Resource Release: New 2020 Virginia Law

The 2020 General Assembly Session is officially behind us. However, the work of Virginia’s legislators and policy leaders is far from over. As we make our way through a deadly global pandemic and provide ongoing support to the global uprising in defense of Black lives, important decisions about state funding, voter access, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and public safety are still being made every day.

Our work to support survivors and build thriving communities has become infinitely more complex.  Communities are experiencing limited access to resources. Survivors are having to weigh the risks of exposure to Coronavirus versus sheltering in place with their abusers. As a movement, we are grappling with questions like “how can we address harm, accountability, and safety for all?” In all of this, the Action Alliance is working hard to amplify survivors’ voices and advocates’ needs in the policy world and beyond. New resources made available at this time include the #StaySafeVA public awareness campaign, the Rise Fund, and our COVID-19 Response Resources. We encourage you to (as much as possible) stay plugged in, stay hopeful, and know that we are here to help!

Text says "New 2020 Virginia Law: A legal guide for sexual and domestic violence advocates and survivors in Virginia" with background image of the Virginia General Assembly building's entrance.To this end, the NEW 2020 VIRGINIA LAW resource provides a summary of the legislative accomplishments that occurred between January and April and those policy decisions that we expect sexual and domestic violence advocates to be able to count on in a post-pandemic Commonwealth. (A summary document is also available here.) Our field saw several big wins in 2020, including:

  • the initiation of a new sexual and domestic violence state prevention fund,
  • firearms certification for respondents of permanent protective orders,
  • survivor-led housing protections for sexual and domestic violence survivors,
  • policies to increase access to forensic nursing throughout Virginia, and more.

We entered 2020 with a new Democratic majority in the House, Senate, and in the Governor’s mansion – this was the first time in more than 20 years that Democrats had a chance to fully pursue their agenda. As such, there was no shortage of bills filed or hot topics to debate. Legislators introduced 3,001 bills this session with 45% of these passing both chambers and ultimately being signed into law.

Though our work in sexual and domestic violence advocacy and prevention is far from over, we want to pause and celebrate our collective accomplishments and thank you for your steadfast advocacy at the General Assembly (and beyond!).

Without your support, none of our work advocating for survivors in the legislature would be possible. Thank you! Seriously.

For more information on bills of interest, the Action Alliance’s 2020 policy priorities, and news on the upcoming special session in August 2020, see the Public Policy section of the Action Alliance’s website. Additionally, if you would like to access our recorded webinar debriefing the 2020 General Assembly Session featuring guests Adele McClure, Director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris, Deputy Director of Virginia Health & Human Services, click here. As always, if you have any feedback, questions, or would like to get involved, feel free to drop us a line at policy@vsdvalliance.org.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

We Need More Than Words

Book cover with blue skies and white mountains, with words "Something needs to change."With the recent assassinations of Black people at the hands of the police and racists in this country, there have been calls for solidarity and the need for allyship. The assumption is that we are only asking for well-meaning White folks to do more, learn more, and be more active in fighting white supremacy and racism. While this is true, we need more than fight. We need change. We need to be able to be seen as whole free people feeling real emotions inside of a country that was created by white supremacy with the intention of having control over our bodies in life and death. We need to be who we are unapologetically. We need to be represented in spaces that have historically been occupied and controlled by White people and not have our experiences ignored or silenced.

We need change. We need to be able to be seen as whole free people feeling real emotions inside of a country that was created by white supremacy with the intention of having control over our bodies in life and death.

Black people and people of color have not been extended the privileges to enter those spaces and have people acknowledge what is happening to them in this county. We often have to fix our faces, tones of voice, and emotions to get the job done and proceed as if all is well because when we do speak up and out they are seen as trouble makers and then again we are silenced. We want to be able to be angry about how we are consistently impacted by all the racism and frequent microaggressions in our workspaces and the communities we live in. We want to openly mourn seeing the people that look like us killed either by the disproportionate negative impacts that this society has created or by the police that are supposed to “protect” us. We want to be seen in movements that have historically and presently continue to erase our presence and foundational contributions.

In this field of gender violence we collectively have fought for people to have autonomy over their bodies and the end to interpersonal violence. Yet, when it comes to the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown bodies, we have become invisible. We have just now in recent years inside of the mainstream spaces of this movement been bold enough to point out these impacts in words but in actions little has changed. We talk about being here for everyone, but the painful truth is that we are not. This movement has been hypocritical in its actions.

We have just now in recent years inside of the mainstream spaces of this movement been bold enough to point out these impacts in words but in actions little has changed.

The call for allyship is nice and needed but what we really need is for your actions to speak louder than the memes, retweets, shares, and repeating the words of Black people and people of color. We need change in our environments that push us out when we speak up. We need real dialogue that includes us in the “hard” conversations about race. We need you to do more than read books about privilege. We need you to look inside and think about the many ways that your non-action in speaking up about state violence and committing forms of it in the spaces that you frequent are also violent. Yes, we need you to learn AND we need you to change.

One person's hands holding another's hand in support.

To the survivors and advocates that are Black and people of color, we see you, you are whole and are loved.


Cortney Calixte is the Movement and Capacity-Building Director at the Action Alliance. Her main focuses are underserved populations, social justice movements and their intersections with advocacy.

Refusing Invisibility in the Anti-Violence Movement: A Reflection on Holding Multiple Identities as a Survivor and Advocate

For some strange reason I thought in a place where advocates against violence were virtually meeting, there would be a pause and acknowledgment of what is happening in our country to Black people.

I thought that they would take a moment to say not only was the release of Title IX Final Rule document hurtful because of the document itself and the poor choice and timing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the novel coronavirus, but also because it was released during the week where many Americans watched an innocent young Black man senselessly gunned down by two white men while he was jogging in his own neighborhood.

I thought that there would be a mention of his name, Ahmaud Arbery, a mention of the correlation between sexual violence and racial violence because violence is a form of oppression.  While both issues are valid on their own, there are intersections. When will the sexual and domestic violence movement make the shift to doing this work of advocacy, prevention, and response with a racial justice lens?

Headshot of Fatima Smith in white blouse and navy suit jacket.

Fatima M. Smith

I am a survivor who is also a mother, unapologetically Black, and identifies as a woman whose passion and work are dedicated to ending sexual and intimate partner violence. Yet I continue to feel like my identities are not valued.

The conversation during the town hall was a familiar one that is often had in sexual and intimate partner violence survivor advocacy circles, where the focus is on women.

I found myself struggling to stay focused because I kept thinking about what about those students who identify within the LGBTQ+ community, what about those Black and Brown students, what are the implications for them?

As I told my brain to focus on the meeting speakers, the answers to the aforementioned questions from the speakers was as if all survivors were made equal, but really we’re not.

We’re more than just the acts that are committed against us. We have beautiful pieces of us that make up the whole and I can’t get on board with entities that are going to continue to work in the silo of “only women are sexually assaulted” which is code for “only white middle class college women are sexually assaulted”.

As I tried to move past these feelings, I couldn’t help but think about those trans students who will be misgendered intentionally or unintentionally by respondents’ advisors during cross-examination, or the pressure to have to come out to avoid being misgendered by a respondent’s advisor.

I’m just trying to figure out when do we have discussions about dynamics of power when it comes to sexual assault when the assault occurs between different races and ethnicities? What does it look like to be a Black student who is assaulted by a white student and then to have to not only face one’s perpetrator but also potentially have to be interrogated (or as they like to say “cross-examined”) by a white individual?

The consideration of racial fatigue and that question of trauma-informed care isn’t being discussed on a deeper level because we’re just talking about survivors as a homogeneous entity. But it’s not. We are not.

Fatima Smith stands at a podium testifying before a group of legislators with Senator Jennifer McClellan standing beside her.

Fatima M. Smith testifies before the Virginia General Assembly during the 2020 session.


Fatima M. Smith is a survivor, relentless advocate and founder of FMS Speaks, LLC. She established FMS Speaks as a way to share her passion for anti-violence work, racial justice, and engage folks in dialogue that ignites action for progress. Fatima serves as a member of the Action Alliance’s Governing Body. 

Sexual and Domestic Violence Advocates Urge Administration to Continue to Support Safety and Well-being of Survivors in Midst of COVID-19 and Time of Heightened Risk

Richmond, VA – April 2, 2020 – The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance joins with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s call to public officials to take aggressive action to protect low-income Virginia residents and communities of color and reiterates the critical importance of ensuring the safety of ALL survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence during this public health crisis.  As a result of physical distancing measures designed to support public health, perpetrators have increased access at home to those they harm.  Accordingly, we are seeing an increase in the need for services to survivors.  It is imperative that public officials take urgent action to protect the well-being and safety of survivors.

Even in times of crisis, the justice system must work to ensure the safety of victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Specifically, the Action Alliance makes the following recommendations:

  • As courts consider suspending civil dockets, exceptions for “emergency filings” must include all services needed for victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence to maintain health, safety, and well-being. This includes civil protective order filings, emergency custody and child support filings, and certain pendente lite filings.
  • As Judges and Magistrates consider releasing people who appear before them to prioritize their health and safety, victim safety must remain a primary consideration. High risk perpetrators of sexual assault or intimate partner violence should not be released without consideration to and planning for the safety and well-being of victims of violence when such release could lead to continued violence or even loss of life and jeopardize community safety.  This is particularly important given the mobility limitations victims now face which create additional barriers to escaping abusive situations.
  • Although missed appearances in court should not result in bench warrants, default judgments are still appropriate in emergency circumstances where a party fails to appear or file a responsive pleading. This includes civil protective orders and emergency custody and support orders where relief is needed to ensure the safety and well-being of victims and their families.
  • Although Judges should authorize suspending the collection of fines, fees, and costs related to court cases, Judges should not suspend orders for family support and financial restitution. Victims and their children are particularly vulnerable to eviction, homelessness, and economic insecurity during this time.  Orders for child or spousal support should continue to be enforced and should not be suspended without an alternative plan in place to ensure the safety and well-being of victims and their families.
  • As law enforcement officers and deputies consider using summons as a last resort, arrests should continue to be made in intimate partner violence and sexual violence situations where necessary to ensure the safety of victims and their families. Officers should not issue mutual arrests or request mutual warrants, particularly during this time where victims are left with few options and may be required to defend themselves.  Officers should continue to consider the factors found in Virginia Code § 19.2-81.3 when determining which person is the predominant physical aggressor when intimate partner violence has occurred
  • Law enforcement officers and Commonwealth Attorneys should consistently enforce protective orders during this time, and, in particular, protective order violations. Priority should be given to preventing firearm access for respondents in protective orders, and, where possible, safe collection of firearms when serving protective orders.  The presence of firearms significantly escalates lethality in sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and this is even more true during this time of national crisis.
  • Like many of our partners, we share concerns about the safety, health, and well-being of Virginians who are incarcerated. We agree that the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) and  local jails should examine all release processes and mechanisms under their control and consider employing them liberally and expeditiously except in cases where an incarcerated individual poses an ongoing risk to the health and safety of others.  We must insist that officials prioritize safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence from all communities during this time of limited mobility and access to services. They can do so by applying evidence-based assessments for risk of future violence and by taking steps to invest in community corrections and alternatives to incarceration which seek to increase health and safety while also managing high risk behaviors and risk of recidivism.  At this time when domestic and sexual violence is escalating and access to community support for survivors and families is becoming more limited, it would be reckless to ignore the fact that this violence often repeats and intensifies during times of natural disaster, pandemics, and other crises.

We continue to stand ready to  ensure the safety of survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence while also supporting justice system reforms intended to reverse historical harms committed against low income communities and communities of color As we move forward, the Action Alliance believes in balancing victim safety and offender accountability with our vision for racial and restorative justice.

For survivors and concerned family and friends:

Please know that advocates at the Action Alliance and at local sexual and domestic violence agencies throughout the state are here for you. While Action Alliance staff have moved to working remotely, the Statewide Hotline is operational and continues to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you need support or help with planning for safety:

# # #

About the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

The Action Alliance has been Virginia’s leading voice on sexual and domestic violence for nearly 40 years and enhances response and prevention efforts through training, public policy advocacy, public awareness programs, and technical assistance to professionals.

Building Thriving Communities

The 2020 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is off and running—and it is exciting to see an increasingly diverse group of elected leaders consider so many new policy initiatives that have the potential to make Virginia a stronger, healthier and more just Commonwealth for all. In addition to the much publicized, celebrated and long overdue ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, policy leaders are considering measures that would: 

  • Expand access to safe and affordable housing, particularly for those who have faced discrimination in the past, including victims of domestic violence, those with low incomes, and LGBTQ people;  
  • Support workers and promote economic security through increasing the minimum wage, extending the minimum wage to more workers, requiring employers to provide vital forms of leave including paid family and medical leave, and eliminating barriers to safety net programs such as TANF and SNAP for those who rely on those programs when they cannot participate in the workforce; and  
  • Restore agency to all of those who need and benefit from reproductive health services by removing barriers that have been erected in recent years and taking bold steps to protect the reproductive liberty of all Virginians. 

Group of a couple dozen people with arms raised in victory behind a long banner that reads, "Equality of Rights Under the Law Shall Not Be Denied or Abridged by the United States or by Any State on Account of Sex" standing in front of the Virginia State Capitol.The Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit whose mission is to build prevention and health equity into key policies and actions at the federal, state, local, and organizational level to ensure that the places where all people live, work, play and learn foster health, safety and wellbeing, recently published an excellent report on preventing domestic violence. The report describes a trajectory of factors that contribute to high rates of domestic violence and suggests policy initiatives that can counteract those factors.  Three of the most significant contributors to that trajectory toward perpetration of domestic violence are housing insecurity, lack of living wages, and barriers to obtaining health care, including reproductive health care. Imagine what could happen in our communities if these were eliminated! 

Three of the most significant contributors to that trajectory toward perpetration of domestic violence are housing insecurity, lack of living wages, and barriers to obtaining health care, including reproductive health care. Imagine what could happen in our communities if these were eliminated! 

A fourth significant contributing factor is low participation and willingness to act for the common good. One measure of participation and acting for the common good in any community is engagement in the democratic process—working with others to improve your community, using your voice in community forums, and voting.  The 2020 General Assembly will consider numerous bills to make it simpler for individuals to be engaged and act for the common good.  From noexcuse absentee voting to making Election Day a holiday to establishing in our Virginia Constitution that voting is a right for all adults that may not be taken away for any reason—there are many improvements being considered. 

The work of the Action Alliance encompasses not only ensuring effective interventions and protections for victims of sexual and intimate partner violence, but also preventing violence.  One important way that we do this is through building thriving communities where all people can access safe and affordable housing and engage in meaningful and equitably compensated work.  In these communities everyone would have access to the full spectrum of resources needed to be healthy and well, and all people would be valued.  These communities would be sustained by citizens who are engaged with each other and committed to democratic decision-making, protecting and exercising their right to vote.  Consider increasing your engagement during this 2020 General Assembly Session and be a part of bringing us one step closer to future communities where sexual and intimate partner violence might well be a thing of the past.    

Curious to learn more about any of these bills?  You can go the Legislative Information Services website and search by topic to learn more.  Just enter the topic that interests you and the year 2020 for links to bills on that topic.  The Action Alliance will also be providing a report after the Session concludes and the Governor has signed or vetoed most major legislation highlighting new policy that will become law.  You can then be a part of ensuring their effective implementation in your community! 

One important set of bills that we would like you to consider are House Bill 1015 and Senate Bill 297 which establish a new Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Fund in Virginia, and their companion budget items which would make $5 million available for prevention initiatives across Virginia.  Reach out to your local Delegate and Senator and let them know how important it is that we invest in prevention now so that future generations of young people have a greater chance to have lifelong relationships that are healthy and safe.

Looking up at a skylight dome of an ornately decorated hall overlaid with text: "Join us for Legislative Advocacy Day, January 29, 2020, 8am-2:30pm, Richmond, VA, with virtual legislative advocacy happening statewide!"

It’s Time for Virginia to Invest in Prevention

The end of the year provides many of us with an opportunity to slow down, to reflect on the events of the past year, and to spend time in deep connection, nurturing our relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. It’s a much-needed respite before we slingshot forward into the new year. And 2020 will undoubtedly be a big year. With a newly elected state legislature and the most diverse House and Senate leadership in the history of Virginia’s General Assembly, we are poised to see a brand-new set of possibilities on the horizon. From strategic investments to reduce the maternal mortality rate for black women to electoral access to firearms legislation to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the role of sexual and domestic violence survivors and advocates couldn’t be more important in moving these possibilities forward.

Just like the legislature, our movement to end sexual and domestic violence is ready for change. Over the course of the past two years, members of the Action Alliance have engaged in a series of strategic visioning sessions where they were asked to imagine the world we are working toward: what will the future look like when we have achieved our goals? what do we need to be focus on now to reach that future? The culmination of these sessions is a new vision for the Action Alliance which centers a radically hopeful future where:

  • birds flying among clouds in the dawnall people reach their full potential,
  • relationships are healthy, equitable, nourishing and joyful,
  • government and community institutions are rooted in equity and justice, and
  • our decisions are grounded in considering the benefit to future generations.

On the heels of this work and in the wake of the 2019 elections, the Action Alliance believes that now is the time for Virginia’s policy leaders to invest in the prevention of sexual and domestic violence.

In 2020, we will ask the legislature to establish the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Program with a budget request of $5 million per year as initial funding. The program will include dedicated staff positions and new grant programs in the Department of Social Services for intimate partner violence prevention and in the Department of Health for sexual violence prevention. Grant programs will support diverse sexual and domestic violence agencies, including culturally-specific programs to provide sustained prevention programming to communities across Virginia.

If you share our vision for a Virginia where we finally see reductions in the rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence please make your voice heard. Talk to your legislators about the need to invest in sexual and domestic violence prevention NOW. Contacting your legislators is easy – and it becomes even easier when you use our handy Legislative Advocacy Guide – you can reach out via email, pick up the phone, or make contact on Facebook, Twitter, and in some cases, Instagram. You can find contact info for your legislators here.

A new Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Program will fund vital, evidence-informed activities like:

  • Ongoing school-based and after-school education teaching young people the skills required to build healthy relationships;
  • Education for parents and families – in coordination with Community Services Boards, in-home visitors, and allied professionals – to foster positive parent-child attachment, support developmentally appropriate communication and expression in youth, and build social-emotional learning skills;
  • Training and tools for school administrators, faith leaders, and peers on ways to create healthy, violence-free environments – including recognizing and responding to harmful behaviors that may be risk factors for future violence;
  • The coordination of multi-disciplinary community coalitions that address issues like VA Family-life Education (FLE) instruction, trauma-informed service provision, and community safety and cohesion.

Programs like these are the cornerstones for ensuring community-wide health and resilience—a key factor in preventing future violence. It is time for Virginia to invest in a robust and effective sexual and domestic violence prevention infrastructure. Preventing sexual and domestic violence is a necessary investment now and for our future.

In many ways, Virginia is on the brink of monumental change. But it will take all of us to help craft and guide this change. So here’s what we’re asking you to do:

Looking up at a skylight dome of an ornately decorated hall overlaid with text: "Join us for Legislative Advocacy Day, January 29, 2020, 8am-2:30pm, Richmond, VA, with virtual legislative advocacy happening statewide!"

 

  • Register and join the Action Alliance for Legislative Advocacy Day on Wednesday, January 29th, 2020!  It’s always an amazing experience to see survivors, advocates, and allies roaming the halls of the General Assembly lifting the voices of survivors and advocating for policies that will help prevent violence and ensure conditions where every person has the opportunity to thrive.
  • Talk to your legislators about the need to invest in sexual and domestic violence prevention NOW. Contacting your legislators is easy – and it becomes even easier when you use our handy Legislative Advocacy Guide – you can reach out via email, pick up the phone, or make contact on Facebook, Twitter, and in some cases, Instagram. You can find contact info for your legislators here. The more our policy leaders hear from us about this issue, the more likely they are to take action and make significant investments.
  • Sign up to receive Policy Action Alerts from us. Be the first to hear about our latest Action Alerts, legislative events, and the work we’re doing to create safer and healthier communities for everyone. We promise we won’t spam you, we’ll never share your personal information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Policy leaders want to hear from you about how investing in prevention, reducing offender access to firearms, expanding access to trauma-informed healthcare for survivors, and other issues that are important to survivors will help to create a Virginia where all families and individuals are safe and cared for! You can see the full list of the Action Alliance’s 2020 legislative priorities here.

We’re excited to work with you to expand the frame of the possible in Virginia in 2020.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Nov. 5 is Our Chance to Start Building a Radically Hopeful Future– #SurvivorsVote

The background is a starry, night sky above mountains. Foreground text says, "I support protections for survivors, including living wage, racial justice, sensible gun laws, access to healthcare, safety and justice. I believe in a radically hopeful future and I vote to make it happen. Remember to vote the first Tuesday in November!" Stylized text as logo for Building Thriving Communities: a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.Did you know that all 40 State Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election this November?

These members of the Virginia General Assembly will make decisions affecting the safety of our schools and communities, our healthcare, the future of Virginia’s economy, including access to livable salaries and wages, and numerous policies affecting survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

Many of us will also have the chance to vote for local school board representatives, members of city councils or boards of supervisors, commonwealth’s attorneys, sheriffs, and other local elected officials who will make policies that shape our day-to-day lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if these elected officials shared in our dream of a Virginia free of violence in which everyone not only survives, but thrives?

Let’s expand the frame of the possible and invest in #radicallyhopeful futures. We can work towards a vision of a Virginia where the seats of the Virginia General Assembly are filled with individuals who understand what it takes and are deeply committed to ending violence together.

We can have a future in which the full humanity and dignity of all people are recognized and embraced; where communities thrive and are sustained by human connection; in which people who are most affected by policies and decisions are at the center of the decision-making and have ample influence and representation to make change happen; and where relationships, families and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful.

So, how do we make this happen? It begins with each of us using our voice.

Our voice as individuals: Our vote, our voice.

Voting is one way to use your individual voice. By participating in elections, you’re choosing people to represent you and your values and voicing your opinion on ballot referenda.  Your vote is your way to tell people who currently hold office, “good job, keep it up!” or “you don’t represent me, I choose someone else.” Of course, not every candidate running for office will share your views on every issue. You’ll have to decide whose vision of the future is most aligned with yours and choose based on what matters most to you.

Not sure if you’re registered to vote in Virginia? Check here. If you’re eligible to vote and are not yet registered, be sure to register by Tuesday, October 15 so you can vote in November’s election. If you’re already registered, be sure to check your voter registration and confirm its accuracy so you don’t have any problems at the polls on Nov. 5. For example, you may have moved since the last election and need to update your address and identify your new polling place.

Once you know you’re registered to vote, make a plan for Election Day (November 5).

The background is a watercolor image of a woman's face with her eyes closed. In the foreground is text that says, "imagine a radically hopeful future and vote to make it happen. Remember to vote the first Tuesday in November!" with stylized text "Building Thriving Communities: a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance."

You can also encourage others to vote by hanging one these posters and sharing this handout on why voting matters.

Our voice as advocates: civic engagement is systems-level advocacy

As advocates, we work to ensure survivors are knowledgeable about their options and empowered to make their own choices because they are the experts in their lives. Voting is an extension of this work. If we are to eliminate violence in the long-term and improve interventions for survivors in the short-term, we need to use our voice during elections.  In our unique role as advocates, we have the power to elect legislators who are willing to improve systems to benefit survivors of violence and even prevent violence from happening in the first place.

One powerful tool that can help advocates – and community members –understand how, or if, our elected officials will truly serve survivors is asking critical questions of candidates. Asking questions like “how would you improve survivor access to medical services in the aftermath of trauma?” not only serves to educate our communities and future policy makers on the issues facing survivors but it also serves to help us understand where candidates stand on these issues and how our day-to-day work might be impacted. Here are some questions you can ask candidates.

Looking to do more to build a #radicallyhopeful future? Check out the Building Thriving Communities Toolkit for more information on facilitating community conversations and for materials and strategies that you can use to engage your community and amplify survivor voices in our democratic process.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Elizabeth Wong is the Coalition Development Director for the Action Alliance. She is committed to building relationships that advance social justice and equality.

Take Action to Support Sensible Gun Control

Firearms and domestic violence are a lethal combination. In an average month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners in the United States. In Virginia, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner recently reported that 64% of all intimate partner violence homicide victims were killed with a firearm.

Moreover, in a climate where we are seeing spikes in the frequency and lethality of mass shootings, there are alarming connections between mass shootings and gender and race-based violence. According to a recent analysis of F.B.I. data on mass shootings in the U.S. that occurred between 2009 and 2017, offenders of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking accounted for 54% of all mass shooters where the perpetrator also shot a current or former intimate partner or family member.  It is also no coincidence that we are seeing more perpetrators of mass shootings declare their motives as being directly related to white supremacy, xenophobia, and racism.

It’s time for Virginia to act to stop the spread of violence in our homes and our communities. Join us in telling the Virginia Crime Commission that you support survivors and our communities by supporting sensible gun control legislation!

Several people at a rally in front of a building with one young person in the foreground holding a sign that reads, "Kids are the Future Not Guns"

Photo credit: Photo by Natalie Chaney on Unsplash. (People gathered at a rally with one young person in the foreground holding a sign that says, “Kids are the future not guns.”

Following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May, Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly in July to address gun violence. No action was taken at that time, though several bills were referred to the Virginia Crime Commission.

Now, the Virginia Crime Commission is accepting written public comments related to proposed gun legislation until August 20. Comments may be submitted by email to comments@vscc.virginia.gov or by postal mail sent to:

Attn:  Written Comments
Virginia State Crime Commission
1111 East Broad Street, Ste. B036
Richmond, Virginia 23219

The Action Alliance has submitted comment and will make public statements during the upcoming Crime Commission meetings. We encourage local justice-based and survivor advocacy agencies and advocates to do the same. Need some talking points? Check out the Action Alliance’s “2019 Guns and Domestic Violence Fact Sheet.” While facts and figures might be useful to understand the large scope of the problem with firearms, nothing is more powerful than personal stories. If you are comfortable sharing your own story, please include it. Some sample text is provided below.

Sample text:

Dear Members of the Virginia State Crime Commission:

I’m writing to show support for legislation that prohibits the purchase, transport and possession of firearms for persons subject to protective orders and/or who have been convicted of assault and battery of a family or household member. Additionally, I support efforts to give law enforcement officers and prosecutors additional tools to remove or force the surrender of firearms when these conditions are present.

{Insert your own story/context here…for example, “As an advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence, I have heard too many stories in which guns played a significant role in abusive relationships…”}

The assumption and message that guns save lives not only contradicts what we know about the dynamics of sexual and domestic violence, but it also contradicts best available research evidence and public health strategies to prevent violence. Where a history of domestic violence exists, the presence of a gun, regardless of who owns the gun, makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed—in fact, gun access is the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner.*

Enough is enough. It’s time for the Virginia General Assembly to take action to protect victims, our families, and our communities. Please support sensible gun control legislation.

Thank you,

{name, address}

*Testimony before US Senate July 30, 2014 Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, Anna D. Wolf Chair and Professor Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Silhouette of a group of five people hiking on rocks. Text says, "The Action Alliance's 2nd Annual Empower Challenge. October 1st-8th, 2019. Empowering Survivors and challenging communities to build solutions to sexual and domestic violence."

Are You Up for the Challenge?

“Democracy is the best revenge.” —Benazir Bhutto

Join the Action Alliance from October 1-8, for this year’s (em)Power Challenge and help us build solutions to sexual and domestic violence.  The Challenge encourages both movement and movement building to raise funds for local sexual and domestic violence agencies who provide front-line support, advocacy, and prevention programming to survivors of violence and their communities.

So, grab a group of family, friends, and/or community members to move and talk together to envision a Virginia free from violence. Pick an activity – walk, run, bike, hike, scooter, shop—that matches your group’s mobility and fitness interests. Then, get moving and have a conversation about this year’s theme: civic engagement and voting.

Group of 11 people and two dogs wearing purple EmPower Challenge t-shirts in front an Action Alliance tent.

Action Alliance Staff ready for the (em)Power Challenge in October 2018.

We need public policies that make our homes, communities, and world a more loving and connected place for everyone. To make that happen, we need engaged community members who understand how policies impact survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. Together, we can move one step closer in our collective journey towards building inclusive, safe, and health communities in Virginia. Join us in believing in a radically hopeful future and voting to make it happen.

Not sure how to get a conversation started? As a Team Captain, you’ll get the Walk & Talk guide to help you.

Registration is just $25 per person and when you sign up, you’ll also receive a special (em)Power Challenge t-shirt to raise the visibility of your group.

Two photos side by side. Left photo is of a dog on a leash with a purple shirt. Right photo is of the same dog's back with the same purple shirt on that says, "emPower Challenge."

Addie, wearing a custom-made emPower Challenge shirt, joins the staff for its walk.

Come together in a public display of solidarity in support of survivors and a Virginia free from violence!

Register today for #empowerchallenge.

P.S. Are you registered to vote? Be sure to check your voter registration or register to vote by October 15. Each and every vote makes a difference.

In a Perfect World…Reflections on how we should respond to sexual assault allegations made against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax

Early last month, Dr. Vanessa Tyson came forward to share her story of sexual assault at the hands of Virginia Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Days after Dr. Tyson’s statement, Ms. Meredith Watson came forward with a statement that Mr. Fairfax raped her in a “premeditated and aggressive” assault in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke University.

Between this and the racist images in Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook, the Action Alliance staff, governing body, and members have engaged in hard conversations about our elected leaders and how to respond to revelations of harm they may have committed in the past.

We’ve asked one another  questions like, “What would true accountability look like for each person? What would healing and repair look like for the people most directly affected? How do intersecting oppressions of race and class inform what we do next?”

We published several statements on these questions: a statement about Governor Northam’s yearbook photo, a statement about Lt. Governor Fairfax, followed by a longer call to action that centers the work of building a culture of consent in Virginia.

Building on these important discussions, we’ve asked several Action Alliance members, partners, and supporters to offer their perspectives on what should happen in the wake of the sexual violence allegations made against Lt Governor Fairfax. To frame the conversation, we requested their responses to two questions:

  1. In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?
  2. What is missing from this conversation?

Here’s a small sampling of the voices and perspectives captured by this dialogue.

Our contributors:

Fatima M. Smith, Speaker & Consultant at FMS Speaks, LLC, member of the Action Alliance Training Institute Faculty and Governing Body.

Mike Milnor, Trainer with Justice3D, an organization that educates on issues related to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases, and has partnered with the Action Alliance on a variety of educational initiatives.

Raven Dickerson, Chief Programs Officer for Domestic Violence Services at Shelter House, Inc., a community-based program in Northern Virginia that provides housing and advocacy for people who are homeless and/or affected by domestic violence, and member of the Action Alliance Governing Body.


Question 1: In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?

Fatima M. Smith: Action Alliance and many advocates, including myself, have stated that what should happen in response to Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson is the community starting from a place of belief. This issue is complex because it deals with a black male in power as the perpetrator and a black woman as the victim/survivor. The story is unfolding in the midst of blackface scandals and #muteRKelly and it is another painful reminder that the violence that black women experience is not important. I want society to rally around these black women and say, “we believe you, I see you and I appreciate you sharing your story. ” Let us not get distracted by politics and remember at the core this is about (two) survivors coming forward to share their experience with sexual violence. Instead of asking, “why did it take so long to come forward,” we should be asking, “why does it take us (as a society) so long to believe survivors?” We continuously fail black women in this country when we make the conscious decision to not to believe, not to fight for justice. We see this in the less talked about cases of missing black girls in DC, the school to prison pipeline for black girls, and the police killings of black women.

Mike Milnor: In a perfect world, every sexual assault survivor would feel confident in the response to their situation when deciding whether to report immediately. We however know that is not the case. The point to be made here is that Dr. Tyson is totally normal when it comes to her not disclosing to anyone for years about her assault. She was “triggered” to come out to the Washington Post by her abuser running for public office. When one understands trauma and its effects on the brain this is completely normal. It is difficult to go back and say what “should” have happened in this case. What we can do is go forward with a trauma-informed investigation that begins with a trauma-informed in depth interview of Dr. Tyson. Then if she wishes, an in-depth investigation into what can be corroborated, such as any witnesses she came into contact with immediately after the event, should follow.

 Meredith Watson’s case is also consistent with trauma. She however did immediately disclose to friends and dorm mates and named her abuser. As with Dr. Tyson’s case, a full, trauma -informed investigation beginning with a trauma informed in-depth interview with Ms. Watson is the best practice.

Raven Dickerson: In a perfect world, and I believe in the world we have now, Lt. Governor Fairfax would step down so that the experiences, needs, and voices of survivors can be lifted up into the spotlight that he, and the mention of him, is holding.


Question 2: What is missing from the current conversation?

Fatima M. Smith: I would like to have a conversation about why society is quick to attribute things like sexual maturity and/or hypersexuality to black girls/women who are victims of sexual violence. An examination of why we do not value black women’s lives as a society…this would include a discussion unpacking the impacts of white supremacy which create the jezebel trope and the strong black women trope and how they intersect and create one’s ability to disregard a black woman’s experience.

Mike Milnor: What is missing from this is the opportunity to have a full, non-confrontational conversation with Mr. Fairfax concerning the statements of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson. Mr. Fairfax should be offered the same opportunity as the reporting women, to have his statement taken and then investigated and/or corroborated if possible. Once all statements have been given and fully investigated then we stand in the best position to evaluate what steps should be taken.

Raven Dickerson: We are lacking intentional conversation about how survivors healing, health, and well-being are prioritized in seeking accountability. When we are pursuing accountability for someone who has caused harm, especially someone who is a public figure with institutional power, our narratives are absorbed with all the possibilities of how we can process them through our complex systems of judicial judgment and power. We often forget that another world is possible in which we center healing as the purpose of accountability rather than due process and the continuation of harm.  Another world is possible for our survivors, for those who harm, and for all of us.

Thank you to Fatima, Raven, and Mike for their thoughtful contributions to this conversation.


Talking about sexual violence may raise painful memories for you, a friend, or a loved one. If you or someone you know would like to speak with  a trained advocate and find support, here are two Virginia-based resources available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year:

Statewide Hotline at 1.800.838.8238 | Text:  804.793.9999  | Chat

LGBTQ Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Helpline at 1.866.356.6998  |  Text: 804.793.9999  | Chat


Featured image: https://content.gmu.edu/sites/common/files/rotator-image/Justin_Fairfax.jpg