I started doing domestic violence advocacy in 1994. It is 2015. Wow. Just wow. But this post isn’t about feeling old. Instead it’s about how amazing this work to end violence and support survivors is. One of the things I love most is how I am continually changing my mind about things. Here are just a few examples of where I was (and maybe you were too) 21 years ago and where we are today.
From beds to bedrooms
We used to focus on how many beds we had, stuffing survivors and their children into all the nooks and crannies of our shelters with that elusive goal of “safety” looming over our heads. Now we’ve realized that dignity is actually what we are looking for. We are working to create empowering spaces where survivors get their needs for self-determination, security, and connection met. And we’re doing things to support families, like creating quiet spaces where kids can do their homework. Keeping families together and supporting survivors to get what they need is what matters most, not how many beds our overflowing shelter can hold.
From safety to safer
I have learned so much from Jill Davies’ and Eleanor Lyon’s new book. They argue that while safety from an abuser is critical, to be truly safe “requires more than the absence of physical violence. A victim who is no longer hit by a partner but has no way to feed her children or pay the rent is not safe.…Victims are safe when there is no violence, their basic human needs are met, and they experience social and emotional well-being.” So that means helping survivors experience less violence, more economic stability, and greater well-being is the true heart of meaningful advocacy.
From intervention to prevention
OK, let’s be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about prevention in 1994. In fact it hadn’t yet occurred to me that domestic violence was preventable. But guess what, it is! As critical as it is to help people in need, we also need to spend energy on stopping the violence before it starts. And this is an exciting time as we are figuring out how to actually do that. We’re creating a whole new language to help us get to a world where beloved community and better relationships exist—it is all so exciting! I can’t wait to see how many more things I change my mind about in the future.
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.
If that makes you nervous – never fear. I just finished teaching at our 3-day Advocacy for Rookies training. It was heartening to learn that many of the attendees have no intention of getting a job as an advocate. They came to the training because they know that anyone can be a critical, life-saving source of support. Here’s how:
1. LISTEN. Really listen. What is she saying she needs? What does she think will help? (Note: Hear what she is really saying, not what you think she should be saying. For many people, the goal is to end the abuse, not necessarily to end the relationship.)
3. LOOK AHEAD. Talk with her about long-term plans for coping with the abuse. Help her think through the pros and cons of different options and anticipate how the abuser might react. That’s called safety planning.
4. LEVERAGE. Give her whatever help you can: a ride somewhere, free babysitting, some cash. And use your influence to let the abuser know that controlling and violent behavior is unacceptable.
5. LOVE. Have compassion. See the victim’s (and abuser’s) full humanness. Be patient and humble – this stuff is complicated. We are all responsible for each other. Love is the antidote.