College bound

It is senior year of high school for my twin daughters and I find myself talking about college applications with all kinds of people. I was getting my nails done when the owner of the salon―a Vietnamese immigrant―asked me for information about the application process and due dates. She was relying on her son to translate and she wasn’t sure that she was getting all the information she needed. It took me several days, but I managed to find a free college counseling resource that could communicate in Vietnamese.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to navigate this process when English is your second language. We had to hire a college counselor to help us. We filled out 28 pages of different financial aid forms. We checked our daughters’ online applications and read their college essay questions. Even with the resources, time, and teamwork at our disposal, it was still hard.

And what about people who have another whole layer of chaos in their lives? How do you manage this transition in your child’s life if you are in an abusive relationship? What if you have to anticipate and work around a partner who humiliates and controls you? When all your decisions are undermined by your partner, how can you figure out what questions to ask and if there is help to get answers?

College boundSending your kid to college is a dream for many parents, and it can feel even more pressing if it is their ticket out of an abusive home. But that’s not possible if it takes professional help just to fill out the forms. We can change this system and we must make it accessible. The vision of all girls moving forward depends on us.

The washing machine story

A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend time with advocates from across Washington to talk about how we approach our work with survivors. I was reminded of two things: advocates are doing incredible work; and that work is as unique as the person sitting across from them. We call it survivor-centered advocacy. What does that mean?

  • listening deeply to survivors about what is most important to them;
  • recognizing what they see as their priorities;
  • and working with them to find solutions.

Here’s a great example:

And here it is in Spanish:

Living in a state of freedom

You may wonder why I’m always blogging about emergency contraception (EC) and birth control. What does it have to do with domestic violence? Why would an advocate need to talk about this with a survivor of abuse? And why should domestic violence programs have EC, pregnancy tests, and condoms available on site?

If you have never experienced it, it might be hard to understand how birth control sabotage, or reproductive or sexual coercion, is an incredibly powerful way to exert power and control over someone. Imagine someone flushing your pills down the toilet or poking holes in a condom. What about stopping you from getting to the clinic to get your Depo shot? Or forcibly pulling out your IUD by the strings? If you’re in an abusive relationship, negotiations around birth control and whether to have—or not have—children might happen without your opinion being respected or even considered. The harm of this may be invisible to an outsider, but when survivors of abuse are not allowed to make their own decisions about pregnancy, they lose control over the trajectory of their life and their connection to the abuser. And they have to constantly weigh the risks of any act of resistance, any attempt at independence.

Domestic violence advocates know that survivors coming to their programs are experiencing a range of abusive behaviors. But even if they are experiencing reproductive or sexual coercion, it is usually not something they bring up. If we want long-term solutions for survivors and their children, then we need to bring it up. Offering EC and birth control information, and having it available on site, is a liberatory act.

We need to offer it because Plan B or Levonorgestrel (emergency contraception) is effective within five days after unprotected intercourse and is available to anyone, no matter age or gender, without a prescription. We need to offer it so that survivors know we are comfortable talking about sex, birth control (especially forms that are less likely to be felt by a partner), and reproductive health. We need to offer it because access to timely information and practical help can change the circumstances of someone’s life. And we need to offer it because advocacy is about supporting someone to determine their own life—to live in a state of freedom.

A flock of birds and the words "I'm Free"

This equation is impossible

1-plus-1-equals-3-equationI read this editorial, A Toxic Work World, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I have 18-year-old twin daughters that I am about to launch into college, and I wonder what kind of world I am sending them into. I imagine my children getting a job, building their careers, providing for their families. But what if it is a low wage job? They will be lucky to get sick time and enough hours to make ends meet. What happens if someone gets sick? Or even if they are working in a lucrative career, it’s hard to succeed unless you live as if you are childless and don’t have any family members who need you. Most of our workplaces are still structured as if there is someone at home, usually a woman, providing free care for children and elder family members. Low wage or high wage earner, this equation is impossible.

Then I think about the many women I’ve worked with over the years who are in a battering or coercive relationship. When you need to get a job to help secure your freedom, what are your options? Are we telling them that they might as well go back home, because at least they can provide for their children and keep a roof over their head?

Let’s stop pretending that we are productive and humane when we force people to work when they are sick, quit their jobs to take care of others, work longer regardless of family responsibilities, and make it harder for people in abusive relationships to achieve financial independence. I don’t want an illusion of economic independence for my daughters, or for anyone.

What I want is a work environment that nurtures your soul, supports your family responsibilities, and values your loyalty and evolving experience and skills. Organizing for change in the workplace structure doesn’t have to be all or nothing—think about the recent success of the Seattle School teachers strike. But we do have to get clear about what we want. One thing I am clear about—our lives and our communities are intertwined. No one is untouched and that is a deep and giving source of power.

Ultimately, I have faith in people

Photo by Dread Scott
Photo by Dread Scott

During a week of searing sadness, tiredness, and anger, I am looking for a way to move forward. I find myself thinking about the people around me in the grocery store, standing on the bus, sitting on blankets at the farmer’s market, the faces of my children. These are the people I am with in my ordinary day … this is the “American public.” I wonder about what it takes to move public opinion. This week, I have read brilliant, challenging, and inspirational writing about the racist murders in Charleston. I believe that we are all grappling with the failure to openly dialogue about racism, acknowledge historic symbols of racism, and dismantle systems that perpetuate racism. What makes individuals risk offending those dear to them, speak up, do something different, make a change?

For me, learning from others shapes my thinking and moves me to act. I am not talking about grand gestures, but educating myself so I can figure out what to talk about with my children, neighbors, family members, and elected representatives. These are a few of the posts that have taught me this week:

On Faith, Forgiveness and Flags

Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof

Confederate Flags and Institutional Racism

Reading these helped me grasp the enormity of what is ahead and reminded me of the decency in people. Ultimately, I do have faith that we will make change. This is the way forward for me.

Sold out

“Is having no option to leave the same as making a decision to stay?” Jill Davies posed this question at a training this week. She offered this analogy: “If all the tickets to a Stevie Wonder concert were sold out, does that mean you made a decision not to go?” Heck no! I missed Stevie’s concert when I was 19 and I’ve been sad about it ever since!sold-out-ticket

We have to change our assumptions about survivors who can’t or don’t leave their abusive partner. Most of our solutions for survivors of abuse are based on ending the relationship, but that ignores their reality. Survivors often have ongoing contact with their abusive partner for many reasons—a big one is children. As Jill reiterates, “Leaving is not the answer to domestic violence, reducing violent behavior is.” Leaving might be a part of the strategy to reduce violent behavior but it is a strategy not the strategy.

At that training, I promised to never again say a survivor is in denial or minimizing (code for “she’s not doing what I think she should be doing or she doesn’t get how bad things are”). Any strategy that’s going to help a survivor of abuse must respect her decisions about what works for her and her family.

And I’m happy to report that I got to catch Stevie in concert last year.

 

Futures Without Violence Leadership Award

Futures Without Violence recently presented me and the organization I work for the Futures Without Violence Leadership Award at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.  Futures Without Violence called out how our “efforts bridge the gap between advocates and health care providers, and create programs that have improved the lives and safety of countless victims of abuse.” What follows is the speech I gave when presented with this honor.

Leigh-award

I want to thank Futures Without Violence for this award. I also congratulate the other recipients and thank you for your transformative work.

It is humbling to receive this award and I share it with all of you. Each one of us works every day for women, children, and men to have the access and care they deserve.

We are a mighty group and I am so proud to be here with you.

After so many years of advocating for survivors of abuse and working for policies and practices that are shaped by their experiences, I find myself circling back to some of the most important foundations we have.

Self-determination, liberation, bodily-integrity, the freedom to do the things we want—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

When I think about what it means to do advocacy, what comes immediately to mind are my twin daughters, Basha and Rebekah.

Four years ago, they were Bat Mitzvahed. And as part of the ceremony, they had to write and deliver speeches about the Torah passages that marked their day.  Reflecting on the teachings and finding contemporary meaning.

Two young women with two singular perspectives. Basha talked about Glee (which she watched obsessively at the time). What she took from the show was not just the drama, fabulous singing, and the outfits—what she took were lessons about bullying and homophobia and young people’s experiences both of injustice and of justice.

Rebekah wrestled with her understanding of living an ethical life. What she came to realize is the importance of having an integrity that allows you to be whole, and directs you to live—publically as you do privately.

I am grateful my daughters had this experience. To think seriously, to speak seriously, to have adults listen and take them seriously.

Fast forward to 17, Basha and Rebekah have helped to organize a Feminist Union at their high school. Every week 30 teens show up, 1/3 of them boys, to hang out and talk. They talk about street harassment, rape culture, healthy relationships, international feminism, and gender equality.

That my daughters have had these experiences is a remarkable gift. It is all we want for every girl and every boy. In my work, and our Coalition’s work, we see the power of partnerships that give women and girls, men and boys, the opportunity to exercise their choices, to write their own futures. And, have lives filled with dignity.

I am so very proud to be a part of this movement—and believe that all of us, together, are creating a world of health and happiness, and justice and hope.

Thank you.

To see, to speak, to persuade

Last week I was sitting through the jury selection process for a domestic violence related-crime. Day one: I was questioned alone about where I worked (spoiler alert—the Washington State juryCoalition Against Domestic Violence). Do I know prosecutors? Do we work together? Yes, and yet I am not dismissed. Day two: I realize I am intentionally being kept on by both the prosecution and defense. They ask me questions and see how others react. My role is either educator or provocateur. At first I’m annoyed, but then I realize I’m in a focus group I could never assemble. I get to listen to a group of random adults talking about domestic violence.

I watched how easily the entire group was swayed by the person leading the conversation. The defense attorney told a story about his young children fighting. It is patronizing to suggest that kids’ fights are comparable to one adult using coercion against another to control them. Yet nods of understanding and a feeling of concurrence with the defense swept the room. Throughout the day the defense attorney kept referring back to this story. Each time enforcing the idea of domestic violence as a simple fight rather than the complex reality of how fear and power dynamics affect a person’s options, autonomy, and safety.

When it was the prosecutor’s turn, he asked why someone who experienced abuse might stay in a relationship. The responses felt like a psycho-analysis of the alleged victim’s behavior. She is co-dependent, in a love/hate relationship, grew up in an abusive home. I spoke up, suggesting that she may have tried to leave and was not able to get help, or her partner threatened to hurt her or her family unless she returned home, or she did not have enough cash immediately available for an apartment. The room is with me now, heads nodding.

In the end, no surprise, I am not picked to be on the jury. I think everyone there would agree that violence against your intimate partner is unacceptable—but everyone had a different understanding of what that actually looked like and who should be held accountable. It was too easy to judge the victim’s behavior and too hard to understand all the ways an abuser’s tactics can impact their partner.

Yay for feminist teens!

I spend my life working on women’s rights, so when I heard my daughters talking about the Feminist Union club at their high school I couldn’t wait to hear more!  What on earth was this? Their answers filled me with joy! Sixty-six people showed up (about 1/3 young men)—the room was overflowing into the hallway.TIWAFLL-Shirt

The first meeting was action-packed. They all answered the question: “What is the first word you think of when you hear the word feminism or feminist?” My girls said “It was actually kind of fun,” and a chorus of “Ooooh, that is hella deep” spontaneously erupted over and over again. Then they watched 50 reasons why I am a Feminist and shared their own similar experiences.

Future topics were suggested ranging from what feminism looks like in other societies to misconceptions about feminism and domestic violence. Ground rules were covered and they all agreed: you don’t have to identify as a feminist now; maybe you will eventually, but it’s okay if you don’t.

And they even made some real change. After one of their teachers overheard them discussing gender neutral language: “Try not to say guys for everyone. Try saying beings, peeps, y’all, people, beans instead,” he changed his usual “See ya later guys” to “See ya everyone” as his class ended.

I am so proud of the young people who have organized the group and are coming together. So much happened in 30 minutes. Why can’t I get this much done in a workday? Our community is in good hands with this rising group of thoughtful leaders!

The question can make all the difference

Just imagine you are sitting in your doctor’s office waiting for the doctor and chatting with the medical assistant. Maybe it’s your yearly physical or maybe this is your first visit and you just want antibiotics for a relentless chest cold. All of a sudden she starts running through this list of questions:

  • Have you ever been emotionally or physically abused by your partner or someone important to you?
  • Within the last year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?
  • Since you’ve been pregnant, have you been slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?

I would probably answer “no” to all of these questions even if I was experiencing abuse. It is so alienating to boil down the complexities of any relationship to these questions. And besides after I answer these questions, reproductive-coersion-flyerwhat happens? Where does this information go? Will you look at me differently? Judge me and my partner? Do you have any help to offer if I take a risk and tell you anything?

Current healthcare research shows that both finding the right way to ask and connecting a patient to resources is the two-step golden ticket for effective support.

Offering support starts with showing you have some idea about what living in a coercive and abusive relationship might feel like. Futures Without Violence offers a Safety Card with these questions:

Ask yourself: Are you in a healthy relationship?

  • Is my partner willing to communicate openly when there are problems?
  • Does my partner give me space to spend time with other people?
  • Is my partner kind and supportive?

If you answered YES to these questions, it is likely that you are in a healthy relationship. Studies show that this kind of relationship leads to better physical and mental health, longer life, and better outcomes for your children.

Ask yourself: Are you in an unhealthy relationship?

  • Does my partner shame me or humiliate me in front of others or in private?
  • Does my partner control where I go, who I talk to, and how I spend money?
  • Has my partner hurt or threatened me, or forced me to have sex?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, your health and safety may be in danger.

Their information also includes national hotline resources and where to get advocacy services.

I may still hesitate to answer these questions, but I know that the person in front of me is ready to have a deeper conversation and has some resources. Screening for, asking about, or listening for abuse in a relationship is not an end in itself. Providing support and connection is what survivors tell us they want.

If healthcare professionals really want to help, they have to take the time to learn the right questions and get comfortable connecting their patients to advocacy services. Consider helping by taking a stack of Safety Cards (they’re free) to your next doctor’s appointment.