Building dignity

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.

What next? Part 2

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 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Point #1: Bring the past forward

Our work to end violence against women is rooted in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s, in particular the efforts to secure reproductive rights. Early organizing strategies were learned from the Civil Rights, Labor, and Anti-War movements, where work was launched by personal testimony about violence, oppression, and dehumanization. Many of us remember the 60’s and 70’s as an angry, energetic, and passionate time.

I think we are in another period of unrest. While the big issues have evolved into the 21st century, they appear to be very familiar. And we have a great opportunity to bring what we’ve learned into the present with a more nimble and visionary approach to our social justice work.

We must remain vigilant about reproductive rights. There are three times as many anti-choice bills in state legislation this year as there were in 2010. Anti-choice campaigns are controlling and hateful, and shameless in their strategic manipulation of race, class, and immigration.

The wars are taking a tremendous toll on our communities. Not only are we faced with the devastating effects of war on families, we are also suffering from the economic and political fallout caused by years of troop buildup and declining morale. Women around the world continue to be both the victims and tools of men’s war against each other. I hope we are working to support the families of returning troops, and I also hope we are joining in global organizing against militarization and U.S. domination.

Civil rights for immigrants are being dismantled. The war on poverty has been completely lost. And technology has added elements of speed, invisibility, and recklessness to the exploitation and abuse of women and children.

Over the past 30 years, we have developed an increasingly complicated rhetoric about our work to end violence against women. It’s so complicated that sometimes I’m not really sure what I’m talking about. So I want to suggest that we return to plain talk. Plain talk about what happens to women. Plain talk about what we are doing and what we want in our future. We need not care about being impressive. We need only care about being heard.