Research on MUA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was recently published in the Journal of Social Sciences! You can access it here.
Watch our video — Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Creating a New Cycle — about a USF/UCSF research study on how MUA’s leadership development work helps transform the risk factors for domestic violence in immigrant families.
MUA was founded in 1990 as an outgrowth of a research project on the lives of undocumented women. Since then, MUA has continued to engage regularly with academic and community researchers to carry out studies and publish reports about the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented immigrant communities, as well as the impact of MUA’s organizing work on US political discourse.
Over a three year period from 2020 through 2022, MUA conducted two in-depth community-led process and impact evaluation research studies in collaboration with cultural anthropologist Kathleen Coll (USF) and social epidemiologist Alison Cohen (UCSF). The research was supported in part by Blue Shield of California Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with the technical collaboration of Strategic Prevention Solutions.
Key Research Questions
- Does MUA’s leadership development model break the cycle of domestic violence in an immigrant woman’s life? What about for her children and grandchildren? If so, how is this achieved?
- What elements have led MUA to be successful over the years in building a membership base and developing strong leaders? How did these elements affect MUA’s ability to respond effectively to the needs of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- What is the longer-term impact of becoming a MUA leader on an immigrant woman’s life, and on her family?
- How does developing immigrant women’s leadership lead to greater social change?
Community-led research team
The team consisted of 10 MUA staff members (all Latinx immigrants), two academic researchers, six graduate students, and a project manager. Staff were trained by the academic allies in qualitative and quantitative methods. The team agreed on sampling priorities and designed instruments for surveys, interviews and focus groups together. Staff trained academic allies in understanding the lived experiences and contextual factors relevant to tackling these research questions. MUA leadership ensured the research remained grounded in organizational ethics, values and priorities. Collective team analysis of research findings occurred throughout the process, including strategies for dissemination to community members, funders and academic audiences.
Over a two-year period, the team conducted 254 surveys, 40 individual interviews, and 7 focus groups with over 60 participants. Study participants included MUA members, their adult children and grandchildren, MUA staff and former staff, and long-time allies.
The surveys and focus groups explored how MUA’s organizing and leadership development model has evolved over time, MUA’s strengths and challenges, and the impact of MUA on members’ lives and those of their families in terms of mental health, self-efficacy, social networks, domestic violence, childrearing practices and gender norms. Since the study took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also gathered data about how MUA’s model was changing to meet the needs of a community in crisis.
Leadership Development is Violence Prevention
MUA was not founded as a domestic violence agency, per se; however, violence is prevalent in immigrant women’s lives. 81% of members who participated in the survey are survivors of family violence, including physical, sexual, emotional, and/or financial abuse. Studies show that survivors of violence are highly likely to experience revictimization, and children who witness domestic violence are far more likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence as adults than the general population.
Our study found that developing the leadership skill of survivors is an effective form of violence prevention. The longer a woman participates in MUA, the more likely she is to develop protective factors against violence in her life.
MUA participants reported strong levels of the following proven protective factors against violence (Blue Shield of California, 2019):
— High self-esteem: belief that they can set and meet their personal goals. 75% of women who participated for 0-6 months in MUA felt that they could meet their personal goals, while 96% of those who had participated for 5-10 years reported that they could do so.
— A strong social network: over 90% of those surveyed said that participating in MUA had helped them develop meaningful new friendships.
— High scores on the Social Justice Scale: MUA members scored an average of 12 out of 16 on a survey intended to measure their attitudes and behaviors in terms of demanding social justice for themselves and others. This high score indicates a willingness to express and stand up for their rights.
Indeed, over 90% of those surveyed agreed that participating in MUA had reduced the level of violence in their lives, and the number of years spent participating in MUA correlated with decrease of violence in their lives.
MUA has combined mutual support groups and public policy campaigns to address gender violence against immigrant women since its founding in 1990. The research showed positive impacts of this work on individual members and their now-adult children.
Transforming the Root Causes of Violence
— Oppressive Social and Economic Systems
— Patriarchal Gender Norms
— Internalized Oppression
Through interviews and focus groups, we identified the journey that women take to become leaders and make changes in their lives and their communities, transforming the systems that oppress them at each of the three levels.
Creating a New Cycle of Mutual Respect Across Multiple Generations
The changes that a woman experiences at MUA do not only impact her, but they ripple out to her children and grandchildren.
In two focus groups of MUA members who are now grandmothers, they spoke of how participating in MUA helped shift their concepts of childrearing to be less authoritarian and more nurturing, and the ripple effects they see in their children and grandchildren. Focus groups of adult children of MUA members showed that they report learning about healthy relationships and childrearing practices from their mothers, and that many of them attribute positive changes to their mothers’ participation in MUA.
MUA members and their children spoke not only about breaking the cycle of violence, but about co-creating a more positive cycle of mutual respect and equality in the family. Watch the video above to hear from two adult children of MUA members.
Elements of Success in MUA’s Organizing Model
The study identified key factors that have helped MUA succeed in building strong leaders who transform their lives and those of their families:
- Linking collective practices of personal transformation with building community power for structural change.
- Focusing on building strong personal relationships in a kind and supportive environment.
- Providing mutual aid based on respect and self-determination, without judgment or criticism.
- Peer counseling model: An understanding that women who have gone through their own healing process can help heal other women through sharing their stories and witnessing those of others, leading to collective healing.
- Supporting members to reflect on which childrearing practices from their own childhoods were healthy and which were not; collectively questioning and transforming patriarchal gender norms in parenting our children and grandchildren.
- Transformation of members from victims of violence and injustice to leaders and organizers for change.