Woman-Positive Literacy: One Example
by Diane Eastman
During 1991-92, I participated in a two-year national action research project sponsored by the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women and funded by the National Literacy Secretariat. With women from 11 other adult literacy and basic education programs across the country, I developed and implemented a woman-positive activity in my program.
For a very long time I have been concerned by the fact that so many of the women who attend the upgrading program at the Brandon Friendship Centre (in Manitoba) have been abused. The abuse cannot be described as any particular type happening at any particular age. Most of the women have suffered from some form of abuse since childhood and continue to be involved in abusive relationships.
I never felt qualified to deal with situations when a woman asked, "Can I speak with you a moment?" Many of these women had tried to access counselling which, for a variety of reasons, did not work out. Coming to me was something of a last resort. Since part of my job as a literacy instructor is to listen when students need to talk, I would sit down with them. But what I heard was frightening. It took me a long while to be able to react on more than just an emotional level. As time passed, I got better at it and more of the women in the program began to tell me their stories.
I still did not know how to help the women deal with their situations, however, and I always encouraged them to find others in the community who were more qualified. Then I could back away and let "the professionals" take over. Unfortunately, the women did not want me to back away. They still needed me to help with writing assigned by their counsellors, with reading information, and with listening while they told their stories.
When I had the opportunity to apply to CCLOW for involvement in their national research project, I looked forward to meeting other women who I knew must have the same experiences. I felt that in order to help the women in my program I needed to have as much general knowledge as I could get. I had to be able to discuss alternatives and healing, and I had to learn to hear their stories with empathy and emotional strength. I looked to the CCLOW project to set me on that path.
After attending the first of three national workshops in which the women involved in the research met, I called together the women in my program so we might discuss possible processes and content for our work. I wanted them to decide what focus they would take and how they would go about it. The group made some initial decisions before we began our discussions; for example, that what was said in the group stayed there; that we would be supportive, not critical, of each other; that we would all listen without interruption; and that if someone was too emotional to continue we would break and continue the group at another time.