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By Maria E. Hengeveld
When Bill de Blasio took office as Mayor of New York City in January 2014, he chose Rose Pierre-Louis to head his Office to Combat Domestic Violence (OCDV). As the Commissioner of this office, Pierre-Louis is responsible for raising awareness around domestic violence amongst New Yorkers and supporting victims of all genders, backgrounds, and ages to get the support they need for healing, safety, and justice.
To effectively take on domestic violence in a city where the police has responded to more than 282,000 incidents in 2014 -and we can only guess what the actual number is – demands more than politics and talks. It takes activism. I watched the Commissioner speak at a couple of events during 2014’s Domestic Violence Awareness month. What struck me was her ability to actually execute what many feminists insist is necessary for justice: connecting the personal with the political. She shared experiences of her own life, asked the audience for theirs and made the men in the room feel safe to come forward with their grief, thoughts and observations in what seemed like a constant pursuit of answering two fundamental questions: what do we need and what can I do to make this happen? Just a few weeks later, I met with Cecilia Gaston, who as the Director of the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) works with and for Latina victims of domestic violence in New York. She appeared quite pleased with Pierre Louis’s appointment. “She is a real ally and actually comes from the advocacy community,” Cecilia told me. “Already, she has done an enormous amount of work in raising the visibility of domestic violence and in working with the police to collect the kind of information that we could never get.” Coming from a woman who has no issue with speaking her mind or expressing any sense of reservation about any authority or politician, my interest in the strategies and background of the Commissioner grew.
Before she became Commissioner, Pierre-Louis oversaw a variety of social justice initiatives in the city – from criminal justice to domestic violence – as Manhattan Deputy Borough President. She also played a leading role in organizations such as Harlem Legal Services, Network for Women’s Services, The Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families and Queens Legal Services. As an attorney, she spent two decades representing low-income and working poor litigants and victims of domestic violence. On top of that, she worked as an adjunct professor in law at Fordham University for six years, co-founded the African American Task Force on Violence against Women, and served as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the New York Women’s Foundation.
She seems right for the job indeed. But what does it take, in practice, to ‘combat’ domestic violence in a city like New York? I decided to ask her this question in person. Two weeks later, I sat down with her in her downtown Manhattan office, where she explained her strategy.
Combating Domestic Violence in New York City
For Pierre-Louis, it begins with an awareness of the scope and pervasiveness of the problem and the understanding that domestic violence transcends classed and racial lines. She believes it is important that New Yorkers realize that “domestic violence is not just a poor person’s issue”. “Sure”, she said, “we can talk about how domestic violence has a disparate impact within certain communities… We, for example, know it has a disparate impact on women and on women of color and on immigrants, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in different communities or that women are the only victims.” She insisted that “it is important to not generalize” and to not limit our understanding of gender-based violence to a man vs. woman situation. According to the Commissioner, sexism and gender-based violence takes different forms and affects more New Yorkers than we may realize, through LGBT bullying in schools and street attacks on transgender people to domestic violence against children and women in their homes. “The connection between sexism and other forms of gender-based violence,” she explained, “is that they are rooted in the same perceptions about men and women… Men fall victim too, in many different ways.” When I asked her to elaborate, she told me “every time I give a presentation about domestic violence, a man will come up to me to talk about the impact it had on him to watch his mother being battered… Imagine,” she asked, “what that is like for a young boy to watch your mother being abused… One time, a young man came up to me and told me that, at the age of nine, he watched his father murdering his mother. You’re forever changed when something like that happens.”
Meeting Victims Where They Are
The complexity of the dynamics and impact of such violence is one of the reasons why the Commissioner is wary of stereotypes and insists on an active outreach approach to find those New Yorkers, no matter what age or gender, who need support. The essential message that drives this outreach is simple: letting victims know that they’re not alone. “What you hear from victims time and again is that they feel alone,” she said. “That’s why I want victims to know, first, that every man, woman and child has the right to be free from violence on the street, at home, in their schools, everywhere. And I want them to know that in this city, you’re not alone.” One of the resources that the city has made available to victims are the Family Justice Centers, where they can seek support for shelter, legal services, such as an order of protection, or counseling for their children and other forms of emotional support. New York City currently has the largest network of such centers in the U.S. In 2014, they received around 54,600 client visits.
These centers operate with a client-centered approach. What that comes down to, Pierre-Louis explained, is meeting victims where they are, informing them about the options they have, and providing a safe and judgment-free space. Every victim has his or her own set of priorities, concerns and needs, she explained. “Some may say, yes, I want to go to a family court, but no, I don’t want him arrested. Others may tell us no, I don’t want a criminal court prosecution, but let’s move forward with child support custody or divorce. And then you work to make that happen. The worst thing any service provider can do,” according to the Commissioner, “is forcing clients into a decision that they are not prepared to make, so we don’t do that.” She believes that “even if, deep down inside, you think it’s the worst decision they could possibly make, you got to understand and support that. There may be children involved, who can’t just leave their school, or perhaps the person does not have the financial resources to be fully self sufficient.” A truly client-centered approach, then, builds on the clients’ wishes and meets them where they are. But it doesn’t end there. It also means taking them seriously as experts on the abuser. “The victim knows the abuser better than anyone else,” she said, “and we should realize that the sole response is not just to leave. Each case is individualized and no abuser is the same.”
No matter what route clients decide to take, these kinds of conversations are meant to provide the foundation for a safer future. Yet they wont take place if victims are unaware of the existence of such services or feel uncomfortable, afraid or otherwise hesitant to come forward. The Commissioner believes that here, too, outreach is an answer to such barriers. “This is exactly why we have increased our outreach efforts with 500% the past year,” she said. “You have to go where people are, right? Our Mayor doesn’t want Commissioners who are sitting behind their desks”, she said. “He wants us to be in the communities That’s why we take a pretty hands-on approach and try to reach individuals in all neighborhoods.” This past year, the Commissioner has increased visibility by focusing on Laundromats, barbershops, salons, buses, workplaces and subways. She also partners with community leaders, spiritual leaders and the clergy to reach victims. “Just like the NYPD, the clergy often work as first responders, so we want to work closely with them,” she said.
For domestic violence to end, according to the Commissioner, we need to expand our collective knowledge of the problem and push towards ‘upstanding’ behavior. Most victims will have friends, co-workers, family members or employers who, as Upstanders, could make a positive difference in their lives.
“I want to work with as many organizations and businesses as possible to expand their knowledge of domestic violence and the meaning of upstanding,” she said, “so for anyone interested in me coming in to give technical assistance, I am here to do exactly that.”
Domestic Violence and the Workplace
The reason Pierre-Louis decided to scale up her office’s with employers is rooted in the growing national awareness of the workplace as a space of risk as well as intervention. The growing body of research on sexual assault, workplace violence, and intimate partner violence in the U.S offers compelling evidence that domestic violence spills over into the workplace in a variety of ways, turning many employers and co-workers into bystanders or upstanders (but also, of course, perpetrators) at some point during their working lives. A 2005 survey, for example, found that 21% of full-time employed American had suffered domestic violence that year. Being battered at home, other studies showed, interferes with victims’ ability to keep their job or get promoted. Between 2003 and 2008, intimate partner violence is shown to have taken the lives of 142 U.S women, while they were working, most of them taking place in retail and service businesses such as restaurants, cafes, convenience stores, and hotel and motels, followed by commercial stores, public buildings, and parking lots. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has also pointed out that undocumented women, immigrants, and those who work in low-income jobs in the restaurant and service industry are more likely to be violated on duty.
According to Commissioner Pierre-Louis, stalking is a problem that needs to be addressed at work as well. Every year, around one million women and 371,000 men are stalked in the US., according to the Department of Justice, often following victims to their workplace. “If you have talked to anyone who has been a victim of stalking,” said Pierre-Louis, “you will know this often happens at work. It’s terrifying because this person is not a stranger, but often an intimate partner or an ex-partner, who knows your whereabouts”.
This mix of findings makes it pretty clear that involving employers in this anti-violence project is necessary. What seems less clear is how to go about it. With regards to domestic violence, says Pierre-Louis, it starts with sensitizing them to the dynamics around the problem and their legal responsibilities as employers. “First, we want employers, and people in general, to know what the law says about reasonable accommodations,” she said, “and that you cannot discriminate against someone because of their status as a victim of domestic violence. We want them to not see this person as a trouble-maker, but as someone who legally should be given reasonable accommodations. But more broadly”, she added, “these are your co-workers, your employees! Why wouldn’t you support them?”
To her, this kind of support should go beyond a flexible and accommodating stance toward, say, court dates or keeping a building’s security guards (in the workplace that actually have such guards) up to date about stalkers. “We want to help employers understand that they can actually play an empowering role in a victim’s life.” One way of doing that, she said, is “to create a work environment where people are encouraged to come forward, where they know they won’t be judged or fired and get help to find the support they believe they need.” To turn workplaces into spaces for intervention, the Commissioner believes that workshops and programs need to involve all ranks of workers and use education to promote upstander behavior. “We want to create an understanding that if a co-worker gets fifty calls a day by an ex-boy friend, that we call that aggravated harassment.”
Prevention and Education
Education is central to the Commissioner’s take on prevention as well, which brings us back to the pervasive gendered norms and stereotypes that underpin and fuel domestic violence. Pierre-Louis is an advocate for peer-led education programs, especially for young people. “Our goal is to foster a generation of young people that understands what the dynamics of an unhealthy relationship are.” This means multilingual outreach materials, peer-education programs, workshops on topics such as dating violence and interactive group discussions on issues around gender norms and relationships. Schools and community organizations can book workshops and staff trainings on the website.
Obviously, the challenges that Commissioner Pierre-Louis is faced with in her mission to combat domestic violence are not unique to New York. They mirror the obstacles in the larger national project to transform social norms and promote full gender equality. The heteronormative patriarchal norms that fuel domestic and other forms of gender-based violence permeate every sphere and every institution of our society at large. They humiliate, they break, they oppress and they agonize. They traumatize, isolate, bruise, kill and deny justice for Americans in every state, town and village. Certainly not all towns and cities have the political will of Commissioners and other leaders, committed to pushing the issues forward and investing in youth and partnerships to change social norms.
To break down and reconstruct the perceptions around gender, femininities, masculinities, relationships, sex and power, few places play as critical a role as our schools. The project of ‘educating society into gender equality’ may not yet have clear and universal lines, but the urgency of preventative education is glaringly evident in the stories that find us through the media. Stories that upset us, anger us, excruciate us. We know these stories are only the tip of the iceberg, yet they are perturbing enough to demand that this tip be pointed towards action, intervention, prevention, reform and justice. It’s in the story of the 12 year old Ronin Shimizu, who committed suicide after being bullied for his cheerleading activities a few months ago. It’s in the experiences of women like Arlena Lindley, who was relentlessly battered by her partner before she was sent to jail for failing to stop him from murdering her son. It’s in the courage of Lisa Floid, who, at the age of nine, called 911 to stop her stepfather from beating her mother. It’s in the unknown fate of Arnika Miller, a young woman from Kansas who went missing in 2010, shortly after she confided to co-workers that her boyfriend and his friends had assaulted her.
As Commissioner Pierre-Louis pointed out, many victims feel they are alone. The truth is that, countrywide, many of them are. Even in cities like New York, led by a Mayor who is dedicated to the issue and rejects stereotypes, protection and safety is still constrained by class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and immigration status. But, as the work and vision of the Commissioner (and all the activists and upstanders who labor for justice outside the spotlights) shows us, the strategies for the creation of spaces for safety, protection, intervention and education exist. To claim and expand these spaces nationwide, we need partnerships, visibility, political will and education; educational projects that engage children, communities and employers, but also police forces and other authorities that all too often deny victims protection and justice. Like the Commissioner, we cannot stop asking ourselves and each other: what do we need and what can we do to make this happen?
 EDK Associates for The Body Shop. The Many Faces of Domestic Violence and its impact on the Workplace. New York 1997
Maria Hengenveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country and Dutch feminist magazine Tijdschrift Lover