17 February 2023

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Sustainable and Nurturing Education Programs

By Sharon Stewart, Catherine House Education & Employment Pathways Facilitator

This article was prepared for Parity, a national homelessness publication by the Council to Homeless Persons.

Sharon Stewart

Rebuilding a future from homelessness is one of the greatest challenges. It takes courage for a woman to face and embrace the fears this imbues, and to say yes to the possibility that things can be different. The Catherine House model gives women hope; the opportunity to find their confidence again, to build their self- esteem, self- belief, and dream of a big, bright future. It does this using a holistic model combining individualised Case Worker support with a group based, trauma informed Education Pathways Program.  

Both trauma informed and feminist practice are the two key elements in the success of the Education Program. Trauma informed practice involves understanding at the core, the woman faces significant issues in her life due to traumatic events.  It is not necessary to hear each woman’s individual trauma story to use trauma informed practice. It is enough to ‘know’.  Trauma informed practice in action means the teacher must be mindful of those struggles and be respectful of the potential challenges and barriers in every interaction. It is critical for the teacher to be fully present and consciously aware of these aspects when working in this environment. It is essential to recognise that homelessness and the factors leading to that, does not define the woman’s capacity, ability or potential to learn or change her life.

Creating a safe and trusted learning environment where the woman can build trust in both herself and others is integral to her success. At this point in her journey, without trust it may be too great a risk to speak up or speak out and express her thoughts, views, and opinions. Without trust she risks not being believed or being ridiculed. In the group we build trust several ways, one of those ways is by offering an opportunity to make a genuine choice. Choice to speak or be silent, to participate or not, to say yes or no, for example.

Other elements of trauma informed practice incorporated into the learning environment such as collaboration, empowerment, and choice are also part of feminist practice. Feminist practice is the other key ingredient to the success of these programs. Feminist practice questions and challenges power dynamics and structures, choice, and control.

In this Education setting, the conventional classroom power structure, power dynamic is actively dismantled. The teacher ‘guides’ the way in collaboration with the learners and can be guided by the learners.  She responds to their needs, listens carefully to their words, and acknowledges their contribution and that becomes a shared offering to the group. It provides an opportunity for the woman to learn to and experience being in charge, being a leader of her own life. Right and wrong in the traditional sense does not exist in this learning environment. Women do the best they can, and they are not penalised for trying or making “mistakes”.

This type of supportive, structured learning environment does not judge her. It holds the space for her to be in, to become the woman she wants to be. She can choose to go at her own pace and make decisions about what she will or will not participate in. In this space, where a woman has the right to choose, she usually cultivates the courage to try, to be brave and to have a go. From there she grows.

As with this whole teaching method, each woman is entitled to say “no” to participate in any aspect of the activities. This builds trust and creates safety and is a significant component of trauma informed practice. Women are given opportunities to learn about and practice setting boundaries to engender a sense of empowerment and a renewed belief in themselves and their rights.

Feminist practice recognises gender inequality as a barrier and in this learning environment we work on ways together to resolve or overcome this. We validate these inequalities as real experiences, not imagined. Through group discussions, individual sharing and new realisations, women come to an understanding, and no longer feel isolated in their experiences. Many of the women who come into this learning environment have experienced oppression from systems, institutions, hierarchies, or relationships. Their rights, choices, and personal control of their circumstances have been either eroded or taken away completely. This Education program provides structured opportunities for women to take control of the learning environment, their experiences, and ultimately their lives. With this support and reflection, possibilities and opportunities become visible and emerge, and women begin to make choices for themselves and their future.

The feminist practice structure of these groups provides an opportunity for the women to learn through well-thought-out activities, how to lead for herself, how to be in a leadership role, speak out and advocate for others.

Both trauma informed and feminist practice ensures the women are, and feel safe and are empowered to be themselves, to use their own voices, voice their thoughts and opinions, make choices, give consent, say “no” as needed, have control of their life, are valued, and validated and not put in a position where someone asserts “power over” them.

It is an interactive and experiential learning environment where the woman can make decisions about her learning. The learning environment is supportive and encouraging. Different teaching methods are used in response to client’s preferred learning style and are flexible as their learning needs change. Other supports are put in place to make provision for the unique barriers that women can experience when attempting to learn, for example: having the confidence to let you know they don’t understand a concept, or not being able to do ‘homework’ and not being penalised.

Women are “invited” to participate in a way where they have choice and control of their decisions. They choose who they work with and what they work on. They decide. They might be slightly out of their comfort zone in this regard, but they always participate, and the benefits are obvious at the end of the course.

A common theme that emerges from group to group is the connection and comradery that the women develop between each other. They form a strong, and supportive bond. They encourage and celebrate each other’s achievements. They speak up and out in a way that they never have before. They are proud of themselves and each other and celebrate that.  As always clients say it best. I invited a participant of the most recent ‘Live Your Best Life & Plan for Your Future’ course, to share her final speech. Her words bring to life the magic – the transformation that happens to women, when they allow themselves to surrender to a new experience and the love and support of the other learners that carry and hold each other to the end. All of the learners shared equally profound accounts of what had changed in them as they looked towards a much more positive future for themselves.

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