‘We are all advocates’

There are more than 1,500 battered women’s shelters in the United States today. Forty years ago, there were none – until Women’s Advocates opened its doors in St. Paul. Since then, the shelter has served over 38,000 women and children, housing 50 at a time – typically, about 30 kids (ranging from a few days old to late teens) and 20 women – and it receives about 16,000 crisis calls per year.

Mary Brown has worked at Women’s Advocates for 25 of its 40 years, wearing multiple hats. She has accompanied families to court, aided moms in registering kids for school, and assisted women in finding jobs, health care and housing, as well as assisted them in removing barriers to reaching their goals. Now women’s and children’s program manager, Brown implements new programming, ensures appropriate staffing and generally keeps things running smoothly.

Over the years, she has seen some changes. Years ago, says Brown, most women at the shelter were 30 to 44. Now, the biggest group is 18 to 29. “We are seeing more trauma in the women and children we are serving now,” she says.

Brown cites two key program developments in the past seven years: the addition of a full-time mental health therapist and an aftercare program called ROSE (Real Opportunities in a Safe Environment). ROSE stemmed from surveying women after they had left the shelter.

“What we heard was that once women get out in the community, that’s where the hard part begins,” Brown says. “So we immediately stepped up.” Now, advocates follow women into the community and help them settle in. In addition, the shelter’s aftercare specialist serves as a life coach for them, she says.

Kitchen table validation

Women’s Advocates co-founders Sharon Rice Vaughan and Susan Ryan were VISTA workers in a St. Paul legal-aid office who were tasked with starting a phone service for women to call with questions about divorce and other family-law matters.

Vaughan and Ryan, quickly realizing that multiple interrelated problems were usually at play, conducted a resource survey so they could give women at least a phone number to call about health care, employment or other concerns. In the process, they learned there was no place for abused women and children to stay – other than a seedy hotel. “We couldn’t believe it,” Vaughan says.

Meanwhile, a support group that Ryan belonged to was looking for a place to get away – but not from domestic violence. This group of feminists dreamed of buying a house where they could hold classes and support group meetings or host musical events.

“So we evolved from being a phone service to being dead-set on getting a house for women and kids who needed it. The other plan just dropped by the wayside, and the house instead became emergency housing for women,” Vaughan says.

The women arrived before the house did. The phone operation moved into Ryan’s apartment at Grand Avenue and Avon Street in St. Paul, where the group took in its first residents: a mother and child who arrived at the Greyhound bus station with no money, hoping to start a new life. The operation shifted to Vaughan’s place after another tenant found a discarded diaper and Ryan was evicted: it was an adults-only building and didn’t allow kids.

With thorough phone records and documentation of harboring women in their homes, the group – by now calling itself Women’s Advocates – could show potential funders the need for a shelter. Most important, Vaughan says, they developed a core philosophy: treating each woman as her own expert. They wouldn’t tell her what she needed, but they would help her reach her own goals.

“Once we got the money for the house, it was always full,” Vaughan says of the Grand Avenue location that is still the shelter’s site today. “Women would sit at the kitchen table, telling each other their stories. It was amazing to see. They validated each other.”

Women’s Advocates began as a collective, believing a hierarchy would duplicate the system that kept women battered and silent. But when funders said they needed a director, Vaughan thought: maybe so.

“I applied, was hired and turned it back into a collective three weeks later,” she says. “We were all advocates.”

‘Honest conversation’

Fast-forward to November 2013, when Babette Jamison began as executive director. With a background in nonprofit management and public health, Jamison is grateful to have worked with many strong female leaders. “I learned from them that when you step into something new, you don’t just maintain it,” she says. “You move it to the next level.”

To that end, Women’s Advocates hosted two open-to-the-public “Community Conversations” this past summer, exploring the root causes of and effective responses to domestic violence. Residents, elected officials, health and human services professionals, law enforcement authorities, and others participated.

“They left their titles at the door and we were a community,” Jamison says. “We had an honest conversation.” She hopes to continue hosting them.

“These conversations aren’t comfortable. They’re not glamorous,” she says. “But they are necessary.”

Rather like those kitchen-table conversations 40 years ago.

PERSONAL STEPS: What can I do?
• Call 911 to report acts of violence in emergency situations.
• If you or someone you know is abused or threatened, call the statewide domestic violence crisis line: 1-866-223-1111.
• If someone is being abusive, encourage them to seek help from local abuse programs, such as Domestic Abuse Project, 612-874-7063, or Wilder Foundation, 651-280-2000.
• Learn about legislative proposals and contact elected officials: www.mcbw.org/#!get-involved—public-policy/c1hpe
• Encourage your employer or faith community to provide domestic violence training. Contact the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, 651-646-6177.
• Teach kids alternatives to acting out violently; talk to teens about dating violence.