Lessons in Empathetic Activism: Writing from the heart — even to politicians.

An ActionStation community member reminds Marianne to write with empathy. Even to politicians. Even when we are pissed off.


Last Friday afternoon I got a call letting me know that Michael Woodhouse, in his role as the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, would be deciding on Monday whether to support a Member’s Bill from MP Jan Logie proposing to extend leave provisions to include domestic violence leave.

This Bill could give essential support and protection to people when they need it most. When people, often women, leave a violent situation it can be very hard for them to juggle court, counselling, housing and the needs of their children without extra leave. Staying in employment, on the other hand, is critical to reducing the effects of violence. Secure employment enables survivors to maintain domestic and economic stability and assists them to a pathway out of violence and to successfully rebuild their lives.

By extending leave provisions to include domestic violence leave, employers could help the people who work in their businesses get through an incredibly difficult — and dangerous — moment in their lives. A few days extra leave, from an employers perspective, seems a small price to pay for the safety and future success of another human being. When I talk about building a society and economy that puts the well-being of people and the planet before profit, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

I knew this was an issue that lots of ActionStation community members cared deeply about — like everyone in this country, many of them have been personally affected by family and domestic violence — and I knew they would want to do what they could to encourage the Minister to support the Bill, at least as far as Select Committee.

Unfortunately, when I got the call I was in a car on my way to Rotorua where I would spend all of Saturday on the trails as a guide runner for blind athlete Mary Fisher as she ran her first ultra-marathon. So I wasn’t able to get to work on getting the word out about this important Bill until Sunday evening. By that point I was at my sister’s home in Tokoroa, typing an email to ActionStation members while sharing Thai takeaways with my dad, a dairy farmer.

“What do you think,” I asked Dad, “about extending leave provisions to cover domestic violence leave? It would mean giving people who are trying to get out of a violent relationship days off, for example, to go to court or to go to doctors appointments.”

“It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?” he responded, confirming my view that he is a good bloke.

“That’s what I think,” I told him, “and now we need to convince Michael Woodhouse not only that it is the right thing to do, but that the people who vote for him think that it is the right thing to do.”

As I sent off my email to 10,000 ActionStation community members, asking them to email Michael Woodhouse with their personal stories — either as employers or as people affected by domestic violence — I wondered how many people would find the time to write and send something on a Sunday night.

I don’t know how many people found time, but I know that Susan Pearce did. When I saw her post on Facebook about the email she had sent to Woodhouse, I was deeply impressed with the empathy with which she had written. Here’s how Susan explained her email to me:

After Trump, with his racist, misogynist hate speech was elected, I decided to try to be more mindful of when I’m being judgemental, or unhelpful in my speech. No huge dramas, but a neighbour and I are back on good speaking terms. Yesterday I found myself thinking self-critically and remembered instead to hug and thank the friend standing beside me.
It has also affected how I think about politicians (even Trump). I feel strongly that while it’s important to call out bad behaviour, the best we can do is to act positively however and whenever we can. So when I wrote to Michael Woodhouse to ask him to support sending the Domestic Violence Victims Protection Bill to Select Committee, instead of holding my usual somewhat self-righteous attitude, I tried to imagine how it would feel like, at the end of a long day, to read my email. Would it help inspire him, or deflate him?
That’s what motivated me. As well, of course, as what the letter itself underlines: Aotearoa New Zealand needs to do more to help victims of domestic violence. It’d be great to talk about it, which is why Jan Logie’s Domestic Violence — Victims’ Protection Bill needs to go to the Select Committee.

Susan’s wise words reminded me of something I realised a long time ago, when I was working as a human rights researcher for the UN in Afghanistan: everyone I spoke to had their own aspirations for themselves, their families and their country. I might not agree with their aspirations, or — more often—their strategy for achieving them, but they all had a vision for their country.

Everyone I met also had their own struggles. Sometimes they were managing tensions between the responsibilities of their formal role, and the expectations of their family or tribe. Sometimes they were trying to balance the norms and values of their culture with the demands of the international community. Always, they were juggling lots of different needs, and often doing so with very limited time and resources.

So I learned to approach everyone, whether they were a Government Minister or a local tribal leader, with as much empathy as possible. I would ask myself, as Susan did this week — what it would feel like to be an Afghan District Police Commander meeting a young(ish) foreign woman who had the power to recommend that his office get more or less resources. I would ask myself how I would want to be addressed if I were in his shoes.

In other words, I approached all my advocacy with as much empathy as I could muster. Which is something I’d like to bring into my activism at ActionStation as well. So, as the first in an occasional series of lessons in empathetic activism, here’s the letter Susan sent to Michael Woodhouse on Sunday night.

Kia ora Mr Woodhouse,
I am writing in hopes of persuading you to support the Domestic Violence Victims Protection Bill to go to Select Committee tomorrow.
This is where you get to show the public you are a generous, forward-thinking man.
I know it’s not a bill from your own party. And that your government is doing a lot through the ‘It’s Not OK’ campaign. I know MPs don’t usually support Bills from other parties.
But these are unusual times. People are looking hard for a different sort of politics. And debate around this Bill would really help NZers to think about how legislation could help victims of domestic violence.
You know these ideas aren’t new. Big companies like the Warehouse are already providing many of the benefits the Bill would provide. That means that a lot of people are already thinking and acting along these lines.
This is where you get to be a big person, in all the best ways. Please go for it.
Warm wishes,
Susan Pearce

It’s not too late to add your voice to the call, if you think this Bill is proposing something important for domestic violence victims and survivors in New Zealand, you can still write to Michael Woodhouse at m.woodhouse@ministers.govt.nz

So far he has chosen not to support the Bill, but if we can help him see how many New Zealanders would support this initiative, maybe we can help him to change his mind.

Marianne Elliott is a writer, an advocate for human rights, economic fairness and democracy and a relentlessly slow trail runner. She’s also co-founder of ActionStation.

Susan Pearce is a writer, Playcentre mum, teacher, gardener, student of te reo Māori, reader and activist.

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