Who matters?

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Who matters when we think about domestic violence and sexual assault? Who are we protecting and who do we silence?

Over the course of the last few months, our country has been forced into a reckoning of whose pain is important and whose lives matter in a visible and vocal way. From the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen how the disease has allowed prejudice and racism, especially against Asian Americans, thrive. We’ve seen our communities argue about whether wearing masks to protect our neighbors is “worth it” or whether our vulnerable community members should be thrown under the bus in the name of economic recovery. Finally, and most recently, we’ve seen such egregious (and heartbreakingly common) examples of violent, murderous racism and police brutality against Black Americans and people of color.

We have to answer these questions every day in our work. Whose lives are important? Who do we care about? Who are we willing to protect? Who will we speak up for?

As we’ve worked from home, listening to new podcasts, shows, and webinars, one theme has been constant: people with power almost always ignore abuse as long as they can until it becomes inconvenient or impossible to ignore the victims any longer.

In “The Catch and Kill Podcast with Ronan Farrow” and “Chasing Cosby”, we see the countless women who were ignored in favor of protecting powerful men. Countless media, court officials, law enforcement, and even friends and family ignored, dismissed, or discouraged the hundreds of victims who came forward. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby (like so many others) were only held accountable when there was no other option.

We see this decision to ignore the needs of some in favor of a bigger “agenda” when listening to the second season of “Slow Burn” which focuses on the sexual abuse scandals faced by Bill Clinton during his years in office as President. Monica Lewinsky has maintained that she does not feel like she was sexually assaulted by President Clinton, but there is no arguing that she was treated as a political football, rather than a victim of violence or power inequity. Both sides (regardless of party) seemed to view Clinton’s inappropriate pursuit of Lewinsky as an opportunity to bring down their opponent or support their candidate. We have to answer this with Clinton, with Kavanaugh, with Trump, with Franken, and yes, with Joe Biden. How do we respond to allegations of sexual abuse and violence? Is our response different when it is “our guy”? Are we concerned with supporting victims and survivors? Or are we looking to score cheap political points? Are we ignoring survivors and victims because we’re afraid to lose the election, the seat, or the moral high ground?

And let’s take that even farther…are we afraid to support victims because we don’t know what it will mean for our community? Our family? Our workplace? Ending violence requires courage and consistency. We MUST be willing to be brave. We must be willing to hold EVERYONE accountable, no matter the cost. We must take the risk to create a world where everyone is safe, everyone is free, and everyone is loved.

Black Lives Matter…

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…and white silence is complicity.

There are so many things to be said about the current situation in our world. The first thing is that it isn’t new. This isn’t America breaking or a failure in the system. This is the truth about American racism and systematic injustice. It has always existed; now it is just being caught on camera.

The second is that we can’t do the work to end domestic and sexual violence without addressing racial violence. Freedom for some (i.e. freedom for cis white women) is not real freedom. We MUST acknowledge and fight to undo the racism and white supremacy that intersect with and uphold interpersonal power-based violence in our nation and world.

The third thing is that we don’t need more white voices weighing in on this. It is time to listen to, amplify, and compensate Black activists and leaders. They have been doing the work for generations. They know the struggle. If you are white, it is your turn to sit back, support the Black leaders in the movement, and use your white privilege to protect them. As Ijeoma Oluo said:

“Allies: Now is the time to be in the service of Black liberation.

Limit your response to what is of real, tangible help to us. Give money, call your reps, protect Black people at protests, elevate our work and voices.

Don’t make us swim through your tears while we fight.”

(follow her on Twitter)

We can’t allow racism, racial violence, and policy brutality to claim any more Black lives, Black hopes, Black dreams, or Black futures. EVERY organization that works for a better world must participate in this fight for justice. Black lives matter.

What is Justice?

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If you’re like us, you’ve had a lot more time (or at least more excuses) to watch Netflix, read books, and listen to podcasts. We’ll be sharing some thoughts from our favorite shows and podcasts over the next few weeks and we’d love to hear what you are watching or listening to as you shelter-in-place!

Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault.  If you may be triggered, use caution in reading ahead or call us at 815-756-5228.

We’ve mentioned before that we were listening to Chasing Cosby.  It is a difficult podcast to listen to. You come face to face with survivors who bravely share their experiences with sexual assault, fear, and betrayal.  Not only did they experience a violation of their bodies and their choices, but their trust was violated.  Cosby had built an image of himself as a paragon of virtue, a family man, someone they could trust to help them. And he used that image, that mirage to hurt them.

It took decades for him to be found guilty of his crimes.

In the last episode of the podcast, several of the survivors meet for a live-recorded episode.  They (and the podcast host) answer a series of audience questions. One of the most poignant is the question, what does justice look like for you?

Many of us might assume we know what their answer would be.  Many of us would assume justice was served.  Bill Cosby was found guilty.  Bill Cosby is in prison. Is this justice? For some of the women, the answer is yes.  For others, no.  There is no justice. There can be no justice.

There is no undoing what Bill Cosby did.  There is no way to un-assault someone, no way to erase that crime or all of the trauma that followed. A harm-doer ending up in prison may send the message to others that this behavior will not be tolerated, but it doesn’t fix or change what they did.

Survivors deserve more.

Many survivors feel the deep lack of justice from harm-doers who can’t admit they have done something wrong. Many of Cosby’s survivors noted that what they wanted most was an apology.  They wanted Cosby to acknowledge that he had hurt them, to show that he knew he had done something wrong, and wouldn’t do it again.  They’ve been denied that justice.

Survivors aren’t asking for justice because they want to punish someone or perpetuate a cycle of pain.  They are asking for justice because they believe in a better world, because they want to make the world a safer place.  They want true justice because they are strong.

Many survivors have found comfort in seeing other survivors come forward, in supporting other survivors. The courage and strength in finding justice in fighting for other survivors is the heart of this movement. I believe in a future without sexual assault or violence because I have seen the courage of survivors who life one another up. I believe in a future without violence, because I know survivors are fighting not only for their own justice, but for others.  They fight for other survivors, but also for no one else to ever be put in a position to become a survivor.

The survivors of Bill Cosby not only fought for him to be held accountable, but also fought to change statute of limitations for sexual assault in states around the nation. They have made it possible for victims to report abuse when they feel safe and able to do so.  They not only held Cosby accountable, they changed the world for other survivors.

You have no responsibility to anything but your own healing, but survivor, we hope you know just how powerful you are.

You will change lives, just by healing.  You will encourage other survivors. You have the ability to change the world for the better. Organizations like Safe Passage only exist because of the strength of survivors who came together to create these services and because of survivors who work in this field each and every day.

Justice does not look like a courtroom, a judge, or a sentence.  Justice isn’t found in jail cells or handcuffs.  Justice is a world without violence.  Justice is a world where we are ALL safe.  Justice is what we are fighting for.  And we will never give up.

Chasing Cosby

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In January, the LA Times premiered a new podcast which followed the career, and dark personal history, of comedian and convicted sex criminal, Bill Cosby.  The six-episode podcast, Chasing Cosby, is available wherever you get your podcasts.

The podcast is an important reminder that we can’t assume someone is safe just because they are famous, powerful, or well-liked in our communities. The podcast sends the message loud and clear that we must Start By Believing and trust survivors when they come forward.  Only by believing survivors, supporting survivors, and holding perpetrators accountable, can we truly end sexual violence in our world.

The podcast is powerful, moving, and haunting and please please please be cautious in listening if you are a survivor or may be triggered by stories of abuse. This is not an easy podcast to hear. But it is important for many of us.

We’ll be sharing more of our thoughts on different episodes and themes through the podcast, but first and foremost, the lesson we can learn from this podcast is how incredibly strong survivors are. Anyone working in this field or industry will tell you, the ones who are making a difference and the ones who are changing the world are survivors. We are in the background, offering support and guidance, but the real power behind the movement to end violence is and always has been survivors.

The women who reported Bill Cosby’s abuse not only had the courage to share their stories, to press charges, or to testify in court, but many of them ALSO advocated for changes in the laws of their home states.  State after state changed or discarded restricted statute of limitation laws for reporting sexual abuse and they did so because of the advocacy of survivors of Bill Cosby.  These women not only sought justice for themselves, but they sought to make the world a more just place for future survivors.

They had no responsibility to anything but their own healing, but they still took this stand. Because of them, Colorado DOUBLED the length of time a survivor has to report assault and abuse. Nevada and California removed any statute of limitations on reporting these crimes.  Women and all survivors are safer, our world is safer, because of their courage.

Remember each day as we work together to end sexual violence to listen to survivors.  Ask survivors in your life what they need and how you can support them.  Look to survivors in the news, buy and read books by survivors, watch Ted Talks from survivors (may we recommend any and everything by Tarana Burke?), and learn from them. We don’t do this work FOR survivors of violence, we do this work WITH them.

Thank you, to each and every person, who has survived sexual violence and is fighting for yourself and for the world.  We are honored to fight with you.

Got Consent?

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Content Warning:  Discussion of sexual abuse, sexual predators, and consent.

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As Harvey Weinstein’s case continues in New York, the main argument from his legal team is that every encounter brought up in the trial was actually consensual. He says that he can’t be charged with rape because in each and every case, the other party agreed to have sex or wanted to. How was HE to know that she didn’t actually want to have sex? This is the argument you hear in most rape cases that make it to trial.

As this trial was beginning, I was also finishing up the novel Horns by Joe Hill. This fictional story surrounds the case of a young woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered. Throughout the novel, you get to hear the exact thoughts of the abuser leading up to the moment of the young woman’s murder. Very dark stuff. As I read the story, however, I couldn’t help but notice a similarity between the thoughts of the murderer and the excuses we’ve heard throughout the investigation and prosecution of Harvey Weinstein and countless others.

As I thought about this fictional account and this very real criminal case, I started to wonder, do these abusers actually believe it? Do they genuinely think that they had consent in those encounters? It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it does help us understand where we need to put more effort in our prevention work with young people. Too often we hear excuses from abusers like “it seemed like they were enjoying it,” “they didn’t say no,” or “they didn’t try to stop me.” If we aren’t teaching young people (and old people too) that consent MUST be a verbal, enthusiastic, and informed “yes”, then we’re opening the door for abusers to use these excuses in their lives and in court.

Again, this is no excuse for their behavior, but it does open a window into our culture and what we need to do better. Part of overcoming our current rape culture is making it crystal clear to abusers, to communities, and to juries and judges that any sexual activity without explicit, informed, and enthusiastic consent is sexual abuse.

A look is not consent.
“…she turned and gave Lee a frowning look, one eyebrow raised in a way that seemed to ask a question–or offer an invitation. Follow me.” (Horns, p 349)

How someone is dressed is not consent.
“She had thought about what to put on before she came here, had thought about how she wanted to be seen.” (Lee’s perspective, Horns, p 296)

Your interpretation of what someone means when things are unclear is not consent.
“Lee…wondered for a moment if she could mean what he thought she meant by that. But of course she did, of course she knew exactly how he’d take it. A lot of what Merrin said had double meanings, one for public consumption and the other just for him. She’d been sending him messages for years.” (Horns, p 301)

Your imagination is not consent.
“She had lured him down to Boston, led him to imagine they would be alone together, and then answered the door in her sweatpants, looking like warmed-over shit, her roommate wandering around…He was sick of being jerked around…” (Horns, p 314)

Nothing is consent aside from a clear, sober yes, free from manipulation, coercion, or force. The sooner we make that clear, the sooner we’ll live in a world where abusers are held accountable for their actions instead of a world where we make excuses for the violence done to others.

Perspective

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Did you hear our Perspective this morning on WNIJ?  If you’re not a radio listener, check it out at this LINK.

 

Outgoing Kentucky governor Matt Bevin is using his final days in office to make a powerful statement. On Nov. 22, Bevin announced he was pardoning Paul Hurt, a man serving life in prison for sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. If there is one thing I thought we could agree on, even in a country as divided as ours seems to be, I thought we could all agree that the abuse of children is a heinous crime for which people should be punished.

The facts around Hurt’s case are complicated and the pardon seems to rest on the activism of the judge in the original 2001 conviction who later worked privately to convince the victim to recant her testimony. The issues when you start digging into the case are far beyond what can be managed in a short Perspective.  But what isn’t complicated is this: we as adults have the ultimate responsibility for protecting our children. How we respond when a child discloses abuse and how we support them after that disclosure makes all the difference for how they will heal and whether that abuser will face consequences.

I believe the victim in Hurt’s case has had justice snatched away from her. I believe Matt Bevin has sent a message to child abusers that they will not be held accountable for harming children.  I believe our world is a more dangerous place for children because of this pardon.  And I believe that is completely unacceptable.

I’m Lynnea Erickson Laskowski and that’s my perspective.

Ally

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A message from our Volunteer Coordinator, Pam Rosales:

Ally by Jaz Sufi

The movement to end sexual violence is filled with activists that are passionate in ending other forms of social injustice. In a culture where People of Color experience higher rates of sexual violence, racial equality is deeply interwoven in the movement. As the Volunteer Coordinator of Safe Passage, I meet passionate individuals who are dedicated in both fights. Being a Filipina Muslim American, I’m aware of just how pervasive racism lurks within this space.

This space, where survivors of color seek sanctuary and healing, is often times permeated with well-intended individuals claiming to be allies. Whose ‘wokeness’ is as performative as the ethnic artifacts hanging on the walls from their last mission trip. Jaz Sufi illustrates this performance in her poem:

“When I say ‘woke’, I mean she keeps the city up at night listen to how loud her allyship is, like it’s only worth the effort if everyone can hear its echo. She says ‘fireworks’ I say ‘gunshots’ she says I’m wrong, but you’ll never catch her in the kind of neighborhood where you learn to tell the difference…When I say ‘woke’, I mean she knows all the right words. Says ‘microaggression’ and tries to shrink me smaller. Says ‘white fragility’ and shatters into shrapnel. Blames the brown girl for all of her bruises as she carves the meat from my bones. But of course, the only damage here is what was done to her, by me, the terrorist.”

People of color who survive trauma from sexual assault are not free from the trauma of racism. They have to carry the heavy weight of both. If racial violence continues, sexual violence persists, and vice versa. People of color experience victim blaming with the added baggage of racism. When a person of color seeks support for their sexual assault, not only do they worry about whether or not they will be believed, but they have to worry about how their race affects their journey. Will the color of their skin affect whether or not they will receive proper medical care when they get a rape-kit done? If they share their story, will people blame their culture for being ‘oppressive’ and ‘backwards’? Will their citizenship be the focus of the conversation instead? This is the trauma that People of Color endure, often by the hands of “allies.”

Do impactful, genuine allies exist? Yes. This post is not about them. This post is about those who exploit the oppression of People of Color to wear as evidence for their activism. This post is about the “allies” who grab the microphone from us to speak for us, and then receive the accolades that should have been given to us. The thing about these allies, is that even though they might not see themselves as problematic, the people of color around them can spot them out easily. We see you, and we are not fooled.

While reading books like White Fragility is a start, it is not enough. There’s no simple answer to this complexity. I wish I can say that the answer is to travel, to have more People of Color in your inner-circle, to educate yourself on issues of racism, to learn more about our peoples’ history and culture – but I have seen “allies” partake in all of those things and still get it wrong. Instead, their knowledge of our culture and experience is weaponized against us through the form of tokenization, gaslighting and white saviorism. We do not need you to free us. We do not need you to speak for us. We do not need you coming into our ancestral lands, wearing our traditional clothing, speaking our mother tongue, and then stealing our identities to make yourself look “worldly.” We need you to listen. We need you to start by believing when you are held accountable on your racial abuse. We need you to be silent when we speak.

So I ask this: if I asked the people of color in your life what type of ally you are, what would they say?

We’re not safe.

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Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and murder

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A DeKalb County man recently returned to the area fleeing California after allegedly shooting another man to death. (Links to local reporting on the crime HERE and HERE). Mark Sypien had a host of criminal convictions in the northern Illinois area, the vast majority of which were convictions on domestic battery and violations of order of protection charges.

This case shows, once again, that domestic violence is a threat to ALL of us. We should care about domestic violence simply because it is a threat to the victims, but if we can’t work up enough national attention for that, can we at least be honest about the very real threat to the general public when abusers are allowed to escape accountability?

Sypien clearly showed that he was unconcerned about breaking the law.  He abused intimate partners.  He violated court orders of protection.  He harassed victims and family members.  And then he moved to California and did the exact same thing.  The man Sypien murdered was the father of one of Sypien’s former partners.  John Moore, age 76, was concerned about Sypien’s violence, had previously obtained a restraining order against Sypien, and had spoken to family members about his concerns that Sypien might continue to harass the family. His concern was, devastatingly, justified.

How did Sypien continue to evade law enforcement for so long?  How was he able to obtain a firearm when he had so clearly demonstrated a inclination toward violence? How can we tolerate a world where so many victims live in fear of an abusive partner returning to harass or harm them?

Abusive individuals who are not held accountable are a risk. Violence, stalking, and controlling behavior cannot be tolerated.  We can’t just look the other way. Shooters in the mass shootings that are becoming all-too-common almost always have one thing in common: a history of domestic violence or misogyny.

If we are serious about ending violence in our community, our nation, and our world, we need to take a hard look at domestic abuse. We need to look at how we are raising our kids to have healthy relationships.  We need to talk about the connections between toxic masculinity and violence. We need to hold abusers accountable and we need to commit to working together until everyone is safe.

I’m not throwing away my shot

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My partner and I went to see Hamilton last night.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, Hamilton the Musical is the story of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who came to America as an immigrant, fought in the Revolutionary War, and paved the way for the financial success of the new country.  He was also pretty famous for dying in a duel after being shot by Aaron Burr.

I’ve been in love with this show since I first heard the music and seeing it live was an incredible experience. As I listened to the songs I’ve heard a million times before, seeing them coming to life for the first time, some of the lyrics struck me in a whole new way.

In one of the most famous songs, My Shot (link), Hamilton sings about making the most of every opportunity that comes his way, no matter the challenges he faces.  Several moments in the song stuck out to me.  The first, in light of #MeToo, is when Hamilton sings that “This is not a moment, it’s the movement.”  We’ve written about it before, but #MeToo and #TimesUp are not just a glitch or an aberration.  People have been being abused, harassed, and assaulted for thousands of years and brave survivors have been talking about it.  We just haven’t been listening.  This is the moment when we started to seriously listen but it has to be more than that.  It has to be more than the moment when we started paying attention.  It has to be the movement for lasting change.

The next moment that stood out to me was when John Laurens (historically, a close friend of Hamilton) sings that “we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.” On its own, this is something we as a nation have to learn to face.  We need to reckon and struggle with that issue that our country was founded on ideals that we didn’t extend to people of color.  We have to reckon and face the fact that our country was built on slavery.  Our struggles as a nation to this day are connected with the racist history that pervades every element of our modern institutions.  We can’t ignore that.  And on a more personal level, for the movement to end sexual assault and for the women’s right’s movements, we have to address the fact that our struggle for equality and action was often promoted at the expense of people of color.  White women, particularly, led early action but left their sisters of color behind.  People of color cannot be collateral damage on the path to equality.  We are not free until we are all free.  John Laurens knew this and we have to learn it.

Finally, the villain in the story, Aaron Burr sings that Hamilton and his friends should “lower your voices.  Keep out of trouble and you double your choices.”  He tells them to keep quiet, don’t rock the boat, and go along to get along.  This kind of moderating influence is popular in social change organizations.  We tell people not to upset the status quo.  We encourage changemakers to work within the system as it exists.  We try to reform from within.  That can work.  That can be the right option.  But sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes we have to be bold.  Sometimes we have to be like Hamilton and be willing to wade into the mess and get dirty fighting for what we know is right.  We can’t patiently wait for men and women to be treated equally.  We can’t just hope that society will stop victim-blaming and shaming survivors of sexual assault.  We can’t ask politely for the gun control reform that will save the lives of thousands of abuse victims who are at higher risk of death due to easy gun access for abusers.  We have to speak out and stand up, even if we speak out and stand up alone.

Hamilton had a difficult life.  He faced overwhelming childhood trauma.  He faced bias and prejudice as an immigrant.  His boldness angered many people in power.  But his strength changed a nation.  My hope is that our agency will have a similar courage and power in speaking out for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and we hope you’ll stand with us until everyone feels truly safe and truly free.

If you need help or support, you can reach us 24/7 at 815.756.5228.

Justice and Injustice

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Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Today, we share our favorite MLK quotes.  We hear people talk about his dream.  We feel good, remembering the feelgood moments of a powerful, inspirational leader.

Those parts of Dr. King matter.  We need to hear his powerful words of love and hope.  We need to hear that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  We need to remember that dream of a world where every child is judged by their character, not their race.  We need the inspiration that through it all, Dr. King chose love, not hate.

But we also need to hear and to heed his powerful words of justice.  We need to remember that while he lived, he was often reviled and dismissed by white leaders and white communities.  He was considered dangerous and radical because he spoke truth into a world of racial injustice.  He is the man who reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  He is the man who reminds us that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Dr. King was and remains a reminder that we must all choose a side, that remaining neutral is not an option.

Today, of all days, we must be honest about the history of the movement for female safety and empowerment that gave birth to shelters and crisis centers like Safe Passage.  Too much of our history was tied up in racism and classism as much as it was tied up in feminism.  Founding mothers often fought for the rights of white women at the expense of our sisters of color.  We fought for emancipation for white women, willing to sacrifice emancipation for people of color if it got white females the vote.  We made progress in diagnosing and treating critical women’s health issues, but have rarely admitted or made restitution for the fact that these medical breakthroughs were thanks to non-consensual medical experimentation on enslaved women of color.  We have fought for reproductive justice, ignoring the very recent history of sterilization programs for incarcerated women of color.  We speak out against domestic and sexual violence, but rarely stop to highlight the incredible dangers faced by transwomen, and particularly transwomen of color.  Our shelters, our boards, our coalitions are too often overwhelmingly staffed and led by white, cis-gendered women.

If we truly want to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, today is a day to be honest about both our successes and failures to live up to his dream.  We are proud of the work we do as crisis center employees.  We are proud of the work we do as activists.  We believe in the mission and vision to end domestic and sexual violence.  But we know we must do more to include and support people of color in our mission.  We know we must do more to acknowledge and overcome a history of racism in our movement.  We know we must do more to fight systemic racism alongside sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so much more.

Today, we remember and honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who have followed in his powerful footsteps to speak truth to power and hold allies accountable.  We dream of a better future without violence of any kind and we commit to holding our movement accountable to that dream.