October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), and IFF sat down with four of our clients working with domestic violence survivors to ask for advice on how we can all spread awareness and act as allies. Here’s what we learned from our friends at Connections for Abused Women and their Children (CAWC) in Chicago, The Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland, Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee, and the YWCA West Central Michigan.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault and need crisis support, please call National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit their 24/7 chat here.
1. Believe them.
How IFF helped
Each of the four domestic violence advocates interviewed for this article represent organizations that have worked with IFF to find and finance their facilities.
“First and foremost, believe them and believe that the choices they have made are, in fact, reasonable reactions that anyone in a similar situation would,” says Kelli Langan-Pfister, Director of Development and Communications at the YWCA West Central Michigan. “We also have to be willing to believe that a victim’s partner – someone we may respect and like – is abusive. Coming to terms with that is key. Otherwise, individuals and communities will never address the actual cause of domestic violence – an assailant’s choice to abuse.”
Over in Milwaukee, Sojourner President and CEO Carmen Pitre advises that the first thing you should say to someone who discloses their abuse to you is: “I believe you, and I will try to help you.”
2. Don’t judge.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month Events
DVAM began in 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a day of unity to connect advocates across the country. Today it continues to center around the same major themes: mourning those who have died because of domestic violence, celebrating survivors, and connecting those who work to end the violence.
Perhaps that’s why, on average, domestic violence victims may leave their partner up to seven times before they make that ultimate decision to leave permanently.
They need support throughout that entire process.
“Sometimes people feel a lot of judgment with the decisions they may choose to make – whether they choose to leave their partner or stay with their partner. It’s really important not to criticize them or guilt them into doing something they aren’t ready to do,” says Kesha S. Marie Larkins, Associate Director at Chicago’s CAWC. “They need to know that whatever they choose, there’s still a supportive person available for them – and that support is unwavering.”
3. Don’t blame.
“As a culture, we blame victims. We say things like, ‘I would not stay if somebody hurt me,’ or ‘Look at that nice living he makes, he’s a nice guy, try to make it work,’” Milwaukee’s Pitre says. “We need to understand that violence happens in private, and we don’t know what our victims are up against.”
4. Educate yourself.
All of the advocates IFF interviewed agreed that educating yourself is the first step for any person who wants to spread awareness or support someone experiencing abuse.
As Pitre puts it: “Wherever you are in the world, call the hotline, read the article, get educated about the issues. That way, if someone in your life comes to you and says they’re being hurt, you’re somewhat prepared with simple messages – ‘I hear you, I believe you, and I will try to help you’ – as well as a sense of what resources are available in your community.”
With education comes myth-busting. Here are two big ones keep in mind:
All of us are eligible to be hurt by others.
- If I’m not being hit, I’m not being abused. Domestic violence has many different forms – physical abuse, emotional abuse, digital abuse, financial abuse. Financial abuse might include not being permitted to work, being forced to turn over your paycheck, or not being given enough money to survive. Examples of digital abuse include partners calling you hundreds of times a day or using GPS tools to track your movements. “Abuse often happens in isolation. If someone is monitoring your activities – who you’re speaking to, where you’re going, what websites you’re visiting, what money you’re spending – it’s another way to keep power and control over you,” Pitre says.
- Victims don’t look like me. “This idea that abuse happens only in certain communities is really a self-protection that keeps us from the reality: victims come from every cloth, every race, every neighborhood, every socio-economic status,” Pitre says. “All of us are eligible to be hurt by others.”
5. Encourage survivors to be social.
Larkins says it’s important for people who are going through a healing process to participate in social activities. “The more that person is around people who are supportive of them, the more they know they have a support network, people to talk to, options.”
Milwaukee’s Pitre agrees: “One of the key, primary things about domestic violence is that it happens in isolation, and victims feel very alone. The more we can break that sense of isolation, the easier it becomes for victims to think about how they might be able to get out.”
6. Help with safety planning.
Professional advocates work with people experiencing domestic violence to develop “safety plans” – but it’s something anyone can help do. These plans might include:
- Keeping important documents in one place so they’re easy to take with you if you need to leave quickly
- Packing a bag that you can keep at a friend’s house so you have personal affects available to you if you need to leave quickly
- Planning on a new neighborhood to live in that’s not going to bring you in close contact with former abusive partners
7. Don’t try to do it alone.
“It can be very overwhelming to provide support to someone who’s being hurt and trying to get out of that cycle of violence. It doesn’t happen quickly, and it’s painful and heartbreaking to watch,” Pitre says. “You have a role to play no matter who you are – friend, family member, teacher, co-worker, a member of a faith community – and you can be the doorway through which people find freedom. But, you don’t have to do it alone. Even the helpers need help.”
Langan-Pfister from the YWCA agrees: “Remember it’s not necessary to become an expert yourself. That’s what we’re here for. You simply need to know what services are available in your local community and help the victim connect to them when they’re ready to do so.”
8. Spread awareness.
Spreading awareness doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are three quick tips from our advocates:
- Speak up. “Always assume victims are listening – because they are. Even something as casual as making a passing comment about a news story gives you the opportunity to signal that you can be trusted and supportive if a victim reaches out to you,” Langan-Pfister says. Her colleague Rebecca Diffin, Director of the YWCA’s Domestic Violence Supportive Housing Program, puts it another way: “Personally, within my close circle of family and friends, I speak up and challenge behaviors or comments that are degrading, not only to women/girls, but anyone who is marginalized and vulnerable.”
- Leave behind flyers. “With good reason, victims can be reluctant to seek out services, so we encourage people to bring our materials to their workplaces or churches or clubs. Put posters in common areas. Leave cards with our 24-hour helpline in the restrooms. This lets victims know help is available without requiring them to look for it themselves, which – if their assailant is monitoring them – can be dangerous,” says Eileen McKeever, Director of the YWCA’s Domestic Violence Emergency Shelter.
- Host speakers. “A presentation at your church or job may be just the permission someone needs to walk through a door,” Pitre says. “Invite experts like Sojourner to come in and speak at your workplace, speak at your faith community, come into your school. We can provide some basic education, and we need invitations from all these arenas to come in and partner with us and help people understand.”
Even something as casual as making a passing comment about a news story gives you the opportunity to signal that you can be trusted and supportive if a victim reaches out to you.
9. Focus on the strength of survivors.
Language can be hard. The word ‘victim’ may be easier to grasp. ‘Survivor’ is more positively focused – and reminds us that there’s so much that’s successful about the person who asks for help. Still, YWCA focus groups show that most people who have experienced abuse don’t see themselves as either label; they’d much rather focus on just sharing their experience.
Many of the organizations highlighted in this article are hosting events in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month that make space to do just that – share experiences and, in doing so, highlight the strength of survivors. See our sidebar for details.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month Events
Here are some national resources, as well as local events hosted by the four IFF clients featured in this piece.
National event listings:
Connections for Abused Women and their Children (CAWC) – Chicago
CAWC held its annual march and rally on Saturday, Oct. 5th, when survivors and advocates walked through the community – starting and ending at the 14th Police Station in the Logan Square neighborhood – to share information, resources, and stories of survival. Hotline: 773-278-4566
The Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland
While Salvation Army doesn’t have any events surrounding DVAM, they offer a family shelter and survivors program year-round.
Sojourner Family Peace Center – Milwaukee
Sojourner’s 2nd Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Walk will take place Saturday, Oct. 12th, at Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee. The organization also plans to host an open house to help the community feel welcome and familiar with their services. It will also promote its 24-hour hotline in local media throughout the month. Find out more on Sojourner’s event page. Hotline: 414-933-2722
YWCA West Central Michigan – Grand Rapids
The YWCA co-hosts two major events to mark the beginning and end of DVAM. The first was an annual Candlelight Vigil held on Tuesday, Oct. 1st, when the community gathered in memory of those lost to domestic violence over the last year. The second is a screening of the award-winning documentary “Home Truth,” which follows the lives of Jessica Gonzales and her son over a period of years after the murder/suicide of their family – leading to a case at the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent similar tragedies from happening to other families. The screening and discussion will take place on Monday, October 28th, from 6-8 pm in Grand Rapids. Learn more and RSVP here. Helpline: 616-454-9922
How IFF helped
• IFF has worked with Chicago’s Connections for Abused Women and their Children (CAWC) dating back to 1991, when the organization received a small equipment loan from us. Between 2007 and 2015, IFF’s real estate solutions team also worked with CAWC on various projects, including a feasibility study, site search, and facility assessment.
• The Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland worked with IFF in 2015 to secure a $6.5 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits in order to expand and renovate four facilities, including a family emergency shelter.
• Milwaukee’s Sojourner Family Peace Center worked with IFF in 2014 to secure a $10 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits to build a new 72,000-square-foot facility that provides domestic violence services, including a 56-bed shelter for families.
• YWCA West Central Michigan worked with IFF in 2015 to secure a $7.5 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits to expand two facilities in Grand Rapids where they are working to combat domestic and sexual violence.