Lisa Johnson

Doctor of Laws
Monday 22 July 2019 - Orator: Professor Marianne Hester


Lisa Johnson is the Manager of  the National Domestic Violence Helpline that Women’s Aid runs with Refuge. As some of you may know, Women’s Aid is the umbrella organisation for services across England that support victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The National Helpline is a crucial aspect of that support work.

But before I say more about Lisa’s contribution, I want to extend a warm welcome to the staff and volunteers from the National Domestic Violence Helpline and many of the 300-plus specialist domestic violence services across England who are joining us for this special occasion via the online live streaming.

Lisa Johnson has played a crucial role in Domestic Violence Helpline since the mid-1990s. By then, she had already worked in the field of mental health and was one of those special people who entered higher education via an Access course. But 23 years ago she saw an advert – what she describes as a tiny postage stamp, that could easily have been missed – asking for volunteers for Women’s Aid. This resonated with her own experience of growing up with, and being a survivor of, domestic abuse. She thus began, in 1996, as a volunteer at the Women’s Aid Federation of England helpline here in Bristol, initially contributing a few hours a week to listening to and supporting callers.

It made her realise the immense power there is in volunteering, both for the volunteer and for the domestic abuse sector. And volunteering provided her with opportunities to develop a whole new career, becoming a member of the Women’s Aid staff from 1999.

Initially Lisa undertook a range of jobs and activities in Women’s Aid, but she decided to concentrate on the national helpline. When I say “helpline” that sounds quite grand, but in those days it consisted of an office with a few phones, an A4 ringbinder containing contact details for the services which existed at that time, and a whiteboard used to coordinate the referrals. Every morning, staff would call the services in the ringbinder to see what refuge space they had available and the information was added to the whiteboards or removed as women and children were referred to those spaces.

Lisa has overseen the transformation of the helpline from those few phones, a ring binder, and a whiteboard to an internationally renowned helpline which uses technology and innovation to better support those who call. The helpline is now accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and responds to over 100,000 callers per year.

As the CEO of Women’s Aid has said: “Lisa’s commitment … is totally unwavering. She recognises the importance of every detail, from the caller’s first response, through to the value of their collective experience and voice in influencing national policy – and she makes sure that they do have a voice at every level.”

Lisa is regularly contacted by international colleagues for advice about running the helpline, and has recently been liaising with the Falkland Islands to ensure that women there can access a helpline service, as there are none available locally.

Lisa also manages two further projects: ”No Woman Turned Away” which supports victim-survivors who are facing additional barriers, and last year supported 300 women; and the Survivors Forum, an online peer support community where those impacted by domestic violence can support one another. Last year 14,000 messages were posted on the Forum.

Over the years Lisa has also contributed to the life of students and staff at this University, helping them to develop broader skills and to contribute to society in many different ways. Both students and staff from the University have been involved with the helpline and benefited from Lisa’s knowledge, expertise and support.

As one previous volunteer from the University said:

“I shadowed Lisa when training and learnt so much from her about how to engage with the caller, how to respond to what you are being told, and that was something that you wouldn’t have been able to learn in a classroom. ….Also, she is a really good laugh which is really important when doing this kind of work. There was often laughter in the staffroom as people let off steam and that was down to atmosphere that Lisa created”.

Finally, I want to mention Lisa’s contribution to our research here at Bristol. We are a research-led university, and we often rely on partners beyond the academy who understand the value of research. Over the years Lisa and her team have taken part in and supported at least eight of our research projects, including work on domestic violence and military families, the impact of abuse on family and friends, so-called honour-based violence, domestic violence and family courts, victim-survivors’ perspectives on justice, and the needs of survivors facing disabilities.

Lisa is an outstanding individual who has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to supporting victims of domestic violence, their children and their families. She is a champion of research and values the contribution which research knowledge can make to wider society.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Lisa Johnson as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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