Last night The Aunties founder Jackie Clark won not just the Community and Not for Profit category but also the supreme prize at the special suffrage anniversary edition of the Westpac women of influence awards. To mark that achievement, which recognises her work with women survivors of domestic violence, we republish here her conversation with Alex Casey, from March 2017, about New Zealand’s gender violence problem and what people can do to help.
Trigger warning: partner violence and emotional and psychological abuse.
The first time I met Aunty Jackie she was flashing her breasts at an MRA activist on Queen Street at the end of the Women’s March. “It was the only thing that would shut him up,” she guffawed, weeks later in The Spinoff board room. It worked, the lone wolf in pleather stood in stunned silence, as did I at Jackie’s ferocious no-fucks feminism.
When she’s not owning MRA’s on Queen Street, you may have seen Jackie in various corners of the internet, working for The Aunties as a 24 hour a day community noticeboard, collecting donations for a number of Auckland women’s refuges, from whiteware to tampons, Christmas gifts to blue hair dye. We met up on the eve of International Women’s Day to talk about the work that she does, the state of feminism, and what New Zealand can do to fix its gender violence problem.
I seem to see you everywhere on the internet doing everything from writing blogs to collecting donations, what exactly is your job and how is it involved with the refuge?
I don’t even know how to describe my job, partially because I created it myself and it’s an ever-evolving thing. My official title is donations co-ordinator for the refuge; I field calls, texts and emails from women who need stuff. Just recently I was in touch with this woman who said she needed a fridge, so I jumped on Twitter and asked for a secondhand fridge. One of the Aunties messaged me immediately and said ‘I will buy her a fridge’. It’s as simple as that, asking the basic question ‘what do you need?’ and then getting it for them. The whole thing is about providing stuff for them so that they have less on their plate to worry about.
The other biggest part for me is working on relationships. I’ve also been working with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective for six weeks, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s already at that stage where I know exactly what they need already. I go to our big storage unit of donations and sort out what they need. One of the girls there I asked the same question: what do you need? She said ‘for real’? And I got her what she wanted which was a bag of hoodies and jeans and things. It’s just figuring out what people need.
My life is varied and different and it’s a full-time job that I don’t get paid for. It’s chaotic, but I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I get to hug a lot of people, and I get to see people smile. When I go to the refuge or the NZPC, I’m the voice they talk to. I get to see how every donation impacts lives.
What were you doing before the Aunties, and how did you become involved?
I had been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years. As I was teaching, I became more and more involved in the mums. We had a real bad spate of unhappy children and we realised that their families were always either disrupted, unsettled, had mothers or fathers in prison, financial struggles or domestic violence issues. There was a whole gamut of stuff that leads to deep, deep unhappiness.
I figured out that kids are happy when families are happy, particularly the mothers. I’m being very gender-specific about that because I was working in a community where fathers were not the sole caregivers. For me that’s where society’s ills come from, if women and mothers aren’t happy then whānau are fucked. I started a bit of social work through the kindy and my passion for the teaching was ebbing away more and more. Four years ago I rang up the refuge, because the kids always leave clothes and shoes behind every single term and I was sick of it. This woman came out to pick the clothes up. I didn’t know anything about the refuge, so I just thought she was a volunteer. Turns out she ran the place, that’s how desperate they were for donations at the time.
After that, I started getting stuff through my social media channels for one woman who was pregnant and didn’t have any support. That was just me and my Facebook friends, and then it got a little bit bigger and people would ask me something like ‘can we get a microwave?’ I would put it out on Facebook and then BAM: microwave. I first visited the refuge myself in February 2013. I will never forget walking through that door and one of the woman saying ‘thank you for being my friend’.
In that moment, a light went on in my head. These women need stuff, yes, but they also need a friend. I started going every week with whatever stuff I had to give them. That carried on until my best friend was diagnosed with cancer and I stopped doing anything at all. She died six weeks later. I was at home for two weeks, and immediately I rang the refuge and said ‘we need to step this up’. And we did.
I stuck myself into refuge work from then on. It was my dream for the refuge girls to never have to pay for food, because I opened the pantry there one day and there was nothing aside from some expired tins of tomatoes. They were relying on weekly deliveries from the food bank, but people who have ever been to food banks know you just get what you’re given. We’ve fixed that now with our Givealittle.
You mentioned the Aunties, who are the exactly? They seem like The Avengers?
They are just whoever, just an amorphous group of people. If you give me stuff, you’re an Aunty, as simple as that. There are a core group of about 50 people who do stuff all the time, some of them do it because the refuge has saved their life. A lot of the Aunties have been through abuse, and some of them are men. My thing has always been that Aunties give what they can, when they can. I don’t care how much it is, it’s just that you put your heart into it when you do. Just give me $2, I don’t give a shit.
Having worked closely with the refuge, what are some of the misconceptions around domestic violence in New Zealand?
People think that it happens to them [gestures far away]. They ‘other’ it. It’s the Once Were Warriors thing. Look, it’s a great movie with great acting but it’s completely fallacious. That movie said to people ‘this is what domestic violence looks like and this is who does it’. Wrong, on both accounts. It’s what it looks like for some people, but that’s not the way it is for everyone.
That’s basically the biggest myth about domestic violence: that it’s always physical. From my experience, and the women I’ve worked with and talked to around New Zealand, that’s not most of what it looks like. In the refuge there are mostly women whose abuse is mostly verbal, emotional and psychological.The second myth is that women who live with domestic violence are always cowering in a corner. That’s wrong too, most of them are staunch as fuck.
The third myth is that is mostly happens in Māori and Pacific communities. As I said, I know a lot of white women who have never, ever talked about it in public because they are not allowed to. If you are a white woman who is living with a rich and powerful abusive man, he has most likely legally gagged you. You are silenced. You cannot speak. You dare not to talk about it. White middle class men exact more violence using the courts than anything I’ve ever seen.That is something that happens across white men, Māori men and Pacific men: they all manage to convince everyone that it’s the woman’s fault. And they are believed.
The other really big myth is that leaving solves everything. Leaving doesn’t stop it, if they are trying to destroy you then they will destroy you. It goes on through the courts, text messaging, protection orders getting constantly broken. I know women from relationships 10 years ago where the man is still trying to wreck their lives. There are different types of abuse and abusers, but there is one thing they have in common: control.
There’s so much I didn’t know about this.
That’s the problem: nobody knows. Women are silenced everyday, every minute of everyday. Either by their abuser, the circumstances around it, or because it’s not your story to tell. I remember a couple of people on Twitter having a go at me for using the women’s initials on my blog, when women have asked me to share their own stories. People have this ridiculous idea that even mentioning what happens to them is dangerous. That’s part of what exacerbates the problem: the silencing.
You said you don’t get paid earlier – I’m just wondering how the fuck people involved with refuge work manage to sustain it?
This work is just really fucking undervalued in general. People think that because I run around and pick up things and organise, it’s not of worth. That’s been interesting to see, social workers are the ultimate feminists in our society – and they get paid shit. The woman who runs the refuge gets shit. She helps to save women’s lives and she still gets next to nothing. Nobody wants to look after women.
After we had a really bad spate of women going back to their abusive relationships, I asked one of the social workers how she coped. She said ‘all we can do is give them love and hope, and show that while they are here life can be peaceful. It’s all about giving these women joy and dignity. Domestic violence feels really undignified, you lose so much of yourself and you are so embarrassed that this is happening to you. Whether it’s through othering, or racism and sexism, everyone makes them feel embarrassed.
What do you think we can do to change that ‘othering’ in New Zealand society?
It’s really simple. We blow apart the gender construct.
Well yeah, it’s a long process but you start to blow it apart. In terms of domestic violence in New Zealand, we’ve got to change the idea of what it is to be a man. That’s where the problem is, in the socialisation of men. It’s generational, if you see your father treating their mother a certain way then what are they going to do with their partner? Men have come to believe that they have control because we let them. When we cook dinner, who gets served first? The man. Why the fuck is that?
Violence also stops when we stop hiding that fact that we are really bad at dealing with it. Think about the All Blacks who smash their partners! Think about Tony Veitch! It’s also a problem with the women that then circle these men knowing the truth. I know women who have been open about their abuse and have had their own friends stop talking to them. People would rather just push it aside and not know. We’ve allowed that to happen.
I was actually talking to a 75 year old woman on the phone one day who told me about her abusive husband. It was the first time she had told anyone, it happened 47 years ago and he’d been dead for 15 years. You know what she said to me? ‘I still hate him everyday’. She was 75 and she had never talked about it. Women don’t, because they know what the reaction will be – ‘he’s a really nice guy’ or ‘everyone makes mistakes’.
What do you suggest if there are women reading this who might find themselves affected by partner violence in some form?
You have to have your own agency and come into it on your own. But you have to have to know that you are good enough, and if someone is telling you that you or wrong or stupid or a bitch, that person is wrong to do that. You are good enough. Love isn’t making people feel like shit, love is making people feel great and love and safe and protected. If you don’t feel like that, there might be something going on for you.
What I would say to people who are the friends of women affected, the only thing you can do is just be there. Lose judgement, you don’t know the relationship so you just have to be there. When people are stuck in that stuff, they need to know there’s a possibility to leave. Don’t tell them to leave, but offer them an out if they need it. And listen. There isn’t anything you can say.
Finally, for International Women’s Day, how has the work impacted on your feminism?
It’s a really weird thing, I’ve noticed there are women half my age who think that their feminism is more important than kindness. If you are a feminist and you don’t think someone who’s trans or gender neutral can be a feminist, you can fuck right off. If you don’t support equal rights for everybody, and I mean everybody, then what the fuck are you doing? Feminism doesn’t move forward until we all move forward together.
It’s simple: we have to be at forefront of equity for all marginalised people. Feminism is big enough and ugly enough to do that now. People always say to me ‘how can I help?’ You can pay attention is what you can do. If you are paying attention to these women, you’ll find you are paying attention to everything else.
How to get – and provide – help
If you’re affected by partner violence:
Crisisline: 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 (lines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week)
If you’re in danger NOW:
- Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you.
- Run outside and head for where there are other people.
- Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
- Take the children with you.
- Don’t stop to get anything else.
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