Just Between You and Me: A Peer Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) Programme for Women in Family Violence Situations

3. Research Findings (continued)

3.3 Pedagogical Issues

The Evaluation Framework raises a number of pedagogical issues which go well beyond the content of the curriculum:

  • language level appropriate to the group
  • cultural appropriateness
  • incorporating the experience of the participants into the learning

Also consistent with PLEI principles, the research team developed a format for each workshop which provided opportunity for experiential and interactive learning styles, as well as information presentation. Each workshop was designed with clear learning outcomes and to ensure consistency of delivery, the research team designed a Training Manual (see Appendix C attached).

Feedback from the Advisory Group and the evaluator were also helpful in the design of each session's delivery. The delivery was very interactive, with lots of opportunity for questions and answers, as well as small group activities. To address concerns related to self-care, a closing session each night, together with a "buddy-system" was implemented. The buddy system designed at the suggestion of the Advisory Group, ensured that each peer received at least one contact per week from another peer, thus providing further debriefing, encouragement and follow-up. This began the process of developing a mutual support group for the peers, something which the research team asked peers to commit to for a period of at least six months.

Most of the peers expressed that their interest in the training came from their own experience – either they themselves had been abused, or they had close contact with someone who had. The Advisory Group had identified a concern that a process to accommodate peers who might be re-traumatized through the training sessions was needed. As both of the primary instructors were also trained crisis workers, the research team was confident that any signs of re-traumatization would be quickly identified. This particular discussion at the Advisory Group level raised another awareness in the design of the project – i.e., that the project was not a counseling or therapy group. It developed a clarity within the research team that this project was not to be therapeutic in nature – the peers selected should be at a place in their lives where they could offer support to others.

There was one peer who mentioned in the closing circle that memories had been triggered by the training, and another individual who one of the instructors referred for counseling as she recognized that some triggers had occurred. This relatively low level of trauma in the group is a reflection both on the skills of the facilitators in dealing with difficult materials in a caring, yet not emotional manner, as well as in the selection of both the peers themselves, and the materials. Clearly this issue is one that is crucial for future training.

The format for each training session was followed throughout, with the exception of the first and final meetings, which incorporated an evaluation component, and therefore had more flexible formats. Each evening began with a "Welcome and Thank you" and "Getting Connected" session. This part of the training was designed to allow some social interaction, and provide peers with a few minutes reflection on why they were present, what had taken place in the past week, and to re-bond with their co-peers. This model also encouraged the women to talk to each other, learn from one another's experience and knowledge, and provide support to one another.

Following this introduction, the group then participated in a "fact or myth" session. This often followed the format of a brainstorming or small group discussion. In this manner, the peers were able to explore their own biases, societal stereotypes and common misperceptions about the law, the issue of violence against women, and the diversity of women within society. The course instructors found the participants to be empathetic and very open-minded, though initially some of the women were reluctant to open up about their feelings about some challenging issues, such as welfare recipients, or women with alcohol and drug problems. The small group format engaged the women however, and the dialogue provided an opportunity for them to explore issues which were at first somewhat uncomfortable for them.

Each week a presentation on the major theme of that training session was given: violence against women, advocacy, accessing various types of financial support, how the legal system works, family law, criminal law and self-care were the major themes of the presentations. Initially, it had been the expectation that guest lecturers would be invited to come and make the presentation, but this plan was abandoned for a number of reasons:

  • the research team had the necessary expertise to deliver the training, and had already established a rapport with the participants
  • each session was carefully constructed to provide maximum content in the time available – the research team was best situated to understand both the time constraints and the goals of each session
  • to reinforce the empowerment model, peers were encouraged to view the instructors as peers who had a bit more experience. Bringing in "experts" in their professional capacity could have detracted from this goal
  • frequent acknowledgement of the Anishnabe traditions and culture served as a powerful role model to the Indigenous peers. This was reinforced by presentations on the Medicine Wheel as a model for understanding violence against women, and the healing process

There was a short break each week followed by a "Sharing/Caring" period which usually took the form of small group discussions providing participants with an opportunity to connect what they had learned in the presentation with their own experience. This section of the training elicited comments from the peers midway through the training, when the instructors asked for feedback on how useful they were finding the training. A number of the peers indicated that they were already sharing the information that they were learning, as well as practicing their listening skills. They shared these experiences and obtained immediate feedback both from the instructors and the peers on whether they were doing this "correctly", and how they could improve. They felt that the information, as they went home and talked to their families and friends about the course, was having a ripple effect in the community, as their close associates were also learning some of what they had. It also demonstrated the confidence that the peers were developing in using their new skills and knowledge.

The evaluator noted that there is anecdotal information to support the encouragement of peers to use their newly acquired skills and knowledge as soon as possible. In her experience in training nurses to do interventions with survivors of sexual assault, the time between training and using the new knowledge and skills is crucial for retention. Nurses are much more likely to stay on the roster for intervention work if their first crisis call comes within a few weeks of their training, and appear more confident of their ability to deal with the situation.

The closing circle – a common practice within Indigenous communities – was a valuable piece of the agenda. At this time each person was asked to share their thoughts on the evening's activities – what they had learned, what their experience of the session had been. Often the sessions extended past their end time of 9 pm because the women simply had more to share than time would have allowed, but the women willingly stayed, showing respect for the traditional practice of allowing each person to have their say.

At the evaluation session, the peers identified that they had learned some practical tools which will allow them to be helpful to other women who are experiencing violence. They identified that the variety of learning techniques was helpful. This also sometimes took the form of role-playing, the most successful of these was perhaps the mock criminal trial. The participants were fully engaged in the process of acting out the survivor of abuse, the judge, the crown and defence attorneys, and the witnesses.

One of the themes that came up from both the evaluation with the peers as well as the discussions with the instructors was the fun and laughter that the course engendered amongst the participants. As several of the peers stated, they never wanted to leave at the end of the session because they were enjoying themselves too much. Given the painful subject, it is easy to focus on the negatives, but the opportunity for participants to build on their own experiences, to brainstorm, talk in small groups, interact with one another, lent the programme a conviviality that engendered strong bonds between the peers. These bonds will be invaluable as they share their knowledge in the community.

3.4 Cultural Adaptations

One of the goals of the programme was to engage peers drawn from the Indigenous community of Sault Ste. Marie and area. Throughout the programme a number of adaptations were made to ensure the achievement of this particular goal:

  • Members of the research team and the Advisory Group both reflected the cross cultural nature of the programme
  • During recruitment, additional efforts were made through personal contact to ensure that 50% of the participants were drawn from Indigenous communities
  • One of the instructors throughout the course was Anishnabe – kwe
  • The format of the training used the circle as a mainstay in classroom setting
  • The Medicine Wheel teachings were used to illustrate the cycle of abuse and of healing
  • The self-care teachings included traditional teachings

One of the key factors in adapting the programme for Indigenous peers was the involvement of Connie Manitowabi as a member of the research team. Her knowledge of the grandfather teachings, the Medicine Wheel teachings and other Anishnabe traditions brought a cultural component to every discussion and meeting. For example, when discussing violence against women "male-bashing" can become an easy trap to fall into. Connie's adherence to the grandfather teachings ensured that men's role was always viewed with kindness and understanding that they are traveling down an incorrect path. Connie's participation ensured that there was balance in recognizing that not all men are violent, and understanding that part of ending violence is achieving a proper balance in society.

The cross-cultural nature of the group itself was also a key component to the success of the training. Due to the large number of Indigenous women (fifty per cent) the small group discussions also helped to build the bridge between the cultures. All of the small groups had a number of Indigenous women, so no one was ever "alone". Two issues were discussed that came directly from the Indigenous experience: the history of residential schools and the effects that experience had on communities and on violence against women; and how alcohol abuse might contribute to increased aggressiveness in women and men.

The evaluator noted a number of changes that occurred between the initial assessment at Session 1 and the final assessment at the eighth training session. At the first session, the women had grouped according to their cultures – the Indigenous women clustering on one side of the room. At the final session, the women were interspersed throughout the room, including during the social time when they were sharing food, and making their graduation hats. As they did the self-care circle on the last night of class, Connie shared the medicines and conducted a smudge ceremony. At the conclusion, one of the women shared that in her culture sage was also burned as a cleansing ritual. The evaluator noted that this information was received with interest, and with no apparent discomfort on the part of the Indigenous women.

In evaluating the programme, one of the women spoke of how her "journey" had put her "on this path" of learning, and reaching out to women who had been abused. This language reflects the Anishnabe teachings that life is a journey and that each of us must find our own true path in the journey of life.

3.5 Location and Funding

Algoma University College donated the classroom space for the training. Initially there were some concerns that participants might find a university location intimidating. However, the space proved conducive to peers feeling that they were obtaining a high quality of training, and feeling a part of the university community. As a university, it was also an anonymous space – the women could have been attending any class, not necessarily one that would relate to woman abuse. As a result it was a "safe" place for the women to go. Two employees of the university participated in the training – one a member of the cafeteria staff and the other a member of senior management further contributing to the sense that the university was endorsing and supportive of the project.

The programme was funded to provide a small stipend of $20 per night to each participant to meet childcare and travel costs. This stipend proved invaluable to participants as some had almost an hour's drive to get to the programme, while several had childcare costs. Not all participants accessed the stipend every week; instead participants obtained the funding on an as-needed basis by dating and signing a prepared receipt. In reviewing this process, the research team felt that a less obtrusive manner of distributing the funds might have been to provide the funding to everyone, and those who did not require the funds could be encouraged to donate it to a charitable organization.

Additional monies were obtained from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines Prevention of Violence Against Women Initiatives to augment the funding provided by Department of Justice Canada. These funds were used for copying the handbook for participants and for instructional fees.

4. Viability of the Peer PLEI delivery model

The goals of any PLEI project may include a change in knowledge, perceptions and behaviours of the participants (Broad, 2002). The participants in the "Just Between You and Me" project indicated that they had changed in all three areas due to their participation in the training sessions.

4.1 Knowledge Growth

Peers identified a number of areas of knowledge growth that went well beyond the family and criminal law issues that one might expect to obtain through a PLEI project directed to the issue of woman abuse. The following areas were all identified by peers in their self-evaluation of knowledge growth:

  • Knowledge of community resources available "who to call"
  • Knowledge of various types of income maintenance and compensation programmes including disability benefits, social assistance, Employment Insurance, Criminal Injuries Compensation
  • Knowledge and understanding of violence against women and the process of leaving an abusive spouse
  • Legal terminology, court processes, how to obtain legal advice and how to deal with lawyers
  • "Duty to report", family law and criminal law

4.2 Perception/Attitude Changes

Measuring changes in perceptions and attitudes is often difficult; in the self-evaluations, however, peers identified a number of areas where their own misperceptions on issues had been confronted in the training, or their self-confidence in dealing with an issue had increased. Their comments in this section reflect these changes:

  • "Women stand tall and together we gain strength", "If we stand together we will be stronger", "Women need to advocate for other women", "Help women to help themselves – Empower" "Feeling more connected – Sisterhood", "Women are the Backbone", "Common experiences"
  • "I can make it through", "Not afraid to go", "More secure with self", "I am more powerful and able to speak what I feel", "Trust your feelings – if it doesn't feel right, don't go with it", "Strength and Calmness", "More hopeful" "Empowered to enable change"
  • "Support her voice – don't speak for her", "Important to validate woman's feelings – Believe them", "Don't victimize", "You (we) are not alone"
  • The need to ensure that the abused woman is in a safe place
  • Thought physical abuse alone counted for family violence, "Abuse has many faces – learned it can happen to everyone"
  • "Learned I can't save everyone"
  • "Don't Judge", "Be more open-minded" "Be aware of words, expressions and their real meaning", "More open-minded, empathetic"

4.3 Behaviour Changes:

The peers were already beginning to report that they were using the information and sharing it with friends and family. When asked to identify whether they felt their behaviour had changed, and if so, how, the participants reported the following:

  • "Not being scared to use my voice" "Don't hesitate to offer information", "Spread the info around"
  • "Keep eyes open – watch for signs of abuse"
  • "Not just listen – hear", "Listening skills", "Listen more carefully", "Observe behaviours of women more closely"
  • Fight harder, "Speak out for women on social assistance", Advocate

4.4 Demand for further training

The length of the training was also discussed, with some of the peers expressing their concern that eight weeks was insufficient and that they felt there was still much more to learn. It is hoped that this concern may be addressed through the support network which the peers formed, and which they have committed to for a minimum of six months.

There was a great deal of interest expressed, not only by the peer participants, but also by Advisory Group members and other interested individuals in the community[7], in further training sessions. Suggestions were offered regarding other funding possibilities such as another grant from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, or the North Shore Tribal Council. Some of the peers also suggested that there could be train-the-trainer sessions for service organization staff so that the delivery could be ongoing, and some of the peers expressed interest in taking such a course so that they themselves could become trainers.

Other suggestions were that the training session could be offered as a 3-day weekend workshop; that training could be held for men so that they could also become peers; and that more assertiveness training be included.


[7] Several potential peers who were unable to participate due to other obligations, frequently asked about the progress of the training, and whether there might be subsequent training sessions.

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