A Lot Like You

Needing a break after over a decade of working against rape and domestic violence, Eli Kimaro quit her job, took a filmmaking class, and set off to Mount Kilimanjaro to film a documentary about her father’s Chagga tribe. Raised in the U.S. by her Tanzanian father and Korean mother, Eli’s ambitious project was motivated by her struggle to integrate her own complex cultural identity.

After months of filming, the footage she envisioned – village rituals, folk dances – eluded her. Instead, when Eli asked her aunts to tell her about their marriage ceremonies, they told her stories filled with brutal violence. She had no idea this was part of her family’s history – yet it resonated deeply with her own experience as a survivor of violence and advocate for other survivors.

The film that has emerged, A Lot Like You, weaves together big themes – exile and return, multicultural identity, violence against women – all told from an intimate point of view. For me, the film is a powerful reminder that when you scratch the surface of any story – from the tale of an entire culture to your own family’s history – you find stories of women’s suffering and survival. Some are hidden; some are known but not spoken; some have been repackaged as tall tales or family jokes. My family has these stories. I doubt I know one who doesn’t.

A Lot Like You raises questions for all of us – How does violence shape our sense of who we are? When we tell stories that have been silenced does that strengthen or threaten our family bonds? And what stories will we leave as our legacy for the next generation?

Women trump guns

Imagine living in a place where your healthcare and schooling is free. Where you are given a plot of land to farm and a fishing boat. All that is required in return is that you do not beat your spouse.

Is there such a place? Yes, and its location will surprise you.

In war-torn Somalia, Dr. Hawa Abdi and her two daughters started a one-room hospital on her private land. A city of 90,000 refugees sprung up around it. The women of this city in turn, have created their own social services and justice system, which makes it a sanctuary from the violence, disease, and famine around them. But it is also a threat to those in power in the region.

I read in the news last week that a group of armed militants decimated Dr. Abdi’s now 400 bed hospital. They held Dr. Abdi and her daughters at gun-point for days and interrogated the doctor. “Why are you running this hospital?” the gunmen demanded. “You are old. And you are a woman!” Dr. Abdi said “I told the gunmen, ‘I’m not leaving my hospital … If I die, I will die with my people and my dignity.’ I yelled at them, ‘You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society?’ ”

Thousands of women from the refugee city surrounding the hospital organized a protest and forced the militants to back down. A written apology was wrung out of the militants by Dr. Abdi.

We live in one of the wealthiest places in the world and yet we don’t replicate the type of community Dr. Abdi created. As a matter of fact, many of the riches we do have are being eroded. What will it take for us to stand together and demand communities that are prosperous and free from violence for everyone?

Up to Us

I’m really excited this week because the release of our final Fatality Review Report is getting a lot of attention in the media. But it’s hard to be excited about the report itself. Studying domestic violence homicides has shown that many of the systems we expect will help are not reliable. And honestly, this is not a big surprise to me. Maybe I’m jaded by all the stories I’ve heard from survivors of how the legal system, or the welfare system, or even sometimes the domestic violence shelters, failed them.

But I want to talk about something else. The Fatality Review data also showed that victims turned to family and friends for help long before and far more often than they called police, got a Protection Order, or went to a shelter. And yet, still their lives ended at the hands of their abusers. My hope in this new year is that if you’re the one person that someone turns to for help, you’ll know what to do. Just knowing that anyone can call a domestic violence program and knowing a bit about what might happen when you do goes a long way. Domestic violence can end, but we all must be a part of the solution.

New Year’s Resolution

Lately, I’ve been ruminating about sound bite messages – those short, memorable, repeatable phrases that say a lot in a few words.

Sound bites remind us how to be safer on the roads, like Click It or Ticket. And thanks to Michael Pollan’s brilliant brevity, we know to eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

We live in a sound bite world, which is rather unfortunate for those of us working to end super- complicated problems like abuse and rape. We haven’t yet developed clear-cut, resonant phrases to describe how to have loving, safe, and fair relationships.

I loathe seeing complicated issues reduced to sound bites, but why shouldn’t we use strategies that have been proven to work? I recognize that brevity reigns supreme, so it’s my New Year’s Resolution to hop on the sound bite bandwagon.

But where to start?

Google “healthy relationship” and you get pages and pages of text. I’m looking for a handful of short phrases: a to-do list for our daily lives that will move us in the direction of cooperation, liberation, true love.

I’m only on day 4 of my resolution, so I haven’t any brilliant Pollan-esque slogans to offer. I know it’s a tall order, but anyone have an idea?

BLT, anyone?

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a school teacher. After returning home each day she’d do a little survey of her energy and the ingredients in her cupboards and if she had both in good supply, she’d make a stack of sandwiches. She’d package them up and walk to a street nearby where homeless people lived, offering food to anyone who looked hungry.

A local reporter got wind of this and wrote a feature. Becoming somewhat of a local hero, the woman started getting checks in the mail from folks who cared about the homeless too. Imagine the senders’ surprise to receive their money back – with a note stating simply “Make your own damned sandwiches.”

Now in retelling Jack’s story, I do NOT mean you should stop writing checks. No no no. When folks ask you for money it’s because they need it, so give them lots. In fact, WSCADV needs money and you can give right now!

AND consider taking up the challenge to “make your own sandwiches” too. The world is desperate for direct connection through any and all expressions of love and kindness. Socially, politically, environmentally, we have a lot of bread to butter – so let’s get busy.

This does not need to be a big undertaking. Start small (say … P, B and J):

Work up from there.

Aliens are taking over the planet

A Woman who is being Abused who is an Immigrant is a Human Being. Not an alien. We call immigrants aliens so that we can conveniently forget that they have human rights. For instance, take immigrant survivors of abuse. Their immigration status has a huge impact on their options for safety. Fear of deportation keeps people from turning to the police for help. And abusers use threats of deportation to control their partners. If you are an “illegal” immigrant, you know that many people aren’t too pleased you’re here, which makes it hard to reach out for help.

When I felt the anti-immigrant sentiment in the reader’s comments on the Seattle Times article about the DREAM Act, I was disappointed and sad. In honor of International Migrants Day (December 18), I want to address a couple myths that seem to be at the heart of most of these comments:

“Illegal immigrants are breaking the law.”

Have you ever jay walked? Seriously, have you? I have. This means we’ve broken the law. So what should happen to us? After all, breaking the law has a consequence, right? Paying a fine seems reasonable. Revoking your basic rights and protections doesn’t. If you are an “alien” we can revoke your rights and deny access to the justice system, even if you are the victim of a crime. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Breaking the law is not a reason to strip away another human being’s rights and dignity.

“Why don’t you just go back where you come from?”

Do we belong to just one country? I am East-Indian, I grew up in Zambia and I have lived in the U.S. for over 11 years. I am part of the more than 215 million people who live outside their country of birth. U.S. history shows a constant stream of immigrants, despite racist anti-immigrant policies. And I believe migration has been a good thing for our country. Beyond that, sending an abused woman “home” can mean forcing her to leave her children behind with an abusive man.

When we stop pretending that people are “aliens” it benefits immigrants in abusive relationships as well as our national debate. So let’s all stop with the “illegal” and “alien” language. It simply does not make sense to us humans.

Seattle activist Pramila Jayapal shares her vision of immigration from a global perspective.

Truth and consequences

Weeks after WikiLeaks released thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested in Britain on charges that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.

Supporters of WikiLeaks decry Assange’s arrest as politically motivated. Of course it is. When was the last time we saw an international manhunt for an alleged date rapist?

But it is disturbing how many WikiLeaks’ defenders have completely dismissed the idea that Julian Assange may be guilty of a crime. As if it’s impossible for a guy to be admired, talented, or unjustly politically targeted AND a rapist. (Roman Polanski, anyone?) Bloggers are tripping over each other in their rush to make the usual victim-blaming, rapist-excusing arguments: she agreed to sex and regretted it later; she’s a man-hating feminist; she couldn’t have been raped because she was friendly toward him the next day.

There are also some more original arguments for why Assange should not have to face the charges against him. Like that Sweden is a bizarre, feminist dystopia where sex without condoms is criminal and courts reflexively believe women. Bloggers are deliberately using a strange-sounding English translation of the charges — “sex by surprise” — to make the accusations seem ridiculous. Even Naomi Wolf is leveraging her feminist credentials to mock the women and their “injured feelings”.

I don’t know whether Julian Assange raped anybody. But the charges against him are serious. Assange is accused of refusing to stop sex when one woman told him to, pinning her down with his body. He is accused of having sex with another woman while she was sleeping. Should he get a pass because he is a political target?

We all know these charges would never be pursued without the U.S. vendetta against WikiLeaks. But attacking the women who say Assange raped them doesn’t advance free speech. Far from it. The misogynist blustering manages to distract from the important debate about democracy, state secrets, and the limits of journalism — and empower rapists at the same time.

TSA — Taking Security Apart

What does it take to feel secure? I wondered about this as I read about the new TSA body scans. As impossible as it seems to figure out how to keep millions of travelers safe, planning for the safety of one can be just as challenging. Women who’ve been abused are faced with this all the time. No one can build them a wall tall enough to keep out a persistent abuser or a machine to screen potential boyfriends for bad tendencies.

Really, what makes us feel secure? I think it is our community of friends and acquaintances. In my community, there is someone I can call any time day or night.  Someone who would bring me a pot of soup without asking. And, if they haven’t seen me in a while, someone who would knock on my door. I don’t have to rely on any one person. I have a whole network of people I can count on, and that makes me feel secure.

I think the reason people are upset about the TSA approach is that, in their gut, they realize it isn’t going to make us safer. But is there anything that can? Actually, other safety experts around the world have developed flexible approaches that prioritize engaging with each individual.

People often ask me how they can help someone who is being abused. It’s not so easy  — we can’t rely on an automated program or a machine to deal with coercive or violent people. But we can start by being a part of a network of friends paying attention. We can help her feel secure by listening to what she says. And we can make our approach nuanced in a way that the TSA is missing.

Welfare is not a dirty word

I cried at work this week. More than once. It’s something I don’t often do. Like so many of us, I’ve learned to become desensitized, detached even, to the horrific tales of suffering that I hear. But then I met Claire.

Claire has five kids between 6 months and 16 years. She was a teenage mom and has suffered abuse her whole life. She’s had to go on welfare several times since she was a teen on her own. Now it looks like she’s about to lose this safety net no matter how bad things get.

In Washington, you will soon get cut off of welfare if you’ve been on for a total of 5 years. Losing these benefits is about to be a new reality for many struggling families and is a direct result of our state’s budget crisis.

I could tell you more sad and horrible details about Claire’s life in an effort to convince you that what’s happened to her is not her fault. But I think you’ve heard stories like this before. I remember what it was like for me before I started this work. When I heard about an awful situation I thought “I must not know all the facts. They might have made bad choices.”

After years of working with people living in poverty, I now know that there is not always the opportunity to grab those bootstraps and pull your way out. Meeting Claire hammered this home for me once again.

Claire has worked harder in her life than I will ever have to. She’s surely made a few mistakes, but haven’t we all? She has also done a lot of things right. So it makes me angry that in this country, where we have so much, she should get so little for all her efforts.

I am asking you to change your perception of people on welfare. It’s supposed to be a safety net when a person falls on hard times, but over the past 14 years this net has been neglected and cut to the point where it’s not very reliable anymore. Welfare is not a dirty word and it should be there to catch us if we fall.

(c) Independent Media Center

Yikes, you did what?!

I live in a really social neighborhood where I chat with lots of people who live around me. Recently, I was talking to one of my neighbors about relationships. It was a normal conversation about the challenges of dating, and sorting through the choices that we make. Then he told me that he was once convicted of domestic violence assault.

To be honest, I had a moment of panic. What was I going to say? As he talked about going through batterer’s intervention, how much he learned, and how different he is in his current relationship, I was thinking: Has this man really changed? Is his current girlfriend safe? Is he manipulating the story to glorify himself?

According to the etiquette of conversation, I had to say something after he stopped talking even though I had doubts, questions, and yes, even a bit of fear. I thanked him for the disclosure, acknowledged his journey, and continued to openly talk to him about relationships.

By virtue of my work, I know how to respond to people who disclose that they have been abused. But what I learned from this conversation is that I am uncomfortable with someone telling me they’ve been abusive. My first instinct was to question this man’s intentions and his behavior, but then I realized that I want to be able to talk with anyone about how to be in a good, loving, happy relationship.

I have decided to believe that my neighbor understands what he did and is making an effort to be a better person. After all, won’t he need a community of people who can support him in his present while knowing his past?