Innovation Ecosystem

The politics of halting sexual violence

What can be learned from the work being done by Sojourner House and the Youth Restoration Project

Image courtesy of Sojourner House Facebook page

The SoJo MoJoe breakfast celebrated the work being done by Sojourner House.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/21/18
The work being done by Sojourner House and the Youth Restoration Project are critical endeavors that address the ways to counteract the forces of violence in our world, but for whatever reason, they rarely get any attention from the political pundits.
What will motivate women voters going to the polls in 2018? Will Rhode Island pollsters conduct any surveys related to health care, childcare, or sexual violence? What are the data stories that can be told about the work being done in schools about the success of restorative justice practices? What are the points of convergence between screening for toxic stress and screening for depression?

PROVIDENCE – I recently posted an old story of mine on Facebook, an interview with Tom Wolfe, published in October of 1973, in a new fledging weekly alternative newspaper in Amherst, Mass., The Valley Advocate, in what I believe was its second issue ever.

I was 21, still a college senior, but the interview with Tom Wolfe celebrated a freedom and writing and reporting that Wolfe himself had championed: one that was not constricted by the dictates of the inverted pyramid of who, what, why, when, and how, laboring under the burdensome yoke of objectivity.

I re-published the story, in part, as a kind of talisman against what was being written in memories about Wolfe, on the occasion of his death last week.

The story began: Tom Wolfe doesn’t look like [anything] his writing. Something about the receding hairline, that straight blonde whisper of his hair against the impeccable but pretentious blue-and-white combination of clothes, obscured the zany energy of his writing.

White wingtips with their [tooled] design, his blue-and-white striped socks, a blue single-breasted evening jacket against high-britched white cotton pants and a 15-button white vest. A tie with blue and white markings [that, up close], turns into bunny rabbits jumping out of magician’s hats next to a magic wand.

Wolfe’s not Jimmy Breslin, brawling [and] belching through his stories while outtalking the interviewer. He melts into the background, dissolving into the Kool-Aid, silently recording impressions, and sometimes not even asking questions. Up close, three inches from his clean-shaven preacher’s face, there is no smell, no scent, no hint of sweat. Only mild Southern jowls, smiling, as if sprayed with Arid Extra Dry.

At the time, The Valley Advocate, along with its compatriots, The Real Paper in Boston, The Boston Phoenix, and The Drummer in Philadelphia, provided access to information that was not being covered by what was known as the straight news media. The alternative weeklies thrived, in part, because they were able to tap into as large youth market of college students, opening up an advertising market for new kind of entrepreneur.

The Valley Advocate, as a kind of political statement, refused to take any advertising from what was then Northeast Utilities, the utility serving western Massachusetts, which had plans to build a twin nuclear reactor on the Montague Plains, sucking up water from the Connecticut River. Those nukes were never built, thanks in large part to the efforts of a growing citizens movement as well as the successful intervention by the law firm of Lesser, Newman, Sibbison and Souweine in Northampton, Mass., before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Council in 1978. But that is a tale for another day.

Which raises the question today: What is news? What is political news? Who gets to put the stamp of approval on what Rhode Islanders should be paying attention to as political news? What will energize women voters in 2018?

Why, does it seem, when the pundits write up their weekly political analyses, do issues around violence against women, domestic violence, the connection between gun violence and sexual violence, seem to get left out of the conversation and do not get talked about? Or, for that matter, positive political stories about the push for high-quality daycare?

Last week, for example:

Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement with 332 victims who were sexually abused by university physician Lawrence G. Nassar under the guise of medical treatment, said to be the largest sexual abuse case settlement ever reached involving a university.

The alleged shooter who killed eight students and two teachers in Santa Fe, Texas, on Friday apparently shot and killed a young woman who had rejected his advances.

The Trump administration announced that it was issuing a directive through Health and Human Services to ban federal funds for the provision of women’s health and family planning services for organizations that provide abortion services or even recommend abortion services to patients.

When the dust settled after the primary elections, the Pennsylvania delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, which had been an all-male affair, will feature eight women Democratic candidates in the fall election, a sign of a sea change underway.

The Strolling Thunder campaign brought families with babies and toddlers to the Rhode Island State House on Wednesday, May 16, to lobby for legislators to support high quality childcare in the state.

What is going to motivate women voters going to the polls this year? As we saw in Pennsylvania, it may be that women candidates and women voters turn out to be game changers

Ending domestic, sexual violence
There was nothing overtly political about the SoJo MoJoe breakfast, held on Friday morning, May 18, by Sojourner House at the Providence Marriott Downtown, but everything about the event was about the real body politick in Rhode Island, highlighting the efforts by the community agency committed toward ending domestic and sexual violence.

First, the name of the breakfast comes from a custom coffee blend roasted by New Harvest Coffee Roasters, “Sojo MoJoe,” as an ongoing way of raising funds to support the efforts of Sojourner House. The Pawtucket-based firm was founded in 2000 by Rik Kleinfeldt and Paula Anderson. It is the kind of innovative approach by local entrepreneurs to give back to the community.

Second, there were three awards given out by Sojourner House:

The community champion award went to Toby Simon, who served as the first director of the Gertrude Hochberg Women’s Center at Bryant University. For the past 23 years, she has been working part-time in Haiti, providing training in sexuality, women’s health initiatives, micro-enterprise projects, and empowerment programs for teen-age girls. Simon is the author of numerous articles and books on the subjects of sexual assault, sexuality, and the connection between alcohol and sexual behavior.

Laura Marrin received the legacy award for her work, begun as a 15-year-old high school student, to create Camp Eureka, a free summer camp for children who have witnessed domestic violence. Laura is now pursuing an MBA degree at Dartmouth College.

Vilma Sierra received the survivor award. Her story was told from the podium by her eldest daughter, Bessy, who is about to graduate high school, about how her mother was able to free herself from an abusive marriage, working with advocates from Sojourner House. Originally from Guatemala, Vilma was able to gain legal permanent residence status through the Violence Against Women Act.

Repairing the harm
An equally important gathering was held at Rhode Island College on Friday, May 18, the third annual symposium of the Youth Restoration Project, entitled, “Imagine What Safety Feels Like.”

The gathering, which focused on restorative justice practices, featured Victor Capellan, superintendent of Central Falls Schools, Lauren Abramson, the founder of Restorative Response Baltimore, and Carolyn Boyes-Watson, founding director of the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University.

The handouts featured discussions of the differences between retributive vs. restorative justice, an overview of restorative practices and three tools.

Once again, it is the kind of work and engaged community that seems to escape notice by the news media and the political pundits.

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