What do we mean by woman-positive? This is a central question for the second phase of research: how do different women, within different programs, apply the concept "woman-positive" to literacy-related activities? A second central question is: how will their understandings of "woman-positive" change as we go through the research process?
For this second phase of the research, I take a "woman-positive activity" to be an activity that, in its particular context, arises out of the expressed needs and desires of particular women working in that context. It is an activity that is also open to change when the women undergo a process of reflection and analysis, vision and strategizing. This means the activity is not fixed, and does not have to meet all the needs and desires of all the women in the program, although it must meet some of the expressed needs and desires of some of the women in the program.
It also means, for me, that during the process of planning, implementing and documenting the activity, the women involved come to understand which women in the program have benefited from the activity and, potentially, which women have been disadvantaged by the activity. We want women to be able to envision and strategize around future activities that may meet resistance or more effectively gain support and benefit more women within their context.
Let me give you some examples of the kinds of contexts involved in this research. We have a program located in public housing, one located in a Friendship Centre, the WEST (Worker Education for Skills Training) program through the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, a program located in a women's prison, a program that serves women who live and work on the inner-city streets of Toronto, and several community-based and community college programs. Two of the community-based programs are facilitating writing by women students who want to explore their experience of physical and sexual abuse. The community college programs include a federal employability enhancement program called Aboriginal Women in the Workplace, and an English literacy class attended by Inuit women at Arctic College in the N.W.T. Clearly, women from these different programs are going to have very different understandings of what it means to be woman-positive.
In addition, although CCLOW is a feminist organization, we do not expect the programs or the women who represent the programs to identify as feminist. We do we ask that the contact women believe women may benefit from taking part in activities designed specifically for women, and that they will benefit not because women are somehow deficient, but because the programs and the government policies that structure the programs are deficient. The contact women will also presumably agree with the conclusion of the first phase, that learner-centred or community-based programs are not necessarily woman-positive.
Learner-centred / woman-positive
I came to make the distinction between learner-centred and woman-positive in the first phase of my research. During discussions with fifty-seven women and four men, I had a persistent feeling that I was missing something in my understanding, as if I was hearing something backwards or looking at a photographic negative.
I finally isolated two threads of responses to my talk about women's experience. These threads seemed to be entwined with two recurring phrases: "What about the men?" and "But this program is learner-centred/This program is community-based." It was only when I put these phrases into context that I began to understand what was happening.
A woman, strongly feminist and an experienced instructor, told me about a women-only class held where she worked several years ago. "It turned into a consciousness-raising group," she said. "A really tight little group of women, who gave each other support about all kinds of stuff. And they did a whole lot of literacy work around that. It worked beautifully in terms of them using reading and writing skills to tackle their problems, as well as doing some straight academic work" (3).
Two things happened with this class. First, nobody wanted to work with the men that were left. They were seen as unsociable, unmotivated, unruly. Second, the instructor teaching the women's group became uncomfortable with her lack of control over the class and the curriculum. She couldn't integrate the women's active participation into her context of "teaching, reading and writing". So they stopped having a women's class.