Feature Story                                                                                                 Tuesday, March 12, 2013

                      

The Empathic Community

Movement against violence toward women and children gains momentum

Staff/Voice photos

 

Women's forum Breakout speakers Sheila Smelt (L), Bobbi Jacobs, Tanja Shaw and Patti MacAhonic were featured at the women's forum Friday. Below, Damian George talks about the spirituality of drumming and Anita Rogers address the audience.

 

n baboon society, if the male head of a harem lashes out at a youngster, all the females in the community chase him down and lay a beating on him he won’t soon forget. Then they toss him out and get a new one. Maybe they know something we don’t.

 

A strong movement to cut down on violence in Chilliwack is becoming even more robust, and many groups and individuals are trying to make it happen. They want brutality in all of its nefarious forms eliminated.

 

Thanks to the work of Anita Rogers, President of Soroptimists International Chilliwack and MLA Gwen O’Mahony, awareness in the community was raised to a new level after they hosted a forum on International Women’s Day last Friday called “Standing together: uniting against violence, in conjunction with the United Nations theme of "A promise is a promise: time for action to end violence against women."

 

In a scenario that plays out almost daily in Chilliwack; a woman and man argue on the street. Suddenly, the man dashes her to the ground. He kicks at her, then staggers off in a drunken stupor. Sometimes it’s convoluted and its a woman who's dishing it out. Other times, the savagery is meted-out on the ones they’re supposed to love the most — their kids.

 

The public is vigilant and report instances like this to the police, who are then dispatched to pick up the pieces of shattered relationships and decimated families.

 

Children mired in abusive homes are so adversely affected emotionally that they struggle with it for the rest of their lives. It affects the way they communicate and engage other kids. They develop behaviour issues and quite often reenact the violence they learned at home on other kids or animals. If left unchecked, the circle of violence can be perpetuated into adulthood.

 

The forum, hosted by Soroptimist International Chilliwack, focused on raising awareness of violence sweeping the city.

 

“Our mandate is improving the lives of women and girls in the community and around the world,” Rogers said. “We are very happy that Gwen made contact with us last year and really wanted to help us raise our profile in the community.”

 

“We are very proud to be here. Thank you all for coming and supporting International Women's Day and we’re looking forward to sharing some good ideas.”

 

O'Mahony emceed the proceedings, and Rogers opened by welcoming an audience of about 50 people, most of whom were women.

 

"We decided to have an ambitious event partnering with our local chapter doing something about men standing up for women and we thought that was really important to have men at the table," she said, referring to George and Lees adding that she has worked with Aboriginal communities on the subject.

 

"We thought 'let's not stop there’, we're going to have men here, and women, and First Nations community which is the fastest growing community across Canada."

 

 

Above, MLA Gwen O'Mahony (L), two Chilliwack Huskers football players and Anita Rogers draw names for prizes. O'Mahony's assistant Jennifer Woodroff watches in the background.

 

"Men are speaking up about this issue, it's an idea whose time has come and a thank you to the BC Lions for stepping up."

 

"This will never be seen again as just a woman's issue," O'Mahony said emphatically. “But something we all take very serious about an issue that will affect all of us working together to accomplish. Together, positive change is not just possible — it is inevitable, and never doubt the power of what you are doing today. You are sending a powerful message to those affected by this kind of violence.”

 

Keynote speakers Damian George and Dr. Rob Lees gave accounts about their experiences with violence, followed by "Breakout Session" speakers Sheila Smelt, Tanja Shaw, Patti MacAhonic and Bobbi Jacob who spoke on a range of topics such as health, finances and time management.

 

Some men may not even know they have violent tendencies. Such was the case with George, who was first to articulate his side of the story.

 

“The first sound that you ever heard in your existence was the sound of the heartbeat of your mother, and when you hear that drum again it brings you back to a very soothing energy,” George said.

 

“Yellow, red, black and white nations that drum is part of all of our cultures, part of our entire heritage. We have that in every single one of our ways to celebrate spirituality.”

 

Substance abuse is a cornerstone of violence and George’s earliest memories of growing up on the Burrard Reserve are laced with drugs and alcohol.

 

“I am a product of a violent home, a violent background,” he said. “My mother wore the all-to-familiar big black sunglasses to cover her blackened eyes and she had bruises on the side of her leg from getting kicked.”

 

“I was not alone there on my reserve, there were other children, it wasn't uncommon, but I wasn't the only one.

 

George blames residential school for his past issues.

 

“It's where our people, we got stripped of our mother tongue, we got stripped of our customs. When you lose that, it becomes that hopelessness and not having an identity," he explained.

 

"To be a whole person, you’ve got to know your idioms, you’ve got to know your customs and your heritage, and you've got to have some kind of spirituality to attach to and make yourself a whole person. And we lost that.”

 

 

 

George says there were many factors involved in creating the turmoil in his formidable years, including drugs and alcohol.

 

“When we started to heal is when the jails and penitentiaries started to fill up with my people. About 60 per cent today in the jail are my people, and a lot of that has to do with substance abuse and also about fighting, and fighting amongst our own people.”

 

When people make a bad habit of a certain type of behaviour, after a while it seems normal for them, often to the point where they aren’t even aware they’re doing it and George never considered himself an odious type of person.

 

He married at a young age and admits he never considered himself mean spirited because he didn’t physically hit his wife.

 

But one day George realized he was indeed being abusive through name-calling and monitoring.

 

“These are the things that I've learned by recognizing primary emotions that lead up to that,” he said.

 

It was then that he began what he calls his “healing journey”, enrolling in the Change of Seasons program at Capilano College.

 

The first thing he remembers seeing at the college was a small sign over a door at the end of a hall that read 'All of this could have been stopped'.

 

“That really impacted me then, and it still does today, because that violence is not a primary feeling.”

 

He said anger is a learned emotion. For example, if a man came home to the family after losing his job and beat the dog, and threw things around, then it becomes normalized and acceptable by the family.

 

“The right way I found to deal with that it, is to look at the feeling from it and recognize that getting fired, there is a feeling of hopelessness — the bills are still going to come, there's worry, there's sadness because you're not going to see your co-workers any more, and there's all these other emotions that lead up to anger.”

 

George says that while in the course, he realized that in one day, the average person can have 10,000 emotions.

 

“If we were like that colored fish, that changes colours with emotion, it'd be a light show in here,” he quipped.

 

At the time, he says he carried a lot of personal pride. Perhaps it was because of his lineage to Chief Dan George, but he wanted more out of life, so he learned to “red flag” emotions to better deal with them.

 

"I learned to use my mouth. I learned to use my mind to recognize red flags when they come up, and I learned to recognize those feelings," he said.

 

“We've got to have awareness to end violence against women and children, and as a warrior, when I see this happening, I have to stand up and give a voice.”

 

He’s thankful for the help and guidance he received in his troubled years, saying he couldn’t have gone it alone.

 

“Finally, I could feel what was happening and have compassion in my heart and my spirit. That's the way a real warrior should be.”

 

Politicians also acknowledge the problems women face, especially with inequality.

 

Green Party of BC Leader Jane Sterk pointed out that in 1977 the UN called for the nations of the world to recognize March 8th as a UN Day for Women's Rights and World Peace.

 

"Women have made progress," said Sterk. "They are more successful at establishing and growing profitable small businesses than men, they are the leaders in the provision of social services and their numbers are at or near parity in most professions. But women are also the

majority in dead end and low paying jobs.”

 

 

Dr. Rob Lees talks about mirror neurons and how they play a role in daily life.

 

"While women continue to be the foundation upon which our society is based and provide the compassion and caring that defines a healthy society, women's contributions are undervalued, their issues are underreported and their lives are under stress."

 

Sterk suggested that if they want to make the lives of women better in BC, more focus is needed on:

• Making childcare affordable and accessible

• Developing community based programs that help women understand child development and how to balance a job with a healthy family life

• Expanding skill training and educational opportunities so that women can find meaningful, well-paid work

• Ascribing economic value to women's contributions as volunteers, care givers and moms

• Identifying and providing mentors and role models who can help women move forward

Last week, BC NDP leader Adrian Dix echoed Sterk’s statement on inequality, saying that "history confirms that removing prejudice and discrimination is not easily accomplished. And it confirms that the strength and dynamism of a society is directly determined in part by the level of equality women and girls experience in their daily lives. Until this inequality gap is bridged, B.C. will not realize its full potential. New Democrats are determined that B.C. continues to move forward in becoming a more equal province.”

 

Also last week, Minister of Health Margaret MacDiarmid stated that “as part of our Families First Agenda, we have developed policies that ensure families are protected and feel safe. When families face violence, they lose the sense of community that helps people thrive together. Our Provincial Office of Domestic Violence, under the Ministry of Children and Family Development, is creating a comprehensive three-year provincial plan with government and community partners to address domestic violence in British Columbia,” said Minister of Health Margaret MacDiarmid in another release. “Violence against women is not just a women’s issue. It is everyone’s responsibility and collectively, we can find a solution."

 

When Lees spoke at the forum, he talked about how the movement against battered women actually came from the strict tenets of religion.

 

“It's a weird anomaly, that one time in history, women in the movement seemed so divorced from the religious movement,” Lees noted.

 

He said that rather than being swept under and washed away in a river of emotional issues, the best way to stop violence from happening is by travelling upstream instead and deal with it at the source.

 

“In women's domestic violence work, although there's still a concern with picking up the pieces, it's more about helping people who are in crisis into a new empathy on how to stop it from happening in the first place.”

 

Lees used what he called a well-known metaphor in preventative medicine circles; society spends money to build a fence at the top of the mountain so people don't fall down, and that society would rather spend money on ambulances at the bottom to pick them up when they do fall.

 

“You'd like to think we need to do both of those things, but we have not been doing enough with more fences being built to stop it from happening in the first place.”

 

In his practice he says the focus is on working with kids whose parents are separated from divorce, and helping them navigate their experiences into something less painful and more comprehensible to them.

 

“We see programs like the Building Healthy Relationships. Ann Davis is a major partner in courses for couples that are offered through the University of the Fraser Valley, and there are three evidence-based programs there which teach couples to get what they want in safe ways in relationships.”

 

“These are the kind of upstream type of activities that can be done and large numbers of patients are aware that there are new models of manhood that are emerging that people can learn new behaviours,” Lees said.

 

Lees brushed on researcher Jeremy Rifkin’s book called The Empathic Civilization.

 

In it, he says Rifkin gives 20 years of insights from neuroscience and child development and discovered mirror neurons which are in the human brain that make them empathic to other people and feel what is happening to the other person.

 

 

“The discovery of mirror neurons, and in child development, learning that little wee toddlers have empathy for others, led him to formulate the notion that empathy is soft-wired in,” Lees said. “Because we have new tools these days, our empathy doesn't extend only to our pride, our religion, our nation, but to any other being because we can connect with them and learn from them.”

 

Lees reflected on his days as a divinity student doing an internship at the Anglican Church at First and Gore.

 

“At that time I subscribed to the notion that Christianity called people away from their true nature. They called them to be competitive," he said. "In fact, the great religions of the world, call people back to their true humanity. Aggression, and violence, and individualism, are a perversion of those core drives.”

 

Lees feels that society can develop new models of manhood and relationships.

 

“It's quite doable. We have to make a decision as a society that we're going to go upstream and we're going to care for those who are damaged today.”

 

 

 

© Copyright (c) 2013 The Valley Voice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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