Strengths-Based Approaches

Can you please give me time to tell you my story?1

What is a strengths-based approach to HIV health promotion for women?

Each individual is able to make the best decisions about how to care for herself. A strengths-based approach respects the autonomy of every woman.

This approach depends on a “respectful connectedness” that comes through listening. Building relationships in a positive environment. Providing information and referrals. Looking at choices – centred in individual expression and aimed to realize self-determination. This is a strengths-based approach.

The relationship between a service provider and service user is that of equals with a respect for each other.

A strengths-based approach is particularly powerful for women who have been stigmatized, marginalized, shamed, judged by others and simply not listened to.

With a strengths-based approach:

  • women voice desires and reach decisions, rather than being told by an “expert” what is best
  • a community of acceptance is created, rather than a culture of blame
  • the equality of participants, staff and volunteers is central, rather than having a structure that depends on a few people having power over others
  • an individual’s strengths form the core of care, rather than looking for failures and shortcomings

Women are strong, experienced, knowledgeable. Through a strengths-based approach, challenges are addressed using an understanding of what each person knows about what works best in her life. The answer comes from within, drawing from the support of those around her.

It is the search for and discovery of the best in people and organizations, then connecting those strengths to the larger world. This focus on the positive is the opposite of the negative, critical process often experienced within institutions, which can lead to a spiralling diagnosis and sense of helplessness.

HIV is the second phase of your life. You still have a long life ahead.2

How would a strengths-based approach work?

  • Everyone has gifts, strengths, successes and passions to build on.
  • We can learn new skills and use our strengths to solve problems.
  • Service providers work to support the abilities that clients already have.
  • Clients are encouraged to apply strengths to all areas of their lives.
  • Together, challenges are examined as opportunities to help each person learn and grow.

Each person does her best. To every situation, an individual brings all of her knowledge, her skills, her larger environment and her history. And she changes. That change can transform her life – and her experience with the people she knows and of the systems she is a part of.

For this kind of change to last in an organization, there needs to be a structural shift. This would be achieved through things like the mission statement, training, policy, and creating an environment that encourages and supports new ways of doing things.3

Trust, respect, thoughtfulness, honesty and a positive perspective are central to a strengths-based approach.

There is nothing to be afraid of, you can live a normal life like everyone else.4

What is an example of a strengths-based approach for women with HIV?

In its mission statement,5 ACT (AIDS Committee of Toronto) includes the following outline of the organization’s strengths-based approach:

  • Honour and recognize the enormous amount of work that we, our partners, and our communities have contributed to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
  • Honour and recognize the resilience of those communities that have been deeply affected by HIV in Toronto.
  • Acknowledge that while the fight is not over, we have had successes in raising awareness, reducing HIV infection, influencing public policy and improving the health and well-being of those living with and at risk of HIV infection.
  • Share the successes and strengths of our work.

Another part of the mission statement calls ACT to “work with individuals and communities to enable them to take an active role in determining, planning and directing their health, care and well-being.” This too is a strengths-based approach.

As service providers, it is important to remember that an individual’s worldview and attitudes are influenced by beliefs and values. A service provider’s role is not to impose a particular point of view on others. Being self-aware can make room to move away from the bias each person brings to a situation.

This allows more space for surprising insights and new ideas.

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1Quote from a participant at the ACT annual wellness retreat for women living with HIV, March 2011
2IBID
3Strength-Based Supervision: Supportive Authority, Intentional Interventions, and Habits of Mind,Chico Martin and Diane Robie for the Vermont Department of Corrections, December 2006
3Strength-Based Supervision: Supportive Authority, Intentional Interventions, and Habits of Mind,Chico Martin and Diane Robie for the Vermont Department of Corrections, December 2006
4Quote from a participant at the ACT annual wellness retreat for women living with HIV, March 2011
5ACT Mission, Vision and Values, online as of June 2011