A day in the life of an advocate ...
Leticia is an full-time advocate who works at her county’s domestic violence shelter. On her calendar for the day are back-to-back appointments with survivors staying in shelter. In the first appointment, while doing an intake with Maria, a Latina survivor, the client discloses to Leticia that she is undocumented and is struggling to open a bank account or rent an apartment without a social security number, both of which are critical steps she needs to take to begin rebuilding her life after leaving the shelter. Right after Maria, Leticia meets with Fathima, a Muslim survivor, who shares that every dish served at dinner the night prior included pork in some form and that she wasn’t able to eat a single thing -- even the salad was topped with bacon bits. After Fathima leaves her office, Leticia jots down a few quick notes from both meetings and decides to head to the kitchen to speak with the cook. Just before she reaches the kitchen door, a commotion in the shelter helpline office interrupts her: “What do you mean, he won’t prosecute because he wants to keep his conviction rate up?” Another survivor, Lillian, has tears streaming down her face as she listens to a representative from the District Attorney’s office on the other line. In passing, Leticia gives Lillian’s hand a quick squeeze and an understanding smile while mouthing to her, “We can talk later if you need to.” Leticia ducks into the bathroom to collect her thoughts and catch her breath. She is starting to feel exhausted again, even though she just took a vacation, and although she loves her job, in that moment she wondered how long it would be before her shift would be over...
One of the biggest challenges domestic violence advocates face on a daily basis is accessing resources for survivors so they can help them secure support for basic needs like access to food, safe and affordable housing, and childcare. We know that economic abuse occurs in 94-99% of abusive relationships, and having sufficient financial resources to leave an abuser is a common barrier. While domestic violence programs and advocates help victims in crisis immensely, they are also often limited by what they can do to support them in the long term. Resources and opportunities vary greatly by community and domestic violence programs and advocates are not only verwhelmed by the challenge of trying to meet client needs, but are also often overwhelmed with securing and maintaining relationships with other entities that can further support survivors of violence.
In addition to meeting basic needs, it is also critical that survivors have access to resources that are both culturally and survivor-informed. For example, depending on the level of training or relevant experience on the specific challenges that a particular communities may face, as well as the availability of relevant services in a given community, an advocate may not be equipped with the tools or resources they need to address the concerns of all survivors. There are countless examples, but here are a few: helping an undocumented survivor and her children find housing, or a trans woman whose abuser is withholding her hormones as a means of control, or a blind victim who knows her partner is physically abusing her service dog. All of these examples would require access to culturally and survivor-informed services.
Other common challenges for advocates involve understanding and bridging the gaps between the work they are doing as a community advocate and what the legal or judicial system can offer based on a survivor’s current situation. An untrained prosecutor or police officer may not understand the nuances of why a victim refuses to leave an abuser, may not understand how to discern who in the relationship is the primary aggressor, or may not have the training on how best to respond to incidents involving domestic violence. Judges may be untrained on the dynamics of domestic violence following divorce or separation and may side with abusers in child custody cases, they may rule that an abuser be able to keep their firearm after being convicted of domestic violence, or court systems may not be set up to protect the physical and emotional safety of the victim from their abuser if having to face them in court.
Yet another common challenge for advocates and others working with survivors is exposure to vicarious trauma, or what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue.” The American Counseling Association defines vicarious trauma as “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” Counselors aren’t the only ones who experience vicarious trauma; advocates commonly experience the same emotional residue which, if not addressed, can lead to burnout. How do you take care of yourself while taking care of others?
Presentations at Voices Rising will be geared toward addressing these challenges and will provide examples of how others across the country are responding to these issues. Most of us working in the anti-violence field know what the issues are; Voices Rising will address HOW individuals and communities are effectively responding to these issues in their communities. Attendees will take away powerful educational tools, tangible ideas, and practical resources they can use within their own work and with their own programs communities. At Voices Rising, presentations will go beyond the basics; presentations will challenge thinking and provide tools to work with to best address domestic violence in your community and support survivors.
As powerful as presentations at NCADV conferences are, just as powerful are the catalysts for conversations and discussions among attendees that can lead to new perspectives and understanding between the many professions that serve domestic violence survivors and victims. Advocates are joined by survivors, social workers, prosecutors, medical professionals, and members of law enforcement at NCADV’s national domestic violence conference, and conversations between attendees help engage them in their own work to support survivors and end violence and help in understanding the challenges each faces in being successful to doing providing the best support and programming.
Conference attendees can learn from others working with victims and survivors about creative, cutting edge ways to support clients. Presentations for Voices Rising will be announced within the next several weeks, but presentation topics will include: transformative leadership and programming, organizing youth to end violence, grassroots activism and political engagement, building cultural and organizational capacity, organizing for social change, best practices in service delivery, trauma and survivor-informed responses, legal strategies for custody litigation, model programming, challenging “systems,” alternatives to accessing “systems” to provide survivor safety and support, cyber abuse, engaging men in ending violence against women, holding abusers accountable, domestic violence as a human rights issue, self-care, healing, and many, many more.
In addition to learning how others are working through the same problems, the workshops offered at NCADV’s national conference on domestic violence help advocates better understand cultural differences among victims and how best to overcome challenges like language barriers and serving victims from a culture different than one’s own. Attending workshops that, for example, address unique challenges for survivors from a Muslim background, for survivors who are also undocumented immigrants, and for Native Americans survivors living on tribal lands, can help expand an advocate’s readiness to serve any survivor who walks through the door.
At NCADV’s national conference on domestic violence, we not only preach self-care as the remedy to vicarious trauma, we practice it too. In addition to workshops where advocates can learn more about vicarious trauma, how it can impact their well-being, and ideas for self-care they can bring back to their respective organizations, the entire culture at the conference encourages self-care on-site. A designated “quiet space” allows any attendee feeling triggered to talk about what they are feeling and experiencing in private. We set aside time and space in the agenda so attendees can take whatever action they need to rejuvenate. The NCADV team’s favorite self-care is to get moving and dance the night away with friends, which is why we are excited about the Ruby Jubilee Gala this year. Not only will we have a chance to celebrate and honor the past 40 years as an organization, it’s a chance for some serious self-care!
By attending the NCADV conference, advocates can improve their day-to-day advocacy work. Advocates learn from both the workshops and each other and bring back fresh ideas to their team. Advocates are surrounded by like-minded people who are passionate about supporting survivors and making positive change, regardless if they are other advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement, social workers, and/or survivors. Advocates have opportunities to practice self-care onsite in a relaxing setting so they can return to their position rejuvenated and refreshed, ready to implement what they learned at the NCADV national domestic violence conference.