Dec. 9, 2022

UCalgary violence prevention researcher awarded $1.89 million for systems change work

Lana Wells and Shift researchers in the Faculty of Social Work recognized for two innovative projects
Lana Wells, wearing a black top, stands smiling in front of a bright pink background
Lana Wells launched the Shift project, which takes a social innovation approach to preventing domestic and sexual violence. Courtesy Lana Wells

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), recently announced funding for several projects across Canada as part of an initiative called Preventing and Addressing Family Violence – the Health Perspective. Two of those projects are led by University of Calgary researcher Lana Wells, BSW'96, MSW'97, and her team at Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence in the Faculty of Social Work.

Wells, a registered social worker and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence, says she was excited to hear the news for a couple of reasons. First, the funding will provide the Shift research hub with $1.89 million over four years, allowing the team to test and evaluate two innovative violence-prevention projects.

Second, she notes the funding suggests there is a sea-change in the way people view Shift’s social innovation approach, which is increasingly focused on systems transformation to prevent the conditions that contribute to domestic and sexual violence.

“I’d really like to thank PHAC, because the intervention research we are doing is crucial to stopping violence before it starts by focusing on the root causes of violence,” says Wells. “This funding is supporting us to conduct systems change work which can be hard to evaluate.”

Helping parents help their teens

The PHAC funding provides more than $850,000 for the innovative ConnectEd Parents project. Shift’s research has confirmed what many parents have experienced; when children become adolescents, there’s a natural inclination for parents to pull back. In doing so, they can lose connection and influence, which becomes a problem if they suspect their adolescent is experiencing or perpetrating dating violence.

Previous research led by Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, BSc'07, PhD, in the Faculty of Social Work found that teens who experience dating violence have a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence as an adult.

“It's a risk factor,” says Wells. “If your first teen-dating experience is violent, you have a higher risk of your next relationship also being violent. So, we know this is an important time to target for intervention.”

ConnectEd Parents uses a multi-layered approach. First, it has developed short, informational text messages to build a parent’s knowledge and skills about how to talk about healthy dating relationships with their teens. Second, Shift is going to where parents are already congregating – from parenting support groups to hockey organizations. Within these groups, they’re working with key influencers to build their skills to become a natural contact and support when parents need advice.

“Often people will go to their friends, peers, colleagues and family first, for advice and support," says Lianne Lee, BSc'03, BEd'06, MA'17, project manager of ConnectED Parents. “We're trying to tap into earlier moments in people's lives, before the crisis. We’re looking to build the skills and capacity of parents who have a large network, so they can pass along the information and support to others. This is important for building a culture where parents are encouraged and supported to promote healthy youth relationships.”

Nudging workplace culture change with Calgary Police Service

PHAC is also providing more than $1 million to a project working with the Calgary Police Service (CPS). In 2020, CPS approached Wells as part of its proactive work to improve its workplace culture. The result is a project that Wells and Shift researcher, Elizabeth Dozois, BA'87, MA'92, are implementing with CPS called Changing Contexts, The Art of the Nudge. Working with eight diverse cohorts (more than 200 members) across the organization over a four-year span, the project looks to build the cohort members’ capacity to surface and shift inequitable and harmful social norms by helping them to identify meaningful changes that they can influence in the workplace (e.g., processes, practices and messaging) that can change the workplace culture.

“Male-dominated workplaces have unique cultures that contribute to gender inequality and the normalization of violence, making these values and behaviours feel normal and natural,” says Wells. “Culture is the water we swim in and it's often invisible and all-encompassing, making it particularly difficult to describe and change. However, when we build capacities and skills to identify and surface biases and discriminatory norms and behaviours, we can start to better understand how we can disrupt, stop and prevent them.

“This project helps participants surface these norms and behaviours and then work together to design micro-interventions to spark change. So, it’s not just one major intervention, but rather a cascade of small micro-interventions; we are testing a social norms and nudge approach.”

CPS is a committed partner in this research. In working with the Shift research team to implement and test this new, evidence-informed approach, it is helping to co-create an approach that Wells hopes can be developed to change culture and norms in any male-dominated workplace (finance, construction, IT, military, sporting associations, etc.). The co-created approach is designed to both address and prevent workplace issues with the goal of reducing gender and sexual harassment, improving psychological safety, and increasing a sense of belonging in groups that may not have previously felt welcome or safe.

A strengths-based approach

After years of pioneering, social innovation, it feels like Shift is being increasingly recognized as a go-to research hub – a national and international thought leader in gender-based violence-prevention. With a lot of wind in its sails, Shift's researchers are excited about their new work, focused on making big-picture, systems-level change. They increasingly work across disciplines, for example, incorporating expertise and research from brain science to behavioural psychology to data science to further their systems-change work.

In true social work fashion, Shift takes a strengths-based approach. It avoids blaming language that causes people to shut down, remaining focused on the behaviour they want to see, not the deficit. “When you help people understand that, as humans, violence is not inherent and that we all hold unconscious biases and there are ways to disrupt our thinking and behaviours to advance equity and justice, people change. And they change quite fast,” says Wells.

PHAC funding for an additional project led by Social Work associate professor Dr. Patrina Duhaney, PhD, addressing domestic violence in Black Canadian communities, was announced earlier this fall.

Read the Government of Canada's media release on PHAC's funding of violence-prevention initiatives by UCalgary Social Work researchers.