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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue C ::: February 2002

Reflections on the Women, Violence, and Adult Education Project

by Elizabeth Morrish
Quantitative research has established conclusively that domestic violence is a factor in approximately six percent of all US households, and that 20 percent to 30 percent of women receiving welfare are current victims of domestic violence (Raphael, 2000). Fifty-five percent to 65 percent of women receiving welfare have experienced violence sometime in their lives (GAO, 1998). According to statistics reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report "Violence against Women," violence occurs more frequently in families with low incomes. Average annual rate of violent victimizations per 1,000 females was 57 for families with incomes below $10,000 and 31 for families with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000. Level of education was also found to correlate with the rate of violence. For victims with less than a high school diploma the average annual rate of violent victimizations per 1,000 females was 48, compared to 28 for female victims who were high school graduates (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995).

Concerned with violence as a barrier to learning in adult basic education, World Education sought funding through the US Department of Education Women's Educational Equity Act that would enable six programs to enhance educational services for women who have or are experiencing violence by exploring changes in practice and policy. Drawing on the work of researcher Jenny Horsman, who participated in the project, we named as violence many forms of oppression and trauma, including domestic violence, violence by institutions of the state, childhood abuse, workplace violence, and rape. Two years later, we articulate these assumptions about violence: 

We wanted a project that would support adult education practitioners because we saw that teachers know how widespread violence is and yet hesitate to weave their understanding into their practice. The project gave participants the legitimacy and the support needed to explore the complexities of these issues. One teacher described her inability to connect the implications of violence to her teaching before participating in the project:

I already knew about violence. And I already knew that oppression is a form of violence. I am politically conscious. But before the project, I never put my politics together with my teaching... . The project made me more sensitive in my teaching position. Before, when someone had an attitude or went to sleep in class it would aggravate me. Now it's a red flag for me. Before it was, "Look, if you're not coming here to learn, don't come." Now, I say, "Are you OK?" 

Now I have a different mindset. I've seen that there's a connection between counseling and teaching. I wasn't aware of this before÷ . I will forever be more conscious of the issue as it affects women in the classroom. 

The initial Women, Violence, and Adult Education project event was an introductory institute held in April, 2000. Adult education practitioners gathered from across New England to explore issues of violence and oppression. Programs then applied to become part of the three-year project that would explore ways to address the implications of violence on learning. Six programs were chosen; teachers from these programs participated in a series of four two-day training workshops to share ideas, discuss research, and create a supportive community of educators. Wherever possible, at least two teachers participated from each program. This group of teachers has developed strategies and materials that now, in the final phase of the project, are being compiled in a Sourcebook that will be published in the fall, 2002. (Look for information about it in future issues of Focus on Basics.)

In selecting participants, World Education was looking for geographic diversity, a variety of program structures, and a variety of student populations. We chose the York School, described in the Ridgway & Griffth article; Vermont Adult Learning, a welfare-to-work program in a small town; Even Start Learning, Innovation, Nurturing, Knowledge, Success (LINKS), a program in rural Maine that works with families in their homes; Project Hope, located in a shelter for homeless women in Boston; the Community Education Project, based in a community organization in a small town in Massachusetts; and the Genesis Center in Rhode Island, which provides classes in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). What happened in each of these programs is profound. Working on the project shifted people's thinking: it changed teachers' practices and influenced students to make new decisions about education and work. While all programs will be featured in the Sourcebook, in this article, space restricts me to highlighting the work from three programs. I will outline the activities of the programs and share the views of teachers and students. The examples are taken from personal observation, project reports, and interviews.

Vermont Adult Learning

The White River Junction "Getting Ready to Work" is a regional program funded to serve welfare clients, primarily women who are single parents with work mandates. Teacher Katy Chaffee wrote, "Their lives are compromised by very little income. As a result of recent changes in welfare legislation there are enormous pressures and stresses on our participants." She talked more about this when interviewed about why the program joined the project: 

We're in this whole structure of violence at the same time we are trying to acknowledge it in other women's lives. It is sitting here even in how we are being asked to work. I don't want to go there - it hurts. I was living it. I saw the life raft out there, I went "Yeah! Grab it!" And so [one of the teachers] participated in the institute and she talked about there being one violence÷ . So then you have to look at how you participate in that [violence], too.

The program, housed in a storefront on Main Street, draws people from a wide geographical area. They offer classes and individual help. Both participating teachers saw institutional violence as a reason to join the project. Teacher Tammy Stockman explained: 

I have been aware for years that violence in every possible form is a huge part of the women's lives. Poverty itself is an act of violence. Often the women had to leave early to go to court. Our site was right around the corner from the court house, and the women were in and out of there all the time, dealing with custody and child support issues, addiction issues, abuse issues. The violence is systemic, not just episodic. The system is set up to hurt and to continue to hurt poor women. 

When asked what she was hoping to gain from joining the project, Tammy replied:
Lately, it seems like the violence has been getting worse, and we needed more support than we were getting. One woman came to class with a loaded pistol because of an abusive partner. There was no place for us to get trained in how to deal with things like this because the people above us didn't want to hear about it. They'd say, "Don't tell us that there are so many women affected. We don't believe you." What can you say to something like that? 

Participating in this project enabled us to openly discuss violence as a reality and to ideally come back with a language to describe it and statistics to say, "You're wrong. This is a huge problem." I am hoping that once this project is over, we will be well informed and have strength in numbers. The people above us won't be able to sweep it under the rug so easily.

Inspired by the model of self care provided by the introductory institute, the participating teachers in Vermont decided to begin their project with a staff retreat and invited a therapist to join as a mentor-advisor. Katy said: 

We needed no further evidence or proof that our participants had multiple experiences of trauma and violence. Did they also have ideas and experiences of wellness: what it is, what moments of wellness feel like, what it would be like to live well; what words that describe it? 

The staff emerged from their retreat determined to focus on wellness and to see if this would change the outcomes in their welfare to work program. They were being pushed to become more focused on getting students out of the education program and into work. Nevertheless, they started a well-being support group that met once a week as a regular part of the program. They hired outside consultants - "experts" - to teach and joined the courses as participants.

They piloted three consecutive courses consisting of eight to 10 two-and-a-half hour sessions each. The first was on mindfulness, the second on creative writing, and the third on collage, facilitated in turn by a therapist, a high school student, and an artist. A turning point occurred in the mindfulness course when they decided to lock the door. Tammy wrote:

How had we been so blind to the signals of stress that our participants had been giving? We realized at this time that [what] we had come to see as trust and comfort was actually at a rather shallow level and that much of our participants' behavior was a direct result of their fear. When the door was locked and the phones turned off and the fear of being interrupted was eliminated, when the collective act of self-care was given top priority and the rest of the world was sent a clear message that this was our time and space, that was when we felt a sense of well being. And that was when trust was built.

Students' reactions included:
I appreciated the safety of this group, that I could try things. In other groups I have felt that I am not as good as everybody else in the room. Here I am not worried about not being able to do what other people can do. This laid the groundwork for the writing and collage groups. Again the teachers hired consultants and participated as part of the group. Again they unplugged the phones and locked the door. The collage artist they hired was convinced of the power of healing arts in her own life and others. She says:

The creating of one's own artwork is inherently healing and revealing. It allows access to the deeper parts of the self, and as a consequence, draws on and shares in the humanity of all of us.

Following is Katy's report about the collage process. Her reflections and her interviews with students show what a difference this made in the lives of the students and their ability to imagine themselves changing. 

There is a cultural expectation that welfare-to-work training should provide goal-oriented, rational, job related programming. This well-being support group provided a weekly personal space for valuing each other, and ourselves for asking questions, and for exploring who we are and what we are meant to do in this world. The format facilitated clarity about career directions for some or an appreciation of personal strengths.

A student commented:
We also imagined a place of well being, and another time, a challenge in our life and then changed places with someone of our choosing.

The students agreed it was valuable to include collage in the welfare to work program. One in particular articulated what developing a collage meant to her: 

...It taught me to be in a classroom situation again. I did get a job. It gave me the confidence that I can focus... . I know that the collage I did about change is very important to me. Because I'm very angry at the world that we live in and the conditions that there are. It [the collage] gave me a place to put it just the way it is now. ...It got it out of me. Because I couldn't put it into words - all these things - but I could put it all on the collage. It worked.

Katy and Tammy were pleased with the outcomes.

Participation grew and attendance improved. In our program, which is not mandatory, participants often vote with their feet. Participants' enthusiasm developed quickly. Although initially scheduled for four to six weeks, participants wanted to continue longer. We extended the class to 10 weeks. 

Participants gained self-confidence and pride in their work. Collage required a unique process of listening to your inner self through right brain work. One of our satisfied artists commented, "There is nothing quite like discovering that inside of you is an interesting person Ů worth getting to know."

The exploration of interior personal space informed participants' ideas about work, relationships, and values. Career ideas and job direction were never part of the agenda of the collage group. However, greater personal clarity about future directions was an outcome.

Even Start Links, Maine

This rural family literacy program sends tutors to work with women in their homes, where it can be hard to focus on literacy skills. Life intervenes, often in the form of violence. A jealous boyfriend lingered at the door with a gun when the tutor was there. Child sexual abuse was hidden by the community, including the local doctors; even the literacy coordinator had felt powerless to address it. The teachers and the students needed support. Participation in this project enabled them to hire a social worker to meet with the staff every month for discussion, counseling, and clinical advice. The coordinator, Janice Armstrong, says the inclusion of a therapist at the introductory institute inspired her to hire the counselor. Otherwise, she says, "it absolutely would not have occurred to me." She described the role of the social worker: 

She gave us an opportunity to process our roles with the families, helped me process my role as supervisor of the teachers, and [gave the] teachers an opportunity to save up problems and situations that they were uncomfortable with and needed feedback on. They prioritized the problems and we processed them one by one. She gave very objective feedback... one family had a death in the family. She had very specific suggestions like contacting the death and dying support group at the hospital for support and counseling. She knew specifics and could give the teachers that information. Not only that, she was willing to go on home visits. She did visit this family [and] we were able to get all the children into counseling, and arrange for counseling at school.

There were just so many ways she helped the program. The teachers were sometimes very stressed. She had such a calming way. That is very, very necessary for staff in the type of program we work in. To be able to feel that calm, know that there is hope, [that] everyone will be able to carry on in some way. 

As part of the project, one of  the teachers was trained by a staff person from a collaborating family service agency to facilitate a support group. Once students were able to address issues in this group, and staff could do the same in their monthly meetings, literacy work could be the focus during tutoring sessions. Janice wrote:

... having a women's support group for learners has opened up time for literacy instruction during home visits because the women have less of a need to talk about their problems to the teachers.

After participating in the project, Janice  realized that the teachers and the students had to feel supported for changes to happen. She says this about the student group:

We tried so many different ways to bring these women together and it just didn't work but this clicked. They got together and planned an end of the year trip to Bangor for all their nine families. [It clicked] because of this women's empowerment group. They were meeting together every Wednesday for an hour and then afterwards would stick around and they started talking about what they could do together.

The project resulted in better attendance than usual, and, for the first time, student ownership and participation in the program planning process. Janice now feels that a counselor is an essential part of her program that she will work to find funding to continue.

Project Hope, Massachusetts

Project Hope is a homeless shelter that recognizes the role of supports in addressing homelessness. They run adult basic education classes in addition to other programming for women. The ABE teachers knew violence was a part of the women's lives at home, on the streets, and in the institutions governing their lives. What convinced them to join the project was the murder of one of the students. 

In February, 2000, one of my [Anna Yangco] students was killed by her son. As a writing teacher, I get to look at people's innermost thoughts. I thought I knew this woman. But she used religion to mask her problem. She would say "it is in the hands of God." Still, I felt I should have known. In the fall she used to write a lot, but after Christmas break she would hardly write at all. I would ask her "Why aren't you writing anymore?" And she would say "Oh, I don't know. I just can't do it anymore." And then she died, I was so upset. I kept thinking. "What could I have done?" I started wondering what I could do to prevent this from happening again. Then, in March, my boss got a flier about the Women and Violence project and told me I should get involved in it. It was perfect timing. So I went to the first institute and I have been involved ever since.

One of the participating teachers was also coordinator of the Paul and Phyllis Firemen Scholarship, which gave women full scholarships for further education after passing their GED. It seemed that because of the generosity of the scholarship, many of the usual barriers to education would be addressed. For the women at Project Hope, this was not so. Something else held them back. Taking on the work around violence enabled the participating teachers to see if creating the conditions for learning was that something. Anna describes how they began:

When we got back from the first institute, we were thinking, "How
do we create positive conditions for learning?" My partner teacher looked around and said, "Why don't we change the room?" So she held a "visioning day" in her class. She asked her students to draw pictures of what they would like the room to look like. She asked, "If you could have anything you wanted in this room, what would it be? No restrictions!"  So the students drew these incredible pictures, and we worked on the room all summer based on what they told us they wanted. We painted the walls, added plants, put a little fountain in, got halogen lights instead of the fluorescent ones, bought new, more comfortable chairs. We hung a stained glass panel in the window÷ . By the end of the summer, the room looked totally different. And when the year began, we noticed a complete change in people's attitudes. They were much more relaxed, much calmer.

Teacher Char Carver describes what was different about the work they were doing as part of the project:

We changed "self-improvement" activities to "self-empowerment activities" - so we took them to the library [for] a poetry and writing session. Two women got up and read their poems and they had never written before, so it was wonderful! We went out for dinner with the women and they all got dressed up for the occasion. We used music and writing as healing getting them to think outside of the box... . We had an activity period where every week they had to do an act of self-care.

We put money in the budget into childcare, which we didn't have before÷the frivolous thing is difficult. We need to put our resources into the women, if we value their endeavor. It's critical that we don't repeat the oppression of poverty. We need to learn how to budget in a different way. How do you explain to other people what you're doing when you buy flowers? But when the women talked about the flowers, they talked about hope.

Anna says this about what she and the students learned from the project:

I've seen lots of changes. By the end of the year, the women can say, "I'm important." They tell me that they don't worry so much about what everyone else thinks. They think more positively about themselves. Last year, five people went on to college. There are always changes, and it's hard to isolate it to just this project. But I have seen their willingness to take risks increase. At the end of the year, we had a yoga class. This was a big risk. We moved the tables back so that everyone was sort of exposed. We were on the floor doing stretches. If this had been at the beginning of the year, I'm sure no one would have come. But at the end of the year, everyone went. And they came back for all four sessions.


This project has taught us that addressing violence does not mean inviting everyone to disclose. It does not mean that we need to address violence directly in curriculum and materials. It means creating the conditions for learning that name and recognize the presence of violence in our lives.

The staff of the programs changed their practices to allow time for activities and elements that are usually considered luxuries in adult education. These included creating safe and beautiful space, doing art, and giving teachers and students time to talk and find ways to reflect. The shift in thinking and programming could not have happened without modeling and encouraging three levels of support: care of self, support from within the program, and support from community counseling and referral resources. The teachers report changes in their students: better attendance, improved writing skills, the willingness to take risks which led to the ability to make changes in their career and educational choices. As Katy Chaffee said, "greater personal clarity about future directions was an outcome." Surely that is what much teaching in adult basic education is all about.


Bachman, R. & Saltzman, L. (1995). Violence against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey. Washington, DC: US Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. 

General Accounting Office (1998). Domestic Violence: Prevalence and Implications for Employment among Welfare Recipients. Washington, DC: GAO.

Raphael, J. (2000). Saving Bernice, Battered Women, Welfare, and Poverty. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

About the Author

Elizabeth Morrish, World Education, Boston, brings 20 years of teaching experience and interest in trauma and learning from work with Cambodian women refugees and young parents to
her position as director of the Women, Violence, and Adult Education Project.


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL