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How to Become a Life-Long Women's Crisis Center Advocate

by Mary Zelinka

Recognize home when you find it. When you walk into your first domestic and sexual violence crisis training in 1980 after leaving your violent husband, realize that you have found a new way of being. Where you can finish your own sentences no matter how long it takes you to stutter your way through them. These are your people. Your new family.

Accept the fact that this new home will undergo many growth spurts and not always gracefully. In fact, hardly ever gracefully. You are forging new ground – there are no blueprints for domestic and sexual violence advocacy work. The work is hard. Sometimes so hard that you and your sister advocates lash out at each other in frustration and hopelessness and exhaustion and sheer rage. This is normal and does not mean you, or they, are bad people.

Black and white image of a woman looking into the camera with only her eye and hair showing. A white wall covers the other half of her face.
Image credit: Hazel Aksoy on Unsplash

Be actively involved in your own healing. Whether that means becoming a runner and eventually running a marathon; working with a therapist through your own history of abuse; hiking with friends; getting tattoos; creating a weekly women’s support group; or journaling. Better yet, do all those things and anything else you can think of. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. And who are brave enough to call you on your shit. Notice that you rarely stutter anymore.

Know that the work you are doing is social change work and will not be welcomed by the masses. The world does not want to be changed. It’s perfectly happy the way it is. Remember that if you don’t keep repeating your message, advocating for it, fighting for it, everything will stay the same. Monumental things like violence protective orders, victim’s rights laws, the MeToo Movement will never happen otherwise.

Celebrate every single legislative victory. And get as much mileage out of them as quickly as you can. Because they can be ripped away at any moment by a crazy President or a crazy person the crazy President appoints. By the Supreme Court.

Save your protest signs. Sadly, they will not become dated.

Participate in your agency’s expansion. The opening of her first safe shelter and twenty years later, her second. Ten years after that an Advocacy Center, open to the public. Then her third shelter. Transitional housing. Partnerships with law enforcement, Department of Human Services, the District Attorney’s office, and so on and so on.

Keep up with the evolving vocabulary. Notice how the word “individual” gradually creeps in to replace “woman” when speaking of survivors. Even though the overwhelming majority of the survivors are women or female-identified. Use the evolving language, while reminding people who the overwhelming majority of survivors are.

If asked, and you will be, keep your explanations of interpersonal violence and sexual assault and stalking and child sexual abuse and sex trafficking and pornography brief and to the point. Be kind, but never ever soften your message. Remember, one out of three women will be a survivor at some point in her lifetime (which we all know is a very conservative estimate), so it’s likely that the person asking will be a survivor, even if they do not self-identify. They need to hear what you have to say. Everyone does.

Recognize that every single day you are going to be outraged or have your heart ripped out at least once. Probably more than once. If you know this when you wake up in the morning, you will be prepared for it. Be kind to yourself all day long.

Accept the fact that when someone asks what you do for a living and you tell them, they will either change the subject, or tell you their own story of abuse. When someone says, “I could never do the work you do because I’m too tender-hearted,” remember they are not implying they believe you are hard-hearted.

Notice when you can no longer remain fully or even partially functional the day after you’ve answered the crisis line overnight or responded to a sexual assault call at the hospital at 2:00 am. Be prepared to step away from your 24-7 leadership position into a 40-hour week role. Later, a 37-hour week. Finally, a 20-hour week. This won’t be easy

Image of a woman with long wavy hair speaking into a megaphone.
Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Be a sounding board and resource for advocates. Support their decisions just as you have always supported survivors’ choices. Assume whatever tasks that take advocates away from survivor support. Whether that means shelter grocery shopping, organizing donations, or changing lightbulbs. Remember: unclogging a toilet in one of the shelters ultimately contributes to ending violence against women.

Realize that when you retire someday no one will remember your agency’s grassroots history unless they wade through forty years’ worth of board minutes and newsletters which is unlikely. So, wade through those documents yourself after work and on weekends. Write and self-publish The Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence: A Local History of a National Movement and gift it to your agency.

Occasionally wonder: Will you ever be ready to retire? Who will you be if you do? Who will your agency become? You are her last link to her roots. Her future will go on without you. You will need to have faith that her roots are deep and those many advocates you helped train will carry her mission forward. Leaving her won’t be easy. But nothing about this work ever has been.


Black and white photo of the author, Mary Zelinka.
Mary Zelinka

Mary Zelinka lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley and has been involved with domestic and sexual violence advocacy work since 1980. She has the privilege of witnessing the remarkable strength and resilience of survivors every day. Her writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Multiplicity and others.

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