Ms. RCW

As a young person I was never interested in politics. I have vague memories of sitting in civics class trying to keep my eyes open while some teacher droned on about government, democracy, and the political process. I did the bare minimum to get a good grade and then I moved on.

Considering how bored I was, it’s funny that I now do public policy work. Why was civics so excruciating? Well, I was never good at learning by sitting and listening to someone talk. Knowing there are many people like me, a few of my co-workers and I created a fun tool to use at our lobby day. It’s simple, it’s visual, and it’s fun. So take a look and learn how laws are made in Washington State. And then share it, because when we understand the system we can make our voices heard.

Nosotros el pueblo (We the people)

Los Estados Unidos han sido mi hogar por los últimos 14 años. Es el país de mi hijo, el lugar que me dió la oportunidad de reinventarme, de iniciar una nueva etapa en mi vida, de ser madre, de desarrollarme profesionalmente. Este país me recibió con los brazos abiertos y cada día me da nuevas oportunidades y libertades para continuar mi crecimiento en todo aspecto. De las cosas que Constitution_We_the_Peoplemás me gustan y respeto de este país es el cómo se formó. Esa esencia donde el respeto a la libertad de creencias, y el respeto a las leyes son principios fundamentales, entre muchos otros el “We the people” (Nosotros el pueblo).

Desafortunadamente la experiencia de millones de inmigrantes en este país, no se compara con mi experiencia como inmigrante. Muchos confrontan abuso y explotación; las familias están siendo separadas, y viven con miedo a ser deportados. Estas familias como la mía, estamos aquí con sueños de ofrecer un mejor futuro para nuestros hijos. Las familias indocumentadas apenas pueden satisfacer las necesidades básicas de sus hijos y el estrés con el que viven ejerce presión en sus relaciones haciendo a veces difícil tener relaciones amorosas y saludables. Nuestro sistema de inmigración es un sistema que no funciona correctamente, simple y llanamente necesita ser reparado o reinventado.

El Presidente Obama, el mes pasado, emitió una orden ejecutiva donde una gran mayoría de inmigrantes que no han tenido la opción de legalizar su estadía en este país puedan hacerlo y así dejar de vivir con el miedo a ser deportados. Con esto, pienso que el Presidente está retomando los principios fundamentales con los que se fundó este país.

La orden ejecutiva es un pequeño paso, un pequeño comienzo de algo que puede convertirse en un verdadero cambio. Es la oportunidad de unirnos y hacer de los Estados Unidos un país aún más rico de lo que ya es. Todos podemos tener creencias y culturas diferentes sin perder nuestra individualidad. Dejemos a un lado el racismo, los prejuicios, y la necesidad de que las cosas tengan que verse de una sola manera.  Cada uno de nosotros tiene un papel importante que ejercer para que este cambio se dé en su plenitud. No nos olvidemos que aquellos que se encargan de aprobar las leyes y hacer este cambio trabajan para nosotros. Vamos a continuar a lo que el Presidente Obama nos hizo favor de iniciar.

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The United States has been my home for the past 14 years. It is the country of my son, the place that gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself, to start a new phase in my life, to grow professionally. This country welcomed me with open arms and every day gives me new opportunities and the freedom to continue my growth in every aspect. The thing that I like most and respect about this country is how it was formed, with a foundation of respect for freedom of beliefs and respect for the law as fundamental principles. “We the people.”

Unfortunately the experiences of millions of immigrants in this country do not match mine. Many face abuse and exploitation, are separated from their families, and live in fear of being deported. These families, like mine, are here with dreams of providing better futures for their children. But when families are undocumented, they can barely meet their children’s basic needs. This stress puts pressure on their relationships making it sometimes difficult to have loving and healthy relationships. Our immigration system is a system that does not work correctly, quite simply it needs to be repaired or reinvented.

Last month President Obama issued an executive order that allows a large majority of immigrants who previously did not have the option to legalize their stay to now do so and stop living in fear of being deported. By doing this I feel the president is returning to the fundamental principles on which this country was founded.

This executive order is a small step, a small beginning of something that can become a real change. It is an opportunity to unite us and make the United States an even richer country than it is already. We all can have diverse beliefs and cultures without losing our individuality. Let’s leave aside racism, prejudice, and the need for things to look alike and be just  one way. Each of us has an important role to play in order for this change to happen. Let’s not forget that the people responsible for passing laws and making these changes work for us. Let’s continue what President Obama has started.

Dodging bullets

I’m just talking about me here. My experience. Not what I think happened to you. Or what I think you, or your town, or our nation has experienced on the whole. I’m just talking the highlights of my own life. With guns. And it’s all bad.

Gun #1

Photo by Geraint Rowland
Photo by Geraint Rowland

It’s eerie that I had this post almost done when I caught sight of the picture and story on the front page of the New York Times. This could very well have been about me or one of my siblings in the 1960s. The loaded gun my dad kept in his dresser drawer—artfully hidden a few layers down in his handkerchiefs and boxers—was like a magnet to us kids. We knew we were not supposed to go anywhere near that dresser, never mind the gun. What is it about children’s can’t-stay-away-from-it-because-it-scares-us-so-much? My brother told me he got that gun out and handled it once or twice.

Gun #2

When I was in my mid-20s, several friends and I went through a cowgirl phase. Hats and a six-shooter. We drove out to the Capitol Forest outside of Olympia, with some guns we owned or borrowed, and fired at targets on a hillside. I had some kind of semi-automatic handgun. I was baffled by how hard it was to pull the trigger and the kickback was fierce, but the shocker came when I was lowering the gun. About halfway to the ground, the tiny pressure of my finger on the trigger from the weight of the gun fired it again. I remember feeling like I had a bomb in my hand. “Amateur” you think—but check out this story from Christine Gentry (via This American Life), who was a teenager who knew better.

Gun #3

This is the story of a domestic violence murder-suicide that happened in my immediate family. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write about it. It would be traumatizing to tell, and to read. And in many ways, recounting the details of this particular story is unnecessary because the story has been told over and over again.

Gun #4

This took place ten years ago. My two teenage neighbors poached a deer in the woods by my house. It was out of season, so they confessed to their dad. But they said that they shot the deer in the Capitol Forest (yes, the same). Aw, shucks, Dad. But that was the wrong confession. My next-door neighbor heard the shot, and another neighbor saw one of the boys bloodied from the deer. It was clear they shot it in our neighborhood. I was mad, not about the deer but about them shooting guns near my house. And I was unimpressed by the dad’s response, which seemed to be belief that his naughty boys (wink wink) shot the deer in the Capitol Forest. I called on the phone and asked the boys to come over and talk to me. They came over and sat at my kitchen counter. I said, I know and you know that you shot the deer next door, and I know you’ve duped your family with that Capitol Forest story but it’s not true, so let’s just move on. I love you two and I love all my family and everyone around here who wanders around in the woods. And I would not be able to live with myself if I did not talk to you about NOT shooting guns around here. What if you accidentally shot someone? I would just die if that happened. So don’t shoot guns around my house. Heads hang—okay. Hugs all around. Now go.

Gun #5

And we’re back full circle to my dad’s loaded guns. Fifty years later and these guns were still lying around loaded. He kept one next to his bed. Even as he became blind from macular degeneration, and demented from age and alcohol, he still insisted that he had to have these guns to protect my mom. I knew that if I took them away, he would freak out and might muster enough brain cells to buy another. One day, when my mom had him out for the day, I arranged with a gunsmith to meet me in my garage, where I brought the guns. He disabled them. People always say “oh, he took out the pin,” like there’s a pin. Maybe there’s a pin. I don’t know and I don’t care—what I watched him do was take the guns apart and, with a tiny little rotary saw, cut an internal mechanism so the guns would never fire again. I returned them to where I found them.

The day came when my dad broke my heart, along with his hip, and left his home in an ambulance never to return. He had never noticed that his guns were dead. Which is the best this daughter could do for her beloved mom and dad.

When I really stop and think about it, I realize I’ve been dodging bullets my whole life. How about you? Just for a moment, stop talking about laws and theories and rights. Just stop. Wait. Think about it. Your own experiences—not “I heard about a guy,” or “I saw on the news today…” but what actually happened in your life with the guns around you. Let’s start a conversation there.

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

Trayvon Martin + Marissa Alexander =?

What do Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander have in common? The Stand Your Ground law, a Florida prosecutor named Angela Corey and, heartbreakingly, no justice. Trying to figure out the legal technicalities and how they broken-gavelcollided with race and gender in Florida sends me spinning.

Growing up in southern Virginia I have felt the sting of anti-Semitism from middle-school classmates who called me “Jesus-killer” to adults who felt uncomfortable working with Jews. As a white, Jewish woman I was taught skepticism and understanding of how rules and laws don’t play out the same way for everyone. I observed people in power bend rules and laws to their liking. Whether it was school policy that wouldn’t let me make up a test if I was absent for a Jewish holiday or bank lending practices that prohibited my family and my African-American friends from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.

In neither the Zimmerman or Alexander case was their history of domestic violence taken into account. For Zimmerman, this meant that his documented history of abuse was not admissible in court. Even worse, the legal system didn’t consider if his past abusive behavior was an indicator of possible future violence and take steps to address that, such as taking his guns away.

For Marissa Alexander the past history of abuse from her husband also didn’t count in court, but the outcome was very different. She was denied the use of the Stand Your Ground law in her defense, and was sentenced to 20 years. And she’s not alone. We know that it’s way harder to get justice if you’re a black woman dealing with domestic violence. I asked one of my daughters what she thought of Marissa Alexander and her prison sentence. She said “She didn’t hurt anyone—no one got hurt. She was trying to defend herself. I don’t understand it.”

In my job, I work every day to help create a better world for my children, and yours. I am inspired by Move to End Violence’s call to “create a world that is safe, loving and respectful of everyone’s inherent human dignity.” I can’t give up even when I see how broken our system is. Really, what else am I living for?

¡Hagámos la diferencia! (Let’s make a difference!)

immigration-protestSabemos por nuestro Domestic Violence Fatality Review que las víctimas de violencia doméstica y sexual que están indocumentadas muchas veces no reportan los crímenes de abuso por miedo a ser deportadas. Si un crimen no se reporta no hay manera de apoyar a la victima ni de prevenir otros crimenes. Esta falta de un estatus migratorio mantiene las victimas vulnerables al abuso en su diario vivir.

¿Qué tan enterado estas de lo que está pasando con reforma migratoria? ¿Sabes cómo es el proceso para que una ley pase? ¿Te has preguntado cual podría ser tu papel en éste proceso? Si no sabes estas respuestas, es momento de que te pongas las pilas y te informes. La reforma migratoria puede llegar a ser algo que ofrecerá la posibilidad de legalizar a millones de personas indocumentadas, incluyendo muchas víctimas de violencia domestica y sexual, que viven, trabajan y aportan para que este país sea mejor cada día

Tú y yo podemos involucrarnos, informarnos, y participar de una manera más activa para que esta reforma se haga realidad. Nuestro papel es tan importante como el de los legisladores. Si nos informamos podemos informar a más personas y entre más seamos el mensaje a nuestros legisladores será más fuerte y claro. Una reforma migratoria es indispensable en nuestro trabajo apoyando a víctimas de violencia doméstica y sexual.

Tener la oportunidad de alcanzar un estatus migratorio legal en este país debe ser un derecho humano. Y hoy en día y con plena conciencia de prevenir abuso, tanto tú como yo tenemos que hacer la diferencia.

VOTA! INFORMATE! ACTIVATE! Se parte de este cambio que nos beneficiará a todos pues al final todos somos parte de ésta nuestra comunidad.

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We know based on our findings from the Domestic Violence Fatality Review that undocumented immigrant victims of domestic and sexual violence often don’t report abuse because they fear being deported. If a crime is not reported there is no way to support the victim or prevent future crimes. This lack of immigration status keeps victims vulnerable to abuse in their daily lives.

How informed are you with regards to immigration reform? Do you know how a proposal becomes law? Have you asked yourself, what your role could be in this process? If you do not know the answers, it is time to get informed and proactive. Immigration reform could offer the possibility to legalize millions of undocumented people—including many victims of domestic and sexual violence—that live, work, and contribute to make this country better every day.

You and I can engage, inform, and participate more actively to make this reform a reality. Our role is as important as legislators. If we educate ourselves, we can inform more people and the more of us that there are, the stronger and clearer the message to our legislators will be. Comprehensive immigration reform is essential in our work supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The opportunity to attain legal immigration status in this country should be a human right. Today, with full awareness of how it could prevent abuse, you and I must try to make a difference.

VOTE! EDUCATE YOURSELF! BE PROACTIVE! And be a part of this change that in the end will benefit us all, because we are all part of this community, our beloved community.

Today is my birthday

Day one of my 60th swing around the sun. I’m pretty excited about it.

So I hope you will forgive me as I indulge in a brief feminist retrospective of my first six decades. I was thinking about it on my way to work today, specifically about:

SPORTS. Huge progress.

I missed Title IX by only a smidge. This is a great sadness to me. People often mistake me for a coordinated person (and a vegetarian). Sadly, I am neither, but I often think that I would have benefitted enormously from playing full court basketball, hanging in the outfield, diving headfirst, slaloming a steep course, running fast. I live vicariously through my friends’ daughters who joyfully play, experiencing the rough and tumble, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. This is no idle nostalgia or longing. Girls today are healthier, safer, and more self-possessed because they play sports. And it was not an accident. It was not an idea whose time had come. Women fought for and won the right to play.

JOBS. Pretty good progress.

Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason - Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason – Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows

In the 1960s, my dad encouraged me to be an oceanographer. I thought he was nuts. I knew my only real options were secretary, nurse, or vampire victim. An enduring love of office supply stores is all that remains of this particular personal legacy, because the women’s movement flung hundreds of doors wide open to us. It’s not all roses. We know that, but oh, what a difference half a century makes.

RAPE. Standing still.

I am sure people are going to disagree with me here, because we have so many laws on the books now about rape. Right? But functionally? How much have things really changed? When I was a young teen, my dad’s lone foray into sex ed was an off-hand warning—something like “once a man gets started, he can’t stop.” Start? Stop? What? I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. But he was very much speaking from fear for his daughter, and the social norms of his day. These norms have not changed in significant enough ways. There may be more talk, but there is also a wider variety of fail. That we have made so little progress in ending rape is the biggest disappointment of my feminist career.

And finally PINK AND BLUE. Going backwards.

Come on now. This is ridiculous. This whole pink and blue genderfication thing is just plain wrong-headed. Two good books make this point. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America and Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It. As gender becomes more nuanced, more complex, we get nervous and try to get all binary again. This is not good for girls and women. It’s not good for boys and men. It’s not good for intersex and trans people. It does not help us express our humanity as individuals and it’s not good for our relationships.

Perhaps if I live to be 70, or even 80, I’ll be able to shop for baby presents in all colors of the rainbow. Maybe all genders will give and get consent. Maybe there will be a Madame President. Maybe I’ll get my knees replaced and run a marathon (just kidding).

Bare-naked question

I have a question for you.

Do you think it’s even possible to end violence against women and children?

I’m serious. Is it possible for everyone to have healthy relationships, or is violence against women inevitable?

This is a question I’ve taken to posing recently, because as I approach the end of my long career, I want to know.

Maybe people—you, me, the guy sitting next to you—don’t believe this is possible. When I actually ask people, “Is violence inevitable?” there’s often a long pause. Which is interesting.

Now granted, I’m three decades into doing this domestic violence victim advocacy work, so maybe I’m a little slow here, but it’s only now dawning on me that our current responses to violence in relationships are not getting the job done. Not for lack of trying. Not for lack of big-hearted and dedicated people. Not for lack of laws, money, programs, shelters, and jails. We’ve got all that. What we don’t have is resolve. I think maybe we don’t believe it’s possible.

But pretend, just for kicks, we do all believe we could have healthy relationships. I don’t mean perfect, I don’t mean we don’t argue and have hurt feelings. But relationships that are about love and respect.

Pretend we’re willing to think way outside of all the boxes (institutions) we’ve invented and dream up more effective social controls on sexism and abuse and common sense approaches to fostering health and happiness. Could we even agree on what those would be? And if we did all that, would we succeed?

Stand your ground?

Marissa Alexander fired a “warning shot” into the wall of her abusive husband’s house because she feared for her safety. She was charged with 3 felony counts of assault. She argued that she was protected by Florida’s “stand –your- ground” law, but the judge and jury disagreed. She was arrested the day of the incident and is now serving 20 years in prison.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Alexander

People often say things like, “there ought to be tougher domestic violence laws,” or “why doesn’t she just call the police,” or “she should get herself a gun for protection.” Marissa’s story is the sad reality of why those things don’t always work. And it’s exactly why those of us who do this work get so frustrated with that kind of advice.

It’s pretty clear that Marissa Alexander was abused. Even her husband admits that he was abusive on multiple occasions. She had good reason to fear this man. And she was angry. Apparently, this anger is what got her convicted. The jury couldn’t reconcile that she could be angry AND fearful when she fired that warning shot. The lack of understanding about domestic violence in this case is shameful.

But this story also highlights how even laws that seem clear, can be interpreted in different ways. Even though no one was hurt; even though she had been threatened; even though she thought she had the right to “stand her ground;” Marissa was charged and convicted of felony assault.

The systems that we have in place to address domestic violence do not always work. We cannot rely on the police to always do the right thing. We cannot rely on a jury to serve up justice when they don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence. The problem is messy and the solution is not cut and dry. Yes, improving our domestic violence laws is a good thing, but what’s really going to help women like Marissa is for us all to realize domestic violence is our problem to solve―not the police, not the justice system, not the women being abused.

My dirty laundry is a national debate

They told us in law school that we the people drive how laws are shaped. For some of us, this notion does not feel real, and so we distance ourselves from political debates on things like violence against women and marriage equality. But these aren’t just political issues. They are connected to our everyday life and to each other.

I was talking to a family member about how frustrating it is that my mother is pressuring me to marry an Indian man. After a lengthy conversation, her response in ‘my support’ was that she doesn’t care who her daughter marries, as long as she marries a man. Later she said she would accept and love me even if I were single or gay. I would have thought that was a very progressive thing to say―about a decade ago―and would have probably said something similar myself. Now I see the sexism, racism, and homophobia in this snippet.

I am very clear that it is through conversations with friends and family that we can make a difference. Even when it doesn’t seem like I am getting through to them, I keep the conversations going. I tell my family that although I know that my getting married is important to them, I am not willing to do it any cost. I tell them about all of my friends: single, married, gay, straight. I refuse to choose one segment of my life over another. And the more of us who keep having these honest conversations, the more change we’ll see in the national dialogue as well.