Silent no more

It is 3:00pm on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. In a few minutes I will go home for a solitary (and introvert nerd) evening of channel surfing through the election returns. I must confess that I will be relieved when it is over, although we cannot be certain of when, exactly, it will be over.

audre lordeFor the past several weeks, I have been pondering and, sometimes haunted by, the words of the late great writer activist, Audre Lorde: “your silence will not protect you.” In the early days of our movement, this was a mantra among survivors―survivors of gender-based violence, racial injustice, and myriad forms of oppression and hate. The phrase continues to surface during times of struggle, protest, and bold creativity. And lately, I have been practically choking on them.

How could it be that I―as someone who craves a better path forward and wants desperately to practice the beloved community we whisper/speak/shout about―have been so silent about the vitriolic atmosphere that enveloped all of us during this election season? I have been anxious and agitated, painfully aware of my leadership of a 501(c)3 that is prohibited from endorsing (or rejecting) or seeming to endorse (or reject) candidates for elected office. There have been daily cautions about what we can and cannot say, and fear about appearing to be partisan. Through it all, I have felt that I compromised my own commitment to speak the truth, to confront misogyny and racism, and to stand with immigrants, people with disabilities, and communities of all faiths. My silence does not protect them. It does not protect you. And it does not protect me.

The presidential campaign brought me to the edge of tolerance. The spin, the analysis, the polling. The recordings, debates, interviews, videos. And all the while, Audre’s voice in my head: “your silence will not protect you.”

Tomorrow, Wednesday, November 9, 2016, I will go to the office. I hope (read that as BIG HOPE) that we can put the election fatigue behind us. I hope we can celebrate a historic moment for what it is. Silent no more. Forward we go.

An open letter to my son

"Almost done"Last Thursday you sent me this picture with the message “almost done.” Your dorm room was clean and you were packing up to come home. You have done more than survive your first year of college; you have done well. You ran with discipline, you took your classes seriously, you made friends, you found your way. I’ve told you I’m proud of you, and here it is in writing. I mean it.

I’m glad you’re home. I always need to look at you, have you close, to know that you’re still whole. These are troubling times.

I had intended to write to you about the Stanford rape case. I want to know if you read the victim’s statement. And what do you make of what Brock Turner’s father said? I had thought I would write about justice and how I don’t think the answer is to give Brock Turner the same sentence a Black man would get. That’s the wrong twist on equality.

I want you to be invincible, especially now in a world that seems so destructive, but I worry about how invincibility contributes to momentary lapses in judgment that can have devastating consequences. I worry about you being hurt. If you are, I will do everything I can to help you heal and be whole again. I worry about you hurting someone else. If you do, I will do everything I can to help you take responsibility and to explore a justice that can help everyone with healing and wholeness.

I was overwhelmed by the last paragraph of the victim’s statement. I read it over and over―her promise to girls everywhere. In spite of what she has been through, she claims her power and extends it to others, with love and with hope. It was a victory of sorts―she will not be defined by what Brock Turner did to her. None of us will. Not the young women you run and party with. And not you. That’s the point. You are not Brock Turner. You can stand with her.

That would have been the end of this letter. But then the shooting in Orlando happened, and I can’t ignore it. The airwaves are exploding with information and opinion. It’s as if the piecing together of timelines and facts will make sense of something that makes no sense at all. There should be no war of attribution here: ISIS, homophobia, domestic violence, guns. The protections we have created, and the ways we enforce them, don’t work. Could any amount of knowledge and any number of warnings have stopped Omar Mateen from doing what he did? Punishment and isolation are not the antidotes for hatred. Already this is coming through with Pride.

My thoughts are not as coherent as I want them to be. All I am trying to say is that your humanity has been compromised by Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. There are limits to what a mother’s fierce love for her son can provide. Until you return to campus for your sophomore year, I can have the illusion of making the world right for you and keeping you whole. Today that is what I have. I’m glad you’re home.

My oh my!

In the words of Seattle Mariners late broadcaster, Dave Niehaus, “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!”

I don’t believe it. That statement is alive and well right now. From the mundane (the color of my son’s hair―spoiler alert: brown dyed blonde turned orange) to the amazing (have you noticed that our Mariners AND the Chicago Cubs sit atop their respective divisions?) to the state of the union (hey, this is my country too!). It’s a lot to take in, and nearly impossible to make sense of.

I’m in the business of sense-making. I prefer to observe and listen and think before I proclaim my sense of any given situation or issue. And the truth is that, while people often expect me to come forth with a radical sense, where I almost always land is in the realm of common sense. I’m a linear, practical gal, and there is way too much going on―in this time, in this country―that violates common sense.

I can live with my son’s orange hair, because it is attached deep down to his good heart. And this really could be the year of a Mariners-Cubs World Series. I can definitely live with that. But what of the state of our union? The volatility, extremism, political machinations, and hate? These are hard for me because they don’t make sense.

2016 is an important year. We need all eyes on North Carolina, all ears in electoral and ballot debates, and all hands on deck. We must emerge with a common sense. That’s all I ask.

For my son and all children:

For my Mariners and all fans:

For my people and our world:

 

 

 

Potty talk

Last week, I spent some time on the campus of Washington State University in Pullman. I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual Women of Distinction luncheon, the theme of which was “Forming a More Perfect Union: Women in Public Service and Government.”

Believe it or not, I don’t talk about politics very much. It’s not in my wheelhouse to convert intuition and passion into the law of the land. I wish it was, but I know I would worry about losing my way, my self, to the process. As I prepared for the WSU event, my mind was buzzing and my heart ached with the political crises we face here and around the world.

I thought about my travels in India 5 years ago. There I had the opportunity to meet with activists whose strategic approach to political organizing I will never forget. Their belief that access to a toilet is central to a woman’s dignity was the centerpiece of the “water taps and toilets” campaign, in which they visited rural, impoverished, unplumbed communities and installed water wells and toilets. They also educated women about civics, registered them to vote, and encouraged them to bring their voices to the demand for women’s rights and equality.

Toilet-paper-roll-patentHere in the U.S. the relationship between politics and access to toilets appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Here we have a political system being used to control and restrict access, to deny what should be a fundamental right, to violate the dignity and privacy of transgender people, and to undermine our collective humanity. Witness what happened last week in North Carolina and Kansas. We must ask ourselves not only about the content of these policies, but also about the political maneuvering that produced them.

It’s easy to say that’s North Carolina and that’s Kansas and that’s NOT Washington. But the only way to be sure is to be vigilant. Our political muscle can be flexed with more than voting. We can make sure that our elected officials remember that WE elected them and they represent US, and we can do everything in our power to make sure that what they do is who we are.

I never imagined my work would lead me to think so much about toilets. I didn’t know they could be so inspiring or so troubling—either way a source of political organizing and, for me, irony.

I didn’t talk about toilets at WSU—people were eating lunch—but I did talk about politics. Here is some of what I said:

“I hope we will form a more perfect union, and deliver on the constitutional vision of justice, domestic tranquility, a common defence, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for the generations to come. In the formation of this union, we should heed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  that begins with “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” We have the power to refashion our union. We do. There’s no doubt it’s a heavy lift, and I know it will not happen in my lifetime. But for the granddaughters of my grandchildren, I keep this union in front of me every day.”

Football gets it right

Mizzou-logoThis Saturday, I’ll be cheering for the Mizzou Tigers. The entire team will take the field to play a game that might not have happened. Earlier this week, 30 players said they would not play. Thirty players who supported the growing unrest on campus in the wake of the administration’s refusal to address racism and anti-Semitism throughout the University of Missouri system. Thirty players who were concerned about a fellow student’s hunger strike. Thirty players who said: We love the game, but at the end of the day, it’s just that—a game.

They knew that the Board of Curators, alumni, and team boosters would not sit still for a forfeiture loss of $1 million dollars. They knew that nearby Ferguson was not random. And they took a stand. The next day, University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe resigned, and the Columbia campus chancellor quickly followed. The Board of Curators has vowed to take immediate steps to interrupt patterns of hatred and violence that have disrupted the school since it was desegregated in 1950.

NFL players should take note. If you care about injustice in your community, take a Sunday or a Monday or a Thursday off. If you’re sick of the violence—racial violence, gender violence, anti-immigrant violence, etc.—boycott your own game. Maybe your coaches will support you. And maybe your fans will too. I know I will.

#BlackLivesMatter

When I was a child, every year at about this time I would wait for the “World Book Encyclopedia Year Book” to be delivered to our house. When it arrived, I would skim it cover to cover, examine the pictures, and read the chapters on sports and science. For me, it was an annual crash course in world events. Once I closed the book, I was ready for the next year. I miss that Year Book. I miss the pictures. I miss the ritual of considering what it means to be human.

Everything happens now in real time. See it, post it, comment, move on. On January 1st, we were already looking at what happened on January 1st. But I want to go back to 2014…

fergusonhug

This picture grabbed me, as did the story. It is a heartwarming, heart-tugging, snapshot of humanity. It also begs us to reconcile a most discomfiting combination of rage, hope, resistance, trust, cynicism, and love. Shortly after I saw it, I had the opportunity to join in #BlackLivesMatter, which lifts up, again, this complexity of emotions.

No mother wants to bury her son. Not Trina Greene. And not the mothers of Devonte Hart. Instead of spending the next few minutes reading more about what I think, please just look at the picture and watch the video again. And then consider what it means to be human.

In 2014 we said that Black Lives Matter. In 2015, let’s make sure they do.

Home for the holidays

nanshouseThis is my house. Even though I don’t spend as much time in it as I would like to, it is my anchor, my refuge, my home. I am particularly aware of—and grateful for—it at this time of year. When it’s cold and dark and chaotic outside, what’s inside is stable and familiar. During the next week, my house will be filled with family and friends, too much food, and traditions that define my observance of Christmas and the start of a new year. I will sleep in, watch movies on demand, knit, let my dog break a few rules (e.g., no sitting on the couch), pester my teenage son into multisyllabic conversation, and maybe even catch up on some overdue chores.

I don’t want to over-think this blog post. In fact, I need to take a break from thinking. And if you are reading this, my guess is that you might need a break too. A colleague recently told me that her “head hurts from thinking.” And do you know what? I believed her. Sometimes mine does too.

One of my favorite movement anthems is Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Ella’s Song” which starts with “we who believe in freedom shall not rest…until it comes.” Actually, we who believe in freedom must rest. Freedom is going to take awhile, and it needs us, and so we must allow ourselves to rest.

Home is where I rest. It is the kind of home that I believe every person deserves to have. Oops, I’m starting to think again.

As we jettison toward 2014, I wish for you the comforts of home, the blessing of rest and, of course, peace on earth.

An extraordinary day

At our conference last week, we celebrated the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and honored Deborah Parker for her strength and leadership. The following is from a speech given by our Executive Director, Nan Stoops.Homepage-Graphic-Conference2013

On February 28 of this year, Congress passed a bill that renewed the Violence Against Women Act. What might have been a somewhat ordinary day on the hill was an extraordinary day for survivors and advocates across the country. We had gone 500 days without VAWA. Not much changed during those 500 days, and yet, in my mind, everything changed.

In my 35 years of doing anti-violence work, I have witnessed and participated in periods of incredible hardship and divisiveness. Times when we compromised and then looked the other way. Times when we failed to listen to each other. Times when we could not, or would not, build the bridges that we say we want and know we need.

Not this time. This time we got it right. This time we were willing to wait 500 days. And in those 500 days, I think we realized that we would go another 500 if we had to. Because we developed the political will and principled strategy that we knew would eventually prevail. We stopped building protections for some at the expense of others. We acknowledged the unique challenges experienced by LGBT and immigrant survivors. And we finally recognized tribal authority over non-tribal members when they commit domestic violence on tribal land.

The legal precedent with respect to tribal sovereignty is significant. So too is the humanity of it. With the passage of VAWA, we broke with the tradition of this country. We were led by our Native sisters and brothers, and we joined with countless organizations to create a pathway for securing the sovereign rights of the indigenous people of this country.

I watched CSPAN on the morning of February 28th. I followed the procedural maneuvers, and I watched the roll call vote. When it was apparent that there were enough votes, I texted Grace (our public policy coordinator) to confirm, and then I just sat there and whispered “wow.” It was as if all of the years and all of the work converged into a moment. We had stayed on the side of “justice for all,” and we had won.

State and federal laws addressing violence against women start with the courage of survivors. The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA was no exception. There was significant leadership from our state. Our policy coordinator, Grace Huang worked practically full time drafting and analyzing the 800 pages of VAWA. All of you responded whenever we asked you to make calls. And when the bill failed to pass, you called again. And again. And again.

But in the end, there is one woman who made all the difference, and we honor her today.

At this time, I’d like to invite our Native sisters and brothers to join me on stage. We are fortunate to have here with us the woman whose courage, truth-telling, vision, and determination paved the way for the historic passage of the Violence Against Women Act. I am profoundly honored to introduce the Vice Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribe, Deborah Parker.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence recognizes Deborah Parker, Vice Chair of the Tulalip Tribe for your strength, courage and leadership.

“This is your day. This is the day of the advocates, the day of the survivors. This is your victory.” – President Barack Obama, March 7, 2013

National Alliance to End Homelessness speech

The following is from a speech given by our Executive Director, Nan Stoops, at last week’s National Alliance To End Homelessness Conference.

My organization has 23 employees working in two locations. Every day, in both offices, we gather at almost exactly noon to eat lunch together. Regardless of how busy and chaotic the day is, we stop, get food, and sit down for an hour of book reviews, parenting follies, fashion advice, recipe sharing, baseball statistics, celebrity gossip, and so on. What started as a simple mealtime ritual has evolved into the centerpiece of our organizational culture and the values we hold for our work.

We all need sustenance and community. They give us life.

In 1977, I began volunteering at King County Rape Relief. In 1982, I was hired for the graveyard shift at New Beginnings Shelter for Battered Women. Those years were a time when I believed that my anger and energy and passion would help bring an end to violence against women.

I did not imagine that I would do this work for 35 years (and counting), nor that it would become as complicated as it has, nor that I would settle for a longer view and for the fact that violence probably will not end in my lifetime. I did not imagine the stories I would hear, the resistance I would encounter, and the fear, degradation, and cruelty I would witness.

I also did not imagine coming face to face with courage, resilience, and the will to live and love against all odds. I did not imagine working with people who personify what had been, for me, an academic understanding of how race, class, and gender intersect in this country. And I never imagined the vision, grace, dignity, and friendships that accompany this work.

My early failures of imagination have been replaced by a continuous cycle of curiosity, learning, and change. Right now, I am extremely curious, because I think change is in the wind. This is a very interesting time in the domestic violence “field.” The economy is bad. The political landscape isn’t much better. The demographics of our service population are fluctuating. And we are challenged by generational realities that include leadership and staff turnover in programs and, more important, the long-term impact of abuse that devastates entire families and communities.

I want to share my thoughts about a question that many of us are pondering. Because I’m not an expert on homelessness, I will stay mostly in the familiar territory of domestic violence. But I believe we have a lot in common, and I hope my thinking will resonate with you.

The question is this:  Do the services we constructed 35 years ago respond to the needs that survivors have today?

35 years ago, domestic violence was a private family matter. Victims were mostly silent and, when they dared to speak, they experienced both blame and shame. There were no laws with which to hold abusers accountable, and hastily organized crisis lines and safe homes were ill-equipped to handle the growing demand.

The original purpose of domestic violence emergency shelter was to provide safety and break isolation. Communal living made sense: women could share meals, take care of each other’s children, and participate in support groups where they could begin to rebuild their lives. They could get on AFDC within two weeks, and many left shelters with welfare checks, food stamps, and medical coupons in hand.

If I sound nostalgic, I don’t mean to. Most shelters were run-down and minimally furnished. Staff were compassionate, but overworked, underpaid, and consumed by the combination of the scope of the problem and continued public apathy. A social worker once said that shelter workers during that time exhibited the same symptoms that Amnesty International attributes to prisoners of war.

Today, in this country, there are more than 3,000 domestic violence shelter and advocacy organizations. When I look at the service models we have now, I am astonished by their complexity. And this is where I think the paths of domestic violence and homelessness really begin to merge or, at the very least, intersect in a big way.

Most domestic violence agencies have multiple funding contracts, each with its own programmatic and administrative obligations. In the name of compliance and efficiency, these obligations often get passed on to survivors in the form of shelter rules and mandatory participation. In the extreme, we hear about survivors returning home because it’s easier to be with an abuser than it is to live in shelter.

The domestic violence shelter population is changing. It’s more diverse in all ways, and it reflects the increasing hardships that people are struggling with; poverty and homelessness, substance abuse and addiction, trauma and PTSD, and entanglements with the child welfare, immigration, and criminal justice systems. This is a challenging, and sometimes volatile mix to house under one roof, and, again, we hear about survivors returning home, or never coming to shelter in the first place.

It may seem like I’m airing our dirty shelter laundry. But the truth is this: it’s time to think critically about the services we offer, and who better to do this thinking than us?

Domestic violence emergency shelter does save lives. It’s a refuge, a resource, and a respite for many. It’s also costly, sometimes chaotic, and almost always, limited in the time, space, and material assistance it can provide. And so, we need to preserve the best of what shelter has to offer and, at the same time, explore and test new strategies.

Here in Washington, we are re-considering shelter in three ways. And three and a half years ago, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we began a Domestic Violence Housing First project, in which 13 community and tribal based agencies are providing housing support services as an integral part of their domestic violence programming.

When we first started this work, one skeptical director said to me, “since when are we in the business of housing?” I was so surprised by the question that I didn’t know what to say, but in the three years since, we have studied the research, gathered our own data, formed new partnerships, and heard from survivors—all pointing to an answer of “how could we not be?”

I asked our Domestic Violence Housing First staff to help me prepare for today, and they gave me pages and pages of statistics, citations, analysis, and survivors’ stories and quotes, most of it in eight point font. I can’t possibly summarize it all, but let me call out the items that I find most striking and that I believe illustrate how short and straight the line is between domestic violence and homelessness.

Our people are the same:

  • The 2010 Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness cites “among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence.”
  • In the HUD 2012 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program Point in Time count, victims of domestic violence were the largest subpopulation of homeless persons here in Washington State.

The choices are untenable:

  • Domestic violence victims who are mothers will often choose stable housing with violence over unstable housing without violence. Violence directed at children is usually what precipitates leaving the home.
  • Efforts to escape domestic violence can result in loss of job, housing, healthcare, childcare, and access to a partner’s income. In fact, many survivors become homeless either during or after a domestic violence crisis.

Housing stability is essential:

  • Domestic violence coupled with housing instability results in high rates of depression and PTSD. In the SHARE study, the mean PTSD score for the domestic violence survivor population interviewed was equal to or higher than scores of returning combat veterans.
  • Conversely, the SHARE study reported that 18 months of stable housing resulted in dramatic decreases in danger levels for women and children, reduced depression and PTSD, and improved health and quality of life. As one survivor said, “It’s not just housing; it’s a sense of identity.”

These factoids are only a sample of what we have in common. There is so much to learn about the overlapping worlds of homelessness and domestic violence, and the ways that the same people navigate our respective services. We must partner well with each other. As HEARTH Act implementation continues, we need to work together on coordinated entry, resource distribution, and policy advocacy. We can do cross-training and talk about emerging trends, such as the increasing numbers of youth and veterans that need assistance. We can help each other understand how homelessness intensifies danger, and how safety intensifies stability. We can acknowledge how rapid re-housing with individualized support and advocacy is aligned with our fundamental value of self-determination. And we should agree that the whole of our work is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

I want to close by telling you a little bit about my 16 year old son Hanson. Hanson is a creature of habit. He loves routine. During the school year, Hanson’s days go like this. His i-phone alarm goes off at 6:15, he showers and gets dressed, eats the same breakfast of eggs, grits, fruit, and a power muffin, grabs his backpack, and runs to school to practice with the jazz band. He goes to all of his classes—at least I think he does—he runs track and works out, and gets home at 5:00. He does homework, eats dinner, loads the dishwasher, watches a little TV, brushes his teeth, jams his retainer into his mouth, and goes to bed at 9:00 in the same clothes he’s been wearing all day.

That’s what he does. Every day. It’s predictable and mostly unremarkable. Except for this. To him, I’m sure it’s also inevitable. Even though I frequently lecture him about his good fortune, and not taking it for granted, and being responsible, having compassion, and paying forward—to which he replies “yup, yup, yup, yup and yup”—I think he still experiences his day, and everything in it, as inevitable.

You and I know far too many people for whom violence, homelessness, hunger, and loneliness are inevitable. Our work together is about changing that inevitability. It is about making Hanson’s day possible for everyone. It is our challenge and our promise. It is lunch. It is community. It is the boldness to imagine.

High school football highlight

Did you happen to see that Ike Ditzenberger was hospitalized with severe pneumonia? For those of you who don’t know Ike, he is a local teenager here in Washington State who attends high school in Snohomish. The video of his touchdown during a high school football game a couple of years ago went viral, and he won the Seattle Children’s Inspirational Youth Award. Check out his acceptance speech—it’s well worth the 5 minutes of your time.

What caught my attention with his recent near-fatal health scare, was how his teammates have been with him every step of the way. Ike experiences the beloved community—with his team and their opponents, in his school, and with family and neighbors. Imagine if every teenager had this. Imagine.