It’s often said in nonprofit circles that the ultimate goal of any nonprofit organization should be to eliminate the need to exist. Food pantries hope there is no more hunger, homelessness agencies hope everyone has a home, so it follows that the goal of A Woman’s Place should be to end domestic violence in Bucks County, right? An employee of A Woman’s Place told me when I started here “if I tie my idea of success to the notion that someone won’t suddenly decide to hit their spouse, I can never be successful.” That is to say, unlike the conditions of hunger or homelessness which effect only the most vulnerable in our society, intimate partner violence is a name for a set of behaviors which knows no bounds of economic class, geography, race, or gender. We can try to “control” who has access to things food or housing, but we cannot control the behavior of people inside their own homes, cannot control the relationships that consenting people chose to have with one another, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably wouldn’t want to, even if it could mean the end to intimate partner violence forever.
Yet, if you were to ask any of the staff or thousands of community supporters of A Woman’s Place if they would like to end intimate partner violence once and for all, every one of them would say “of course” without needing to think about it. So how do we reconcile these two ideas; an organization which serves and empowers victims and seeks to prevent violence before it starts vs. the realization that the world in which we can “end” domestic violence seems to be a world impossibly different from the world we live in?
The problem isn’t in our ambition, nor our hope for a brighter future, but in the measuring stick we use to check our progress. If our goal is to eliminate domestic violence, our success or failure will always sit with abusers themselves, allowing those who victimize our clients in the first place to decide whether or not our work is successful. While we can use legal resources to punish abusers, neither AWP, nor the police, nor any court in the world has the power to fully control the actions of someone else before they act. Absent a radical shift in the human heart, I’m not sure we can even imagine that world. To steal a phrase though, I’d like to believe instead that our hearts are good enough.
Of course we should always have as a goal the reduction of intimate partner violence in our community, but if we’re to be successful, both as an organization and as a community, our goals must not be to give more power to abusers to determine our success, but to empower the powerless to seek and find their own success, their own happiness, and their own truth. We can imagine a world without abuse, but with the consequence that we will always be imagining that world rather than living in it. Instead, the success we imagine is not a community of people who never suffer abuse, but a community of people that support one another through any challenge, that know what a healthy relationship looks like, that speak up when something looks wrong, and that provide care, safety, and support if the worst happens. In this community, abuse at the hands of an intimate partner is the rare exception rather than 1 in 3 women or 1 in 4 men who experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of a partner.
If we are to be successful, our goal cannot be to take power from abusers, but to help our clients and our community find power within themselves and within each other. This is the meaning and ultimate end goal of our work.
Manager of Corporate and Foundation Relations