Art Therapy and Social Justice at Chicagobased Women’s Shelter Sangeetha Ravichandran, MAAT, ATR, LPC



ApnaGhar, Inc., (“Our Home” in Urdu/Hindi,) provides holistic services, education, and advocacy across immigrant communities to end the different manifestations of gender violence. Gender violence can be broadly understood as violence impacting women and girls who are part of various margins of society. They are denied access, rights, and privileges and are stripped of personal power through forms of control exerted by an individual, a group, and/or systems of oppression, including domestic and family violence, forced marriage, trafficking, and honor killings. At Apna Ghar, we address issues of gender violence using a client-centered, trauma - focused, and empowerment-based approach. Apna Ghar empowers survivors to be self-sufficient through a full spectrum of programming such as education and outreach, art therapy and counseling, legal advocacy, or emergency housing in the Chicago metro area. Additionally, the organization offers consultation and referrals across the United States and abroad. Art therapy has been used at Apna Ghar to treat survivors of gender violence since its inception in 1990. Serving immigrant survivors of violence from more than fifty countries, art has been an extremely helpful tool for Apna Ghar’s therapists and clients by bolstering communication and coping skills, processing trauma, and embarking on the healing process. Furthermore, Apna Ghar is unique in that the staff collectively speaks over 20 languages and serves the community of which they are an integral part. 

The organization’s rich history of art therapy provided the foundation from which I could incorporate art therapy into several aspects of programming in my role as the Manager of Counseling Services. I am a professional credentialed member of The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) and an alumna of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Along with me, the team comprises of Meg Boyle, the children’s counselor, and a recent art therapy graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Mie Tamura, a credentialed and contractual art therapist, and Jane Kim, an art therapy intern from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As an advocate and art therapist, I am able to help survivors explore the impact of trauma in their lives by using arts-based programming and therapeutic services. Survivors who seek support at Apna Ghar entrust us with a tremendous amount of information, their personal safety, and their hopes within the therapeutic alliances that they form with me and other advocates in our organization. Hence, it has been very important to me to understand power structures that exist in these therapeutic alliances and the systemic inequalities. This knowledge is needed to build programs that take into account culture, systems of power, and various healing practices. Image courtesy of Apna Ghar.. I examine inherent power differences in order to find ways to give more power to clients, to understand their struggles in navigating systems, and to support them through the process. Many of Apna Ghar’s clients are first generation immigrants who have family support far away from them, who have limited English proficiency, and who have never dealt with the legal and administrative systems in the United States. 

When they choose to become free of abuse, they face many unforeseen struggles and risks that they may not have fully conceived. Moreover, they may be working with systems that do not have language interpreters who understand the nuances of gender violence. In the midst of these struggles, clients are also navigating family pressures or safety concerns for those in their family who are not near them. One of Apna Ghar’s clients is a middle-class, graduate-educated, first generation immigrant who is in an abusive relationship. She told me once that she had been to several organizations and clinics to receive therapeutic support but had been disappointed with her experiences at all of them. However, when she came to Apna Ghar, the advocate who met with her for the intake mentioned the words “power and control.” That’s when she knew that she was in an abusive relationship and realized that this was the place where she would finally receive the right kind of help. She used crocheting and collaging to slowly remember creative pieces of her old self and weaved them together to feel empowered. This, to her, was reclamation. We use art therapy in a multitude of micro and macro ways in order to make a sustainable change in survivor’s lives and to end gender violence. At Apna Ghar, a range of art therapy groups from individual sessions to drop-in arts based self-care spaces are offered for clients and staff members. Art therapy is also implemented through our prevention and education groups in community spaces such as schools and partner organizations serving immigrant and refugee populations.

Every year, we host an art show that showcases the artwork of survivors and advocates who are all contributing to the movement to end gender violence. It seeks to not only help survivors with their healing process but to break the silence around gender violence that is weighing down our society at large. 

To learn more about ApnaGhar, Inc. and how to use art therapy to end gender violence go to www.apnaghar.org.

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