One of the earliest advocates for women and children, Val Kalei Kanuha has been an activist, therapist, consultant, and researcher for most of her life.
“I feel really lucky to have been in the movement for over 45 years now,” Kanuha said.
From helping to build the first battered women’s shelter in the nation to developing a culturally-based domestic violence program in Hawai‘i, Kanuha’s work has focused on intimate partner and sexual violence, and the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality.
She recently became Assistant Dean for Field Education at the University of Washington School of Social Work and will be speaking the annual API Chaya gala on April 29.
Kanuha’s resilience to continue working on domestic violence issues comes from survivors, activists, and organizers. “I have been able to work with so many people who have helped to educate and inspire me,” she said.
After obtaining her PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Washington in 1997, Kanuha worked at the University of Hawai‘i for 19 years, most recently as a sociology professor. She has received awards for her teaching and research, which include creating interventions for children experiencing domestic violence and studying intimate violence in women’s same-sex relationships. She works with organizations like the Joyful Heart Foundation and helped found INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.
An early advocate
After receiving her Master’s of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, Kanuha became involved in domestic violence issues as a social worker. She worked with children at a Minneapolis community clinic, helping to prevent abuse by identifying high-risk situations and suspicious behaviors.
“This was the early ’70s, so even the issue of child abuse and neglect was fairly new,” she said.
In 1975, Kanuha saw a flier for a meeting about the emerging problem of “battered wives.” Intrigued and puzzled, she attended the meeting alongside feminist activists and community providers.
Soon, she became involved in the nationwide 1970s movement that raised public awareness about domestic violence as a social problem, provided services for victims and affected public policy.
Kanuha was part of the team that helped build Women’s Advocates, the first shelter in the country for women and children escaping domestic violence. She also belonged to the Minneapolis Coalition on Battered Women, made up of social workers, psychologists, housing advocates, drug counselors and more. She spent 15 years in Minnesota before working in New York and Hawai‘i.
In the early 1990s, while working with gay men of color on AIDS education in New York, Kanuha realized that government interventions were designed for gay white men.
Similarly, Kanuha questioned why domestic violence interventions in Hawai‘i–which she called a complex, colonized place—were created elsewhere in the country. She decided to design and test Hawaiian culture-based interventions.
For more than a decade, Kanuha worked with Hawaiian men charged or convicted with abusing their partners and Hawaiian women survivors.
The interventions focus not only on reducing men’s negative, misogynistic attitudes about women, but also encouraging them to be accountable to their communities.
“I always said, I hope at the end of this you never hurt partner again, but more importantly, I hope you live your life as a good man,” Kanuha said. “Our goal is start being productive, kind, generous, good. Start being the man we need you to be in our community.”
This unique approach resonates across cultures, Kanuha said, and those who attended the interventions know that it works.
Another powerful part of the interventions is asking men who committed violence against their partner what their ancestors would think.
This ancestral calling helps men realize they do not want to be remembered as someone who committed a crime, but rather “someone who did wrong and made things right,” Kanuha said. “I say [to these men], change for [your ancestors] because you want to be the man that your ancestors hoped you to be.”
Kanuha’s work involves exploring alternative ways to intervene in violence against women and children, and considering restorative justice as an alternative to jail.
“The movement that I find the most hopeful and fits the values that I hold is that all of us as a community need to do something about this problem,” she said. “We cannot leave it up to the police or the courts.”
In the interventions, Kanuha told Hawaiian men not to be accountable to a judge or probation officer, but rather to their family and community that they hurt.
“We’ve been taught that the only way to stop domestic violence is to put perpetrators in jail,” she said, adding that this can negatively impact communities of color.
Kanuha also said that shelters do not work for all domestic violence victims and potential alternatives could include safe, free-standing apartments. Shelters may raise further complications for women with children, who need to leave their own home for a communal, highly monitored environment. Shelters also put the burden of leaving on the survivor, not the person who did harm.
“Shelters work for some, but it shouldn’t be what we put all of our resources, energy, time and advocacy into,” Kanuha said. “I think women have the courage and will to think about something different.”
As a woman, lesbian, and Native Hawaiian, intersectionality is part of Kanuha’s life. She believes that considering racism, homophobia, and poverty is important in finding solutions to violence against women.
“Intersectionality brings in the nuances under which people commit crimes,” she said. “We are so much more than a lawbreaker or a survivor of particular heinous acts. We are mothers, brothers, engineers.”
Kanuha believes that although domestic abuse is rooted in misogyny and patriarchy, many factors explain why some men abuse and others do not. She gave the example that men who do not abuse may have parents that told them how to treat women or grew up in a community that doesn’t value that behavior.
“We are not just victims or offenders of this kind of behavior,” Kanuha said. “We are immigrants, we are queer, we are poor. … We cannot address the problem without addressing the wholeness of those who have been violated, those who have violated and the communities in which the violations occur.”
Kanuha is continuing her work on Hawaiian culture-based interventions.
“At the end of the day, I really believe that people can be different,” Kanuha said. “For me, it’s a return to not punishment, but really a return to our goodness, our potentials and our attributions.”