This is the first in a blog series about the work that Reos Partners is doing in the area of addressing violence against women. Throughout the series, we’ll be exploring a range of themes and the work of different Reos Partners offices.
We begin in Australia, with insights from Leigh Gassner, who has extensive experience in addressing violence against women, including domestic and family violence and sexual assault. This experience comes from his work as a Director of Reos Partners, and in his previous role as Assistant Commissioner of Police in Victoria, where he led an initiative that is now regarded as an exemplar of an effective coalition of non-government organisations, police, and government departments.
Nicole Endacott, also from our Australian office, interviewed Leigh to understand the key factors that enabled change. This post looks at one of these factors – involving people from across the system. Future blog posts will explore two other factors: taking a systemic view of the problem and utilising an emergent approach.
In late 2001, Leigh Gassner was appointed to lead a number of diverse stakeholders to seek reforms to the domestic and family violence response system in Victoria, Australia. Leigh found that the various stakeholders saw the system very differently. When diverse perspectives aren’t seen and understood, they can reinforce stuck problems. On the other hand, when they are recognised and harnessed, diverse perspectives can be a powerful force for change.
As Assistant Commissioner of Police, Leigh represented a group that many saw as a core part of the problem. Leigh recognized the need to approach his role of driving change with openness and humility, to create a space in which new ways of thinking and acting could emerge.
The problem of diverse perspectives
During our conversation, Leigh provided insight into how diverse perspectives aren’t just a matter of different ways of seeing a situation; they influence how a system operates and, if not understood, can reinforce stuck problems.
“We were meeting once a month for about three hours, trying to work out what a transformed response system [for incidents of domestic and family violence] would look like. It became obvious to me that people were seeing the system differently. And they actually didn’t know the full system; they were making assumptions about other parts of the system that they didn’t necessarily operate in, including around police and courts.
So we decided to have a Police Prosecutor and a Magistrate provide insights into what the police and courts could and couldn’t do. It wasn’t about judgment; it wasn’t about whether they were doing it properly or not, at this point. It was about what they could or couldn’t do.
After a while, I realised some people had become very emotional. They started to realise that, because of assumptions they held, they could have been advising family violence victims wrongly for quite some time.”
Similarly, people in other parts of the system, particularly law enforcement and the courts, needed to understand that family and domestic violence wasn’t “just another domestic” (a private matter between partners). People were being injured and dying. It was a crime and needed to be both perceived and responded to in that manner. Framing family and domestic violence as such became a necessary foundation to developing a more effective response.
The opportunity of diverse perspectives
Leigh also commented, “If people are going to shift systems like this, they actually need to view the system from many angles, not just their normal angle.”. Collectively seeing the system from different angles enabled a deeper, shared understanding of what was going on and, according to Leigh, was pivotal “because people could see that women and children were unsafe.”.
Leigh was quick to point out that seeing other perspectives didn’t mean that things didn’t need to improve:
“It didn’t mean that there still wasn’t room for the police or courts to improve their response. That was very well recognized. At this juncture of the process, it was about just trying to understand the system. And at that point, people then were more likely to drop how they saw it and say, ‘What can we now do?’”
Participants could see that no single person, organization, or sector had the answer; and that they needed to work together to change the system. Driven by a collective desire for women and children to be safe, and with a shared understanding of the system, their diverse perspectives thus became a powerful force for change.
For example, in later observations about the process, non-government participants recalled changes in practice occurring through better partnerships:
“We saw new possibilities. We met at the local police station to develop a joint response to transporting unsafe women and children. Most women enter refuge services at night. Typically, they arrive by taxi and there were times when they were followed. Now we had made arrangements for women to be dropped off at 24 hour police stations, dramatically improving their level of safety.”
An enabling environment for change
I sensed that there was something about Leigh’s role that influenced how this previously disparate group worked together. Through our work at Reos Partners, I have seen the way that Leigh enables diverse perspectives to be heard and supports groups of people in working on their toughest, most stuck problems. And in our domestic and family violence work, it is clear that he has strong relationships and mutual respect with people in the system. A person from a non-government agency said that they “were surprised that an officer in Gassner’s position could pick up people’s needs very quickly and steer the relationship building as well as he did.”.
In contrast, Leigh remembers visiting a women’s and family violence service in the early stages of the project and being confronted by workers from across the sector. Recognising the level of antagonism towards police, Leigh realised that he needed to spend a lot of time listening:
“It was hostile because people had perceptions about police. They felt that, in many instances, police weren’t responding appropriately or effectively to calls for assistance. The consequences of this could be frightening. Even if there were good reasons for some of their concerns… I actually wanted them to open up and feel like they’d been listened to. I had to listen at this stage and not respond.”
I asked Leigh what it required of him, as an individual, to be able to do that:
“It required me to take myself out of it – and ego and attachment to any position – whether the position was an organisational position, or a philosophical position, or an ideological position, or any other type of position. I needed to un-attach myself from that because, otherwise, if I didn’t, I’d be impelled to defend. By doing that, it allowed a different discussion to emerge.
At one point in one meeting, police were being criticised extensively. I got up and I admitted that, ‘Yes, we weren’t doing it properly, and that that’s what we’re here to talk about.’ One of the major protagonists stopped and said, ‘Well, if we’re to be honest, none of us are doing it properly,’ which allowed a totally different discussion to emerge.”
Leigh’s insights from leading this project have relevance for other seemingly intractable social problems. Seeing and understanding diverse perspectives – and understanding why people hold them – is crucial to transforming stuck systems. When dealing with situations where there is conflict and division, creating an environment of trust and openness enables people to have different conversations that lead to building a shared understanding of the problem – and a willingness to explore new thinking and solutions.
 Padula, Marinella, Victoria Police and family violence, Australia and New Zealand School of Government, 26 June, 2009 p 9 (accessed here)