“…home is not contained within the four walls of an individual house. Home is the community. The city full of people is the family. The public school is the real Nursery.” Rheta Childe Dorr, N.Y. 1910
Four years ago, while visiting the National Women’s History Museum in Seneca Falls, NY, I copied down this quote from Rheta Dorr. The wording touched me. It captures the essence of home and expands it in a way that challenges us to think about community differently. 100 years after Dorr spoke those words, we at A Woman’s Place (AWP) are echoing the spirit of those words. We weight our work in the community as just as important as our crisis work. We capture this in our tag line – “A Community Issue. A Community Organization. Community Change.”
At AWP, we are celebrating our 35th anniversary. As with any vibrant and alive mission, the way we work has changed and adapted through the years as we learned and challenged ourselves to stay the course. 35 years ago, groups of concerned citizens across the state came together to focus on helping individual women and their families escape to a safe place. During those years our work was referred to as “wife abuse.” As our hotlines got busier and we listened to story after story, we realized that we were dealing with many women who were not in marital relationships and we changed the term to “women abuse.” We realized the importance of working in close partnership together, eliminating an “us and them” mindset with callers so that we modeled “being the change we wanted to see.”
Early advocates quickly realized that this work had to expand beyond consciousness raising and into the systems that have a tremendous influence on promoting safety in the home. During the 1980’s work began in the legal system, with the training of lay advocates who bridge the gap between those seeking relief from the courts, police, attorneys and other justice system workers. Women were worried about their safety and the fact that they were losing their families. The justice system was concerned with evidence that could be objectively proven, such as the day the event happened, how often it happened, and so on. Both realities were valid, though worlds apart. Legal advocates work hard to this day to translate these realities, so that opportunities for justice, safety and accountability are maximized.
Also during the mid-80’s, in an effort to head off future victimization, we began educating students in local high schools. The initial intent was to give students information that might help their mothers. To our horror, it quickly became apparent that abusive dynamics were already entrenched during the teen dating years, long before the commitments of marriage and children were in place.
Outreach to hospitals and health care facilities followed during the 90’s, thanks to Everett Koop, M.D., (the surgeon general of the United States from 1982-1989), who first identified what is now called domestic violence as a health issue. Koop realized that significant numbers of patients accessing emergency rooms across the country had domestic violence as the underlying cause of their broken bones, depressions, and other injuries.
Faith based communities have been allies to our mission since the beginning. Support took the form of monetary donations (which continue today), offering space for support groups, and providing education for the congregations. Over the years, numerous community groups – Soroptomists, Rotary Clubs, women’s clubs, housing groups, other victim services agencies, youth programs and more -have joined us and become vital, long-time allies.
In addition to our work in the community we have, in turn, been educated by the community and by the stories of those who come to us in crisis. We have also been educated by the stories of those who did not come to us during their crisis. During a six month period in 2005, a series of 12 domestic violence murder-suicides rocked the Bucks County community. None of those murdered had contacted any organization for assistance. Until the murders, the perpetrators had not broken any laws. In time we learned that co-workers, family members, and friends all knew and were deeply concerned about the marital dynamics and safety of those subsequently killed. At AWP, these events underscored the importance of community. We proactively took our outreach to another level.
The current challenge is identifying the best ways to reach each neighborhood and each person, so that they too can provide good information, whether speaking with a victim or an abuser. It is important for everyone to know that help is available, that violence is a crime that provides no solution to problems, and that no one deserves to be harmed.
We have had to think differently than in the past. Over these 35 years we have learned to work towards even closer partnership with the community. For a cultural shift to occur, every person in the community must do their part to make Bucks County a healthy place to live. There is a role and a job for everyone. As Rheta Dorr so aptly told us over 100 years ago, we must expand the meaning of home to include our community and realize that our work is not “contained within the four walls of an organization.”
I am proud to be “part of the solution” and proud to be working alongside so many others – both past and present – who have partnered with AWP during these 35 years, sharing together the same vision of peace in the home for everyone in Bucks County and beyond.
Please accept my personal invitation for you to join us in celebrating AWP’s 35th anniversary. In this anniversary edition, note the work that is being done and the celebrations that will happen. Mark you calendar and join us in making our community a safe home.
Donna J. Byrne, AWP Executive Director