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Exploring ‘cultural sensitivity’ among frontline workers addressing violence against women in Lewiston, Maine

Author: Hannah McKenzie

2020–2021 Community-Engaged Honors Thesis in Anthropology, Bates College

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah McKenzie, Immigrant Resource Center of Maine conference room, Fall 2019

“It’s time for us to consider what does it actually mean to have equitable work for our survivors who are Black and Brown?”

Fatuma Hussein, Executive Director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine

For this blog post, I will share a short reflection on my experience of conducting research for my Bates College community-engaged honors thesis in anthropology. My thesis focuses on those at the front lines of addressing violence against women (VAW) in the communities of African immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Lewiston, Maine, in the US. I conducted interviews with both staff from the African refugee-run Immigrant Resource Center of Maine (IRCM), as well as with their American colleagues from the field of social work and from the criminal-legal system, all of whom partner in various ways to address VAW. Rather than focusing on one bounded space and “its people”, as Liisa Malkki describes the traditional approach to ethnography, the anthropology I wish to explore is the set of interconnections, translations and partnerships among these various players, who are at the front lines of VAW in the local community (Malkki, 1995). By exploring these collaborations, I consider the meaning of cultural sensitivity within these relationships, identify gaps in understanding, respect and efficacy, and suggest paths forward for improved partnership in the ever-transforming multicultural city of Lewiston. With informed humility, I advocate for my research findings to be applied in the local sphere.

Although my thesis also focuses on survivor care practices, more relevant to this context is my exploration of work that engages with men, specifically through community education programmes and justice systems. I consider first how the ways we conceptualise culture shape our responses to VAW, and how these underlying conceptions may open up or constrain possibilities in this area of work. Ideas of culture operate in many ways, with many significant implications. Violence has sometimes been linked to certain cultures and not others; this is an example of how notions of ‘culture’ and VAW may be used discursively in a retrospective attempt to justify colonialism (Baxi, 2014). “When institutions deploy the word ‘cultural’ to label a particular group’s beliefs and practices,” Gershon and Taylor write, “they simultaneously construct the spaces, people, and practices of the institution itself as acultural” (2008, p.417). Borrowing this theory of the imagined ‘cultureless’ people, I analyse the discursive marking versus unmarking of culture and how such framings operate in the field of VAW work in Lewiston.

I consider and contrast the ‘mainstream’ social work organisations and the criminal-legal system of the US on the one hand, with the work of the ethnically based community organisation IRCM and their collaboration with the Somali community elders on the other. American staff have often framed the IRCM and the elders as ‘cultural’ in an assumed contrast with their own approaches. I interpret the cultural underpinnings of this mainstream, supposedly ‘acultural’, approach in contrast with IRCM’s approach, and find it to be one that values concepts such as ‘boundaries’, ‘professionalism’,  ‘policy’, and ‘expertise’ in order to build its legitimacy and set of practices. To make the assumption that such approaches are not themselves cultural, in effect prioritises and confers power on certain groups of people, while excluding, delegitimising and blaming others. We must all see ourselves as being equally cultural.

Using the language of professionalism and boundaries, and the rules of American cultural approaches in their engagement with men, district attorneys, police and other stakeholders sometimes frame the elder system as being a barrier to ‘justice’. Sally Engle Merry provides a useful perspective on the harm caused by considering culture solely as an obstacle, and on how, instead, to draw upon culture as a resource. She writes: “When a group’s failure to abide by human rights principles is blamed on its ‘traditional culture,’ this ignores the complex and dynamic nature of culture…Local norms can bepaths to change as well as barriers.” (Merry, 2006, p.15). One IRCM advocate spoke to me in words not dissimilar from Islamic feminist theorists:“Even our prophet was helping his wife. And when she had a baby, he was cleaning her clothes with the blood.” Fatuma repeatedly stressed the resources within her culture: “Domestic violence and sexual assault existed before we came to this country, and we had a system that worked for us—that was very much appreciated and believed in.” She emphasised her community’s culture as a resource:

If I went to my community today and said, “I have a domestic violence situation, I don’t feel safe in my house, I have five children,” do you know how many people would get up to get me an apartment? To get me a car? That is a community connection that we don’t want to lose…Our religious leaders, our faith institutions hold a critical part to the healing process that is deeply important in our community. Do you know how much men are held responsible back home? “You got married to my daughter! You’re supposed to protect my daughter. If you don’t do that, give me my daughter back.” There’s a lot of this strength in the elder system.

I argue that while both the criminal-legal system and the elder system do present certain barriers to women survivors, and in the process of their engaging with men more broadly, the two systems are often framed as a barrier to one another because they each have their own visions of what ‘justice’ means, and are operating under their own approaches and versions of expertise.

I adopt a fairly relativistic approach, informed by my realisation of how the criminal-legal system may itself be understood as a barrier, in the sense that it is a barrier to the elders’ traditional justice system. Fatuma told me about a meeting she attended a number of years ago that included both elders and members of the police departments. According to Fatuma, one elder spoke up, making a request: “If a 911 call comes in to you, Lewiston Police Department, can you forward that call to us? Because we know how to deal with our people.” In this moment, the elders clearly expressed their view that the criminal-legal system was a barrier to their own justice system, something that prevented them from dealing with the situation themselves.

As Romina Istratii writes, religious parameters should not be approached simplistically as either an obstacle or a solution, but rather as “inextricable elements of local cosmological and socio-cultural systems” (Istratii, 2021, p.245). Engaging the faith leaders is an essential part of handling VAW in the Muslim Somali refugee community here in Lewiston, and, like any cultural approach, it has its strengths as well as presenting challenges.

In order to engage faith leaders and draw upon the resources of multiple cultural systems in a city such as Lewiston, translators are crucial to the success of the process. By ‘translators’, I am referring to people, such as the advocates at IRCM, who are intensely committed to the work of translating both linguistically and cosmologically between various players at the front lines of VAW work (Istratii, 2021). Through their translation efforts, they help the rest of us learn to translate and negotiate better, too.

I spoke with one American detective who collaborates frequently with IRCM. While at some points she certainly demonstrated ethnocentrism and a framing of her own approach as being objective rather than cultural, in another moment, which I will highlight here, she demonstrated her own developing ‘multilingualism’, that is, her ability as translator, as well. She told the story of an African woman with whom she worked, whose Muslim faith was something she took very seriously. The woman had long ago had her husband convert to Islam. Yet amid the domestic violence in their marriage that followed, this woman felt that “the most fundamental obstacle in her relationship” was that her husband was not taking to heart the teachings of Islam. This woman eventually rationalised her divorce with the argument that he was not a good Muslim husband. Therefore, the woman explained to the detective, “I can do what I want.” Though not using the same language as Islamic feminists or the IRCM advocates with whom I spoke, in this story, the American detective cited Islam as a resource for addressing VAW. She incorporated Islam into her vocabulary, and translated it into her own understanding of what justice and empowerment are. Culture is a process within these networks – and a white American police officer in Lewiston tying anything to Islam is a wonderful example of exactly that.

Only with true negotiation of multiple approaches can we best utilise the resources at hand and form responses to VAW that reflect the lived realities of the people affected. With the guidance of those community members who are able to navigate the multiple local languages, we can form a more pluralistic, and thus effective and culturally sensitive, approach to VAW work. I am inspired by the process of cultural change through which we can realise the ways in which a culture may be preserved and drawn upon as a resource in order to end VAW in any community. It is this process, the process of culture, wherein I see hope.

My experience in writing this thesis has been incredibly personal. It has allowed me the space to think about the questions that have guided my college experience and that have been especially present in my mind, now, in my final year. Since I was in middle school, I have wondered (in different words at different ages): how do I draw upon my privilege to enact the most positive social change I can? What is the particular angle through which I, a white American woman, can most ethically and effectively apply myself in a community partnership aimed at addressing human rights issues, such as VAW? This thesis project has allowed me to explore the paths forward that anthropology offers to the realm of humanitarian work which I hope to enter into.

The tensions I feel in defining my role as an advocate or humanitarian, given what I have learned from studying anthropology, should not result in my non-participation or passivity. Rather, it is the very unfinished nature of my answers to these questions that will shape my path forward. With humility, I will continue to confront these questions in order to develop my own vision for how I can live as an integrated person possessing multiple forms of sensitivity and advocacy. Anthropologists and their theories will continue to shape my process. Lewiston has been an incredible place to learn – about pluralism, cultural sensitivity, multiculturalism and the transformation of a US city. I will forever be grateful to the people here who have shared their stories with me.

If any readers are interested in reading Hannah’s thesis, please feel free to reach out to her at and she will gladly share a copy.


Baxi, P. (2014). Sexual Violence and Its Discontents. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43, 139–154.

Gershon, I., & Taylor, J. (2008). Introduction to “In Focus: Culture in the Spaces of No Culture”. American Anthropologist, 110(4), 417–421.

Istratii, R. (2021). Adapting Gender and Development to Local Religious Contexts: A Decolonial Approach to Domestic Violence in Ethiopia. Routledge.

Malkki, L. (1995). Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. University of Chicago.

Merry, S. E. (2006). Human Rights & Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. University of Chicago.

About the author

Hannah McKenzie is completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in cultural anthropology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (Expected May 2021).

As a Bonner Leader, she has dedicated her college years to community-engaged work and local partnership, working primarily with refugees and asylum seekers as an English Language Learner teacher, a grant writer, a community group organizer, a French interpreter, and a researcher for community-engaged projects (in Lewiston, Baltimore, Dakar, and Kathmandu).

Recently, she received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to support a year of international travel and exploration in South Africa, Uganda, Greece, and Switzerland to speak with people from various refugee communities in and about their traditional food markets.

Hannah’s experiences have emboldened her to dedicate her life to helping advance the global society we are struggling towards—one with respect for human rights and with sensitivity for the vast range in culture and human experience.