Volume 53   Number 3 Summer 2020

Living with Life: Psychological Empowerment in Buddhism

Written by Daniel Ahearn, Antioch University, Los Angeles

I became friends with Michael meditating in prison. I was visiting the prison bimonthly through a Buddhist organization bringing meditation practice to the incarcerated. It’s a scary environment and people with a sense of inner and hope light shined brightly beyond the circumstances they lived in; no one shines more brightly than Michael. Over the course of our relationship, I realized his story needed to be told. I suggested we work on a documentary to tell his story. It was then that he told me he was going to be released from prison. After 24 years, he was getting released. For the past four months, a documentarian and I have been filming Michael every week. He told us his story and explored the relationship his incarceration brought him to with Buddhist practices. Hearing this story, having sat with him for over a year in incarceration and seeing the man he was working on becoming in the world clearly expressed Zimmerman’s (2000) theory of Psychological Empowerment with its intrapersonal, interactional, and behavioral dimensions.

The Buddhist’s refer to the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as Samsara: a ceaseless journey fraught with suffering. Life, itself, for the Buddhists is an endless death sentence until you recognize this cycle for what it is and begin to train your behavior and mind to see beyond your suffering. It takes rigorous training to work towards detaching from the unsatisfactory nature of life. This is the process that leads to liberation, or Nirvana. Michael discovered suffering early on; his whole life was with struggle and trauma. Family, abuse, death, abandonment: there was trauma, suffering, pain at every turn. He didn’t know this. He just saw it as life. What Michael didn’t know about was how to work towards liberation. He learned the path to liberation when he was serving a life sentence in California State Prison.

Raised in violence, he knew violence as a language of resolution. The cycle ensnared him completely and before his 19th birthday he committed the crime of first-degree murder. On the eve of his 19th birthday, he was walked towards his cell as an LWOP: a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  

Michael has grown up fast: he lost his father at a young age and found himself abandoned to the streets as a young teen without guidance or support. He was angry, enraged, lost. His view of himself and the world propelled him into violence. He felt violent, so he saw violence.    Michael was fueled by an internal rage and a self-hatred projecting back out into the world; he was caught in a terrible seemingly inescapable cycle. He knew on some level he wanted to break free, but he didn’t know what that meant, or how to do it. When he began to experience life in prison without the possibility of being released, Michael started to feel hopeless. He was now a number. He was now a sentence. Dehumanized and lost, he discovered in his hopelessness a sense of What if?  What if there is more to this? What if I could see this differently?

By coincidence, fate, or Karma, he found himself pursuing the religious services in prison, he went to church, he sat in sweat lodge ceremonies, he talked to Imams, and then he stumbled upon Buddhism. Quite quickly he began to understand and learn about the struggles he had early on in his life: death, abandonment, cycle of violence in the community. He began to discover the language of his life through Buddhism, and he began to reorient his view of life, and understand the psychology of his own existence in Samsara. It was his first step in becoming free.

Michael saw how to influence his life by dealing with his environment, his self-perception was reflected by his social system and he saw in the structural dynamics of the violence around him both a mirror and an opportunity. We know from Zimmerman that intrapersonal factors reflect a person's experience of themselves, more specifically it is the view of their own competence, perceived control and self-efficacy (Zimmerman, 2000). The intrapersonal dimension focuses on how people think about their capacity to influence systems through self-efficacy, motivation, and perceived competence (Zimmerman, 2000). Michael learned very quickly that changing the environment could only happen through changing his experience of his environment. He discovered mediation as a tool to deal with his suffering. His suffering was all around him, it was inside him: a blueprint he needed to learn to read in its totality.  Meditation was the activation of this intrapersonal skill that gave him the ability to see clearly.  The more he explored the nature of suffering beyond his circumstance and practiced mediation as a way to watch the arising and passing of emotional experiences, the more it became an interactional engagement of his empowerment both as a resource mobilization and a skill development. It is the interactional aspect of psychological empowerment that involves the person–environment interface which includes analyzing one’s environment to develop a critical understanding of the social and material resources needed to take action and achieve one’s goals (Zimmerman, 2011).  Michael’s interactional experience was using meditation and studying Buddhism to begin to change his experience of LWOP. Another aspect of the interactional dimension that Michael came to is what Zimmerman defined “as an understanding that social connections, support, and collectivity may be necessary to achieve goals” (Zimmerman & Eisman, 2017, p.174).  Previously a loner, lone wolf who distrusted the world, Michael learned through Buddhism that not only was suffering a shared experience but moving through suffering is a shared experience. 

The practice of meditation and the consistent pursuit of his studies in Buddhism brought him closer to the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of his suffering, but it also allowed for development of an agency to do something with the suffering. He had a place to go with it; a practice for it. The skill development of meditation was a skill that transferred across his many life domains: not just an incarcerated person, but a man, a son, a child who needed to grow.   Learning and returning to meditation practice helped his critical awareness about the system he was in, the system he had built. Mediation become an interactional tool of his empowerment. It helped Michael to mobilize his skills, it gave him a sense of autonomy and mobility as more than just a prisoner, just a number. He carried the skills he worked on: insight, compassion, impermanence. He was able to bring these developments into his life and share them; they became him. Through the dimensions of empowerment, he became a free man though he remained incarcerated.

The final aspect of empowerment is the behavioral component: participation in collective action, involvement in voluntary or mutual help organizations (Zimmerman, 2000). It is the behavioral aspect empowerment where Michael began to shine so brightly. Michael stayed committed to his own studies and his own practice, by helping to organize group meditations, distribution of Buddhist literature, and ultimately arranging for two-day retreats for some of the more dedicated practitioners. Michael became known as an organizer for the Buddhist groups that came to the prison. He always arrived at the Meditation hall early, he took pride and enthusiasm in the job of cleaning the temple, and he even went on to make meditation cushions for all those who came to the sit. Michael helped build the Sangha (community) and shared his resources becoming a person of safety and authority for others seeking the truth of suffering (Dharma). Through the intensity of his suffering he found himself desirous of deep meditation practice, and the deep practice led him towards service and the orientation of helping others find refuge in the desire for awakening (Buddha). The three dimensions of psychological empowerment: interactional, interpersonal, and behavioral mirrored the three jewels of Buddhism - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. It was a complete experience, full actualization, and in this complete system of empowerment Michael found himself experiencing feelings of liberation.

The decades of consistent rigor of practice helped create a real change in his view of the world and in his expression of being; he moved like a new man, he spoke like a new man, he organized his world like a new man. All of this was compelling to his incarcerated brothers. He found he was asked about what he was doing, how he was doing it, he found he learned more about his practice by sharing it and teaching it. As his behavior changed, he was capable of navigating the complexities of the prison system with less friction and with more freedom.  The more he was exploring and building a meditation practice, the more he became helpful to his community; a radical positivity became the foundation of his coping skills.  He discovered true empowerment.

After 25 years, Michael was granted parole. He didn’t think he deserved it: he took a life and he felt he didn’t deserve freedom because of this. He accepted his actions and the consequences of his actions (Karma) even as he began to understand his developmental trauma as a child. He still only blames himself for the murder he committed: he owns the crime. This view and acceptance is ironically one of the main reasons he was released. He lives today a new man in a strange world made stranger by the recent pandemic. He still practices mindfulness daily with compassion for all sentient beings. His developed skills of psychological empowerment allowed him to see his world and begin to change it. He is working on expanding that view every day of his new life. When asked about the recent civil unrest built from the murdering of George Floyd, Michael says he sees a potential for change. However, he knows the issues are both entrenched and systemic; the state and federal systems of policing and imprisonment need to change significantly. His experience with incarceration informs the view that there is an interconnection amongst many levels in society, and many have gone unchecked, been unseen. Michael is hopeful, but clear that unless we make real change at every level, we’re bound to stay trapped in this cycle for a long time to come. 


Zimmerman, M. (2000). Empowerment theory: Psychological, organizational, and community levels of analysis. In J. Rappaport & E. Seidman (Eds.), Handbook of community psychology (p. 43-63). New York, NY: Plenum.

Zimmerman, M. & Eisman, A. B. (2017). Empowering interventions: Strategies for addressing health inequities across levels of analysis. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, & M. Shinn (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology®. APA handbook of community psychology: Methods for community research and action for diverse groups and issues (p. 173–191).

From Our Members

Edited by Susan M. Wolfe, Susan Wolfe and Associates

“Walk the Talk:” Bringing Community Psychology to Life in the American Evaluation Association

Written by Michelle Abraczinskas, University of Florida; Brittany Cook, The Wandersman Center; Ijeoma Ezeofor, TCC Group; Jonathan Scaccia, The Wandersman Center, and the CP TIG Leadership Team


The purpose of this article is to share information with SCRA members about the American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) Topical Interest Group (TIG) in Community Psychology (CP), and their annual “Walk the Talk” (WTT) event at the AEA conference. In providing this information, we hope we will attract more CP-evaluators to the TIG and WTT.


AEA’s missionis to improve evaluation practices/methods, increase evaluation use, promote the evaluation profession, and support evaluation’s contribution to theory and effective human action. AEA has 60 TIGs that span a variety of fields and topics, one of them being CP. 

History of CP TIG

The CP TIG was created in 2012 to: 1) introduce CP to an audience that, at the time, was known more for its methodological than values focus; 2) connect evaluation practitioners, who used CP values but were unaware of the connection, to CP; 3) expose evaluation practitioners who did not use CP values in their work, even though their work would benefit, to CP; and 4) create a home for CP within AEA (Sheldon & Wolfe, 2015). The TIG includes CP-evaluator practitioners, psychologists from related, but non-CP disciplines, academics, applied researchers, social scientists, activists, participant-conceptualizers, and agents of social change. 

The vision of the CP TIG is to promote the values of CP in the evaluation field, and to use the methods, practice, theory, and research on evaluation to enhance the field of CP.  Its initial aims were to create training opportunities for CPs about evaluation and vice versa, and to collaborate with similar TIGs to advance shared understanding and collaboration.

History of “Walk the Talk”

Over the past seven years, the CP TIG has organized “Walk the Talk,” a community partnership tour. WTT provides opportunities to learn about the social ecology of the conference locale and apply CP principles to evaluation practice. After a document review and discussion with the founding TIG leadership, we learned WTT was created because CP-evaluators noticed they were in a conference context discussing social change, with cultural events and initiatives happening around them, yet were not learning from the context. They developed WTT to respect, learn from, and give back to communities that host AEA. We have visited neighborhoods and community organizations, learned from communities and each other, and provided host organizations with evaluation support. We highlight the sites that opened their doors to us below.


Themes related to CP values and practice competencies are evident across these sites. Organizations focus on addressing homelessness and economic mobility, criminal justice reform, prevention, environmental justice, and equity, topics important to CP. They take a multi-level, often grassroots approach to social issues. Many promote empowerment of vulnerable groups or use empowerment approaches. CP practice competencies, such as advocacy, organizing, and participatory strategies are employed. We look forward to continuing this tradition of visiting, learning from, and giving back to organizations that embody CP values. Our next WTT was planned for the conference in Portland, Oregon in October 2020, but the conference has since been changed to a virtual format.

2020 TIG Activities

In addition to WTT, the CP TIG is focusing on three initiatives in 2020, with the overarching goal to expand the reach of information about CP evaluation. We will develop a mechanism to increase undergraduate students’ exposure to CP-evaluation as a career path. We are spotlighting CP-evaluators to showcase careers and linkages between CP and evaluation. Finally, we hope to collaborate with SCRA, especially around undergraduate exposure to CP. 

Personal perspective on AEA and WTT

If you have read this far, we have probably piqued your interest. However, you may be thinking, all this sounds great, but why should I join another organization or interest group, choose AEA in addition to other conferences, and/or attend WTT versus other conference programming? It can be overwhelming to consider “one more thing.” I will share the benefits of AEA I experienced as a graduate student and why I look forward to the WTT, in the hopes that it may help you answer some of those questions.

So why join AEA? As a graduate student, I remember attending AEA for the first time and being blown away by the non-academic career opportunities for community psychologists and evaluators. Though faculty had told me they existed, seeing presenters’ non-academic affiliations and the various firms and non-profits at the conference brought the faculty’s words to life. I ultimately chose an academic path, but I am grateful that I was exposed to this early on. I learned that there were great options outside of academia if I chose to go that route and knowing this ultimately gave me mental flexibility in career planning. I encourage graduate students interested in a career as a CP-evaluator and/or practitioner to attend AEA when brainstorming about future career options and again when networking for a job.

As for why you should attend WTT? Personally, I was drawn to WTT right away. I am always inspired by examples of best evaluation practices in “on the ground” community programming from exemplary organizations that “walk the talk.” Attending WTT is always a great reminder that there are many organizations that are “bright spots,” doing good for their participants and the broader community. After attending WTT, I always feel renewed hope and excitement to press forward as a CP-evaluator. As CP-evaluators, we find ways to accurately measure outcomes, which includes obtaining multiple stakeholder perspectives, bringing the perspectives of the people meant to benefit to the forefront, and understanding how the program/organization fits within the broader context. Yes, we seek to understand how people experience programs and how outcomes are achieved. But at our best, we also use evaluation as advocacy to bring to the forefront the needs of those who are most vulnerable, and work towards social justice and multiple forms of equity. Please reach out to the TIG chairs Michelle Abraczinskas at and Jonathan Scaccia at for more information and/or with suggestions. We welcome feedback, especially related to the TIG, activities for the year, new ideas, and WTT.  


Sheldon, J. A., & Wolfe, S. M. (2015). The Community Psychology Evaluation nexus. American Journal of Evaluation36(1), 86-89.

A Community Psychologist in the Making: Why is Love Not Enough?

Written by Lina Allam, The American University in Cairo Egypt


“Why do you like working with communities?” was a question I was once asked in a job interview. I always knew the answer, it is because I grew up wanting to help everyone I meet, support all those in need and be there for the exhausted souls in life. Those were the same reasons for which I spent my college years volunteering in community service in the slums of Dewiqa and later joining the Community Psychology Master’s Program at The American University in Cairo (AUC). Were my motives enough to make it through? No. I thought my passion and intentions were enough to change the world but with community practice and studying, I realized that there is more to be learned to become a community psychologist; like understanding diversities, cultural identities and the dynamics between communities and the organizations intervening. All community psychologists care about the wellbeing of the community, but since emotions are a driver and not a tool, we all have to understand and practice cultural diversity, humility and community engagement to make ourselves competent for our work.

First, we need to know that understanding communities and bridging diversities is a multidimensional thing and an important pillar in all community work. Personally, I used to think that all diversities can be bridged under mottos like “we are all equal” with the intention of promoting equality and social justice. However, I now understand that admitting diversities, confessing discrimination and the inequalities taking place, is part of cultural acceptance and a milestone in change.

Understanding cultural diversity and the difference between being friendly and being friends, was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. By the time I used to volunteer in Dewiqa, I set unprofessional frames for communication with people who live there. I thought bridging was being humble and acting like we are friends to show them my genuine interest in making them happy. Then when they started treating me like one of them, I felt uncomfortable due to their very informal way and I could not deny the fact that they are not really my friends. I believe I was lost in how bridging the difference should be, and I think what I missed here was the community culture. Their relations to each other and rhythms of life were different than mine, and although I wanted to bridge the difference; I could not tolerate being treated like an insider.

Second, cultural humility is an attitude that we all have to develop before dealing with people in other cultures. Understanding community culture is important because it covers the multilayered cultural characteristics and diversity dynamics that we all need to comprehend before working with other communities. An example of a tension that I faced as an outsider and specifically due to the social and financial differences was when I was invited to a very warm dinner at one of the family houses we worked with in Dewiqa. What happens in such gatherings is that they cook a lot of food that they don’t usually cook for themselves, and accordingly I feel shy and don’t want to eat much, to keep some food for them to eat later. Then they notice that I am not eating and start assuring me that they wash their dishes well, ask me why I am not eating and insist that I have to eat from the chicken or the meat. From here I knew that although relationship building adds to cultural sensitivity, yet cultural miscommunication can still take place in the process.

Also, from the articles and case studies I read in university as part of my courses, I realized how cultural humility can be a preventive factor from stigmatizing a whole community. I learned that researchers and community psychologists can make mistakes too, even if initial intentions were to provide help. Thus, we should not think of ourselves as experts who tell the community what to do, belittling their personal experiences or blaming their victims. Usually our specialization gives us confidence in conducting credible assessments; which sometimes leads us to judging others and speaking for them without listening to their stories or considering the social determinants. Another reason for blaming victims is to relieve our conscience and free ourselves from the responsibility that we all carry as part of society. I learned that to avoid that mistake, we always have to do reflexive bias, and assess our tendencies to aside towards our own values, beliefs and priorities.

For example, I used to use my own value system and hierarchy of needs in blaming Egyptian women who go to jail due to failure in paying back money they borrowed to buy appliances and home accessories for their daughters’ marriages. Now, after my reflections, I currently understand the social context and pressure that led those women to take that risk than to be shamed by their community. Also, I can consider the socioeconomic conditions where the woman is the only provider; and the laws that deal with their debt cases and imprisonment by punishing them without solving the root cause.

The third thing we should all acknowledge in working with communities is the importance of community engagement. In my case, I believe that applying the community based participatory approach rather than the "community placed" approach would have been very doable and a channel for bridging diversities in my community work in Dewiqa, as I already was in close contact with different people there.

For example, when conducting events with my colleagues, instead of planning out trips for the kids by ourselves and choosing the activities and lunch, we could have included the kids in the planning phase and asked them where they prefer to go and the food they wish to eat. I remember we once took the kids on a trip to AUC Campus and we brought them McDonald’s for lunch, and one girl said that she didn’t like the food and preferred it if we got oriental pies. Reflecting on this today, I find it classist to assume that what we eat tastes better to everyone and we chose to feed them what we like. This also reminds me of a class discussion I had about "The myth of the We", thinking that we all like McDonald’s.

Having said all of this, I believe my next steps in shaping my character as a community psychologist, are to start with my daily interactions with family, friends, classmates, and work colleagues. Differences are not only between communities, because as individuals, we are all different from each other in a way or another. That’s why, I should start reflecting more on my background and acknowledge the privileges I have, which without me deciding, are taking part of my day to day conversations.  Also, I will be more observant of microaggressions in my behavior and thinking; and continuously work on reflexivity and stating biases. Still, I will regularly remind myself that the development of positive and negative biases is inevitable in human experiences. Add to that, I should give myself time to understand the culture and value system of any community I am working with. I need to let go of the expert role in any of the topics I go over and adapt a more humble sensibility to my knowledge and actions, without forcing my values on anyone. Moreover, I believe collaboration does not have to be an activity that two or more organizations take part of. It can still be applied in our everyday arguments and presentation of points of view. Finally, I will commit to a lifelong self-evaluation and self-critique.

I expect more challenges as long as I meet new people in different communities.  I expect I get to know myself better along the journey, improve myself and before all, help. The more I learn, the more responsibilities I behold. By the end of my MA program, I am positive that I will not only be able to answer why I like working with communities, but why I am ready to work with them. You can love what you do, but you have to learn to do it right, because by now I am sure that love is not enough.

To further discuss the content, feel free to contact me at

Lessons from Migration

Written by Azza Osman, The American University in Cairo, Egypt


I was 7 months old and living in Sudan when my life shifted. My father needed to seek political asylum, so our family moved to Egypt. Because I was so young, I didn’t feel the impact of this move right away, but as I grew up, it was impossible to ignore the challenges of living in a culture different from that of my family. Looking back, I can see how much the process of melding with Egyptian culture, dealing with prejudices and misconceptions, and leading me to my current field of study would shape my passions and interests over the course of more than 20 years. 

During my 24 years of residence in Egypt, my highest priority and most rewarding challenge has been concentrating on my studies while trying to adapt to Egyptian culture.Over time, these two priorities have come together. What I’ve experienced and noticed about how community and belonging affect us has influenced my desire for change in Sudan, Egypt, and Africa. 

Being an African migrant and a woman living in Egypt has not always been easy; I face a lot of society’s prejudices, misconceptions, and discrimination. My dark skin, for example, invites a lot of judgment. This has made me a more resilient person and has pushed me to reach for more, not just in my own life, but for the lives of vulnerable communities everywhere.

I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and am currently pursuing my master’s in community psychology, because I want to use my academic knowledge and personal experience to support migrant and refugee communities in having equal access to opportunities and resources, to feel empowered, and to reach for more.

The Community Psychology program has been everything I hoped it would be. The facilities and faculty mentors available in the Department of Psychology are unparalleled in Egypt. I get the opportunity to apply my studies through practical experiences and internships parallel to my courses –– all leading to a hands-on experience that is efficient in developing my skills and knowledge. My hope is that studying Community Psychology will equip me to provide the best possible services upon my return to Sudan. The first step to that has already been happening through the opportunity my thesis advisor encouraged me to take, which was to do my thesis research about my country Sudan. My research is focused on the impact of community-based learning on students in Sudan, and it allowed me to learn more about my country, and more importantly to provide more information about the circumstances there through this research. 

I am a firm believer in social responsibility. One of my ultimate dreams is to start a community-based organization in Sudan that would support and empower vulnerable groups with no regard to race, color, or ethnicity. I want to offer a safe space for members of a community to get together and receive support, skills and education, while sharing their own gifts, talents and knowledge, to learn that they are not just recipients, but that they have so much to offer as well. 

When I look back at the ways being a migrant have shaped me –– offering lessons in patience, empathy, resilience, and determination –– I am proud that I’ve navigated my education to reflect this experience. I am a culmination of communities: the larger community of two countries, that of my parents’ culture and surroundings, and the life I’ve discovered and created for myself here in Egypt. This has made me a strong, open-minded, tolerant and, above all, grateful person. I truly believe that I have been lucky to live and experience all that and to appreciate things like being a part of a connected, loving family. These rich experiences led me to where I am today and will continue to guide me to a place where I can give back.

Azza Osman is pursuing a Master of Arts in community psychology at the American University in Cairo AUC.

Grassroots Efforts to Respond to Domestic Violence in India

Written by Suvarna Menon, Northern Illinois University

Gender-based violence, in its various forms, has been a pervasive social issue in India. Of the reported cases of violence, domestic violence, accounts for over half of the cases. As a graduate researcher, my interest in understanding grassroots efforts to respond to domestic violence in India and support survivors of violence led me to a non-governmental organization in New Delhi, India. This agency declared its aim as creating a violence-free and gender-just society through social action and advocacy. My initial interactions with staff from the agency kindled my interest in their work, which included grassroots programming with marginalized and impoverished communities, capacity building with a focus on creating community leaders, and crisis intervention and advocacy with survivors. My desire to learn more about the agency’s work and identify potential markers for successful community-based interventions for domestic violence, led me to work on building a collaborative relationship with the agency. My summer and winter breaks from graduate school soon transitioned into visits to India where I volunteered at the agency and was struck by the warmth of staff towards each other, their passion for gender-based issues, and their openness towards newcomers, interns, and temporary volunteers. Over the course of 4 years, my relationship with the agency led to my dissertation project, envisioned in collaboration with staff from the organization.

Current Research

My dissertation sought to examine the role of a women’s organization in empowering survivors of domestic violence and facilitating institutional and community change in the response to domestic violence in India. My data drew on a) semi-structured interviews with staff members (n = 12), survivors (n = 22), and community members involved with the agency (n = 37); b) observational data where I functioned as a participant-observer for 2 months at the agency, spending an average of 7-8 hours, 5 days a week, in the setting; and c) archival data, which included case files (n=100), annual reports (n=14, year 2004-2017), newsletters (n=21, year 2012-2017), and meeting notes for inter-agency (n=15) and community meetings (n=15) conducted by the agency. 

The organization runs domestic violence centers for families experiencing violence. Through these centers, providers offer counseling services, mediation services with family members and/or the perpetrator(s), and advocacy services including assistance with obtaining community resources, and providing vocational skills training to survivors. The agency’s centers are physically located in the same local community. This is illustrated in the following observation notes from my first visit to one of the centers and describes the community that the agency is engaged with,

After getting out from the subway, I took a rickshaw to the center and we were driving through extremely narrow lanes. There were no roads, the “roads” were ruined with the rains, and were full of ditches, puddles and bumps. It was like riding on a roller-coaster without a seatbelt. I watched as the rickshaw driver navigated through narrow lanes, avoiding bumping into water coolers, people sitting outside their houses, cars, cycles, and tractors. The houses were built so close to each other that the “roads” often went in between rows of houses facing in each other, such that it felt like we were driving through people’s front “yards”. The center had two rooms and a kitchen and was in the center of the village. The electricity kept going off constantly and the counselor and co-counselor were using plastic fans to keep themselves cool. The counselor reported that this was a slum area a few years back, and conditions were even worse than they were currently. She said, “You must have seen while coming, there are no roads also to get here – it used to be worse”. She reported that it used to be less developed and that the village where the center is located is marked with obvious disparity in social status and backgrounds. The co-counselor reaffirmed this by saying “Half of the village is developed and half is poor. So half of the people have big kothis [mansions], but then there are migrant workers that come here and live in chawls.” The majority of people here, according to the counselor, work in factories. The village is surrounded by plastic factories, where women also form a major part of the labor force. The counselor reported that women may be illiterate, but they still work in the factories. In many families, the women reportedly are the only earning members. The men use country liquor leading to many problems with alcohol and domestic violence. Many women travel further to neighboring towns to work as house-help to make ends meet.

Results from the study showed that the agency’s adoption of a survivor-centered approach; an emphasis on building collaborative, trusting relationships with staff; and a focus on meeting women where they are at were associated with empowering outcomes. Further, the agency emphasized fostering independence of survivors. A wide range of empowerment related outcomes were reported by survivors and staff members, which varied depending on the goals that women approached the agency with. Consistent with their initial goals, many women reported continuing their relationship with their partner and experiencing an improved and positive home environment following their engagement with the agency (as a result of mediation efforts by counselors from the agency). Others reported successfully separating from their abusive husbands or in-laws and reported receiving regular spousal support to support their children or themselves (following advocacy and help with access to legal resources through the agency). Many women had sought and were successfully pursuing employment opportunities, and reported being financially independent regardless of whether they were with their partners. For example, one survivor stated, “I have my own money now. He can’t keep my kids hungry. In my house, I can carry my own expenses. I get courage from that”. Another reported, “It’s been one year since my case closed, and now I am making my own money, and raising my kids by myself”. In all interviews, women reported seeing positive changes in themselves, referring to these changes by varied terms like confidence, courage and determination. One survivor described her new-found courage as follows:

“I see courage in myself– that there is someone for me, I have some rights, no one can say anything to me, no one can do anything to me. I feel like I have my neighborhood – these are all my sisters – they are there – they will care about me, will look after me – nothing can happen to me. I feel like I am not alone”.

Results from this study also highlighted the centrality of the relationship between the survivor and staff member, which has been supported in literature in the U.S. context (e.g. Bell & Goodman, 2001). This kind of relationship may be especially important for domestic violence survivors who experience eroded social support networks over the course of their victimization (Sullivan, Basta, et al., 1992; Trotter & Allen, 2009), and is likely to provide an important route to healing from interpersonal trauma. 

In addition to working with survivors on an individual basis, the organization facilitates local community meetings and women’s support groups aimed at generating awareness about women’s legal rights. Through their engagement with the agency, women and their partners (along with other community members) have the opportunity to become part of local leadership and action groups. Members of these groups conduct regular meetings to discuss community problems and address the problem of gender-based violence in their community through awareness raising exercises and workshops. Our results suggested that the agency’s community engagement efforts provide opportunities for community participation and leadership and increase individual members’ knowledge, skills, and resources. This process of fostering critical consciousness among community members appears to be key in facilitating their empowerment to be agents of social change in the response to domestic violence. 

Community-based participants and survivors were able to reflect on different ways in which the agency had facilitated their personal growth and development. The agency’s community actions and the processes at the community level appear to facilitate a sense of community trust in the agency and promote social cohesion among community members. The agency’s emphasis on building capacity within communities, together with opportunities for participation and leadership, promote the community’s capacity for informal social control and intervention. For example, one community member shared that when the crisis center is closed, “I tell them about what they can do and try and help. So, whoever comes, I listen to them, write down their complaint, take their phone number, and have them talk to madam [counselor]”. Another youth member shared, “I try to talk to my friends about their role if they see violence. So if there was violence happening in your home or your neighbor’s home, you should make noise. Go and make noise, so that they don’t concentrate on them [the women]. Like ask for something, an excuse, so that the violence is lessened a bit, and they know you saw or heard them.” Thus, rather than institutionalizing the response to domestic violence, which comes with its own barriers, the agency’s work facilitates informal community-based interventions.

Reflections on the work

It was important for me to take on a reflexive role as a researcher while conducting this study, and to engage with my own philosophical assumptions, values and personal histories. I was born and raised in India, and spent 10 years living in New Delhi, before moving to the United States for my graduate studies. Thus, it was important for me as a researcher to locate myself in the research and be reflexive about how my positionality plays a role in my work. My interest in studying violence against women stems largely from my own experiences of growing up in India and witnessing violence of varying degrees around me. As an Indian woman, I am aware of and have experienced concerns of safety, hesitation to use public transport and lack of agency in specific spaces and settings. These experiences have made me invested in studying the problem and exposing its complex, multilayered dimensions. 

In terms of my positionality, it was important that I was aware of the multiple identities that I could take on in the field - for example, that of a woman, an Indian, a researcher and a student now living in the United States. As a woman, it may be easier for me to identify with the struggles of my female participants, and, likewise, they may find it easier to trust me, given my identity. This is especially true for a country like India where many women are socialized into being subservient to men and may not speak out as openly about issues like violence if they were being interviewed by a male interviewer. A related struggle is how my identities may make me an insider or outsider. For example, in some cases, my identity as an Indian woman may have helped facilitate trust and rapport building with participants. However, my position as an “insider” also forced me to be cautious and examine my own views and experiences to be conscious of how these may affect the research I engaged in. It was important that I be sensitive to diversity and individual differences and not assume that participants will have a shared cultural understanding with me.


While much of the agency’s work aligned with best practices demonstrated in the United States, the agency’s approach also retains some key distinctions through its adoption of cultural values in order to be relevant and sustainable in the Indian context. Overall, this agency’s work highlights a model of social change in the response to domestic violence that targets individual and community level change in the hope for broader social change by emphasizing citizen participation, community mobilization and capacity for informal social control. 

For additional information about this project, please feel free to contact Suvarna Menon at