I have been working in the anti domestic violence movement for over 20 years. I came to this work to support women and children who were experiencing domestic and sexual violence. As a young feminist, I held strong and unwavering beliefs about violence against women and girls. I was steadfast and thought I had it all figured out. Victims good, abusers bad. This binary shaped everything I thought and believed, as well as my actions. I had a zero tolerance approach and believed that the solution was simple. Help women and children leave the abusive relationship and start completely anew, and lock up the abuser. I believed that abusive behavior was explained simply and completely by a misuse of male privilege, power and control.
Twenty years later I take a deep breath and pause. And while I can love my former righteous advocate self, I have landed in a much more humble, very grey and very messy place. Hearts and minds need to grow and expand, and holding too tightly to dogma or what everyone else is thinking only keeps us from creating the change we desire.
The lived experience of those who have experienced violence is varied and diverse. The anti-violence movement, in many places, has remained steadfast, and even stuck, in a range of responses mostly designed to do what I originally got into this work to do—help survivors leave their partners, and often their communities, neighborhoods, jobs and more as a consequence. For some this is indeed the best option, but for most the right solution is more complex. The articulated values of the movement have always been to work with survivors no matter what they choose; however, we have not organized our work with real options that support all survivors’ desires and fully live up to these values.
One memorable woman (I’ll call her Kate) I worked with in supervised visitation was instrumental in opening up my thinking. Supervised visitation is a service generally for separated parents that allows the children to spend time with a parent who has caused harm to the family. It’s important to note the underlying assumption here is that parents using visitation programs are no longer in contact, and want it that way. Kate and her family had been coming to the center for months, and it seemed clear both Kate and her children were keeping a secret or had something to say but never did. I tried everything to build a relationship and understand what was happening for them, to no avail. Until one day, Kate walked into my office, sat down and started to cry. Kate explained that she and her family, including her abusive husband, were still living together. She described how she maneuvered before every visit—dropping him off, driving around for 15 minutes, then dropping off the kids—and reversing the order at the end of the visit. When I asked what she needed from us, she begged me to not kick them out, that she needed to continue the supervised visits. She told me she wasn’t ready and didn’t want to leave her husband. But the 90 minutes of respite she got every week—to take care of herself, to prepare for the week, to not worry—was the most helpful thing anyone was doing for her and critical for her safety.
This was a pivotal moment for me. First, I realized that because Kate felt afraid to tell me the truth, we spent a lot of time planning for safety risks that were not relevant and we missed opportunities to plan around her actual needs. Second, I realized that when we only see our responses or interventions through our own lens, we miss the practical and helpful ways we can support survivors on their own terms, in the ways that are most relevant to their lived experience. Lastly, and most importantly, I was reminded that our “leaving” strategies can be supportive to survivors even when they choose to stay and our most critical role is to build trust and stay open to what people actually need, not just what we think they need.
I ask myself daily some of the following questions in an effort to uncover the path needed to transform and unite the many movements working to create change and healing for individuals and families who are touched, harmed and impacted by the many forms of violence that plague our homes, communities and planet. What if the horizon we set for our movement(s) was created by a desire for healing for individuals and families? What if we really organized our work around the multitude of options that survivors want and need to feel supported? What if we considered the possibility that an approach to supporting change for those impacted by violence (both the person being harmed and the once causing it) was driven by our deep curiosity to understand what people need to feel a sense of hope and connection?
Changing the horizon to healing can change the myth that violence and relationships cleanly benefit one person while harming another; it could open up the possibility for us to understand that when violence is happening, everyone is being harmed. The harm may not be experienced similarly, but no one truly thrives when they are harming the people they care about. If we, meaning all of us working to support safety and wellbeing in our communities, held the same vision for healing, our movement would be stronger—and continue to grow and move.
As my many mentors have invited me to grow and change, my invitation to each of you working to create change and healing is to find a place in your heart and in your actions that leaves room for new and innovative ways to inform and influence our antiviolence movement. I invite those of us who have been engaged in this work for many years to listen to the new voices, to encourage and support ways of thinking that may be different or even the opposite of what we have believed over the years, find ways to hold space for new leaders who will carry the work. I invite new and exciting thinkers to be fierce, carve new paths and hold humility and gratitude for the work that has come before you. This is an urgent call to all of us. We must open our hearts and our minds to seeing all people as whole people—not just the experiences they’ve had but as people deserving a world that is built from a place of equity, compassion and genuine opportunities to choose love over hate, kindness over cruelty and healing over suffering.
Jennifer Rose has been working as an advocate and activist to end violence against women and children for the past 20 years. She currently works locally and nationally as a consultant on violence against women and girls, supervised visitation and safe exchange, engaging men who use violence, oppression, community organizing and LGBTQ issues.