Review in Labour/LeTravail

Glass Houses
Saving Feminist Anti-Violence Agencies from Self-Destruction

By Rebekkah Adams  

Rebekkah Adam’s critique of governance and internal conflict in anti-violence agencies is based on twenty years of experience as a front-line worker and manager. Her central argument is that grassroots feminist organizations have been forced to abandon egalitarian and non-hierarchical forms of governance because government funding made them accountable to the state rather than to the women’s movement and the women and children who are trying to leave abusive relationships. Consequently, board members and managers with more training in business administration than in anti-violence work now run shelters and rape crisis centres, and they have abandoned the feminist principles of the grass-roots movement to end violence against women. The book addresses important issues about conflict in anti-violence agencies, but too often Adams makes sweeping generalizations about board members, managers, and front-line workers that ultimately undermine the usefulness of the solutions she offers.

Adams is interested in healthy workplaces, and believes that this is especially important for anti-violence agencies because the nature of the work makes burn-out more prevalent in this career than in any other. The book addresses three aspects of organizationsl health: structure, operation, and administration. Chapter one is about organizationsl structure, and is critical of board members and executive directors who are not feminist, and who have introduced business management techniques to manage anti-violence services. Adams suggests that because there are not enough women in power, there are no alternatives to patriarchal models that would enable feminist groups to maintain consensus-based models of governance, which she believes are necessary to promote egalitarian relationships among managers, staff, and clients. The second chapter addresses organizational operation, and criticizes the practice of hiring managers who have not worked in the agency instead of promoting workers from within the organization. Adams recommends that anti-violence services need to develop succession plans that train frontline workers to move into management positions. Thus, women will be able to develop a career within one organization and anti-violence agencies will not lose women with valuable experience to more lucrative employment. Chapter three discusses organizaitonal administration and makes recommentations for the creation of family-friendly workplaces. These include a pleasant physical environment, emotional care for employees, and methods of communication that do not reproduce unequal power relationships. The final chapter presents solutions to the problems within shelters that range from the organization’s obligations to provide for the basic health needs of the employees to the importance of building a feminist community that will support anti-violence agencies. Each of these chapters states that if anti-violence agencies are openly feminist, then they will be able to solve dysfunction within the organization. Indeed, the underlying assumption of the book is that anti-violence agencies should be at the cutting edge of the development of woman-friendly models of organizational health, and that this can only happen is they re-introduce feminist principles.

The intended audience for the book is front-line workers, managers, and boards of transition houses and rape-crisis centres. Adams’s goal is to open up a dialogue about the organizational health of anti-violence agences. Yet each chapter pits boards and managers against front-line workers in a manner that is more likely to prevent than to encourage debate. Board members and managers are uniformly described as authoritarian, anti-feminist, and uninformed about violence against women. Adams does admonish frontline workers who are not feminist, and it seems that these workers are those who have been hired recently. Veteran employees, are described as the “soul-centres” (42) of the organizations. These “elders of the VAW sector,” (87) she argues, are uniquely qualified to lead anti-violence agencies out of internal conflicts because most of them came to this work because of their personal experience with violence. These broad generalizations about the motivations of board members, managers, and front-line workers over-simplify complex relationships among individuals and the backgrounds of those who work at all levels of these services.

Adams does not explain her methodology. Her assessments of anti-violence agencies are based on her own observations, as well as informal interviews with her colleagues. While the insights of front-line workers are valuable, it is not clear how representative they are. The interviews appear to be focused on southern Ontario, where Adams has worked. Thus, she does not provide sufficient analysis of the local contexts that shape women’s activism. There is no evidence that Adams sought out advice from workers and managers who did not agree with her evaluation of these services.

Adams acknowledges that the current political climate threatens the survival of anti-violence agencies, but she does not analyse the systemic reasons for the underfunding of shelters and the reluctance to integrate feminist analysis into managment and government policy on violence against women. Without a strong theorization of the relationship between community services and the state, the analysis is riddled with contradictions. She chastizes governments for cutting funding to grassroots groups, but at the same time contends that the anti-violence movement has become depoliticized because it is dependent on this “blood money.” (56) She argues that the low wages that front-line workers earn are evidence of the devaluation of women’s work, but also believes that the transition “from volunteer, socially conscious women to paid professional” (18) now prevents workers from taking political action. Adams identifies problems that front-line anti-violence workers face, but she rejects unions as an effective way to organize workers to demand better workplaces because they are inherently patriarchal and hierarchical institutions. Even though her focus is on organizational health, the weak theorization of the influence of governments on grassroots services results in analysis that seems to blame boards and managers for the prearious situation of anti-violence agencies.

Glass Houses is a passionate argument about the need to maintain feminist analysis in the anti-violence front-line services, and the book offers insights into work conditions in some agencies. Yet Adams’s argument that agencies need to go back to the roots of the violence against women movment for solutions suggests that there were no confilcts within feminist services when they were poorly-funded grassroots organizations. This is a romantic depiction of the history of anti-violence services, and it occludes the lessons that can be learned from the very difficult compromises, that shelter organizers made to ensure that the doors of services stayed open.-Nancy Janovicek, University of Calgary, Labour/LeTravail 62.

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