Domestic Violence Shelter Walls as a Gallery of Possibility not Pain.
I have worked in Domestic Violence shelters in direct service delivery and on management boards for almost 30 years. One evening in the early days a resident and I were sitting in the group room of the shelter.
The walls were full of the kind of posters often found in d.v and homeless settings. Say no to domestic violence posters and statements that challenge abuse and injustice were the words on the posters lining the walls. The word violence was written everywhere, even on the refrigerator in the kitchen.
There were also hepatitis pamphlets, images that represented ill health, struggle and poverty and they were there because they were considered to be educational and necessary for the women, many who are considered to be “at risk”
Staff believed residents and outreach clients should be able to see the information in front of them at all times.
Pamphlets and fact sheets that had the words trauma and stress, abuse and violence written on them in bright letters were on the wall by the door where women and children came and went throughout the day.
The woman I was sitting with looked around the room and said:
My life feels completely messed up and I look around and see these images and words and it just makes it all feel so much worse.
It’s like the violence is everywhere. I’ve never been to a place like this before. Seeing that word violence over and over and over freaks me out,
I saw the setting from her view point for the first time and took her observation to our staff meeting.
After several discussions over several staff meetings we came to realise that it is not only the women who live at the shelter but the women who work there who are exposed to pain and trauma based imagery and the words violent and violence and deficit oriented messages on a daily basis.
Was our shelter warm and welcoming, colourful and bright or was it sterile, institutional and covered in words and messages that highlighted trauma, pain and the struggle?
Had we considered creating positive visual images (that did not rely on English literacy) to let women of all cultural backgrounds know that this was her place to unwind, relax and reflect or did our setting look like a government department with warning posters and issue-oriented material on the walls? No we hadn’t and yes it did.
As a staff would we want to live in this environment at the worst period of our own lives? No we wouldn’t.
Would we feel comfortable and at home there considering we would be living amongst and sharing space with strangers?
We decided that no, we wouldn’t be warm and comfortable in our group room or the kitchen area as they were covered in issue related words and imagery and none of us had the word violence or abuse in the communal spaces where we met with friends and family in our homes to share food and stories together.
We noticed we had a sexual abuse hot line magnet on the fridge which we later found out was traumatic for some women to read every time they opened the door to get milk. A “Say no to violence” magnet was along side of it.
The words “violence” seemed to be everywhere, on pamphlets, on hand outs, on the white boards.
Where were the word’s for Peace? They weren’t there!
Over the next few weeks we took down every poster that had the word violence on it and all of the words and images that presented how life should not to be and replaced them with inspirational images and uplifting posters.
I created a World Peace Begins at Home poster which had exactly the same message as say no to violence but with a very different emotional and visual impact.
We were, for the first time considering what messages the walls and the furniture and notice boards were sending to the women who came to our shelter.
The front entrance area no longer had a list of house rules, they went into the information pack in the drawer. We redeveloped the space with the words A Peaceful Welcome inside of a glass painted Mandala on the front window.
Our counseling areas were transformed into peaceful, inviting spaces. We consciously created an evocative, tranquil setting in what was once an issue oriented, high profile violence focused shelter.
We also had to acknowledge we had created a very Euro-centric space that had very little cultural diversity or language representation so w e renamed each of the units “Peace” in seven different languages to demonstrate a commitment to muli-culturalism rather than offer token gestures that made space available for diversity but only within a European context. We had the words placed on plaques that were visual and educational, with the country of origin along with the word for Peace.
We approached an Elder from the Aboriginal Community and received permission to name our meeting space Inbandi the word meaning to gather.
The Mandala portal at the entrance point to the Shelter was now a warm and welcoming one rather than a rules and issue based message space. It was an image that spoke to all women from all cultural backgrounds and didn’t require English literacy to transmit the intention.
What we learnt from that pivotal situation is that placing violence related images and literature and issue based words in front of people who are assessed as in need of education and support is often just adding to the existing problem of a negatively saturated experience rather than acting as a vehicle for change. It was a turning point moment for our team and was the catalyst for a huge cultural shift.
Staff who work in domestic violence settings do not need to be seeing the deficit based words every day of their working lives either. Neuroscience research shows that we are all impacted by the sights we see and the words and sounds we hear daily.
Confronting images and statistics and abuse phone lines often don’t have the impact as intended, they can unintentionally add to an existing landscape that affirms the negative and disregards the positive /aspirational content when it comes to many public awareness campaigns.
We relocated issue based information into brightly coloured folders so that it was accessible but not visually repeating the negative, stressful wording every time someone walked past the notice board. The notice board became a place where women’s art and affirmations and culturally specific images were displayed.
The subliminal impact of the environment was one we had not previously considered but we were now becoming very attuned to the setting and culture we were consciously creating.
Over the next few years our once issue-saturated shelter transformed into a place that was inspirational, evocative, creative and highly educational. Our new in-house culture was grounded in the assumption that people who want to make changes don’t need to see the language of violence and trauma before her eyes and as staff we also chose not to repeatedly see words that evoke a sense of trauma and misfortune, instead we focused on aspirations and possibility.
As time went by I saw tired and over worked government workers melt down into the colourful, warm couches in our group room, look at the walls and the plants and say: It feels really peaceful in here. That’s so unusual for a shelter.
Women who were highly agitated and still fully immersed in the crisis that lead them to the shelter would relax and slow down within the group room which was enriched by having the opportunity to colour some of the art work for themselves and take the positive images and messages back to their unit to create their own affirmation and inspirational gallery. We had meditative music and culturally diverse play lists to add to the ambience of the room.
Our group room became a community space. It was no longer a setting that was driven and created by staff intentions but by what the women wanted to create and share.
This single step revolutionised the sense of community and connection at the shelter because we encouraged the women to create the space and atmosphere by contributing to the environment rather than simply sitting in the one we had created for them.
If the women who work in domestic violence shelters and the management are not open to creativity and creating a new culture of positive imagery and a welcoming meeting space, residents will not feel comfortable to explore their own creativity and sense of place in the shelter either. The service will feel like an institution rather than a Women’s place of healing and possibility.
Creativity and visual imagery was at the core of these sweeping changes and the staff and management had to be open to creating a new culture that can be messy and uncertain during the transition phase. It was a challenge for some of the team to change some of our core practices and values but eventually we also allowed ourselves to engage with creativity in the workplace during staff meetings and staff training events at a much higher level than ever before and this had a profound impact on our work – life balance practices.
I encourage all of us who work in women’s shelters, prisons and community health and settings to take a look at the walls and notice boards ask the questions:
*Are the words I am reading and the images I am seeing day after day creating an inspirational uplifting environment or are the walls saturated in pain, issues and trauma based messages that affirm the negative to try and create the positive?
*Could I place the information about pain and struggle and injustice and trauma based counseling into colourful, engaging folders and make space for an inspirational, uplifting invitation to change and empower community and connection instead?
*Look around at your shelter / community house /office and ask yourself “Is this a place that is both professional and inviting or have we fallen into the government department trap of creating impersonal spaces that do not reflect the creativity, courage and unique cultural experiences of the women who come to live here for awhile?
I offer the World Peace Begins at Home b/w template freely for workers in shelters and community settings and prisons who are interested in beginning the process of creating uplifting art and imagery in communal areas and would like to offer the women in residence the chance to create with their hands and tell stories and share information using creativity.
It was the first of the inspirational templates I created after the resident of our shelter highlighted the uninviting, clinical space that we had inadvertently created for her.