CARE, led by qualified psychologists Angela Cáceres, Anesteia Tsagkalidou and Nila Roustayar, provides support and safe spaces for victims/survivors of sexual violence, students and staff struggling with their mental health and BIPOC students at the UvA. CARE is pioneering with its approach, as most professional psychologists that work at universities are not necessarily equipped to address sexual trauma or experiences with racism. How do Angela, Anestia and Nila set an example for other universities?
Why did you, Angela and Anesteia, decide to set up CARE?
In the summer of 2019, we met with Stitching Our Bodies Our Voice (OBOV), a non-profit organization that aims to prevent sexual violence and transform consent cultures in universities in the Netherlands. Together we decided to set up CARE. When we realized that we share the same goals and values, and that there were no accessible, feminist, safe spaces for victims-survivors of sexual violence operating in the Netherlands, we decided to develop the project. As therapists, we share the same values of feminist therapy and community care and building, so we founded the support group on those values.
What is your vision of prevention and support with regard to sexual violence?
At least 53% of women and 19% of men have been sexually assaulted, ranging from unwanted kissing to rape (De Graaf & Wijsen, 2017). Some students enter universities already with an experience of sexual violence, but some also experience it (for the first time or another time) while at university. Students are at a high risk of experiencing sexual violence while at university. This means that universities have a responsibility to address sexual violence through prevention, reporting and support. We see CARE, and OBOV’s workshops that educate about issues of consent and sexual violence, as being part of the toolkit universities can use to fight sexual violence. We combine healing with prevention.
You apply an intersectional approach to psychology and pay particular attention to positionality. Can you explain why this is so important?
To start with, when working individually with victims-survivors (VS’s) we focus on the personal trauma, which is necessary to regain mental health balance to adapt the new experience to everyday life. However, what constitutes, permits and perpetuates sexual violence has to do with systemic violence. Furthermore, the so called secondary victimization or institutional victimization has a crucial impact in the wellbeing of the person, sometimes even greater than the trauma itself.
The struggle of a person is not just a single event and it is complexed by peoples privileges and oppressions.
If we just center the personal struggle (as is often the case with mainstream psychology) we take the risk of invisibilizing the consequences of these violences, reinforcing isolation and stigmatization that most of the VS’s struggle with and that is a key part of their recovery process. The struggle of a person is not just a single event and it is complexed by peoples’ privileges and oppressions. Most of the womnx suffer violence daily expressed in different ways like catcalling, symbolic violence expressed on social media, beauty standards, etc. Nevertheless, trauma and mental health struggles are not just a gender issue but a complicated framework that is perplexed by each person’s sociopolitical identities such as class, race, disabilities, et cetera.
That is why with CARE, we use an intersectional approach. An example of the way that the intersectionality is reflected in the way we work is the centering of power analyses based on each participants’ sociopolitical identities and the way that they contribute to their struggles. Another example is the principle of horizontality, which means that we try to teach the participants that they are their own experts, and move from a place of the psychologists having all the power and authority, to a place that the participants feel empowered and assert their needs. Another way that intersectionality is reflected in our work is the centering of community care and commitment, that is crucial in working with trauma of any kind, and contributes to the validation of people’s struggles, and the building of personal agency, and resilience.
In 2021 Nila Roustayar joined CARE as a psychologist for BIPOC students. Can you explain why it is so important to have this group for students?
Creating a group for BIPOC students, has been on our plan from the beginning. We believe that a space that students of color can share their struggles in a safe space, led by a therapist of color is very important resource that in our opinion, is missing from the institutional context.
Women, LGBTQI+ and people of color are the most marginalized groups in society and don’t always get the proper care. I find it important to create a safe space for people where they can support and empower each other, and can be taken seriously with the issues they voice.Nila Roustayar
So far, we have been lucky to work with, and encounter people such as the CDO team, who support us and our vision and who help us create personalized resources for the students of UvA. Right now, we have three groups open that we hope will cater to the needs of groups of people facing different types of struggles. We have a group for survivors/ victims of sexual violence, a group for BIPOC students facing all kinds of trauma and discrimination, and a group for students struggling with their mental health.
CARE started as an initiative at the UvA in 2019. The goal was to create safe spaces attuned to your values. How did it work out? How is care perceived by participants?
Shortly after the launch of the pilot in 2019, we realized how important and valuable this space had become for the participants and for us. At this point we started receiving support and recognition from the Chief Diversity Officer at the UvA. While we feared that the coronavirus would halt the progress of the group, we were positively surprised to see that the digital format worked for members, and they seemed to feel supported during the pandemic. So far, we have been receiving very positive feedback. All in all, the project has exceeded anything we imagined before launching the project.
Could you tell us a bit more about what participants think of it, if there are specific aspects that are particularly helpful to them?
CARE provides a community, nurturing feelings of belonging, being understood and supported. The participants form a judgement-free community with people that have been through similar experiences. They have their stories and their feelings validated, while sharing skills and coping mechanisms from one another. When we discuss in the group a certain issue, such as relationships, everyone does it from their particular point of view, but is shaped by their experience. There is mutual understanding, recognition and validation, so resilience tools can emerge in this space. The group is then able to function as a safety net, and a steady source of support.
It might be a big threshold for students and staff to join the CARE groups. If you could talk to students and staff that are hesitating about joining the support group, what would you tell them?
Being vulnerable and asking for help can be some of the most difficult and most important steps in healing. We accompany the participants in any concerns that they might have, while safeguarding the group to make sure that it becomes a safe space for everyone.
If we could talk to students who are hesitating to contact us, we would say: We can see and understand the fear you experience, and you don’t need to overcome it on your own. We can carry that fear together.
What would you like to accomplish with CARE in the future?
We would like to become a centralized resource, which would allow CARE to expand and to offer an open door to any victim-survivor to join our groups. We want to support them holistically, which means having the ability to offer individual support whenever it is needed. We are also happy to see that more universities are showing interest in implementing CARE, such as Leiden University. Our vision is that CARE manages to form support groups in as many universities in the Netherlands as possible. That way we can continue to offer accessible, steady support to students at a very vulnerable time in their lives. Our work is very limited if we do not have institutional support, so we intend to reach out to other universities and build a network of CARE groups throughout the Netherlands.
If you are interested in joining the support group for UvA students, or the one for UvA staff, please e-mail Angela, Anestei and Nila on firstname.lastname@example.org and/or check out this page for more information. CARE is sponsored by the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) team.