In Laura Connelly’s experience, substantial social change is a long process. About 15 years ago, in her role at Grand Rapids-based Advocates for Family Peace, she saw that both men and women who use violence were given the same curriculum. “I realized pretty quickly that what we were trying to do wasn’t working.” She and her co- facilitator decided to take a step back, listen to the women, and try to figure out what could be more effective.
“The majority of women that were coming to those groups through court order were actually being controlled and abused by their partner, and were fighting back,” Connelly says. Since the roots of the violence were not understood, the methods did not fit.
“People were trying crazy stuff that didn’t work. They would suggest, ‘Well, maybe you need to be more assertive in your communication styles.’ These are women that are actively being battered by their partners. That’s not a safe thing to suggest. Until you can see it for what it is, you might not realize your interventions are actually unsafe.”
Connelly, Ellen Pence, and Melissa Scaia co-authored a curriculum for women focused on how they needed support. “There was nothing else like it. People were writing about [women who use violence], but no one was putting together a process.” The curriculum took off.
At the same time, she worked with groups of men who batter. “It gave me a unique vantage point, because I could see the difference. You have women in women’s groups talking about [using violence because they were] raped right after they gave birth, and in men’s groups, [they use violence] ‘because she’s crazy.’ It’s a different socially constructed problem.”
Connelly believes systemic oppression changes how a person thinks. “Our consciousness is shaped differently than people who are in positions of power, who can actually dominate people.” She tries to show people the forces that are operating in their lives.
“A lot of times women will come into those groups positive that they are the batterer in their relationship. You might find a woman who is, but it is [rare]. We are not socially constructed to feel entitled to unwavering compliance.”
After a particularly difficult battery case, in which a person died, Connelly decided she needed some time to consider how to make impactful change. She applied for, and received, a Bush Fellowship in 2015. “One of the first things I did was to go to a social innovation summit. I went to a breakout session on human-centered design. I was hooked. Put the people who are experiencing the problem in the center of everything — because they house within them the brilliance to figure this out. It’s not about outside experts.”
Connelly believes that societal systems cannot be dismantled without understanding why they are in place. “Women aren’t trapped because something is wrong with them. It is because they are living in a society and under an economic system that is designed to keep them down. If we can figure out how to change the underlying myth that one group of people is superior to another, I think we would make some huge headway.”
Connelly co-founded unTapped Inc. as a place to support human-centered design work. She and her partner try to close gaps between what people need and what communities, organizations, and institutions provide. “A lot of the work is going around and listening to people, asking questions, and contextualizing what they are saying.”
She used the local food shelf as an example. “We went and asked the people who used the food shelf questions like, ‘how could this be better, what do you need?’” Then they applied that information to enhance the experience of the food shelf. There were societal beliefs that slowed the project. “People say, ‘I don’t want to say anything because beggars shouldn’t be choosers.’ They are saying that about themselves, like something is wrong with them, rather than, ‘the problem is that there is enough food for everyone, but a lot of people don’t have food.’ We have to shift that.”
The name of her business underscores the untapped potential of every person. “You’re always seeking the part of them that is intact and unscathed by all of this. For some people that is buried really deep, because they have experienced a lot of awful stuff. But as long as you believe it is in there, you will find it. It is remarkable.”
Partnering with Heidi Holtan, a radio news director, Connelly ran focus groups in her Grand Rapids community about topics that affect women. The first group began by discussing whether the #MeToo movement was truly changing rural people’s lives. “There’s still a lot of old-school thinking, like ‘what did she wear,’ and ‘what was she doing?’” From that topic grew other subjects, including women in leadership roles, and women’s speech patterns. “We are constantly apologizing. Why? It’s almost like apologizing for existing.”
She says that although women talk to each other often, these conversations have a different quality to them. “Rarely are we ever asked to talk about our lived experience in a way that will be used to try to make our lives better. Just getting women together to connect with each other, and realize we need each other, has been huge. Solidarity is the only way we’re going to change any of this.”
Her shoulders sink a little as Connelly considers the current administration. “As you can imagine, when the political landscape changes, people’s thinking on how to work with people changes. Once again there is this environment that says women are just as violent as men. It is not true. A vast majority of women have been sexually harassed, molested, raped, and violated in their intimate partner relationships. It is such a common thing for us to experience. You have to understand all of that.”
Connelly has faith that domestic violence can be eradicated by changing societal constructs. “When I think of an end goal, [all] women’s lives would be valued.”
Connelly wants people to have an open heart and open mind, be genuinely curious, and be willing to speak truth to power. “It’s really simple stuff, frankly. It’s listening, learning, sticking together, believing in the fact that we could change this stuff, we could do better.”