What Laura Is Thinking…

Laura R. Van Zandt, Executive Director

There is so much happening in the world today and following the verdict in the Bill Cosby trial, I was struggling with what to say in this time and space – something different and compelling. Then I opened an email from Debra Robbin, the Executive Director at our state coalition, Jane Doe Inc.

Supporting and believing survivors is essential, and we must continue to invest in our responses and to remove barriers, especially for those with the least access to justice and healing. In addition to critical services and support, we must increase our focus on prevention. We must care enough to educate our youth about healthy relationships, openly discuss consent, and intentionally call out and dismantle rape culture.

Debra sums it up well. Or maybe her words help start me off. It is pretty straightforward. Easy as 1-2-3.

  1. Support and believe survivors.
  2. Invest in responses and remove barriers to access.
  3. Focus on prevention – educate, discuss, call out and dismantle.

Support and believe survivors.

When stories about sexual and domestic violence enter our newsfeed, we often hear expressions of doubt, questions of motive, and concerns about damaging someone’s good name. Why are so many people immediately inclined to NOT believe a person who courageously steps forward to disclose something painful, embarrassing and illegal? Sometimes it is because we cannot believe that the perpetrator could “do that.” We are subject to the “monster myth” – that belief that we would know if someone was bad; we could tell. In fact, abusers are skillful in hiding their behavior. Abuse happens behind closed doors, out of sight, so there is rarely the kind of “proof” we seek – we only see the portrayal, not the reality. And so we doubt. When a survivor shares something so difficult and is met with doubt, questioning or blame, they often absorb that reaction and turn inward – blaming themselves and staying silent. Listening and believing is what we do at REACH. And you can do it too.

Invest in responses and remove barriers to access.

Investing in responses might sound like a plea for funds – and that would be helpful, no question. Investing can take other forms. What do you know about responding to a disclosure – from a friend, a family member, a colleague, a patient or a client? Often, we hear something concerning from a person we care about and we don’t know what to do or say.  Invest in yourself. Invest in your ability to be a supportive friend or family member to anyone in your circle.  We also need to examine the systemic barriers that prevent people from getting support. Removing barriers means advocating for inclusion and working to end oppression. It means pushing back on policies and laws that prevent people from seeking help because of their immigration status or faith convictions. It means using language and locations and strategies that welcome all survivors.

Focus on prevention – educate, discuss, call out and dismantle.

What if all those responses were perfect? The better scenario would be that they were unneeded – that people stop using abusive behaviors and people no longer have to live with the pain of trauma. Change is possible – abusive behaviors are supported by social norms. These same norms once said it was cool to smoke, and not at all dangerous to ride in a car without a seatbelt – or to drive a car after drinking a lot of alcohol. Norms meant that my mom could be a nurse, not a doctor. Norms change. With a lot of work. At REACH we do that work in schools and living rooms and sanctuaries and conference rooms. We educate – and learn from – students and professionals and neighbors. Discussions can happen anywhere. Each of us can do it. We can address unhealthy behaviors, we can talk with the young people in our lives and we can model respect in our relationships. Dismantling a culture that normalizes dehumanizing language and actions – that minimizes rape and harassment and blames victims – requires paying attention to what we say, how we endorse or challenge what others say, and how we hold ourselves and others accountable.

So I guess I found something to say after all.


If you are interested in learning more about domestic violence, listening and believing survivors, responding to disclosures and being prepared to discuss and dismantle the systems that perpetuate abuse, think about attending a training at REACH. Contact Jessica Teperow, Director of Prevention Programs, at jessica@reachma.org for information on upcoming trainings.