Our Quest for a Safer World: Taking Every Instance of Violence Seriously

On February 14, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and carried out a mass shooting that left 17 people dead and more than 14 hospitalized. Soon after, reports began to emerge by those who knew the murderer – Nikolas Cruz – stating that he had been stalking a girl at the school. Another student said that Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend and was expelled from the high school after fighting with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. And another student said that he ended his friendship with Cruz more than a year ago, when the latter started “going after” and threatening one of his female friends.

But it’s not just Parkland—Cruz’s violence against women and his history of dating violence are not isolated incidents merely unique to him. According to Everytown for Gun Safety’s analysis of FBI data on mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the majority of mass shootings in the United States—57% of them—involved the perpetrator shooting an intimate partner or family member, and in at least 16% of the cases, the perpetrator had a prior charge of domestic violence.

In the past three years since 2015, this trend has only continued, as exemplified in the following incidents, just to name a couple:

While the connection between intimate partner violence and mass shootings seems clear to many of us, responses to the issue have been troublesome. Similar to those who have been arguing that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers, some people claim that arming survivors of intimate partner violence will prevent them from being assaulted or killed. This train of thought, however, is problematic for a few reasons.

According to data found by Futures Without Violence, “access to firearms increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times more than in instances where there are no weapons, according to a recent study.” In fact, according to data found from a July 2014 testimony before the US Senate, gun access was found to be the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner. Regardless of who owns the weapon, adding firearms to situations of intimate partner violence only increases the likelihood of fatalities.

Instead of putting the responsibility of prevention in the wrong place by expecting victims to arm themselves – which additionally puts survivors of intimate partner violence at a high risk for being sentenced to long prison terms when they defend their lives using a firearm – it is important to focus on preventing perpetration and holding offenders accountable.

Victim safety

Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

As we think about those who lost their lives last month in Florida—and the dozens more who have suffered mass shootings in the two weeks since – it is important that we work to change unhealthy societal norms, end the belittlement of sexual and domestic violence survivors, and take every incident of violence seriously.

“…perhaps it’s time our society started to think of physical abuse, possessiveness and men’s entitlement to act in those ways toward women as terroristic, violent and radical,” wrote the Rolling Stone’s Soraya Chemaly, in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. “…so too should we consider domestic violence a form of daily terror. Three women a day are killed by intimate partners in the United States, and the majority of women murdered are murdered by men they know. There needs to be a dissolution between what we think of athes “domestic” violence, traditionally protected by patriarchal privacy norms and perpetrated by men against “their” women, and “public” violence, traditionally understood as male-on-male. Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

“…Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

In doing so, we will further our quest not only for a world free of sexual and domestic violence, but for a world where fewer families will grieve the losses of their loved ones to senseless killing.

Featured image: Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Gerald Herbert/AP: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/article/The-Latest-Florida-school-shooting-suspect-12615831.php

Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change. 

Recognizing Non-Verbal Consent: It’s Not That Hard

Let’s play a little game:

I’ve got some pictures here of nonverbal cues and actions. You look at them and categorize them under “Is open to having a conversation right now” or “Is closed to having a conversation right now.”

I think it’s fitting to say that none of these people want to have a conversation. The signs in the first image that they don’t want to talk include the furrowed brow, bitten lip, and the fact that they’re looking away from the person taking the photo. The second is someone whose arms are crossed with their head turned down. The third shows someone turned away and actually putting their hand out to push away or stop someone.

Let’s do this exercise again: categorize these images under “enjoys what they’re doing” or “doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing.”

Again, I think it’s safe to say that none of those people were enjoying what they were doing. The first image shows a person who disliked whatever they were drinking, made clear by their scrunched eyes and pursed lips. The second shows someone physically in pain, as indicated by being hunched over and grasping at their chest. The third shows people clearly disinterested and tired, as indicated by their hanging heads.

We’re expected to, and capable of, picking up on nonverbal indicators every day. A presenter is expected to survey a room to determine if the audience is engaged, and if they are not, the presenter is expected to modify their presentation. When our significant others come home and slump onto the couch with a haggard expression, we get the sense that they’ve had a long and hard day. We can usually identify physical signs of intoxication, like slurred speech and stumbling, without having seen someone consume alcohol.

Of course, we cannot be sure without asking. Someone may look angry and we might assume it is directed towards us for something we did but upon further conversation, we may come to understand that they were actually feeling frightened or defensive. Or they may be angry, but with somebody else. Or they may be angry with us, but for a reason we knew nothing about. There tends to be more than meets the eye, so asking questions and having an open dialogue with someone is critical to getting a complete picture of how they’re thinking and feeling.

Last month the world was briefly abuzz on the heels of Babe.net’s story about Aziz Ansari. I won’t be doing a full summary now, but here are some basics: Babe.net approached the anonymous Grace about a night she had with Aziz Ansari and Grace recounted their date and subsequent sexual interactions. Grace detailed the many times she expressed her lack of consent through non-verbal means; removing her hand from his groin after he repeatedly moved it there, pulling away, and ceasing movement altogether, including not moving her lips when being kissed. She also talked about the numerous ways she showed her lack of consent verbally: asking him to slow down and chill, responding with “next time” when asked repeatedly “how do you want me to f**k you”, and flat out saying “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”


Grace eventually left, feeling hurt and violated, and informed Ansari via text that he made her feel extremely uncomfortable and ignored her verbal and non-verbal indications. Ansari apologized via text, saying he “clearly misread things in the moment” and was “truly sorry”.

In a public statement, he said:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

With this article came a flood of commentary, from news stories to op-ed pieces to Facebook posts. But I remember the first response I saw. It was an opinion piece from the New York Times titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

As the title alludes, the author believes that because Grace didn’t explicitly say “no”, Aziz could not have been expected to know that she didn’t want to engage in any sexual activities. The author goes on to say the simple fact that she was naked with him in his apartment was enough to assume that Ansari was going to try and have sex with her. It is arduous, problematic work, on par with mind-reading, for Ansari (or people in general) to figure out what these complex gestures and expressions mean. And a lot of people seemed to agree with the author’s assertion.

Let’s revisit our first three photos: viewing these images, I want you to contemplate a different question: Does it look like any of the people in these images want to engage in sexual activity?

How about this second set of photos: if the surroundings of these images had been changed to intimate settings, would it seem like any of these people were enjoying the sexual interactions they were having?

While these are stock Google images, the point remains: the same nonverbal cues we recognize in everyday situations are present in sexual situations.

If I go in to kiss someone and they physically respond like this:


I know I shouldn’t continue trying to kiss them.

If I’m having sexual intercourse with someone and they make this face:


I can safely assume they’re uncomfortable or hurting and I should stop.

The next step after recognizing these cues and ceasing activity is to ask your partner if they are okay. We need to take steps to determine what those nonverbal cues mean. Are they in pain? Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel pressured? Do they need to take a break? Do you need to stop altogether?

Equally important to asking is not demanding an answer that makes you happy. Just because you want to continue does not mean your partner wants to, and they should not feel pressured to put their feelings aside because you’re going to be upset if you stop.

Here’s the thing: I would love to live in a world where people express all their thoughts and feelings directly. I want to empower people to say when they’re comfortable and when they’re not, whether that’s in the workplace, at home, or in sexual situations. But it’s not a one-sided job. We need to ask our partners what they want and how they are. We need to recognize that there’s more than one way to say “no” and express discomfort.  We need to listen to our partners’ wants and needs and respect when they need things to change.

And to begin fostering a culture of affirmative consent and sexual pleasure, we need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Ongoing, enthusiastic consent requires you to ask, listen, and respect.


Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.


The Super Bowl, Suppression, and Survivorship

In the late hours of Sunday, February 4th, and the early hours of the following Monday, the Eagles fans took to the streets of Philadelphia to celebrate their hometown’s first-ever Super Bowl win. A lot happened—cars were flipped, police and civilians were injured, street poles were ripped out of the ground, fires were started, and property was destroyed. What’s even more noticeable, however, is what didn’t happen—authorities did not fire tear gas or shoot at the unruly crowds, police dogs were not brought in, and media outlets did not use rhetoric laced with negative connotation to describe the rioting football fans.

Instead, although the Philadelphia Police Department’s presence was heavy, the city congratulated the Eagles, the mayor—as well as the city’s fire commissioner—encouraged fans to celebrate safely, and the police sergeant said it would be great if fans could go home. While this may seem like the expected and natural response—I mean, police exist to keep citizens safe, after all, right?—it serves a sharp contrast to ways police responded to similar gatherings of large crowds of predominantly people of color.

In fact, that very same morning before the Super Bowl, Minneapolis police arrested people gathered to protest police brutality. While the protest and the celebration riots occurred within 24 hours of each other, responses were strikingly different—especially considering that the Black Lives Matter protest was not harmful to any civilians or property.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. For years, protests against police brutality, racism, and sexism have garnered violent police responses – even when the protests themselves are peaceful. It appears that outraged responses to people of color protesting are not a matter of public safety, but rather another tactic to suppress the voices of people of color. One needs to look no further than responses to athletes simply kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality to see that even the most peaceful forms of protest by people of color or in support of people of color are still condemned and shut down.

Just as people of color are automatically faced with blame, white folks are almost immediately given the benefit of the doubt for their actions. The large groups of white folk rioting after the Super Bowl were not immediately assumed to be “thugs” or “terrorists”—instead they were thought of as passionate sport fans, perhaps a little overzealous at most.

When people of color and allies are constantly met with more police brutality and racially charged rhetoric by media outlets, and frequent blame, they are robbed of their voices and their opportunities to speak out time and time again. A culture where people of color’s voices are constantly suppressed leaves us with several problems as a society—namely, a cycle of more violence against people of color.

Over time, with white people not being held to the same level of accountability and with people of color silenced, the power scale gets further tipped for the favor of white people. This power difference increases the risk factor for sexual violence and intimate partner violence, as it creates the opportunity for abuse of power. Silencing the voices of people of color when they stand up for justice only makes it even more difficult for people of color who are survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence to speak up about their experiences and receive support. This becomes even more agonizing when the abuser holds more power and is therefore less likely to be held accountable.

As a society, we should strive for a culture of racial equity that holds all individuals to the same degree of accountability and ensures that all voices—especially those of survivors—are heard loud and clear.

Featured image: Getty Images: https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a15839429/eagles-fans-crisco-poles-fight/

Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change. 


I Deserve a Hero Who Looks Like Me

Loud. Angry. Desperate.

Leave it to mainstream media and anyone encountering me would think that those words describe me because the media continues to portray Black women as characters that play into common stereotypes.

“We’ve seen the drugged-out mother storyline in Losing Isaiah and Moonlight. We saw Mo’Nique beat her daughter and throw a baby down the stairs in the film Precious; and [Taraji P.] Henson as a pregnant prostitute in Hustle & Flow. We saw a woman allow her children to [be murdered by their father] in For Colored Girls; and Octavia Spencer and [Viola] Davis as domestics in The Help.”1

In fact, the American Advertising Federation and Zeta Phi Beta, a historically Black sorority, released a white paper featuring the 8 most frequently cited African-American female stereotypes. On this list included “the hood rat,” “the desperate single,” “the angry Black woman,” and “the mammy.”

During an interview with Variety, former first lady, Michelle Obama, commented on this issue stating, “for so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them.”

This lack of positive representation leads those who don’t live in communities with positive representations susceptible to assumptions, stereotypes, and biases.

But the harm doesn’t stop there. According to Nielsen, a global information, data, and measurement company, Black TV viewers watch roughly 57 more hours than white viewers (averaging 213 hours per month) and Black women watch 14 more hours of TV per week than any other ethnic group.

Teenage girls and young Black women (who are 59% more likely to watch reality TV) are constantly seeing how we are portrayed in the media and looking up to this as the standard. Or we aren’t seeing Black women at all and feel isolated.

In September 2017, the Action Alliance hosted a Black Women’s Town Hall. This was a chance for our community to come together and discuss issues that we face. Heartbroken, Virginia Delegate Delores McQuinn recalled the moment that her granddaughter was vocal about the lack of representation of Black women:

“My 3-year-old granddaughter came to me recently on a Sunday night,” she started. “‘Gilo, I wanna be white. I want their hair and I wanna be a princess.’ I stayed up all night that Sunday night. My granddaughter has an environment where everything is afro-centric. Pictures of Black women on the walls, statues, doll babies, books. She goes to a predominantly African American school… We’re talking about pulling down monuments which she may or may not see, and all of us have televisions in our homes that they see every day. How can we say to the system that we demand that Black women and African American people are reflected [positively] in the school books and on television?”

Seeing Black women as educated, successful, and respected (both in the media and in person) has a huge effect on the way young Black girls see themselves and their roles in society.

“When I come across many little Black girls who come up to me over the course of these 7 1/2 years with tears in their eyes and they say ‘thank you for being a role model for me. I don’t see educated Black women on TV and the fact that you’re First Lady validates who I am,'” Obama reminisces.


Actress Lupita Nyong’o giving her acceptance speech at the Oscars
 Image Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com/alannabennett/reminders-that-representation-really-is-important?utm_term=.ek6wOb58KK#.rfDEO3wZ11


Like Obama, Virginia Delegate Delores McQuinn and several other Virginia legislators are putting themselves in a position to not only be positive public figures for Black girls but to also improve the Black community as a whole.

Delegate McQuinn, Senator Louise Lucas, Delegate Jeion Ward, Senator Jennifer McClellan, and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy have introduced a number of bills this year to increase racial justice and food justice and prevent the trauma-to-prison pipeline, including:

  • a program to provide funding for the construction or expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities (Del. McQuinn, House Bill 69);
  • the restoration of voting rights for those convicted of nonviolent felonies (Sen. Lucas, Senate Joint Resolution 5); and
  • eliminating the requirement that principals report certain misdemeanor incidents to local police ( Foy, House Bill 445)

McQuinn is inspired by strong and successful Black women like civil rights leader, healthcare executive, and health activist Roslyn Brock. She wants to ensure that the Black girls in her community have a plethora of positive Black role models to guide them, including herself.

Not only is McQuinn a Delegate for Virginia, but she is also the Chair of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, a minister in Henrico County, VA, and has dedicated her time to advocating for the development of an African American History and Slave Trade Museum in Richmond, Virginia.


To ensure that she is having a lasting impact on the lives of children in her community, McQuinn started a nonprofit: the East End Teen Center. The Teen Center has been providing a six-to-eight-week Writing Institute to 11 to 15-year-olds in Richmond Public Schools for the last ten years.

While at the Writing Institute, students are able to improve their reading and writing skills, gain self-confidence, and develop a love for learning and storytelling. At the end of the session, the students’ writings are compiled into books and published.

Our girls deserve to see Black women like this in the media. Our girls deserve positive role models. Our girls deserve to see positive representations of themselves when they turn on the TV.

Strong. Educated. Caring.

1Kerwin, Ann Marie. “The ‘Angry Black Woman’ Makes Real Women Angry.” Ad Age, 27 Sept. 2017, adage.com/article/media/angry-black-woman-makes-real-women-angry/310633/.

Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.



Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week Is Here!

Join us online for statewide Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week (#VLAW18)! Starting Monday (the week of February 5-9), we will #AmplifySurvivorVoices and take to Facebook, Twitter, email, and phones to advocate for policies that enhance violence prevention and education, improve services for victims and communities, and support offender accountability.

You must register for Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week to gain access to our 2018 Virtual Advocate’s Toolkit, a handy interactive document which offers legislator contacts, sample messages and scripts, images, infographics, and strategies for how best to engage your legislators.

Why is legislative advocacy important?

Lawmakers can’t be experts on all issues all the time. Who are the experts on sexual and intimate partner violence? People who have been directly affected by sexual and intimate partner violence–and the professionals who help them–which is us! It’s our job to make sure that lawmakers who vote on issues affecting survivors are knowledgeable about the issues before they vote.

VLAW logo-red coverIs legislative advocacy a good use of my time?

Yes…because lawmakers listen to their constituents. Pretty much every contact you have with a legislator and/or their staff is noted in order to keep track of where constituents stand on any given issue. Lawmakers want to be accountable to their constituents…and it’s also in their best interests to do so. Plus, your voice/ knowledge/point of view is worth sharing!

Action Alliance Policy Priorities for the 2018 General Assembly Session

We know that the voices of survivors are amplified when advocates speak out. Take a look at our legislative priorities for the 2018 General Assembly session. See what issues resonate most with those you serve in your agency, which policies may have a direct impact in your area, and how you can contact your legislators and law makers in your area to advocate for changes that are trauma-informed and center the safety, privacy, and dignity of survivors.

Newcomer to legislative advocacy? This webinar’s for you!

If thoughts of interacting with your legislators terrify you, or trying to keep up with the legislative process throws you into a tizzy, this webinar (presented in PowerPoint style with voice prompts) may help you navigate some of the murky waters of the General Assembly.

You will be guided through learning about how Virginia’s government functions, how bills flow through the legislative process to become laws, and how to stay informed through the process. Click here to access the presentation.

Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

Spotlight on Judy Casteele: This Work is a Calling

In 1988, Judy Casteele began doing sexual and domestic violence work at the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley. There, her supervisor introduced her to the Action Alliance and she has been helping us fulfill our mission ever since!

When others say, “I don’t know how you do this work,” Judy’s response is, “I don’t know how I couldn’t.” She continues, “every day we make a difference in the lives of survivors.” Despite the challenge of not always knowing if our work is re-shaping how society sees this issue, Judy is motivated to continue because she understands the importance of her work.

Her support doesn’t stop at the Action Alliance! Judy is the Executive Director at Project Horizon in Lexington, Virginia and also supports many other local agencies across the state. But she does believe that the Action Alliance has a special place in this work by providing support and guidance to local agencies in Virginia. While local agencies are providing direct services and creating safe havens for survivors, the Action Alliance is able to reach legislators and funders who can help support the movement.

Judy with dude

So why does Judy give? She loves being able to support the Action Alliance on a regular basis and encourages others not to lose sight of the importance of continuous giving. Judy hopes that she can help future generations understand just how important this movement is and how much of a difference they can make, even by helping just one person. She urges people to continue to push for change saying, “I’ve seen how far we’ve come over the last 30 years, but there is still much more to be done.”

This dedication to the movement even pours out into Judy’s personal life. When she’s not working with Project Horizon or serving as the Action Alliance’s Finance Officer, Judy can be found hanging with friends and family or doing work with her church. Her church, Good Shepherd Lutheran, has partnered with Project Horizon to serve as advocates for domestic violence in their community. For Judy, this work is not just a job, but it is truly a calling.


Thank you, Judy, for your hard work and dedication!

Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.

Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

Stop Honoring Dishonorable Men

Today, January 12, 2018 is recognized in Virginia as “Lee-Jackson Day”–an official state holiday.

Created back in 1889 by Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Lee-Jackson Day was established to honor two Confederate generals from the Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Despite many Virginia cities choosing no longer to observe Lee-Jackson Day (including Richmond, Charlottesville, and most recently Blacksburg), Virginia remains the only state in the nation that continues to celebrate this holiday.

The question of whether this remnant of the Confederacy should still be around today is not new, but has become a point of national attention, particularly in the wake of events like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville this past summer. Statues, schools, and roads all bear the names of men who led the treasonous seceding states in the Civil War. Arguments in favor of keeping these vestiges alive involve the character of men like Lee: “He wasn’t pro-slavery, he just inherited them from his father-in-law!” “He was an amazing war general!” “He was a good and honorable man!”

Recently, I saw statements like these pop up in a different national conversation: #metoo. “He’s not a rapist, he just made a mistake!” “He’s a brilliant athlete/ director/ businessman!” “He’s a nice guy, he’d never hurt a fly!” As survivors of sexual violence and harassment like the Silence Breakers (led by Tarana Burke, and including Ashley Judd, Dana Lewis, etc.) garnered national attention for sharing their stories, many rape-apologists and victim-blamers came out of the woodwork. For every accusation against a specific abuser, I saw a string of comments expressing how implausible it was that Person X could ever do something like that because of their impeccable character, or that it was unfair to besmirch their name and try to rob them of their bright future/career.


The entertainment industry has been central to this wave of silence breaking, especially after the dozens of accusations against Harvey Weinstein hit mainstream news. We saw and heard the stories of many brave individuals who were pressured, coerced, threatened, and forced into things they weren’t comfortable with. And we saw an outpouring of support for these survivors, most recently with Oprah’s powerful speech at the Golden Globes. Her entire speech was beautiful and worth watching (check it out here), but this excerpt felt particularly relevant: “…What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.

 But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”


If we circle back to Robert E Lee’s history, we see accusations leveled against him as well by brave individuals who spoke up about the injustices they faced knowing it could lead to retaliation. In 1859, Wesley Norris, a man enslaved under Lee’s control in Arlington, Virginia, attempted to escape his enslavement with his cousin and sister but was unfortunately captured. In 1886, Norris testified to the National Anti-Slavery Standard about what transpired when they were returned to Arlington. Norris stated that Lee ordered that he and his cousin receive 50 lashes. As the county constable carried out the order, Norris recalls “Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams [the constable] to ‘lay it on well,’ an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” Two additional, anonymously published letters corroborated the testimony.

The accounts of this event are well documented. You can read about it here and here.

A black man, an enslaved man, spoke his truth about the violence he endured at Lee’s command, probably knowing full well that the world at large would likely not be empathetic to his case and that he could face retaliation, either in the form of verbal insults or all-out physical assaults. Lee denied the accusations, and those who supported him (or his legacy) ignored or denied Norris’ testimony, choosing instead to focus on the fact that he eventually freed his slaves (when his father in-law’s will legally required him to do so) or that he made a statement in a letter to his wife where he wrote that “slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country” (even though he went on to say that somehow slavery was a greater evil to white people than black people and that “the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race”).

We’ve seen this pattern for centuries. Men who abuse and assault are praised for their accomplishments, whether they lead a war or are Academy Award-winning filmmakers, and the stories of the victims who suffered at their hands are buried, minimized, or denied. We wouldn’t celebrate a Harvey Weinstein Day, a Woody Allen Day. or a Ben Roethlisberger Day. And we shouldn’t celebrate Lee-Jackson Day.

Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.

Featured image source:  https://img.thedailybeast.com/image/upload/c_crop,d_placeholder_euli9k,h_1440,w_2559,x_0,y_0/dpr_2.0/c_limit,w_740/fl_lossy,q_auto/v1505947196/170920-Brasher-robert-e-lee-tease_ohrcpr

Thinking Back, Looking Forward: 2017 in Review

2017 had a lot in store for us here at the Action Alliance. Together we were able to reach new heights and overcome the largest obstacles. We thank you for all of your support in 2017! But before we leap into 2018, we invite you to take a look at all that we were able to accomplish together this year.

Building Healthy Futures

In April we hosted our 5th installment of the Building Healthy Futures conference series, in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Social Services. This year’s theme was Linking Public Health & Activism to Prevent Sexual & Intimate Partner Violence. We were honored to have Maheen Kaleem and Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs as our keynote speakers and many others as trainers.

Bravery: Asking “What If?” and “Why Not?”

We hosted over 180 advocates across the state at this year’s biennial retreat at Radford University, where our theme was Bravery. We acknowledged our Catalyst Award honorees, Soyinka Rahim guided us as our Conference Weaver, caped crusader Nan Stoops delivered our opening keynote, and Nubia Peña and Cynthia Peña gave an incredible joint keynote on the final day of the conference. In between we learned, questioned, and practiced self-care with the guidance of advocates statewide.


Bridging the Justice Gap in Virginia

Our newly-launched Project for the Empowerment of Survivors (“PES”) helps to bridge the justice gap in Virginia by connecting survivors of intimate partner violence with the legal services they need. The PES seeks to bridge the justice gap for survivors in the following ways:

  • By partnering with local sexual assault and domestic violence agencies to identify survivors who need legal services;
  • By employing dedicated legal interns and advocates to answer legal questions and provide legal information to survivors;
  • By employing on-staff attorneys to provide free legal counsel and advice to survivors;
  • By referring survivors to community-based private attorneys who agree to take cases on a reduced fee or pro bono basis;
  • By training attorneys and advocates to provide trauma-informed legal services and legal advocacy; and
  • By helping survivors from marginalized communities pay for private attorneys through the use of our Legal Fund.

Uplifting the Voices of Our Communities

As an agency we came together to support two marches this year: the March for Black Women and the Juvenile Justice parade. In conjunction with the March for Black Women, we also hosted our very own (and very first!) Black Women’s Town Hall. Black women throughout the community (including Delegate McQuinn, Delegate Airde, and Delegate Price) gathered in our office to voice concerns within the community.

2017 in review 1

Partnering with Governor McAuliffe to Support Survivors

We were pleased to accept a donation of $57,535 from Governor Terry McAuliffe in support of ending sexual and domestic violence and sexual harassment statewide. Governor McAuliffe  further demonstrated his support for victims and survivors in the Commonwealth. We applaud Governor McAuliffe for his act of generosity and look forward to continued partnerships with the Governor’s Office and the Virginia General Assembly in this work

Writing Our Future Story

Members from across the state of Virginia came together for our final membership meeting of the year. During this meeting, they took a step back from the world’s current state and imagined the world that they would like to leave behind for their descendants. This dreaming and asking the questions “what if?” and “why not?” will guide us in 2018 as we create a blueprint to build that new world.

Honoring Those Whose Actions Give Us Hope

Thanks to our dedicated staff and Act Honor Hope Committee, we were able to host one of our most successful Act Honor Hope events to date! With nearly 200 advocates from across the state in attendance, we honored the groundbreaking work of Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, SARA, and a passionate group of students from Charlottesville High School. Together they ensured that legislation was passed incorporating the concept of consent into healthy relationship education in Virginia’s public schools.

2017 in review 2

Bridging the Justice Gap in Virginia

The Action Alliance’s newly-launched Project for the Empowerment of Survivors (“PES”) helps to bridge the justice gap in Virginia by connecting survivors of intimate partner violence with the legal services they need.

Since 1993, the Action Alliance has provided sexual assault and domestic violence survivors with emotional support, safety planning, and other trauma-informed services through its toll-free statewide hotline. Over the years, the hotline (and the demand for hotline services) has grown by leaps and bounds, including by adding a dedicated LGBTQ+ helpline, expanding hotline hours to provide 24/7/365 support, and increasing the number of multilingual advocates who are available to answer calls from survivors.

The PES, the hotline’s new legal services division, is a natural outgrowth of these existing services. Survivors often have legal questions in addition to other inquiries. While some callers can access the legal services they need through Legal Aid or other pro bono resources, numerous studies confirm the ever-widening justice gap in Virginia and elsewhere.

The “justice gap” refers to the civil legal needs of low-income Americans, versus the legal resources available to meet those needs.[1] In Virginia alone:

  • Over 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals go unmet;
  • One in eight Virginians is eligible for free legal services from Legal Aid, but there are not enough Legal Aid attorneys available to meet the need for services;
  • There is one Legal Aid lawyer per 7,237 low-income individuals in Virginia; and
  • Individuals who have attorneys are twice as likely to have a favorable outcome in court, versus individuals who are unrepresented.[2]

The need for free or low-cost legal services is particularly acute for survivors of intimate partner violence, where “[i]ndirect and lasting economic consequences ripple throughout survivors’ lives long after the abuse has stopped, compounding their effects and creating increased vulnerability to future abuse.”[3]

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Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

The PES seeks to bridge the justice gap for survivors in the following ways:

  • By partnering with local sexual assault and domestic violence agencies to identify survivors who need legal services;
  • By employing dedicated legal interns and advocates to answer legal questions and provide legal information to survivors;
  • By employing on-staff attorneys to provide free legal counsel and advice to survivors;
  • By referring survivors to community-based private attorneys who agree to take cases on a reduced fee or pro bono basis;
  • By training attorneys and advocates to provide trauma-informed legal services and legal advocacy; and
  • By helping survivors from marginalized communities pay for private attorneys through the use of our Legal Fund.

If you are a survivor in need of legal services, please call our Statewide Hotline at (800) 838-8238 and ask to speak with a member of our legal team. We are here to help.

If you are an attorney who is interested in providing pro bono or reduced fee services to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, please contact Carmen Williams, PES Project Manager, at (804) 377-0335, or email us at legal@vsdvalliance.org.

Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.

[1] See Legal Services Corporation, America’s Partner for Equal Justice, https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

[2] “Access to Justice: Free and Low Cost Legal Resources in Virginia,” Virginia State Bar, available at http://www.vsb.org/docs/probono/access-guide.pdf (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

[3] Shoener, Sara J. & Sussman, Erika A., “Economic Ripple Effect of IPV: Building Partnerships for Systemic Change,” Domestic Violence Report (Aug./Sept. 2013), available at https://csaj.org/document-library/Shoener_and_Sussman_2013_-_Economic_Ripple_Effect_of_IPV.pdf (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

Writing Our Future Story: The Power of Asking “What If” and “Why Not”

Growing up I was often given titles such as difficult and nosey. I’d quickly correct those who called me the latter, “Oh no, I’m not nosey, I’m just curious.” I continuously felt a need to justify my inquisitive mind.

Over time, the need to justify myself transformed into a lack of curiosity altogether. I became exhausted with explaining why I had so many questions and sometimes even being punished for asking them. Of course, I still wondered and asked in my head, but all too often these questions were never heard outside of my own thoughts.

I now find myself wanting to reignite that fire and let the flames of curiosity burn. I have been reacquainted with the power of asking questions like “what if” and “why not”. I was reminded that being inquisitive and curious, though often seen as negative traits, are actually positive ones. Asking questions helps us create innovative ideas and anticipate what’s next.

As I sat in on the Action Alliance’s Membership meeting on Friday, December 7, we were encouraged to ask ourselves and each other “what if…”

What if education was free?

What if everyone had a home?

What if society valued compassion over money?

A space was created for us to wonder. We were allowed to imagine what could be possible in a world 500 years from now and question the obstacles that are holding us back from making our ideal future world a reality. This world where we embrace differences… where freedom, peace, and happiness are guaranteed… a world where we not only coexist with each other and the world around us, but we inter-exist.  A world where we look out for each other and we support each other.

This questioning will guide us in 2018. We will continue to ask ourselves what if and why not and imagine how the world could change and then use these thoughts to create a blueprint for our actions. We hope that creating a plan of action to create the world we want will help us leave a better home to the many generations after us.

Stay tuned for 2018 Membership Meeting dates, at which we will be building opportunities to set long-term movement trajectories and how to get there!

Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.

Featured image credit: Ki’ara Montgomery