This is a special week

Aside

May 29 to June 4 is Victims and Survivors of Crime Week in Canada. This year’s theme is The Power of our Voices and will include projects and events to raise awareness across the country. As a Victim Service worker at Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre (WAVAW) we were asked to take this time to reflect on what this work means to us.

At WAVAW we believe we are the women we serve. Only circumstances differentiate us from the women we support. We live in a society where violence against women is persistent and normalized, and where I could very easily find myself in the same situation as the women I serve. That makes the work so much more personal. And the personal is political. My work in victim services has led me to work with other like-minded women, to channel my frustrations into being of service to survivors of crime by supporting women and advocating to hold perpetrators accountable.

The work can be challenging at times when the stories we hear are distressing or when we work all hours of the day. But what keeps me going is the immense strength, hope and bravery I witness in the women even in times of tremendous horror and suffering. As victim service workers we help women within hours of a sexual assault taking place, helping them on their healing journey from trauma to recovery. In 2015 alone, WAVAW support workers answered nearly 4000 crisis line calls, accompanied over 100 women to Sexual Assault Services at Vancouver General Hospital, and spent nearly 200 hours in police interviews and in court with women as they testified against their assailants.

We still live in a society where victim blaming after a sexual assault is almost customary, where a victim must defend their actions in the wake of an assault even when it’s never their fault. After an assault takes place a survivor can easily feel isolated. It is easy to self-blame, self-harm and feel disempowered. An assault is just that – it takes power away from a person. So my focus is solely on supporting the woman. I am there to ensure the woman is treated with respect and compassion while she navigates the various systems. I am there to remind her that I believe in her and that she can move past victimization and start healing. It makes a difference in the life of a survivor to know they are not alone in their journey to recovery.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where this type of work is unnecessary, to live in a world free from oppression and violence? Rape culture is so prevalent in our society, and it has been made so much more noticeable to me in this line of work. It has made me more aware of the struggles and injustices in the daily lives of women all over the world, while making me blatantly aware of my own privileges. It is a privilege to be working in a field that brings validation and significance in my life. It is a privilege to use the power of my voice to join the multitude of others who work tirelessly to end all forms of violence against women.

#victimsweek

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How do you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes? Developing empathy when you really, really don’t want to.

Aside

I was in a routine meetings with a superior, and as usual I started out dreading the time we have to spend together. Today, the meeting was different because this person suddenly opened up like never before. My colleagues and I prefer to avoid said person unless it is absolutely necessary. Let’s just say this person had made one too many people actually cry or leave the company due to poor leadership decisions, and just plain snobby, spiteful power-tripping.

I have always applauded my coworkers for their utmost professionalism when dealing with difficult people, and this person in particular. Knowing this person’s history has made it somewhat easier to empathize with the way we are being treated and the way this person acts at times (I know what you are thinking: “Why has this person not been fired yet?”. What an excellent question! Believe me when I say we have plotted very hard for termination). Again, it takes a strong, conscious person to step back and not accept the criticisms that knocks the wind out of you.

But today was different. Today there were conversations that were full of laughter and wisdom. Conversations filled with happy reminiscing and wistful dissuasion.

For the first time, I was mesmerized by this person. For the first time, I sat up and took note of this person, and so did my colleagues.

What we had assumed all along was confirmed, the dark twisted fate this person had been handed has been debilitating. No wonder this energy was being transferred to everyone that had the misfortune to be around this person. I actually felt deep compassion and sympathy at the end of the meeting. Yikes!

In a ostensibly unrelated incident I had watched “The Cobbler“, a movie starring Adam Sandler, just the night before. I didn’t think think much of it, but gave it a rotten tomato for lack luster fight scenes and called it a night. The story is about a cobbler with the ability to literally walk in someone else’s shoes. When he puts on someone else’s shoes he transforms into whoever the shoes belonged to, complete with their accents and personality traits! How awesome would that be if we can do that for real!

Although I would have liked to see more action in the movie the point they were trying to make was pretty loud and clear. While we may not actually be able to morph into someone else it is possible to imagine what it would be like to live their human experience, to find out what influenced them to be this way at this point in time. So we come back to my original question: How DO you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes?

Empathy is all about the ability to identify and to understand another person’s feelings, to experience the world from their point of view, to see life from their living conditions. This is generally developed through emotional intelligence, sometimes drawing from one’s own experiences projecting onto the mind of the other person.

The first step is always being aware of your own feelings. We have become so detached from our own emotions and generally find ways to numb them with drugs, work or other distractions. But knowing your own emotional volatility will help understand another person and reminding ourselves that there is no one cookie-cutter solution to dealing with problems. One person may lash out when angry, while another person may internalize it instead.

Don’t rush to judge the other person too quickly. I’m still guilty of often type-casting people based on first impressions. But it’s important to set biases aside and get to know someone better. One of my favourite pastimes if proving other people wrong about assumptions about me. And I like it when other’s do the same. We have no way of knowing what another person goes through everyday. I sometimes like to ask myself, “If I were that person how would I deal with this situation?”. That perspective alone is enough to stop my brain from stereotyping and develop respect for someone.

Look for similarities, not differences. This is a very humbling practice. It’s easy to pretend we are special snow flakes. But we really aren’t. I have had the privilege of living in different parts of the world and surviving harsh living conditions, and no matter where I was everyone sought out love and happiness. It’s easy to develop compassion for someone when you remind yourself that this person too wants the same in life as you.

It’s easy to get caught up in gossip or slander someone we really despise. But leaders need to develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and learn to rise above those instincts. A leader needs to set a better example. It’s not too difficult to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, to develop empathy for humanity. But it will take practice, patience and punching bags in the process.

I wish you the best of luck!