 1979 and was really born out of the shelter movement where folks wanted to have more therapeutic services for victim survivors. And as an organization we also wanted to be able to provide services for folks that used violence. So right now our structure is that we have two programs that are focused on safety and stability, which is case management and advocacy services. And then we have three therapeutic programs, one for child witnesses of domestic violence, one for victim survivors, and then a program for folks that use harm.
ARÉAN: Sadie, one of the new guiding principles in this project, not DAP but the project that CCI and Futures is doing, is that racial justice must be centered in our interventions. It highlights how survivors and people who cause harm are deeply affected, not only by sexism, but other types of oppression, including structural and systemic racism. How have you seen this in your work?
SADIE CUNNINGHAM: I think we see this in a variety of ways. 98% of participants in our program are referred through probation and not only considering carceral systems, but also human service systems and how racism has played a role in that realm. Access to mental health services, medication management, how people are treated differently through police calls when using harm, as well as socioeconomic factors that play a role in our programming and the participants in our programming.
ARÉAN: So let's go back to Amirthini. Can you share what led you to incorporate a racial justice approach at DAP?
KEEFE: I think several years ago we were consulting about a specific case. And over time there were things that I noticed as a leader around what we were talking about, what we weren't talking about, and how our team was showing up as they were consulting about a specific participant. And over the following months as we just kept digging into the situation that happened and the aftermath, both for the providers and for this participant, it just really became clear that there was a lot of racial bias that we were holding as facilitators.
I think that there were things that I was holding as a person of color in a leadership position and ways that I was upholding white supremacy and my own white conditioning. And the ways that I wasn't stepping in and the ways that I was not really advocating for this participant of color, that really made me stop and think about what was going on both within myself as well as within our program. And given that, as Sadie said, 98% of our participants come from probation, over half of our participants in our intervention program are men of color, it seemed ethically important for us to do our own work so that we could provide the best possible services for our participants. But it was really through us engaging in harm, honestly, towards a person that was coming to us for help, that really stirred all of us to want to dig into this work more.
ARÉAN: That's very, very powerful and a breath of fresh air. There are not many programs in the US that are looking at this particular issue, even though I bet many of our listeners can relate to seeing those bias that Sadie was talking about and having cases where folks are coming from systems that are full of bias and disproportionality and so on. So it's wonderful to hear about your journey and to see if people will be inspired to follow your example. So Sadie, tell us more about how you see racial socialization and bias affecting facilitation and program implementation.
CUNNINGHAM: As a facilitator, I think it's really important to be able to recognize our own power and privilege, especially as a white-bodied person. Recognizing the parallel process of folks who are engaging in our programming being involved in the criminal justice system, but also my role as a white person in the mental health system and the significant power dynamics at play there. I think it's easy to separate myself at times from this larger dynamic of white supremacy.
But also in thinking about creating healing spaces and how you facilitate that as a white-bodied person working mostly with men of color. I often think about corrective emotional experiences and how I can facilitate that in group as a white-bodied person. Whether that's through naming my own power and privilege or recognizing microaggressions in group, being able to name that where that might not be an experience of one of the participants, of a white person kind of pointing out these dynamics at play. And I think lastly, the biggest piece of that is engaging in repair and accountability because inevitably, I am just as much a part of this system as any other white-bodied person. And so being able to recognize that I'm going to mess up and being able to model that repair process.
ARÉAN: So you literally do that in groups sometimes, when you mess up as you said?
CUNNINGHAM: Yep. Being able to facilitate that conversation and practice vulnerability, humility. That I'm showing up as a human and somebody who's really been influenced by white supremacist structures, I think that's really powerful.
ARÉAN: I can imagine that. And in terms of, as you say, modeling for folks who are using violence, what it's like to own a mistake and as you said, repair. And I find it so interesting because I believe that one of the reasons why this field has been so hesitant to tackle even culture in general, nevermind particular anti-racism or centering racial justice, is fear that people will use it as an excuse or that it will derail from the conversations on accountability. And what a beautiful example you're giving us that it's the opposite in fact; you are modeling that accountability for the group. Amirthini, what other kinds of strategies and tactics can facilitators use to address racial bias and socialization to better serve participants?
KEEFE: I think Sadie did a beautiful job of pointing out the acknowledgement of power as a facilitator, the power that you have in the group. The power that you have over essentially the life and the access that this individual might have to their children to staying in the carceral system versus being able to get out of it and get back into community. Doing our own acknowledgement work and modeling in group, live when it's happening and being able to reflect that.
I think other tactics are really working to break our own stereotypes that we hold around the different populations that we're working with, and seeking out new learning and the capacity to really foster empathy. And so one example of that is when we have different months of heritage that we're celebrating, we give our staff paid time to go to a museum and learn more about that specific cultural group. And replace some of the stereotypes and biases you might have with a narrative that we're holding, with a narrative that's really born from that specific cultural group's own storytelling. So that we can replace those false narratives that have really been ingrained in us to hold people at a distance, create fear, and create all of those biases.
We also encourage folks to engage in their own racial identity development. So where are you on your own spectrum? What do you know about your own heritage? What does that tell you about where your core beliefs, structures and teachings have come from? And just getting a better sense of culture in general, what that looks like.
And then as an organization, committing to change. So really naming, what is it that you're trying to do, what are your aspirations and putting that out in a really public way so that the community can also be part of your accountability partnerships. And then lastly, really measuring, creating accountability measures and tracking that change. Because being anti-racist and anti-oppressive is not something that people can just choose to turn on or turn off, it's absolutely a journey that you're on for most of your life. So being able to ensure that you continue to be on that pathway forward.
ARÉAN: Sadie, from your perspective, what training or professional development opportunities does DAP use to help address racial bias in facilitators and promote effective program facilitation?
CUNNINGHAM: Not only have we participated in the 12 steps recovery from white conditioning, but we're participating in community trainings, we've engaged in restorative justice training. We make it a significant part of our team meetings to reflect on our own bias in shifting the culture of our organization. At the hiring level, we're required to submit a social justice statement, which I think really emphasizes our dedication and commitment to social justice within our organizational structures.
KEEFE: I think one of the big things that I've really enjoyed being able to do as a leader is make reflection around racial bias, around your own power and privilege and around your own identity, a required aspect of your professional development at the organization. So it's part of our performance reviews and we really invest a lot of our resources into giving our staff paid time to do this work, so that it's not work that we're asking them to do on their personal time, which people often are too exhausted to do.
But by lifting it up and putting resources into it, we're saying, learning about this and learning about domestic violence is intersectional and really important and connected and we're going to back it up with the resources we have. That also includes paying staff to go table at community events and be in community instead of asking community to come to us, and giving them the time and the resources to be able to do that and fully be present and be part of the communities that we're serving.
ARÉAN: That's fantastic. And Amirthini, you mentioned before about performance reviews, but are there other ways in which DAP holds facilitators and staff accountable to the organization's racial justice values?
KEEFE: I think we push our staff to really find that place of discomfort where we're asking them to really look at themselves and push for change. And so sometimes what that looks like is having mandatory trainings that require pre-work where we're asking them to really reflect on hard questions about when they first notice their own race or when they first notice race of other people, come back to the training and actually voice those things out loud so that they can practice discussing race, talking about it.
And if folks don't show up, if they don't complete evaluations, then we've gone back to them and said, hey, this is your work, not mine. I want you guys to figure out why you're not showing up and then come back and tell me how you're going to hold yourselves accountable. And we've had to do that before because the work is hard and we resist just like our participants do.
We do ask specific questions in our performance evaluation and if folks aren't paying enough attention to it, then that becomes a structured part of their work that we then make required. When folks start to do this work, what happens is all of our biases come to the surface and then we start engaging in them, which is
really uncomfortable for everyone.
It's creating an environment where people know that we're a teaching environment, we're a learning environment, and so we're going to give you some space. But now that you know, we're also going to hold you to that change. And so it's really taking the time to have those hard conversations. Even as a team, we've used our reflective practice model to talk through conflict that was coming up, bias that was existing in teams. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it is an absolute dumpster fire.
But I think part of the accountability process at DAP is that as a team, we're also really holding ourselves to stick with our process and continue to try even if we're not doing it as well as we want to. But I would say overall, we have a lot of dedicated time for conversation and we have structures in place to have those conversations in as effective a way as we can.
ARÉAN: That's excellent. It's another parallel of the work that facilitators have to do. What a powerful thing that you get to experience what accountability is in your own work, in your own life. And that I'm sure informs how you hold other people accountable in the group. But what do you think about, Sadie, in your experience?
CUNNINGHAM: I think you're spot on. It really is that parallel process of we're trying to facilitate healing and learning and accountability with our participants. And so how do we practice that in real time? I think there is a certain level of vulnerability that it takes to be able to show up like that, especially with coworkers. But having a sense of community who are also committed to this accountability process, to evaluating our own racial bias and how that shows up in our work, is also really energizing and it makes that accountability process a lot easier.
I think that's just another reflection of how white supremacist culture shows up is that it often would push us away from community and more focus towards individuality and maybe defensiveness.
KEEFE: I think the biggest accountability measure we have is that when we hire folks, we let them know, get ready for the ride because we are asking you to come here and do this really hard work with other people and also do this really hard work within yourself. Which is why we ask for that social justice impact statement. And so as an example, we have a leadership position posted right now and someone said, "I'm going to pull myself out because I don't want to write that statement." And so for us we're like, great, because you would not survive here if you can't do this at the beginning of your journey.
We give folks a lot of leeway for learning, but if they're not willing to be on the journey, then we're not the place for them. And so the final accountability measure is really trying to set folks up for success, but recognizing that we absolutely have these expectations. And if folks aren't willing to participate, then there's other organizations that might be a better fit for them as a professional. But we want to show up in this way and are committed to it enough to be intentional about what that means. And sometimes our team gets really small because of that and sometimes our team is larger because folks are up for the challenge.
ARÉAN: That's amazing. Thank you for that. So you have been talking about practices. So what about policy? What kind of policies have you incorporated to address racial justice and how it affects your participants?
KEEFE: So we have policies that our program participants adhere to and that are also similar for our staff. And at a basic level, we have an anti-violence policy. And so that includes all types of violence, including discrimination. And so if somebody is in group and they're using language that's harmful, then we will talk with them about that and ask them to self-correct. And if they won't, then we talk with them about how that's just not appropriate for our organization. And we have the same for our staff. If things like that come up and there are microaggressions, then here's how we're willing to work with you and then here's what the limitations might be.
I would say outside of that, it's really less about policy and more about us being really intentional about our framework and what we're aspiring to as an organization. So that folks really understand that this is a way that we want to be in community. Versus a written policy that you have to check this box in order to be here, we want you to really shift the way that you are as a person and as a professional. And that's what we're committed to helping you work on and develop. And we want that both for our participants and for our team members.
CUNNINGHAM: It's actually really challenging to find an organization that is as committed to racial justice work and incorporating that into your clinical practice or the way that you serve participants. There are a lot of organizations that do great work in meeting cultural competencies through different trainings, but very few, that really encourage self-reflection in the ways that we as white-bodied individuals benefit from white supremacist structures, and how that in shows up in our work. So I think it's really significant to find something like this.
KEEFE: And in some ways it's really like us trying to live that out by looking at how our policies are structured and what we want to take away. So that might be like an attendance policy. Everyone from our team will roll their eyes when they hear us say this because we have spent two years talking about attendance policies, consulted with lots of different people about how to do that in a way that is equitable. And it's our attendance policies that often are the beginning of us utilizing racist ideology to get people out of our program, because our bias is showing up. So if anything, it's really looking at the structures that are in place and thinking about how to deconstruct them.
ARÉAN: Wow, that's so deep. Thank you so much for sharing that. So you're really talking about creating a culture of racial justice. So how do you utilize participants' voices to receive feedback and to strengthen your approach on this aspect of the work?
KEEFE: We get participant feedback at the end of their programming. So they can talk about how respected they feel by their facilitators, what they've learned, what they are taking away with them, how they want to engage with us after they're done with their programming. I've gone to groups as the director of client services and as the executive director, especially when things are happening in community, to find out what folks need and how they want us to be moving forward.
Especially when it comes to program changes we're getting this feedback. What do you all think about this? What would work or not work about it? So that our participants are part of our program development process.
Over the last year and a half, we've done a lot of listening sessions with victims survivors and with folks that use harm to talk about what restorative practices could look like, what system involvement has felt like, both in our systems as a non-profit and in carceral systems. So again, if we're making big decisions about changing our framework, that our participants are really driving that process.
And then we also incorporated a trauma-informed practice scale that we give out to each of our participants to evaluate just how much are we attending to that and acknowledging their lived experiences and how does that play out in their willingness to engage with us in services. And I would say that the tip scale is something that we started over the last year, the listening sessions has been the last year and a half, and the participant feedback is something that we've done historically. But it's been powerful to get client feedback and really helps with making movement around larger system changes because I can say, hey, our community is asking us for this. And it just helps me not have to navigate resistance around changes that are more radical in our field.
ARÉAN: Excellent. What other organizations or stakeholders have you partnered with in your community to help address the impact of oppressive systems on survivors and people who cause harm?
KEEFE: This has been such an exciting part of our work and I think really nourishing and gratifying as an organization. There's many organizations that we've partnered with over the last year. So Violence Free Minnesota is our state coalition, and they have done some amazing work with really helping us look at economic justice and restorative justice, looking at criminalized survivors: topics that I think we haven't talked about in the past as much.
Reclaim the Block is an organization that gave us some funding to do our listening sessions. Phumulani is an organization that works with African women and survivors. Brian Coyle Center, OutFront Minnesota works with the LGBTQI+ community. Little Earth of United Tribes, so that we could hear indigenous voices in our community. Global Rights for Women, Women's Advocates, House of Ruth has been a wonderful consultant specifically around policies. Allies for Change and just going to their trainings and hearing about different ways that they do their work.
And then I wanted to lift up an organization that we partner with around advocacy work, and it's North Point. It's a medical clinic community. But they have started to do some diversion programming with men of color who have first time DV offenses, doing wraparound case management services, and are just doing some wonderful new type of work in our community. So I think having a lot of community partners and being able to connect with different culturally specific communities has been such a privilege for us over the last two years in particular. And really important in changing the way that we are doing our work now.
ARÉAN: Wow. Absolutely Amazing. What an inspiration on how to really do the work of social change rather than just social services. Sadie, is there anything else you would like to share on this topic before we end?
CUNNINGHAM: I would just offer prompt, to anyone who might have reservations about doing this work or questions about how it might impact their work. I think this process has really shaped the lens in which I view social work and social justice and approaching anti-racist practice. I would encourage people to find community, whether it's in the workplace or in your personal life, who will also engage in this accountability practice. And just think about the benefit of showing up authentically and practicing accountability and really practicing what we want to see with our participants in that change process. I would encourage people to really lean into practicing some of that vulnerability in anti-racist practice.
KEEFE: I always say that we ask our participants to come and lay bare their most shameful, often things that they have done in life. And talk about it in public with a group of people, give us details about it and really examine it. And so if we are asking our participants to do that to create safer communities, then I think it's so important that we are willing and able to do that work ourselves. So that we understand the pain of going through that process, but also the reward of getting through it and being able to really understand how to navigate as healthier people ourselves.
And I think we separate ourselves from folks that use harm thinking that we aren't folks that have that capacity, but the reality is that we all have the capacity to harm and do, in lots of ways all the time. And so if we join with folks and are part of that same community and trying to lift everybody up together, I think it just makes the work less isolating and so much more possible.
ARÉAN: Thank you so much for coming and sharing your wisdom, Amirthini and Sadie. This is number 13 on our podcast series. Previously we have covered several other topics including trauma-centered APIPs, working with Native men, centering victims in the work, working with fake communities and using the science of hope, just a few examples.
If you want to find the rest of our podcast series, you can visit our national clearinghouse on abusive partner intervention programming at https://www.innovatingjustice.org/dv-intervention-resources. To learn more about our project or to request technical assistance, feel free to contact us at DVAccountability, all one word, DVaccountability@innovatingjustice.org. You can also learn more about the Domestic Abuse Project at MNDAP. MN as in Minnesota, DAP, one word, .org. Please also visit us at futureswithoutviolence.org and innovatingjustice.org. Thank you so much for listening and goodbye.