A Woman’s Bridge spoke with Carol Loftur-Thun, Interim Executive Director of My Sister’s Place, the oldest women’s shelter in the DC area. My Sister’s Place offers a variety of services for women escaping domestic violence including emergency shelter, caseworkers, and programs for permanent housing. For help and information about leaving a domestic violence situation, click here. For the 24 hour emergency hotline run by My Sister’s Place, please call 202-529-5991.
My Sister’s Place is DC’s oldest domestic violence shelter. What inspired the founding of MSP? Can you describe how the public’s reaction to domestic violence has changed over the years since My Sister’s Place was founded?
My Sister’s Place started through the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and Junior League of Washington in 1976. We started as a hotline, actually, and we were shocked by the level of domestic violence that was happening. It was clear that help was needed.
1979 was when the shelter was started. Our founders’ philosophy was one of empowering women and that is still our philosophy today. We emphasized self-help, provided a place to stay and resources, and our staff members are also survivors of domestic violence. In those early years, the approach was very self-help oriented which was believed to empower women. It helped some, making them highly motivated by offering a helping hand and giving them resources. Others found themselves floundering a bit and that model didn’t help.
We now know that trauma changes how your mind functions. The research wasn’t there then, but we now know how trauma makes memories fragmented, changes thinking, so making decisions to move forward is difficult. In the 90s, MSP did a research study talking to clients and staff. There was a need for a more professional all-purpose survival skills, not just an empathetic hand. We began a new chapter of a more professional approach that helped some clients.
In terms of the public reaction, when the awareness campaigns started in the 70s, domestic violence was culturally still considered acceptable or private. It was seen as something for the courts to handle or a man and woman’s problem. As time has gone on, the public has realized the larger implications of domestic violence. Because the trauma has generational effects, children of abuse have a hard time in school and the abuse negatively promotes mental illness and drug abuse and even has direct health impacts. Domestic violence can cause an increase of heart disease and stroke, something like 70-80%. When people are threatened, our body has that fight or flight response and if we can’t actually take flight or fight, it causes a lot of internal damage. Chronic stress takes a toll on our physical and mental states. These effects are not just on the parents but on the children as well. Domestic violence also has this wide range of impact on our society.
A 2010-2011 study said 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in our lifetime. The data for men is not as pronounced. The statistic depends on the study, but 1 in 7 or 8 men reports physical abuse. Women are more likely to experience severe physical injury including homicide. Both among men and women, we have epidemic levels of domestic violence. This is widespread, with severe negative impacts in America and worldwide.
Loss of work productivity in the workplace runs to billions of dollars. Increased risks to law enforcement is another consequence. Domestic violence seems to be a major factor in recent terrorist incidents. Here in our area, the DC sniper attacks happened as a part of his plot to kill his wife. In the public, it has gone from a private matter to this is a very dysfunctional and unhealthy kind of relationship dynamic that causes victimization and tragedy.
Could you elaborate on how MSP helps women transition to permanent housing and why this process is so important for breaking the cycle of domestic violence? Do other shelters focus on this process as much?
The evidence shows safe housing determines if abuse victims can break the cycle. Survivors can include women, men, and LGBTQ individuals. We are increasingly talking about survivors as more than just women. There’s been a change in that language over the past 10 years. Safe and stable housing is one of the pre-conditions for being able to move forward. Without a safe place to live, survivors are more likely to go back to an abuser or start a new abusive relationship. Unfortunately, we hear so many stories where women stay because they don’t want to be in the streets with their kids. We do invest the time and attention in each family to make sure they go on to safe and stable housing. Our emergency shelter usually lasts 90 days, but we have let women stay up to a year.
The old model used to be you had a set time, about 30 days to 90, to figure it out. Now, we are able to offer women more options. I wish we had more funding to accept more clients into our programs, because each day we see women beginning to lead independent and healthy lives for their children. In our programs, what makes a difference is highly skilled case management. It’s expensive but we believe it is worth it and makes a difference. At the end of the day it’s more cost effective; we’re not just cycling people through our shelters, they’re actually getting someplace where they can be safe and stable.
In our RISE program, the vast majority of our clients have stayed in the apartments we have helped them lease. Some moved to other apartments but they are in stable long term housing. The challenge is affordable housing. It’s a problem for many in the area regardless of domestic violence. A significant number of managers do discriminate against domestic violence survivors. The application fee can be a lot and discourages many. Domestic violence victims have to put in a lot of money without possibly getting an apartment at the end.
All shelters are focused on housing, but MSP is different in that we are low-barrier but we are more rigorous in our expectation. We offer voluntary services so clients don’t have to attend our services, but we do utilize a number of techniques to motivate them to use our resources that are provided along with shelter. We believe this does help them for ready and stable housing. We say to our clients, “if you work the program, the program will work for you.” So we do use that model of self-help and we don’t try to force them but empower them.
I’ve heard clients say they know their case manager cares about them, because even after they’ve moved on their case manager still calls them to see how they are.
Domestic violence is now more present in the public consciousness than in years past. Do you think the conversation has changed and if so how? Even though we know more about domestic violence, what areas do you think need to be worked on to end it?
A year ago, MSP decided to focus on a public health approach to domestic violence. This is a new, and I think, exciting approach. Traditionally, domestic violence was seen as a private family matter, then it was looked at as a law and enforcement issue and a victim services mindset. When the CDC national study came out, the first of its kind, folks started seeing things from a prevention and public health standpoint. At the end of the day if you have 1 out of 4 women and a high proportion of men who are going to become victims, that becomes a challenging situation for the nation to deal with the needs of those victims and prosecute all those crimes. As you would with any epidemic, you have to address preventing the spread of an occurrence if you are going to have any chance of combating the health issue. We started taking that public health lens to begin to see our work from a public health standpoint. You start to look at the community and societal level.
You have an extensive resume working in non-profits. What advice would you give about running a non-profit and an organization like MSP. How do you focus on the mission while keeping up with the day to day responsibilities?
I think it’s close to 20 years now. Throughout my career, I’ve reminded myself, “it’s about them, not about me.” I had the pleasure of working with a woman who has been working with vulnerable and homeless individuals for 40 years, and she said the same thing. So that’s really helped a lot in terms of my focus. Thinking about it in that way makes things really fall into place. In terms of advice, I probably don’t do a good job of keeping up with the day to day with everything else.
Non-profits are probably the most challenging. The range of constituents that you answer to are so astounding. It is beyond what most other organizations have to answer to. You are beholding to your clients, the community, donors, and the local government. Those external relationships make it a really challenging thing to do. I have a lot of experience with crisis management in non-profits. I have a luxury of getting to see many local community based non-profits and that’s given me perspectives you don’t get from one or two places. Others only know the places they have been. That has been something I really value.
I guess one of the things that helped me survive is I compartmentalize well. It makes it easier not to burnout because that’s one of the biggest risks in the field. The other thing I tell people is that it is a very small world. You’d be surprised how small it is. Try to be aware and mindful.
What are the key warning signs of domestic violence and how can the average person intervene?
We think the answer is bystander intervention. Good bystander intervention programs are trying to give people the skill to intervene in helpful ways as well as create this social norm that you should intervene. The sexual assault awareness movement did this. It was seen as a social manner for people not to get involved. We’re trying to make people realize if they see something they should say something, but in a way that’s appropriate to the situation and keeps themselves and the victim safe. This is community empowerment as well.
The other thing is trying to help the field develop more sophistication—not all victims are the same and they don’t have the same needs, and not all perpetrators are the same or have the same impact. There are gaps in services for victims besides housing options. For example, middle class women have a gap in services because many middle-class women would be at risk of losing housing, healthcare, and necessities if they left their situations. They would be reluctant to go to a shelter so they tend to stay in situations for even longer.
Can you talk about the Clothesline Project and any other efforts MSP is currently a part of?
I recently went back through our annual reports. We became the home of the project in the 90s. We have survivors and others impacted by domestic violence make t-shirts about their story. They run the gambit of abuse and trauma to forgiveness and hope to reconciliation and recovery. We display them on clotheslines in the public. One year we were in Freedom Square sewing them, it was a beautiful day. It was an amazing sight, all of these shirts blowing in the wind. We considered it a live art installation. This past year in McPherson square, there’s circular trail and our staffers decided to use that railing to display the t-shirts. We had quite a crowd of people. To me, they’re so inspiring because you see the tragedy but also see how people have come through with this hope. The power and authenticity of stories of domestic violence survivors are unmatched by anyone working in the field. They are their own witness to what they’ve gone through.
We are close to 400 volunteers, but I would love to have a volunteer for every t-shirt this October for domestic violence month. Maybe as a potential live art exhibit. Last year we had music and giveaways, and we’re excited about this year’s event.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
The main thing we would like to see people do besides the Clothesline Project is follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a great way for people to keep up with us and the community.
Interview by Jessica Flores
The 2010 film by Disney connects the horse, one of the most beautiful creations in world, to the Bible with, "More than 3,000 years ago, a man named Jobe complained to God about all his troubles and the Bible tells us that God answered, 'Do you give the horse his strength? Or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?' "
And from this eternal notion of life and creation of how much is given in this world. the viewer comes to a more routine domestic setting of Penny Chenery, a housewife who is in the middle of serving breakfast for her four children, two boys and two girls who range in age from high-school to about fourth grade with the girls being the eldest. It is 1969 in Denver as Penny is busy serving, cooking breakfast and taking grocery lists for her husband's business dinner when the phone rings. When she answers and listens, she drops the batter on the floor. Her mother has passed away and the routine life of one family is about to change.
When Penny goes back to her family stable, she comes to terms with her father's condition of senility and knows she must either save the stables financially or have them liquidated. In order to retain the stables there has to be someone to run them and Penny wants to take on the role of leader though her husband is not happy about the change in their lives. He takes her interest in non-conventional roles as a type of betrayal and their relationship becomes strained though not overburdened.
On a coin toss Penny wins Big Red, a prodigious colt who later comes to have the official name of Secretariat. He is a stunning and vibrant animal with the right amount of attitude to win. Penny has some business failures along the way when she tries to get buyers on Big Red's exorbitant stud fees before he has won The Triple Crown. But, she was also near desperate not to liquidate her farm. Eventually Secretariat wins race after race to take The Triple Crown with record breaking times. And Penny keeps her farm.
By Sarah Bahl
Recently, A Woman’s Bridge interviewed Executive Director and Founder Robin Floyd-Ramson about her organization, Chess Girls DC.
Started as an initiative to build the confidence of young girls by creating an inclusive space for girls to learn and play chess, Chess Girls DC plays a vital role in closing the gender gap, one chess game at a time. Since its original founding in 2013, the organization has grown and sponsored tournaments, field trips, and speaking events to help young girls develop fundamental leadership skills, analytical and strategic thinking, and risk taking. The same skills taught through chess, the organization argues, also help girls take on professions in leadership roles, STEM careers, and more.
What was the inspiration for Chess Girls DC?
I founded the organization because girls could use chess to build confidence. I came to this realization when I saw my daughter playing at 5 years old. I also noticed there might be 100 boys at a co-ed tournament, and maybe 20 girls at a girls-only contest. My daughter really liked chess, and I found that girls don’t usually stay involved in activities unless their friends are involved.
What impact have you seen on the girls in your program?
I think what I see is the confidence. We have dynamic speakers in our chess club, dynamic lectures, and they return to school with more confidence. I see more confidence when they play.
Recently, four of our girls crossed over to become high level players. These communities of high level players have few African Americans. When [our girls] play with others, I see they realize that they are intellectually equal to the other boys and everyone else there. Girls are self-conscious, I think boys are more self-confident but that’s only because they spend more time in activities that build up their confidence and risk taking.
What is your hope for the growth of girls and women in traditionally male dominated STEM fields?
I think that when you look at the root of most of these small programs, I think the take away is confidence and focus. When we think of the first year of college, some are more prepared with time management skills and confidence. We know from studies that men are more likely to go into an interview with a high level of confidence that helps them get the job, even if they are not as qualified.
We need to instill this confidence early by showing girls that they can do it. In my personal life, I had a great chemistry teacher. I was bad at math, but this teacher always made me feel good and slowly built up my confidence. There was nothing that stood in my way and I eventually got into radiation therapy and became an entrepreneur.
We don’t see many chess programs for girls because of marginalization, the little effort made to appeal to young girls to the game, and the social questions of why girls aren’t given an incentive or desire for these activities. The chessboards we play on are standard regulation, just turned pink and colorful. I am trying to coordinate a city-wide tournament for girls. I’m attaching a scholarship to the winner of each level, and that has never been done before. If we can hold that college incentive carrot, it will encourage more parents and the city to have more chess programs. Girls should learn early on the advantages of risk taking to get a high-powered job.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Robin: Chess players have the same skill and great leaders. We invite guest speakers in leadership roles to speak with our girls. This year we had the highest-ranking female chess-player speak. We also had the president of Pepco, Donna Copper, talk about how she designed a life plan because she always knew she wanted to run a company. Our speakers talk about having the confidence to do their job, how to work with men, how not to be distracted, and other skills. Not all the girls will be chess masters, [but they can use the skills they learn for other roles].
Something like a chess club should be multifaceted. We celebrated the day of the girl and learned about barriers to girls’ success. Kids find confidence with games. When that male-dominance gets to them, they can realize these are the things great leaders do. All the school programs are trying to tie things to STEM, but I feel like we forget about the artistic and the creative aspect. A lot of people who are artists also benefit from chess because it is cognitive development.
Past speakers include Aprille Ericsson, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Admiral Michelle Howard, and chess champions Nazi Paikidze, Phiona Metusi, and Irine Kharisma Sukandar. Since Chess Girls DC’s founding in 2013, the organization has grown from working with 5 families to 35. Activities that the organization offers includes, etching girls how to play chess, how to participate in tournaments, how to read and write chess notation, chess theory, and to learn about chess scholarships.
To find out more information about the DC Chess Girls, please visit their website.
By Jessica Flores
This 2009 film, is about beating the blues of modern life. Julie Powell, is about to turn 30. Her career is based as a temp which she finished doing after six years to become a first level government worker in a cubicle, and her uncompleted novel that no one wants to publish adds a finishing touch to an existence that is very beaten down. The one redeeming factor in her life is her husband, Eric, who she consistently descrbes as a, saint.
Julie doesn't like her career powerhouse girlfriends and her lunch conversations with them are quite painful. They answer their cells and as one friend makes a multi-million dollar real estate deal while keeping Julie from eating breadsticks another makes an interview date with her. The article that comes from it is titled, "Is 30 the New 20?" This brings into question the maturity of our protagonist's overall existence.
She looks for a refuge, a hobby, something outside of the ordinary to make her happy. And she finds Julia Child, the famous cook, whose book of French recipes sold the world over. So Julie embarks on a quest, to finish 524 recipes from the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days.
One can be uncertain as to the reality, not to mention expense of the actual endeavor itself. As cooking that many recipes in a single year seems impossible due to time limitations alone. But, the blog Julie writes garners public attention, if not the respect of its ultimate host, Julia Child.
And as Julie goes about her life, the past of the actual Julia and the making of the book comes alive. Her times with her husband in France are among the happiest of her life. And not wanting to be thought of as a frivolous housewife, the 6 foot 2 inch woman, decides to take a professional cooking course. And from there she befriends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The three friends begin on the odessey of creating one of the most comprehensive cookbooks ever published. The book will eventually come into the hands of a girl not yet born, who will in time be desperately in need of a good friend and guidance.
By Sarah Bahl
Washington, DC is filled with museums, from the Smithsonian’s National History Museum to the smaller independent exhibits across the district. But finding an exhibit dedicated solely to the works of women is difficult, even more so to find an entire museum. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the only major gallery in the nation dedicated specifically to the work and often forgotten stories of women artists.