From Research to Action: Working with WomanACT to Address Financial Abuse

Posted on Friday, February 21st, 2020

Written by Calla McLachlan

Knowledge mobilization – the process of sharing knowledge and information to create intellectual, social, and economic benefits – is key to community-engaged research. It ensures that the insights that arise from community-engaged scholarship jump off of the pages of research reports and become practically beneficial to communities. Through a growing partnership between CESI, the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT) and psychology professor Dr. Paula Barata, University of Guelph students have recently had the chance to engage in the full process of research impact, from knowledge creation to implementation. Over the past two years, CESI’s Community Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL) program has brokered and supported various projects focused on financial abuse as a form of intimate partner violence, taking our collaboration with WomanACT beyond our more typical engaged research activities to experiment with broad knowledge mobilization and implementation.

Understanding Financial Abuse

Based in Toronto, WomanACT is a charitable organization that aims to eradicate violence against women through coordination, research, and policy. When the organization received funding to investigate financial abuse as a form of intimate partner violence, it sought to collaborate with Dr. Barata due to her expertise in research on violence against women. Melissa Tanti, CESI’s CETL Coordinator, was brought in to help maximize opportunities for student and community engagement.

In the first phase of the project in Fall 2018, Master’s of Applied Social Psychology student Sonia Zawitkowski completed an independent studies project with WomanACT. Next, in Spring 2019, she and fellow psychology students Brianna Wilson and Emma Curie worked with Lieran Docherty, Program Manager at WomanACT, to research financial abuse and prepare the report Hidden In the Everyday: Financial Abuse as a Form of Intimate Partner Violence in the Toronto Area. As part of their process, they collected qualitative and quantitative data on financial abuse from survivors and service providers at a women’s shelter in Toronto. Interviewing community members deepened Sonia’s understanding of community-engaged research; she learned that it involves extensive collaboration with a community that “shapes the entire project in an important way” and goes far beyond gathering information from research participants. The research process also expanded her understanding of financial abuse. She reflected:

The level of complexity I gleaned from candid conversations with participants about financial abuse […] far surpassed the understanding I gained from simply reading published academic manuscripts.

- Sonia Zawitkowski, Master’s of Applied Social Psychology Student

Brianna echoed the sentiment that conducting community-engaged research involves a learning process. For example, she realized that she needed to “step out of my academic bubble and take on the point of view of the community partner” to truly understand the feedback she received on an initial analysis of the results of the research.

Mobilizing the Research: The Psychological Interventions Course

To increase the impact of this project and help mobilize the knowledge uncovered by Hidden In The Everyday, all project partners worked together to assign financial abuse as a case study in Dr. Barata’s Master’s of Applied Social Psychology course “Psychological Interventions.” In this class, students learn how to translate theory into practical interventions. Dr. Barata noted that this can be challenging, as students must learn how to apply a flexible, community-oriented lens to structured academic theories. Both project partners noted that such learning benefits students in a variety of ways: they gain skills that are transferable to future careers, participate in coursework that is about more than just a grade, and acquire hands-on experience in research and implementation related to their field of study. From a professor’s perspective, Dr. Barata reflected that it was easier than she expected to incorporate community-engaged research into her class.

For their intervention, Joshua Davis, Laura Frielingsdorf, and Vivian Nelson proposed a poster campaign in locations that women frequent on their own, such as bathroom stalls. The posters would generate awareness about financial abuse and increase women’s sense of control over accessing resources by directing them to the WomanACT website. Danah Elsayed, Kieran Waitschies, and Jesse Windsor also included posters as part of their intervention, which proposed a culturally integrative process model to help immigrant and refugee Muslim women recognize financial abuse and access support. As a first step, this model proposed connecting WomanACT with Muslim community leaders to develop community-appropriate strategies for addressing financial abuse. If approved by community leaders, posters would then be placed in strategic locations in mosques, directing women to an anonymous online survey where they could determine if they were experiencing financial abuse and access information and resources.

While the Psychological Interventions course supported students in designing these interventions, their implementation remains a project for the future. WomanACT ensured that the interventions were informed by the realities of a small non-profit organization (such as funding and time constraints) by watching students’ presentations, providing feedback, and pointing them to additional resources. CESI CETL Coordinator Melissa Tanti noted that one future project could involve collaboration between students and WomanACT to apply for funding to implement the proposed interventions.

Hidden in the Everyday: Impact on a National and International Scale

Since its release, Hidden in the Everyday has increased awareness about financial abuse across Canada and beyond. The research was featured in news outlets from Moncton to Vancouver, and led to the review of financial abuse policy; Credit Canada announced that it will change how it assesses credit for women who have been the victim of financial abuse. Most recently, Sonia and Brianna shared their experience leading this community-engaged project in a video that won first place at an international knowledge mobilization competition. Through filmed interviews, the video allowed students, community partners, and some of the research participants to tell their own story and remain engaged in the project beyond the data collection stage.

It is quite rare that academic researchers get to spread their findings in a format other than written and I enjoyed the creative process while making the [knowledge mobilization] video.

- Brianna Wilson, Master's of Applied Social Psychology Student

WomanACT: A Community Partner’s Perspective on the Partnership

Part of CESI’s mandate is to establish relationships that are mutually beneficial for students, community partners, and community members. For Lieran, the benefits of CESI’s engaged research partnership for WomanACT are clear. She notes that contributing to the financial abuse report gave service providers an opportunity to engage in systems design and research activities that they usually do not have time for as front-line workers. Similarly, survivors of financial abuse welcomed being able to voice their experiences and provide feedback on the conclusions of the report. In the Psychological Interventions course, the participation of WomanACT enriched students’ understandings of community and agency needs, while students supported the organization by offering fresh perspectives on financial abuse, theoretical knowledge, and their time and capacity. Lieran also reflected on the unique benefits CESI added by coordinating the research team. She noted that partnering with the CETL program helped transform what could have been a short-term project into a rich and ongoing partnership by constantly identifying new opportunities to enhance the impact of the initial financial abuse research.

What’s Next?

There is strong momentum to continue to mobilize knowledge about financial abuse. For Dr. Barata, Sonia Zawitkowski, and Brianna Wilson, one next step is to write an academic manuscript of the financial abuse report to submit to journals. CESI could also work with WomanACT and students to implement the interventions proposed in the Psychological Interventions course. Given these opportunities, and the knowledge on financial abuse that has been mobilized already, it is clear that CESI’s partnership with WomanACT exemplifies its mandate: to meet community-identified research goals by bringing together community and campus skills.

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