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Spotlight on: Catie Buttner, Ph.D. Candidate, Community Engagement Coordinator for VAWC
August 14, 2017


By: Asiya Fricke '18

Catie Buttner '19, doctoral student and community engagement coordinator for Rutgers School of Social Work’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children(VAWC), has a wealth of experience that makes her a perfect fit for the position.  Within this role, her passion for social justice and education shines through. 

Over coffee in downtown New Brunswick, Buttner shared her experiences earning her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, working abroad in India, her current work with VAWC, and her dissertation focus.

Why were you attracted to the field of social work initially?

I took Introduction to Sociology at St. Joseph’s University as an undergrad and the professor was excellent. Every aspect of the course resonated with me and made me consider why our society appears to be okay with people being homeless, for example. It sparked my interest in wanting to contribute in a greater way and understand why we overlook social issues, so I changed my major from political science to sociology. 

The summer of 2010, between my first and second year of my MSW program at the University of Pennsylvania, I took a summer study abroad course that was held in Kolkata, India. The course was titled “Post Colonial Social Work” with professor Toorjo Ghose and the organization was Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. There’s a union of sex workers that advocate for their collective needs that we helped to support. They elect people to lead the union and have a system set up where they do community health and check-in with sex worker communities around new instances of STI's, abuse, or even colds. It was life changing and really pushed all my boundaries. 

Professor Toorjo Ghose represented everything social work should be, or was striving to be. He was an out of the box thinker and hadn’t lost touch with what it meant to be an activist while also being a productive academic. He asked us to put into question all the things we’d been given. It really changed my framework on how I viewed social work and how I viewed it as a profession. Most importantly,   Professor Ghose showed us that there is not a set of rules and regulations for every situation, that you should remain fluid. From him, I learned that social workers have to be able to adapt and to listen to discover where there is room for improvement. 

Why are social justice issues important and how could the field of social work improve?

I think there’s a great need for more people to be able to understand, empathize, and assist with the ever-changing and ever-growing social problems of the world. We need to call attention to the inadequacies that we sometimes face and that oppressed communities face all the time. 

Social work can change and improve is in its ability to push outside the traditional narratives of how we view social welfare, because there’s still a lot of old school social work that continues to carry over, meaning that our entire society is rooted in segregated and oppressive structures and principles. So, while our history has shown tremendous growth, social workers have a duty to constantly question how things have been traditionally achieved to ensure that we are pushing back against the norms and oppressive structures that dictate every aspect of our lives. 

What made you decide to pursue your Ph.D. at Rutgers School of Social Work?

I chose Rutgers SSW because of the focus around gender-based violence, and their desire to grow their international work. The University itself has a strong research focus, so I wanted to make sure I could participate in that aspect. It was also great that I could collaborate with the Department of Women and Gender Studies in my own research. 

Would you recommend the VAWC certificate track to perspective students?

Absolutely. The VAWC certificate allows for a lot of individual attention. Director of the Center, Judy Postmus and co-director Sarah McMahon specifically set a culture and expectation that its members will assist, care for, and nurture every student that comes through the door.  In this program, you have the ability to not only receive attention and care from really smart people, but also to receive valuable advice and mentorship from professionals with vast experience in the field. 

What lessons have you learned from your new position at VAWC so far?

I’ve learned that boundaries are important for everyone. Trauma and stress can be transferred even if you’re not doing direct work, and it’s important to be able to talk about that. I learned that reading stories about gender based violence, or trafficking and children is still traumatizing, even if you’re not experiencing it firsthand. I’ve learned that self-care is essential. Lastly, I learned interdisciplinary work and cross collaboration are necessary to effect change outside of social work. 

What are some of the most difficult situations you’ve come across in your work?

After I finished my MSW, I was working on a research project with the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania to examine how a brief therapy session in the emergency room could reduce instances of intimate partner violence and problematic drinking. 
There was one gentleman who was super shaken up, had been seen for intake, and had a lot of contusions and bruises. He was in a heightened state of anxiety after his female partner, and mother of his children, had beaten him with an ashtray and lamp. The police were called and she was arrested. He was losing his mind in the ER because he was regretting it, “What have I done? I got her arrested. She’s the mother of my children. This was a terrible idea.” So, I was trying to talk with him, offer him social services, and walk him through the process. I stepped away to go get paperwork and by the time I came back he had left, which he had the right to do. That was challenging because to see the anxiety and clear masculine identity that came up for him around, “I can’t do this to her, I can’t do this,” those are all things we associate with sexual assault or abuse victims. We have a really hard time imagining it as a male concern. I am a huge women’s rights advocate, but that should also mean being an advocate for men in terms of understanding that there are negative aspects on either side. 

Another difficult experience I dealt with in India was the stigma that I would see around sex workers, even among friends who were native to Kolkata. Their opinions were still so steeped in looking down on sex worker communities and they questioned why I did the work I did. I remember being in a bar and someone came up to me and asked me what I did and I explained and he said “Well, I hope someday God forgives you.” The biggest challenge was combating the stigma that people have around sex workers when I was doing the job even though they didn’t understand the deep complexities of it.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation looks at reproductive health experiences for women of color, mostly seeking to understand how women feel included or excluded within dominant narratives of reproductive justice and health. I'm focusing on how women of color navigate different experiences related to reproduction across their lifespan given their lack of representation in mainstream ideas of femininity and reproduction. When the Hobby Lobby decision was made, that swayed my interest around reproductive health access and the ability for women to choose how to manage their reproductive health. The reality is that the larger, male dominated spaces are able to dictate and change the narrative, as is evidenced through companies saying, "no, you can’t have birth control." There's a heightened need and an obvious imperative to make sure that people of color and minority communities feel included in social messaging and to understand how and why that happens or doesn’t happen.

How can more people be inspired to be more involved with current social welfare issues?

To me, what always seems to be helpful is having a connection to the issue. I think barring personal connections, people would not have the same views about things like mental illness or homosexuality. I’m constantly inundated with conversations about social justice and women’s rights because that is my network and community. When you’re outside of that you have to actively consume those issues if you’re not being faced with it personally or in your work. So, I think education can be part of how we combat people not caring or understanding. 

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