Minister of Justice visits Haven: Reflections on the Shape of Power

Haven Society gets most of its funding from the Ministry of Justice, and the minister, herself, came to visit us today. It was a gathering of representatives from many local agencies who support women and families suffering abuse. There were informal conversations. There were personal introductions. (Even I was introduced to Herself.) There were formal thanks to the minister for her continued financial support. And of course, there were photos. Lots of photos.

All good and laudable things…but.

I know I’m looking at this morning’s event through a different lens than others are. I am, after all, not an employee. I am a volunteer. I recognize the importance of honoring support from the Ministry. That is important. I recognize, too, the usefulness of occasionally bringing together people who support the women we serve in a social setting. All that is good, very good, (even if the coffee was not.) But I think I need to say I was disappointed the minister appeared to have come here primarily to be told what a wonderful job she and her people are doing. I found myself angry at the missed opportunity she had to be curious. When we were introduced, her sole comment was, “The world turns on volunteers.” (Yes, more and more. I suppose it does. I could have said more than a little about reduced funding and reduced hours, about untrained volunteers having to step in for highly qualified professionals, but that would have been oh, so unwelcome.) Even the queen and Prince Philip ask questions on their royal visits: quite well informed ones, so I have read. The minister, it appears, does not. “The world turns on volunteers,” she said. Then, as if that were more than enough, she turned away.

I wasn’t looking for the stroke. Had I the quickness of wit to invite a question; had I said something like, “Minister, you spend so much time answering questions–in the legislature, in front of reporters, do you ever get a chance to ask questions yourself? I wonder if you have any questions you might like to ask the front line workers here. What might they be?” I would have loved her to ask, “How many women didn’t you get to this morning because the agency was shut down for this event? I would have loved a question about how many counseling appointments didn’t happen; how many were cancelled or delayed? How many women, how many children, were there on the wait lists, and were any of them urgent? How many women were waiting for a call? How many women did I not get to today?” If she had been interested and well informed, she might have asked, “How does an agency like this attract such massively credentialed workers (most of whom hold Masters degrees in counseling, psychology, social work, or criminology) when your budget only allows you to pay them twenty to twenty-five dollars an hour? Many of them have worked here for ten years and more. What keeps them here, when they could earn five times as much in private practice? Service? Some kind of political act?” Given the argument we often hear for paying six figure salaries to politicians, (especially cabinet ministers)…“We have to pay enough to attract the best”…someone bolder, not to say cheekier than I, might have turned the question back at her and wondered aloud if perhaps we might ask the same of our politicians. What an interesting conversation that would have been!

Had she asked, I would have been happy to say that this is a place where I get to do important work that affects real lives. I would have been happy to acknowledge the support the Ministry offers us, but I would have been even happier to tell her that on average we have about 250 open files in CVS (Community Victim Services, the program I work with), and that it can take a week or more to return a suffering woman’s call, and another three or four weeks’ wait for an appointment. I would have been happy to tell her that we have a wait list several months long for the children’s program, and a similar wait list for  Women’s Counseling. I would have been happy to remind her that workers’ hours have recently been cut and that therapeutic counseling is work untrained volunteers simply cannot do. But she didn’t ask: not me, and as far as I am aware, not anyone. It seemed as if we had set our clients aside for an entire morning to celebrate a woman who simply didn’t care.

Perhaps I am looking at this through an imperfect lens. (I am sure I am.) Perhaps I sell the minister short. Perhaps I shouldn’t have reacted in the way I did, but I find myself (just a little) angry…well, disappointed more than angry, I suppose. I find myself wondering, is this what the asymmetry of power looks like? Is this how it works? Is this how it works on you? She had the opportunity to learn something today. She missed it. There were voices far more qualified than my own who could have been heard if only she had asked. She didn’t. She smiled. She said her piece. Then she turned away. She didn’t even try.

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~ by karenmcl on June 14, 2015.

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