Tamara O’Doherty takes a community-based approach to research and teaching
By Christine Palka
Criminology lecturer Tamara O’Doherty challenges the institution of law by observing what’s not functional or fair in its application, especially among marginalized peoples, and seeking to improve it.
She describes her research and teaching philosophy as an empirical, yet community-based approach:
“It is very much about being part of the community and respecting the community instead of keeping our research and knowledge here within academia. We should support knowledge emerging from within the community, whether that’s an Indigenous community, a sex worker community, or students, they are all knowledge sources,” says O’Doherty.
O’Doherty began practicing this grassroots approach in Vancouver’s DTES while undergoing her law degree at the University of British Columbia. Her volunteer work with PACE society exposed her to the inequalities in how Canadian law is applied to its peoples.
“I was naively shocked about how the laws apply so differently to different people. I clearly came from a privileged background, and I thought the law was wonderful. I thought that the law and the police were where we all could turn if we needed any help. It didn’t occur to me that there was a whole group of people who didn’t have that privilege, and that instead, the legal system was a source of oppression or even violence.”
O’Doherty realized that people in the DTES were resistant to the law, particularly policing, and also to academics because of the perceived harms that some of these groups had brought into the communities.
“In particular, after getting involved in the Missing and Murdered women case before police were taking their lives and deaths seriously, I was embarrassed that this was the system that I had supported for so long. I wanted to address the harms done and work to expose different realities that aren’t often voiced. I knew if I was to work within the legal profession I needed to improve these inequalities first.”
In the 16 years since O’Doherty made that decision, she’s made progress in supporting people who face injustice under Canadian law.
Her PhD research specifically focused on the concept of victimization in the Canadian off-street sex industry, with a unique perspective – she collaborated with sex workers on all aspects of each of her major studies.
“We managed do the research in ways where people thought their voices were heard and that they contributed to the creation of knowledge about their experiences. The sex workers challenged dominant and oppressive discourses about their work and suggested that the Canadian commercial sex industry is diverse and complex,” says O’Doherty.
The research contributed to law reform. It was used in the Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford legal case that ultimately stuck down Canada’s prostitution laws in 2013.
Most recently O’Doherty is engaging critically with the effects of studying and working in criminology. She’s concerned about the negative impact of a discipline that continually exposes its people to often tragic or horrific content.
She says the academic community may be able to do more to address these issues through harm reduction strategies. She’s frustrated by the attitude of “just accept it” or “you don’t belong” facing people who have an emotional response to difficult subject matter in the classroom or workplace.
“We don’t talk about the people who are harmed by violence as much as we talk about the legal ramifications, the actual laws themselves and making those links. But, we expect Crown, defence, police, corrections, etc, to be able to deal with these cases of extreme violence daily without any negative repercussion. We know the cases of PTSD are becoming increasingly prevalent. I’m concerned about the impact exposure to harm has on people. Right now we’ve got a multitude of crises experienced by first-responders and we’re not equipped to deal with it.”
That’s why she’s studying harm reduction strategies in the classroom as co-investigator on a recent SFU Teaching and Learning Development Grant.
The project investigates strategies for disseminating lecture materials relating to victimization in ways that respect students who may have experienced violence themselves, or who may otherwise feel emotionally triggered when presented with certain topics and materials. Moreover, the study explores issues of resilience and ways of building resilience while meeting academic objectives.
The study has opened up a dialogue with students and faculty about what strategies are currently used in the classroom setting and the effectiveness of these strategies.
Results from the study will lead to better teaching practices when delivering materials related to victimization. It will also provide valuable insight for helping students who hope to work in front line roles such as police, corrections, social workers, or lawyers.
“There is both a social responsibility and a set of standards you have to meet as a lecturer of law classes. As a lecturer you are a gatekeeper to a knowledge area but you also prepare people for a professional practice,” says O’Doherty.