My introduction to the domestic violence movement was as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter. It was founded in 1976, just a few years after the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. It was a product of its time. We were explicit about our feminist politics. We saw our work as part of a larger agenda for justice that took on patriarchal power, institutional racism and state violence, and all forms of oppression and domination.
The shelter itself was a hundred-year-old house, with every available nook and cranny made into space for another bunk bed or more towels or canned food. We were scrappy and resourceful. We didn’t turn anyone away.
On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me back then to think about how our physical space set up survivors to have very limited control over their lives day in and day out. Multiple stressed-out families sharing bedrooms, too few bathrooms, and one small kitchen inevitably led to conflict, and then rules intended to manage the conflict, and then conflict over the rules. Not exactly a recipe for liberation.
Advocates in Washington State have been thinking about how to change shelter for the better. The result? Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter, a web-based tool-kit for making shelter spaces that help support our mission.
For me, watching this work unfold was a kind of revelation. The kind where you hear an idea for the first time and it instantly seems completely obvious. Shelter is a life-saving refuge. But our hope and vision has always been that shelter is more than a place for women to flee from danger. It is also a launching pad into a life after abuse. A place to restore dignity, reclaim choices, and rebuild relationships that have been eroded by violence. Building Dignity is chock full of creative and practical ideas to make this happen.