The crux of creating social change

A Victoria University of Wellington study has explored the relationships between identity and change to empower not-for-profit organisations, amidst pressures on the sector to become more business-like.

Dr Ruth Weatherall, who graduated last week with a PhD in Management, worked in a domestic violence prevention organisation for eight months as part of her thesis.

“I wanted to understand the day-to-day experiences of working in the community sector, and the women who worked with domestic violence—what it really felt like for them, and their daily experiences in trying to create social change when confronted with domestic violence.”

She says she has always been interested in the not-for-profit sector. “I think it’s an overlooked sector in management despite how fundamental it is to society.”

One of the themes Dr Weatherall looked at was the role of intense emotions in creating social change.

“I looked at the emotions of grief, anger, and passion, which are generally perceived negatively in the workplace. But in the context of working in a domestic violence organisation, they can be productive for forming a sense of responsibility toward victims,” she says.

“The sector is generally being pushed toward a more business-like, less personal approach, and while on the one hand that is good for things like accountability and transparency, it’s not necessarily beneficial for some of the fundamental things the sector is about.

“Many people in the community sector feel pushed to treat their clients as customers, and that’s the way that the language is moving. But from a social change perspective that can be less helpful because you need to feel some sense of connection and responsibility to those you are helping.”

Dr Weatherall also explored how people understood their gender identity when working with domestic violence.

“Seeing people consistently subjected to violence can be extremely unsettling and workers can begin to feel insecure about their sense of self—particularly for women,” she says.

“I explored this vulnerability, and the contradictions between feeling unsettled and using a sense of vulnerability to connect with victims, as well as how sharing experiences can be helpful.”

Another theme Dr Weatherall focused on was storytelling, specifically related to feminism.

“Feminism and feminist identity has been important for domestic violence movements. I looked at how storytelling helped to negotiate tensions between working in a professional organisation with potentially activist feminism or social justice identities.”

Dr Weatherall used a self-reflection process for her thesis.

“By encountering these ideas, feelings, and experiences, I was interested in how I began to understand myself.”

Dr Weatherall’s thesis, supervised by Associate Professors Deborah Jones and Todd Bridgman, was one of six to receive a Dean’s Award from the University’s Faculty of Graduate Research in 2018, which is given to theses of exceptional quality.

She now works as a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and plans to release a book next year.