As our work continues in creating a social lab to find ways to reduce levels of violence against women in South Africa, I recently attended a panel discussion organised by Soul City and the Mail & Guardian.
It was an evening event in Johannesburg, with five panelists sharing their perspectives on this crisis, its implications, and what could be done. I sat as an observer, listener and what felt like an imposter. As I listened to the work and stories panelists recounted, I realised that even though I’m fortunate enough that my daily lived experience is not one of violence, I still felt deeply affected. While panelists were sharing depressing stories of South Africa’s different violent realities, I found myself distracted and disconnecting as a response to my overwhelming sense of inadequacy. Many of the speakers acknowledged the personal cost that was involved in staying “in battle” and living in fear of violence.
What pulled my attention back half-way through the presentations was a recognition by some that being at the coal-face of this work was not sustainable. The question asked by one of the panelists ‘Could we come at this issue from a different place?’ drew me back in the conversation. I’ve since reflected on what happened in that moment to shift my attention.
In exploring ways to come at this issue from a different place, one of the younger panelists, who was recently part of a silent protest at the announcement of the local municipal elections, spoke about the importance of collective movements of resistance. That going at this fight alone or in pockets of resistance was futile.
I’ve written a lot recently about working with groups that are either disillusioned, angry or frustrated, and not as much about what enables those working on intractable social ills, like inequality or violence, to come at the issue from a different place. In my experience, the “different place” is in part about sharing different perspectives of perceiving the issue and building relationships to act collectively. But in this case, the different perspectives all pointed to the same thing – that violence against women is still prevalent across South African society.
A participant and advisor working with us on this project spoke about the importance of hope for her in this work. The process of a social lab is about firstly constituting a group of people who work across differences but have a shared issue to address. The second step is to share perspectives and experiences, and allow for a bigger ‘system view’ of the issue to emerge. From that picture, the group explores and tests where might there be different approaches to the problem. This process takes months to get to this point. And I think it is at that point where we cannot underestimate hope.
Hope isn’t a fixed idea of what should happen, based on past experience. Hope is a vague but strong pull to believe that something could be different. As we start to see some clues for where there are opportunities that we might not have seen before, it’s precisely in that hazy view that we can come at this work from a different place. And one that allows for new alliances across traditionally very different perspectives. All these many movements are wrapped up in hope. In this project, my colleagues and I have been surrounded by many women who have been personally affected by violence. And in conversations with some of them, they have in part transcended their experience. It never goes away, but it can become agency for a different future.
The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.
This cannot be blind hope. By staying in the difficult conversations, we get to the point of hearing both the specific depressing and overwhelming realities, but also to find something that connects us in our vague attraction to a different future. Could it be the combination of the rich picture of the current reality and the pull of hope of the future that enables innovation, while keeping us resilient?