Reflecting on 10 years of Domestic Violence Work

Lauren Nackel, Community Engagement Specialist

Each April, advocates and survivors around the country pause to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This April marks 10 years since I first became involved in domestic and sexual violence work. At that time, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I was attending American University in Washington, D.C., majoring in Law and Society and excited to attend law school after graduation. If you had told me then that 10 years later I would not be an attorney but instead would be dedicating my work to supporting survivors and prevention work, I would have been befuddled.

But a year prior, my world had changed. A close friend of mine had invited me to attend “Take Back the Night” with her. At the time, I didn’t know what the event was, but it seemed important to her and I was just about done with the paper I was working on, so I agreed and met up with her in the Spiritual Life Center across campus. If you’re like I was and unfamiliar with the event, Take Back the Night is an international awareness raising initiative where survivors come together to rally and speak out, symbolically “taking back” the night they were assaulted. Walking into the event that evening, I was awe struck by the resiliency and beauty around me. Despite the trauma they had experienced, these survivors were embodying reclamation- reclaiming their voices, their bodies, and for many, finding a unique community.

When I think about how I entered into domestic violence work, I can point to that evening. I hadn’t really known much about sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking prior to college. Attending Take Back the Night for me was a call to action- I ended up joining the first iteration of a peer education group on campus to provide workshops to other students on healthy relationships, sexual assault, dating abuse, and stalking. I added a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies where I focused on abuse and assault. As graduation neared, I realized law school wasn’t the next step for me. Instead, I spent a year with AmeriCorps in the rural mountains of Kentucky volunteering at the Family Life Abuse Center (now Cumberland Valley Domestic Violence Services) which at the time was being run by the Christian Appalachian Project. As that year came to a close, I realized how called I felt to domestic violence work. I began looking all over the country for jobs where I could continue supporting survivors and was fortunate to be hired by REACH. Nearly eight years and two positions later, I’m still here.

When I was hired at REACH, I found out that my colleague (and now supervisor), Jessica Teperow, was the person to bring Take Back the Night to American University’s campus just a few years before I attended! In prevention, we often use the analogy that we are planting seeds. We talk with communities, often young people, about how to support a friend, warning signs of abusive relationships, consent, and so much more. And yet it’s nearly impossible to really know what our impact has been. Even those who work with our program may never really know if it was that workshop or other factors that lead to them finding healthy and fulfilling relationships.

When Jessica attended our university, there was no Take Back the Night. In bringing that event to the campus, she unknowingly planted the very seed that brought me into this movement. As I sit here reflecting on 10 years of working both in direct services and prevention, I find myself thinking of the survivors, volunteers, interns, and colleagues with whom I have crossed paths. I think of the church basements in which I have shared stories over cups of coffee, the recreation centers where I’ve shared information about REACH at health fairs, the trainings I have led, and the hotline calls I have answered. As I think of all these people whose paths have crossed mine, I can only wonder what the seeds I have planted might become in the next 10 years…