(May 14, 2018) – M. Candace Christensen is an assistant professor of social work in the College of Public Policy. She uses feminist research methods to explore gender-based violence prevention and response.
Specifically, her research explores sexual assault prevention and response on college campuses. She also uses arts-based research methods to raise awareness of gender-based violence.
Earlier this week, we sat down with professor Christensen to learn more about her work.
What’s exciting you the most these days?
I love using the arts in my research. Recently, I’ve been using photography to prevent campus sexual violence. I’ve been training UTSA students on how to use photographs to transform rape culture and create a campus culture of respect. This type of research is called photovoice.
Recently, student photographers helped us analyze photographs they composed, which means the participants were also researchers. We call this community-based participatory research (CBPR); the community members are the participants and trained to also be the researchers. Integrating CBPR with arts-based research methods has been very rewarding.
In 2017, my Master’s of Social Work (MSW) students recruited undergraduate students to take photographs that inspire dialogues about rape culture.
One student took a photograph of a woman wearing a short skirt, and on the woman’s thigh several words were handwritten. Below the knee someone handwrote “Old Fashioned”, above the knee “Proper”, and at the top of the thigh is the word “Whore”. This picture illustrates how we still blame victims for sexual assault. People often note what the victim was wearing and use that to explain why the violence occurred.
Another student composed a picture of a multi-colored, textured brick wall with a rusted, metal bracket inserted into the wall. The uneven bricks represented the emotional scars that a victim of sexual violence endures and the iron bracket represents the social, emotional and physical sources of support that a victim needs to heal from the violence.
What impact do you hope to see your research have?
I hope my research helps people to care about sexual violence, to see it as a problem worthy of their time and attention. I also hope that the people who participate in my research projects feel like they have developed self-awareness, knowledge of the problem, and will share their new understanding about sexual violence with others in the community.
The students who participated in my photovoice projects received a framed copy of two of their photographs. It’s my hope that these reminders help the photographers feel proud that they addressed sexual violence with expressive, meaningful images.
Last April, my MSW students curated an exhibit of 14 images (out of 50-plus photos taken by students) that was displayed in the UTSA Gallery 23. I hope that members of the UTSA community and visitors strolled through the exhibit and were moved by the powerful images the students created.
How has your personal journey influenced your work?
I have a background in the arts, and I am a survivor of sexual violence. During my first year in college, various men perpetrated multiple acts of sexual misconduct against me. I believe that most women have experienced at least one form of sexual violence.
In 1990, date rape was just barely entering the mainstream media, but it was definitely not discussed on college campuses. That has sensitized me to the problem and made me intent on addressing it through my research.
I have been involved with the arts since I was a little girl. I studied dance for decades, and I majored in drama and literature to earn my bachelor’s degree. My work represents my passion for creativity and the arts, as well as my aspiration to prevent sexual violence.
Tell us about your mentors.
I have had so many amazing mentors. They believed in my ability to accomplish whatever I chose to pursue. They conveyed this belief by learning about my aspirations, boosting my confidence when it was low, and connecting me with resources I needed to make progress toward my goals.
Second, my mentors challenged me in ways that felt supportive and resulted in my professional growth. Almost 20 years ago, I was accepted to the Harvard Divinity School after the minister of the church I was attending encouraged me to apply for the program. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the confidence to follow through on that opportunity. And my mentor, the minister, supported my decision to not take the offer.
But he told me that I needed to do more with my life. He said, “Candace, you are vivid and vital. Too vivid for the status quo.”
Those words stayed with me through my decision to pursue a Ph.D. While I didn’t take the Harvard opportunity, I believe that I have a career path that combines my passions, talents and serves a significant need.
What’s the biggest challenge researchers in your field are facing?
Community-based participatory research is time and resource intensive. Negotiating between the requirements for making tenure and developing the community relationships necessary for doing CBPR can be stressful.
Universities are increasingly moving toward a product-based reward system, where quantity versus quality is valued. CBPR researchers have to be mindful of both meeting the product-based expectations of their universities and building authentic relationships with the community.
Any advice for this generation of students?
Education is an excellent investment. Education will enhance your life in ways that you cannot predict at this point in your life. Trust that what you learn will enrich your career, your relationships and your community.
Learn more about Candace Christensen.
Learn more about the UTSA Department of Social Work.
Explore the UTSA College of Public Policy.
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