I have been to India

WSCADV executive director Nan Stoops with Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi

As you might know, I have the privilege of participating in the first cohort of the Move to End Violence, a 10-year initiative that seeks to strengthen our (U.S.) collective work to end violence against women and girls. Recently, the cohort spent 11 days in India meeting with survivors, activists, scholars, and government officials to learn about Indian social justice efforts in Delhi, Jaipur, and Kolkata. Over the next few months, I will post some of my reflections from this inspiring, unforgettable experience.

We began our journey in Delhi with a visit to Gandhi Smriti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhiji) spent his last 144 days and the site of his assassination in 1948. We immersed ourselves in Gandhian philosophy and walked his last footprints. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.” Witnessing the legacy of Gandhiji―his influence on everything from governmental policy to social justice organizing to informal conversation to daily prayer―adds relevance to Dr. King’s statement. The memory and will of Gandhiji are pervasive.

I was particularly struck by one of Gandhiji’s last notes: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

We conceptualized the “poorest and the weakest” as “the last man, last woman, last girl.” We met some last girls. They are not so different from the last girls that live in our communities here at home. HERE.

Sitting with a last girl, the only thought I had was: there but for the grace of God. . . How can I not work for her freedom? As it will be mine too.

The perfect valentine

Valentine’s Day takes new meaning for me as I celebrate it with my second-grade son and his classmates. What are we really celebrating during this super-commercial holiday? Romance, or love? By whose definition? Who’s included and who’s left out on this day? And what do I want my son to learn about both romance and love?

Thinking about these questions in the context of the past few weeks, which brought the Komen kerfuffle, the joy of marriage equality, and the horror of Charlie and Braden’s deaths, inspired me to imagine what I hope my son and his classmates will experience in their lives:

  • You can marry who you want. Or don’t get married. It’s up to you!
  • You get to choose whether to have kids, and how many.
  • You’re gonna learn skills for having great, healthy relationships―both at school and from all the adults in your life.
  • Your government, the child welfare system, and your community will give everyone in your family really good help during times of trouble.
  • Your family matters, whatever it looks like.

Happy Valentine’s Day, son. Mommy loves you!

We need to talk

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a bit of a policy nerd. I’ve been watching the GOP primary extravaganza and heard something a couple of weeks ago that made me mad. (OK, there was more than one thing, but I’m only talking about one here). Mitt Romney went on the Today show and said that the increase in income inequality in this country is not a topic for public debate, but that it should rather be discussed in “quiet rooms.” And anyway, those that complain about the super-rich are simply envious. WHAT?!?

Don’t talk about it? What a blatant attempt to maintain a position of power and control. Hmmm, power and control―where have I heard that before? Now, I’m not saying that Romney is abusive because he said this (so shoo that bee away from your backside). But I would like to point out how insidious the desire to maintain power for the few is in this country. Whether or not this was intentional or naïve on Romney’s part, I don’t know. But the fact that he said he doesn’t want us talking about our growing economic divide AND that there hasn’t been a bigger showing of public outrage, point to how tolerated this kind of silencing is in our society.

Those experiencing abuse at the hands of their loved ones have for decades been told that it is not something to be talked about in the open—that it is “family business.” And this gives abusers a tremendous amount of control. Silence protects their power.

So what have we been doing to stop domestic violence? Talking about it. Talking in communities, schools, public forums about what domestic violence looks like, why it happens, how we can change it. The shrinking of the middle class is impacting survivors of abuse too, because less money means fewer good options for staying safe. Let’s start talking about that too.

What next? Part 4

Earlier this year, our executive director, Nan Stoops, was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference organized by the Hawai’i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Her assignment: outline a five-point plan for ending violence against women and girls.

Here is the next installment of her speech. (Or jump to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Point #3: Be a good partner

We know that violence against women is everywhere. It’s in every section of the newspaper, in every profession, in every community. So, whether we pick a group, topic, or activity, there is collaborative work to be done. Until we say that we are a single issue movement, we aren’t. And just as survivors bring us the complexity of their lives, so too must we be living the complexity of ours.

I have found wonderful collaborations and opportunities in the two things I love the most: sports and money. There isn’t time for me to rattle on about this, but I work with various sports organizations on coaching and mentoring leadership, respect, strength, and community-building, and I’m hoping to begin a philanthropy project at a girls’ school in Seattle. Some of my best work happens without ever mentioning domestic violence or sexual assault.

And so I encourage you to collaborate toward your passion. Sing, dance, pray, march, read, write, and play. Work hard, find joy, and be a good partner.

What next? Part 3

Earlier this year, our executive director, Nan Stoops, was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference organized by the Hawai’i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Her assignment: outline a five-point plan for ending violence against women and girls.

Here is the next installment of her speech. (Or jump to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Point #2: Evolve our shelters

Emergency shelter saves lives. It’s a refuge, a resource, and a respite. It’s also costly, sometimes chaotic, and almost always, limited in the time, space, and material assistance it can provide. I don’t know if and how you experience these challenges, but I think they are so prevalent now that we must face head-on this question about how to evolve shelter services. While it is essential to keep shelters going, we need to be honest about the fact that they serve only a small percentage of survivors, they make the community dependent on US to provide support and care, and, while they may stop violence against some women, they do not end violence against all women.

In Washington, we are examining shelter in three ways. First, we are re-evaluating shelter rules, so that families have more flexibility and self-determination while in residence. Second, we are designing shelters architecturally and programmatically to support moms with parenting, to respect religious and cultural practices, and to reduce how many people have to share communal spaces―like a kitchen and a bathroom―as a part of shelter life. And third, we are helping shelter programs focus on providing what women say they need in order to be financially self-sufficient: housing, job training, childcare, in one instance, a bicycle, and in another a spare tire.

This work is confirming the thinking that brought us to it. And that is―nobody really wants to live in a shelter. So let’s find a way to preserve what does work and incorporate some other things that might work even better.

What next? Part 1

Earlier this year, our executive director, Nan Stoops, was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference organized by the Hawai’i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Her assignment: outline a five-point plan for ending violence against women and girls.

Over the next six weeks, we will post installments of her speech. After all, if we can figure out how to end this kind of violence in five steps, shouldn’t we all have a look?

I honour your gods. I drink from your well. I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place.

These words from a Susan Wright prayer express how I feel about being with you here today. I am enormously humbled to be a part of your conference, and I thank the organizing committee for the gracious invitation.

Hawai’i is like a home away from home for me. I come here as often as I am able, which, of course, is not often enough. But always, the colors, the water, the people, the food, and the pace of life remind me why it is that I am forever contemplating a one-way ticket to this place. It is here that I encounter the timelessness of friendship, renewed passion for our collective work, and an understanding of the fundamental importance of connection.

In 2008, we stayed at a house near Haleiwa where we were in the company of some very social Honu. One in particular kept my attention. She was quite large; she had one flipper that, either by birth or by injury, was ½ the size of the other; and her shell was full of scratches and chips. Each day she would arrive in the cove and slowly make her way onto the beach where we would spend the morning basking in the sun as if we were friends.

I learned early on to keep a certain distance from the Honu, and I did. I would even move away, only to be followed. We never spoke, we never shared a meal, we did not friend each other on Facebook. I wondered about her journey and how she decided when to ride the current or swim against it. I wondered if she knew when she was being tossed against the rocks. I wondered if she had a plan when she left and didn’t return.

I have wondered the same things about so many women I’ve encountered. I can’t begin to count them, but I remember many of their names, their faces, their children, and the stories they told. Some are surely dead. And some are surely free.

I am here today, talking with you, because of them. Public speaking is not the comfort zone of introverts like me. But I am indebted to a long line of survivors who have filled my life with theirs. They are my past that informs my present and gives shape to my hope for the future. For me, they are the Mo’o.

I want you to know that I love being able to do the work I do. I see it as a blessing, a privilege, and a chance to participate in something really, really big. I have been fortunate to work with a Who’s Who of advocates and activists all around the country, and to witness the visionary organizing that is happening in other parts of the world.

I believe we are at a critical juncture in our anti-violence, social justice work. We now have state and federal laws that criminalize rape, domestic violence, incest, and trafficking, and that authorize funding for a vast network of shelter, treatment, and advocacy services.

We understand how domestic violence intersects with numerous social and community issues―homelessness, poverty, juvenile delinquency, chemical dependency and substance abuse, differential access to education, healthcare, and public benefits, immigration, sovereignty, global political unrest, and war.

We are paying more attention to what many of us call violence in the margins. We know that the experience of gender violence and the response to it is affected by a host of other factors, like race, ethnicity, class, status, age, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive ability, religion, culture, first language, and so on.

Our work to end violence against women is now quite complex. When I look back over my own 30 years of advocacy, I am both enormously proud of what we have accomplished, and somewhat concerned about where we are headed. In my home state ofWashington, I am referred to as a “movement historian,” and advocates often ask me if I get tired of doing the work. Now once I get over the shock of being considered old enough to be a historian, I always reply, and I mean this, “of course, I get worn out and worn down, but we are in a very challenging and exciting time right now, and I think a fresher and better version of ourselves is going to emerge. I want to see it and I want to be a part of it.”

Here’s the deal. We have been in the anti-violence business for more than 40 years. Many of us talk about being a full generation into the work and, in fact, we see every day what that means. We have women and men who, as children, lived with their mothers in shelter and now as adults, are again calling us for help. We have activists who were raised by activists, young people who now join or replace their parents in our workforce. Some of us work alongside four generations of people, which means that the workplace is equally complicated and dynamic. We welcome new, diverse, energetic voices and ideas at the same time that we mourn the growing loss of our earliest leaders, founders, mothers, and warriors.

When I think about all that we have learned over the decades, and all of the growth and progress and change, what I always come back to is that which has stayed the same. And perhaps the best way for me to describe it is to reflect on my own experience as a fledgling advocate in 1981. I remember being oddly passionate and irritable. I had the textbook answer to the question “Why does she stay?” But whenever I was asked that, I would say, “Because she can’t leave. And you should be asking me ‘Why does he batter?’ The answer to that is ‘Because it works and he can.’ ”

To this day, even though I am capable of articulating a more sophisticated and nuanced response, I still often rely on “she can’t/it works/he can.” My participation in a full generation of anti-violence work has landed me, in some ways, very close to where I began, and this simple fact is what guides my hope for our collective future.

I want to offer the Nan Stoops five-point plan for ending male violence against women. It isn’t written down anywhere, except here. And this is the first time I’ve said it out loud. It’s in no particular order, and it may not even make sense, depending on what you do, with whom, and to what end. However, what I hope comes through is the importance of thinking about the conditions that allow, encourage, and perpetuate violence and the opportunity and responsibility we have to do work that matters.

Jump to: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Restored dignity

One time I was introducing myself to a group of advocates: “My name is Ankita. I work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project.” And then I cried.

In this role, I’ve learned from the lives and deaths of numerous women about the impact of domestic violence, and how we all can improve our response. Each story of victims reaching out for help and not getting what they needed contributed to my passion and energy to educate communities and professionals to be better prepared. I did this in hopes that the lesson of one woman’s death would be the success of another woman’s survival.

Recently, I began to work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Housing First Project. The goal of this project is to eliminate housing as a reason for survivors to stay in abusive relationships. It is supported by a funder that has given domestic violence programs the space to creatively meet the needs of survivors so they can obtain and remain in housing. For example, advocates can offer rental assistance, pay off an old debt that has been a barrier for a survivor to obtain housing, or pay for childcare. The help advocates can provide is not governed by contract requirements or organizational barriers. Instead, solutions are formed or offered based on what that survivor needs.

Now I get to hear stories about women moving beyond surviving and on to more fun and exciting things, like obtaining an education, helping other women, watching their kids grow in a violent-free home. When I first realized that when funders, domestic violence programs, and survivors are aligned―and words like justice, hope, and change no longer represent a concept, but an action―I cried again.

I am re-energized to hear survivors telling us that this project has restored their dignity, advocates being thrilled to eliminate barriers for safety, and funders seeing a real difference in people’s lives.

Dirty laundry

In the wake of the murders, the Northwest Network gathered to display the Clothesline Project―an art installation created collectively by hundreds of GLBT survivors of domestic violence. All evening people stopped, read the messages of strength and survival, mourned the deaths, and talked about how to make the community stronger.

On August 11 in Seattle, 29-year-old Eric Cooper and his 3-year-old son Cooper Chen were brutally murdered. Louis Chen―Eric’s partner of over 10 years and the boy’s other father―has been charged with their deaths.

In my role as the coordinator of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review, I pay attention to news reports about domestic violence homicides. This death struck me in a different way.

I had the reactions I always do when I read about someone killed by an abusive partner: sorrow for the loss to family and friends; grief at the terror the victims had to experience; and outrage that another life has been lost at the hands of an abuser.

This time I had another set of reactions too. As a queer parent, I worried that the publicity around the murder would fuel homophobic, right-wing arguments that gay men are sick or crazy, that gay parents are unfit, that GLBT families are unnatural.

I’m sure people from any community can relate to the fear that airing our “dirty laundry” will be used against us. That if we acknowledge that domestic violence happens in GLBT relationships, we’re providing ammunition to people who want to paint us as sick and deviant.

As I watched the news coverage unfold though, I think the opposite is true. I believe that naming what happened to Eric and Cooper as domestic violence helps us understand their experience. The evidence suggests that domestic violence happens at about the same rates in gay couples as in straight couples. Honestly talking about abuse in the gay community makes it possible to confront it, to respond, and to prevent it.

Living in community

I am Gujarati. As a child, my sense of family and community was really different than what I see here. In my home, cousins were as close as siblings. Aunts and uncles shared decision-making with my parents. Day-to-day life included having lots of people around, cooking together, running the household together, and sharing everything. Many of my friends who are immigrants or were raised in immigrant families tell similar stories.

Even though I have lived in the United States for 11 years now, I am happiest when I am with others who were raised, understand, or have created this type of community—whether they are Gujarati or not. I felt a lot of warmth, love, and affection growing up with my extended family all around, and I miss that.

However, there is a flip side to all of this. If you are experiencing abuse, and those in your close community don’t see it, acknowledge it, or offer support, it can be incredibly isolating. You can be surrounded by all of these people and yet feel totally alone. As an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, I’ve heard heart-breaking stories of how immigrant survivors have had to leave their community—and all that love and support—in order to escape the abuse, while others were not able or willing to leave their community and were killed by the abuser.

http://www.mijasrestaurant.org

Recently, I met a group of women that seem to have figured out how to find safety and community. The Mijas are Latina survivors of abuse who have banded together to start their own restaurant where they give each other job training and support. (And they make fabulous food while they’re at it!!) The Mijas have given me hope and inspiration that immigrant communities can and do use the strengths of their culture to respond to domestic violence. I’m sharing their story in support, and with the hope that others can see what is possible.