Too often, we try to help a community by bringing in outside solutions. Experience shows that it rarely works.
Talking About Violence and Relationships
Too often, we try to help a community by bringing in outside solutions. Experience shows that it rarely works.
This week we’re sharing a post from Eleanor Powell, our summer intern.
I don’t think I know anybody who could argue that the first six months of 2016 have been the best months of their lives. The continued police brutality against black Americans, the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States, a rise in blatant xenophobia—all these things have made it hard to be positive and keep fighting for justice.
So, here are five things I have been trying to think about when everything else seems hopeless:
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?
Here’s a great example:
And here it is in Spanish:
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.
School has finally started here in Seattle!
You might have heard that Seattle schools didn’t start on time because the district and the teachers disagreed on several contract issues. So the teachers went on strike for our kids and our schools. As the mother of a first grader I’ve been scrambling to secure child care, but I support our teachers.
The thing that made this strike a bit unusual (as far as teacher strikes go) was the huge amount of support teachers received from parents and communities. I’m not talking about a handful of parents bringing brownies to the picket lines. I’m talking about district-wide grassroots organizing. Parents, students, and community members came out strong—they walked picket lines with teachers, held their own march, and kept teachers supplied with food, water, and that liquid sunshine known as coffee.
Neighborhoods with lots of support trekked across the city to places with less and provided food and supplies there. Neighborhood childcare collectives popped up. An organization started by a couple of parents called Soup for Teachers exploded on Facebook as the place for parents to not only organize lunches for teachers, but also a place for accurate and timely updates on how the negotiations were progressing.
So kids, let’s review what we’ve learned from this strike about community engagement:
Awesome! Guess what? Violence in our homes is also a pressing and important issue affecting all of us. How can we take what we’ve learned from the strike and apply it to supporting survivors, holding abusers accountable, and promoting healing for all?
August is typically a very slow, quiet month for me. Everyone is out on their summer vacation, the office is nearly empty, and my work load is low. But this August was different and by the time my own vacation approached, I felt overwhelmed and overloaded. There was a lot of work I didn’t have time to complete and I knew there would be more waiting for me when I got back. There were a few moments when I seriously considered canceling my vacation. But I didn’t. I packed my bags, and piled into a minivan with my husband, our best friends, two dogs, and supplies for the week. We hit the road to Iowa! The first two days I responded to emails and stressed about all the work I wasn’t doing. The morning of day three, when I woke in the Badlands to bison rolling in the dirt, it hit me: I needed a time out.
As a child I got a time out when I did something I wasn’t supposed to. My parents sent me to my room to cool off and think about my actions. This is not a practice I’ve self-employed often but like kids can get wrapped up in emotion and mischievousness, I had become trapped by the stress of the daily grind, to-do lists, seemingly endless emails, and deadlines.
The very important work I do every day to end domestic violence can seemed infinite. The idea of vacation was grand but when it came down to it, it was hard to take. I’m not alone. A lot of Americans don’t receive vacation benefits, and those who do often don’t take it, even though it’s clear that taking a break can reduce stress and mitigate burn out. I’m part of a movement that promotes self-care all the time, but I wasn’t taking time to care for myself.
Something very powerful and liberating happened to me when I told myself to take a time out. I calmed down, thought about what I wanted to be doing, and then I enjoyed every moment. I swam in algae-saturated lakes, watched friends get married, ate ice cream at Mt. Rushmore, and sat on a giant Jackalope. Today is my first day back at work and I have a ton of work on my plate (including this blog post). But after putting myself in time out, I feel more enthusiastic and determined than ever to be part of this work on ending domestic violence.
It’s WSCADV’s 25th year and I’ve been here for seven of those years. To celebrate, I went down memory lane through my “favorite emails” folder and found some pretty remarkable quotes from coworkers, member programs, and activists from halfway across the world. Here is my favorite from each year I’ve worked here.
On March 22nd my home flooded. Suddenly I lost my safe haven and my life became a ball of chaos and stress.
It was hard for me to focus at work, I was constantly on the phone with the insurance company, I forgot to pay my credit card bill twice, and I broke down crying about a dozen times. This was my experience despite having a loving partner by my side, a flexible job, and friends and family to offer their support. Which made me think about how much harder it is for those who don’t have support or resources.
Like this story of a survivor who was forced to choose between her housing and violence. Her abuser isolated her from friends, family, and social networks. She left with literally $4 in her pocket. She had nowhere to turn and wound up in shelter. She’s not the only one; domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children.
The survivors I’ve worked with tell me that folks tend to jump to problem-solving without taking the time to acknowledge how stress and trauma is impacting their lives. It is often the case that survivors are given lists of places to go and people to call, asked to identify goals, and then to “follow through” on them. I don’t know about you, but I would’ve been annoyed if someone told me to go to a support group to deal with my house flooding when I didn’t know where I was going to be sleeping that night. When we take more time to sit and listen we discover that survivors have the best solutions for their problems and that they are experts in their own lives, just like you are an expert in your life and I’m an expert in mine.
“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!
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.
I used to do a lot of domestic violence trainings. In fact, someday I’ll tell you the story of when I did 36 trainings when I was pregnant and barfing. But recently I have been training again. And I remembered something. At some point, without fail, a participant will come up to me with some version of this question: “I have a friend who has a sister who has been in a domestic violence situation for years and my friend just doesn’t know how to help her. They’ve tried everything but she just won’t leave and everyone is worried about her and her kids’ safety and it is just a mess. What can they do?”
Every time my heart breaks. Again. My heart breaks for the asker, the sister, the survivor, the kids, the abuser. All of us. And I wish I had a better answer. But here is what I say:
It is hard to see someone you love and care about struggle. It is painful to see people making choices that we disagree with or find unfathomable. I get it, I do. And I also get that it is really hard for the survivor to make those choices and know that people disagree with them. We cannot imagine what it must be like for her. But I know that she is making decisions based on what she thinks will keep her safe or safer or sane. And in order to stick with her, we all need support. We need help to be there day in and day out. The good news is that there is support available. Domestic violence programs offer support to friends and family, not just to survivors themselves. The most important thing that all of us can do is to stay connected to the survivor. Connection directly counters and resists the abuse and isolation that survivors face.
So go forth. Reach out. Ask her: “What would make things better? How can I help with that?” I know it is hard to offer help and be turned down. But know that each offer is planting a seed and reminding her that you are there. Be there so that when she needs you, she can find you. No one deserves to be abused.
So hang in there and get support for yourself because when she calls on you, I want you to be ready.
Thank you. No really, thank you for staying connected and breaking that isolation. We need you. It takes all of us and we’re in this thing together.