“What do you do for work?” It’s a question everyone asks and answers all the time, and you probably don’t think much about it, unless you’ve gone through a period of unemployment, or you work for the CIA and need a cover story.
When I tell people that I work for a domestic violence agency, 99% of the time the reaction I get is, “Oh so like a women’s shelter?” And I always hesitate, because it’s so much more. Yes, we have a shelter and a 24-hour hotline for folks in immediate crisis. But it’s not just women who stay there, or who receive services from REACH. We were actually one of the first shelters in the state to take male survivors, members of the LGBTQ community, and parents with teenage sons, who might have difficulty finding placement in a traditional “women’s” shelter. So it’s not just women, and it’s also not just shelter.
Going into shelter is a huge step for someone to take. It involves leaving behind your friends, extended family, community…uprooting your kids, living with strangers, and, if it’s a confidential shelter like REACH’s is, not being able to tell anyone where you live. It also assumes – and this is a BIG assumption – that you have left the relationship. What we know at REACH, from years of doing this work, is that not everyone is ready to take that step. That’s why REACH has what we call Community-Based Advocacy – or basically, support services for people who don’t reside in shelter. They may not want shelter, they may not need the full support of a residential program, or they may not be ready to leave their relationship yet. That choice has to be up to the survivor and them alone. A Community Advocate can be there for someone experiencing violence in a relationship and lay out all of their options for them. If they don’t want to leave, the advocate can safety-plan with them in order to keep them as safe as possible under the circumstances. If they do decide to leave, an advocate can help them think through the necessary steps and do so safely.
Supporting survivors is only part of what REACH does. The other major part is preventing domestic violence from happening in the first place, which we do by helping community members start conversations about domestic violence and healthy relationships.
With answers like these, as you can imagine, I’m a lot of fun at parties.
The other reaction I get from people when I tell them where I work, in addition to the “women’s shelter” thing, is a sentiment like “oh that must be really hard.” And it is, for sure. I’ve been here 7 years and there are still times when the story of a person who has arrived at the point of needing shelter just breaks my heart. But at the same time, there is so much reason to be hopeful. We see it every day in people who find the courage to move on from the trauma of their past and live life on their own terms. We see it in teens who are taking a leadership role among their classmates and turning their schools into places where abusive behavior is simply not cool.
These are just the reactions that I’ve observed, in my 7 years here. I put the question out to my coworkers, and here’s what they get, and what they say in response:
“That must be so depressing.”
There are moments where I am so lucky to see how much of a difference we can make by believing survivors and being there with them throughout this journey. We can meet some basic needs, whether that’s diapers, or shelter, or a ride to the grocery store, and can help decrease the damage that isolation has caused. I find inspiration in the single mom who finds employment, or the man who feels safe to acknowledge his experience for the first time. Sometimes I see the difference we can make when we help a survivor move into safe housing, and other times it’s more subtle, like the survivor who begins to open up and share more with our staff.
One thing that I find hopeful is that when I tell people my role at the organization is fundraising, they ALWAYS say that it is such a worthwhile and important cause to raise money for and that part of your job must be easy, and to that I always say YES, it is not hard at all to make a case for why someone should contribute to the mission.
I tell them that I love it and what an amazing experience it is.
“That happened to me” or “My parent/friend/coworker was in an abusive relationship” etc.
This one is so hard to respond to. When it is a survivor who shares their experience, I am humbled that they feel safe enough to name that to me. I sometimes grow nervous, however, given where these disclosures can take place. At an outreach event, I can often find somewhere private where we can talk. But if it’s a random person at a bar who I had just started to make small talk with, and lots of people are all around, I am really aware that our conversation isn’t private. I usually thank the person for sharing their story with me, and ask what supports they have. I usually offer our agency, especially the hotline as another resource.
Sometimes when people share stories they can be clouded with judgment or misinformation- people often think that drugs or alcohol caused the abuse, or may even blame the survivor for the abuse. This can be a tricky situation to respond to, but I do my best to push back in the moment. I know that I probably can’t change a person’s perceptions in a moment, but I can plant seeds and name what I know to be true. I can acknowledge myths as such, validate their experience and hear how hard it is/was to watch a person we care about in such a situation.
“Why would you do that? Did something like that happen to you?”
It’s funny, because this response only ever seems to come from people I have only just met. And in that context, it feels, to me at least, like crossing a boundary…Whenever I hear this I have to do a quick assessment of what feels comfortable and safe to share and what doesn’t… I usually differ to an answer of “many of us come to this work for personal reasons,” and then try to shift the conversation back to the work that REACH does.
I share that there are a lot of different reasons why people get involved with this work.
“Wow is that a problem here in (quiet suburban town)?”
Domestic violence affects everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or economic status.
“You’re such a good person for doing that work.”
We do our best to show our gratitude for people’s compliments, but it can get uncomfortable. Especially because you don’t have to be a paid staff member at a DV agency to make a difference in the lives of survivors and help end domestic violence. And because the work that we do pales in comparison to the challenges that survivors have overcome, and will continue to face. Whoever you are, whether it’s officially a part of your job description or not, there are things you can do to raise awareness and create safe spaces for survivors. If you’d like to learn more, contact our Prevention department.