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Lessons From My First Week

I’m new here. My title is “manager of corporate and foundation relations,” but all that really means is that my job is to tell a compelling story to businesses and foundations about the work we do. This is what I do for a living in the nonprofit world: I’m a story teller. I know the work, the craft, and the game of it all, but as I stepped into my first day at A Woman’s Place, one of the things that became abundantly clear to me is that I didn’t know the first thing about the story.

Like most people, I had a vague idea of the plot: somewhere, out there, far away from here, bad things are happening to women, and these bad things are perpetrated by bad men. On a really basic level, this is a true story, but it barely scratches the surface of what’s really going on in our community and communities around the country.

Let me back up a bit. When I came to interview for this position at A Woman’s Place, I thought a lot about what I would say if I was asked why I wanted to work there. I was sure I had never experienced or even witnessed domestic or intimate violence in my life. Was this going to make me unqualified for this work? I worried. However, as I sat in my car on the way to the office for my interview, wondering just what I was going to say if that question came up, I realized something: not only had I known victims of domestic abuse in my life, I had seen the signs of it first hand. Among friends, at parties, or in a throw-away comment about an old relationship. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had been surrounded by domestic and intimate violence my whole life but I had somehow never named it as such. The signs were everywhere; friends in relationships where “he was just a little controlling” or “didn’t let her hang out with her friends”, the too-tight grab around the arm that suggests something sinister, the face of a friend who has clearly been crying again but doesn’t want to talk about it – never wants to talk about it. She’s texting him now. She’s always texting him. He gets upset if she doesn’t.

All of these were so familiar to me that I somehow had managed not to think of them at all.

The CDC says that one in three teens in America will experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in their relationships. I just learned this on my third day here, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since, so I want to say it again. One in three teens in America will experience abuse in a relationship. The effects of this are likely along the lines of what you’d expect: depression, suicidal thoughts, and STDs, among other mental and physical ailments and injuries.

We might repeat that number and that list every day on every news outlet in the country and it wouldn’t be a wasted effort, but shocking as it is, I realized that list of effects is still missing other insidious yet pervasive effects. I had  personally seen the signs of this violence, this abuse, but hadn’t named it that. I’d named it something else, or ignored it, to the point where I had literally forgotten I had ever seen it. The truth is, beyond the devastating effects on victims and their families, every act of abuse unchallenged by the community, every victim unsupported by peers and loved ones, and every abuser excused or ignored by those that might have helped sends a clear, stunningly simple message: this is normal, this is fine, this is not worth acting on or even remembering.

Flash forward back to me on my third day of my new job, and trying to put the pieces of the story together. I have the same story in my head as you probably do. The simplified story of domestic and intimate violence that appears to be true on one level, but on a deeper level, it’s all wrong.

The plot is wrong: they might be married, but they also might just be in a long term relationship, or maybe they just started dating. Maybe the violence is subtle, or maybe it’s more horrifying and physical than you could have imagined, or maybe it’s equally horrifying but not physical at all.

The characters are wrong: they might be grown people, but they could be a young couple, or even teenagers — kids, practically. The victim might not be a woman. The abuser might not be a man.

The setting is wrong too: domestic and intimate violence doesn’t happen somewhere out there, it happens right here. It happens everywhere – to one in three teens in America.

I have a lot to learn. Part of that should be obvious: It’s my first week on the job, and I’m a man working at a domestic violence victim’s organization called A Woman’s Place, so I’d be an idiot not to be aware of the vast oceans of things I have no idea about. But more than that, this “truth” that I realized, that I had in fact always been surrounded by this violence, is not the product of some uncommon insight on my part. In fact, it’s painfully obvious. It’s the true story we all know that hides in plain sight, right behind the story we tell ourselves. Not “somewhere” and “someone” but “right there,” and “her”. It only took me three days on the job to realize everything I thought I knew about this work was wrong, or at least woefully incomplete.

My career has been about trying to do some good in the world, and like anyone who tries to do that, one of the first and most disheartening things you realize is the true size and scope of the bad you’re trying to push out. I’m new here: new to this field, new to A Woman’s Place, and once again I find myself looking out at more bad than I could have imagined was there. But this isn’t a story about defeat in the face of insurmountable odds. In fact, I share a part of my story with the thousands who have been touched, protected, taught, and empowered by A Woman’s Place, because here in the midst of all that violence, I’ve landed among the helpers. There is so, so much work to do, but every day the women and men I’ve met here devote their lives to providing safety, getting people back on their feet, and educating and inspiring our community to prevent future abuse. Our past clients come back here to volunteer because they found courage here and want nothing more than to give that courage to others. Our volunteers and donors support us because they’ve seen firsthand the horror of what people can do to each other, but also the wonder of what we can do together. Together, we can see, name, and challenge the violence that haunts us but somehow never finds its way to the front of our minds until suddenly we see it plainly and can’t look away. We can do the work, empower a victim, unite a community, and through the pain and the hard work, flourish together. That’s the true story, the whole story, and the story I can’t wait to tell.

Jesse Steele
Manager of Corporate and Foundation Relations

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