New Look, New Outlook
I was getting my hair done recently—the round-brush blow dry that I simply cannot do myself. Myra, the hairstylist, was a beautiful woman in her late 50s or early 60s. As we chatted, the inevitable question came up: “so what do you do?”
I always pause when someone asks me this. It’s meant as a safe, innocuous question, and when making polite small talk, most people don’t expect to be starting a conversation about domestic violence. When I tell people what I do, however, they almost always tell me a story or two—or three—about someone they know, often someone close to them, who has experienced domestic violence.
Myra’s response was slightly different:
“You know in some cultures, violence is an expression of love. I have a lot of Polish friends here, and they tell me that ‘if he is does not hit you, he doesn’t love you.’”
As shocking as this is, I have heard the same about other cultures. Myra then told me about her friend who was at a recent family gathering, at which a nephew was acting aggressive toward his wife. “He has always been aggressive,” she said, “but we aren’t going to call the police.”
Of course, I asked curious questions and stayed engaged. Once we had further cemented our relationship, thanks mostly to her clear expertise on hair extensions—and now I definitely want to try gold highlight extensions—she confided in me:
“You know,” she said, “my son is in a violent relationship. The mother of his 5-year-old child gets very aggressive when she drinks—only when she drinks—but she drinks a lot. What would you suggest we do? He lives with me. She used to live with us, but I had to ask her to leave because I just couldn’t take that violence in my home. You know I even called her mom and told her about the problem. I offered to work together to help her. The problem is that her mother drinks too. How can she ask her daughter to do what she can’t do herself? I am more concerned about my son. I tell him to defend himself, but not to touch her. If the police come, they will take him away.”
Wow! Myra’s story, like so many others, offers important insights about the wicked problem of domestic violence—and the challenge that the Foundation is taking on as we shift toward prevention:
- We are broadening our lens about who is affected by violence: The Foundation is moving away from the binary view that domestic violence is only between one woman and one man; that survivors and those who do harm are only the two people engaged in violence. There are other survivors. Data show that exposure to parental violence significantly increases the risk of future victimization or perpetration among children in these families. We also know that there is partner violence in LGBTQ couples, youth, and other communities.
- We are recognizing that bystanders have few options: A 2017 Foundation-funded survey of 1,000 Californians indicated that 92-95% would act if they knew a family member was a victim or harm-doer. Family witnesses to abuse feel limited in what they can do, though some are willing to and do act—as demonstrated by Myra. Despite this, there is a strong, widespread impulse to avoid engaging law enforcement: just 26% of those surveyed said they would be willing to call the police. Addressing this requires that we first understand the complex cultural reasons for avoiding police interaction.
- We are increasingly aware that we need more ways to address DV, especially before crisis: The Foundation is supporting the development of restorative justice efforts to test new approaches that expand the role of families as well as social and community networks to create a positive mix of healing and accountability. We know we need to address issues of power and control in relationships before they lead to crises.
- We know that individual stories weave a complex picture of domestic violence: There are a number of complexities that need to be addressed in any serious prevention efforts: the connection between substance abuse and domestic violence; men as survivors and not always the perpetrator (1 in 7 men are DV victims); family and community support systems around both the harm-doer and victim can be facilitators or barriers to change; normalized violence in the home that perpetuates violence across generations; and deep fear and concern about state violence as a strong rationale for accepting violence in our lives.
- We need better ways to understand the intersections of domestic violence to other social issues to generate solutions that focus on individuals and families, as well as trauma-informed approaches that truly improve the well-being of survivors, children, families, and communities. At the Foundation, we know we can’t do this alone—we need to engage new partners in communities across California. Events like this weekend’s United State of Women 2018 Summit, which the Foundation is proud to support, represent a step in the right direction: coming together to address the complex and deeply rooted challenges that none of us can solve alone.
As the Foundation pivots to prevention, we will be exploring and funding approaches that support healing and address the root causes of violence. How do we break the cycle of multigenerational violence and safeguard children from its impact by supporting healing in the adults around them? Which communities are most vulnerable when people do not report the violence they are experiencing? What can we do to help them?
So, how did Myra and I end our conversation? “Your work is so important,” she said, “I hope you can figure out how to prevent it, and when you do, please come back and let me know what you did.” Of course, I won’t figure it out on my own. None of us will. That’s going to take all of us—Myra included—working together. I walked out with a great hairstyle and a renewed sense of urgency, hope, and a bit of wind beneath my wings.