The past few weeks here at Bronx Community Solutions have been very exciting, as we launched our first gender-specific social service class: Women’s Education and Awareness. After discussions with our researcher at the Center for Court Innovation, it became clear that we had a large number of women being sentenced to alternatives, and that a class directed towards women’s issues was needed. After much planning and preparation, the class began last week with a rousing discussion about what it means be a female in this society, in the Bronx, and within the criminal justice system. The group was co-led by 3 facilitators.
As we began, the women seemed to expect an hour or so of passive listening and minimal participation requirements. However, as we started to throw out questions such as “what is a stereotype” and “what are gender roles," the passive listening turned into active listening, and the participation increased with each passing moment. As facilitators, we guided the discussion by introducing different topics, and the women reacted strongly and each added something to the discussion.
We focused on the word “perception” and defined it as how we view the world based upon our own experiences. We then asked the women to identify what it meant to them to be a female and a male within our society. This provided us with a fascinating view not only into how the women perceived themselves, but what they understood their role as women to be. In addition, it exposed their understanding of the role of men in their own lives as well as the population in general. As the facilitator in charge of writing down their answers on the board up front, I can attest to the enthusiasm with which the women responded: I could barely keep up.
The responses from the women ran the gamut, and quickly filled the board. We then asked them to identify within the list they created, which roles were seen as positive/strong and which were negative/weak. This created much debate, since they found that many of their answers were multi-dimensional, and depended on the context.
We also asked the women to write down their own experiences with power within four situations:
- When they had power over someone else
- When someone else had power over them
- When they were a good friend
- When someone was a good friend to them
We asked the women who felt comfortable to share their answers. As they did, a remarkable thing happened: they realized they were able to relate to each other more than they ever thought they could. With the first exercise, we as facilitators had to keep reminding people to listen to each other because they were so excited to state their own responses/opinions that they started talking over each other. In this exercise, there were nods of agreement, laughter as a similar experience was described, and empathy when a frustration or embarrassment was generally understood.
The physical look of the group changed as well. When the class began, the women were spread out between 3-4 benches with at least 1-2 feet between them. After the group exercises, they occupied only 2 benches and they were sitting right next to each other—close enough to touch, which they did with pats on the back as they laughed or empathized with each other.
As the class came to a close, we wanted each woman to walk out with something tangible or something in her mind that would continue to impact her. This could be an idea that was discussed that she wanted to explore further, a connection to a service, or a connection to our office. These services were made available immediately following the group, since we have social workers and case managers on staff. As we asked for their feedback both in person and in a survey, it became clear that many of the women who participated in the class had services they were interested in. Our hope is that as we move forward with this group, we will be able to identify some of the key needs of this population in order to address them directly and quickly.