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Ways of Knowing and Ways of Listening: Lessons from St. Croix Technical Assistance

Last week, I had the privilege to spend time on the island of St. Croix working with the amazing SART that has begun doing the hard work of changing the realities for victim/survivors. (Major shout out and love to the fabulous VIDVSAC staff!) While I learned an incredible number of lessons and conquered my fear of islands and the ocean, one of the lessons that came through most strongly from my time there was on the ways we know and the ways we must listen.

What does that mean? As always, my dear SART friends, good question. Allow me to explain.

We here at SVJI spent months preparing for the trip by having numerous calls with Khnuma, the wildly brilliant executive director of DVSAC, by speaking with another TA provider (the talented Ms. Tracy Wright!) who has supported the U.S. Virgin Islands in their work for quite some time, and by speaking with members of the SART. We also prepared by doing a lot of research and reading about the islands, of which we knew only a little. As I embarked upon the trip, I felt like I knew SO MUCH and was really quite ready. I felt like our ways of knowing information were solid. I would only have a little more to learn while on the ground before I was ready to provide good, solid technical assistance. Lesson one:

There is a vast ocean between what we believe we know and lived experiences.

From the very moment we landed on St. Croix (a colleague came with because SART work is inherently collaborative, and we must model collaboration in our efforts), we found out that we had to drive on the left side of the road and that our phones had no service on the island. We were not prepared and all our research did not reveal these small, but, important things. These were only the first of many realizations that our ways of knowing were incomplete until we were already living the experience.

This lesson is true of SART work. We can only know to a degree until we are in the experience. For example, as members of a SART, we may think we know what another person’s job entails, but we don’t really know unless we’ve experienced it. This brings me to the second part of my humbling lessons:

We must find many ways of deeply listening to those with lived experience.

It was not enough to listen to the words people spoke while on phone calls. It was not enough to ask questions and receive answers. We are severely limited by what we can imagine to ask. Through observing body language, listening to people speak to one another about their days, listening to information from all of my senses, and accepting the extremes limits of my ways of knowing what SART work on the Virgin Islands might be like, I began to better understand the things I could not imagine to even ask. The more I valued the expertise of those who lived and worked on the islands, the more we were able to share openly with one another. The SARTners (we are using it!) gave me insight that no amount of research could ever have revealed.  Through listening and trusting the expertise in the room, I could tailor my SART expertise to aid and enhance their already outstanding work—what I thought the SART might need, was not really what they actually needed. This meant that I had to edit all of our training plans the day before and during the training. Adapting our plans in the moment was tough, but a critical decision that took what would have been an okay training and turned it into a great training.

Listening deeply requires a willingness to acknowledge how little we (individually) know and how much we can learn from working in genuinely collaborative ways. Sexual violence response work can only become stronger and more effective when we understand the limits of our ways of knowing about experiences that we do not have, deeply listening to those with lived experience, and truly valuing the expertise of others. This includes SART members, victim/survivors, and our communities.

All-in-all, it was a challenging, informative, humbling, and inspiring technical assistance experience. I count myself lucky to do this kind of work and meet such amazing people doing great things every day. I hope you feel the same about your work.