Mind and Body

We do not just grow old, we grow fierce, and yes, we persist

Named the 2018 community champion by Sojourner House, Toby Simon reflects on the challenges and rewards of risk taking

Image courtesy of Toby Simon, from a Brown Daily Herald photo

Toby Simon, left, holding her son, Ben, and speaking at a 1985 rally at Brown University calling for an end to sexual assault. The students had deliberately chosen to hold the rally in Wriston Quad, where most the fraternities were located, according to Simon.

By Toby Simon
Posted 5/28/18
When Sojourner House held its recent SoJo MoJoe breakfast, Toby Simon was named the 2018 community champion. Simon reflects on her life journey and what it means to be a community champion, advocating to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence.
What are the NFL rules if its teams’ cheerleaders were to take a stand against sexual assault and domestic violence at the beginning of a football game? How will the avalanche of women candidates running for Congress change the culture in Washington, D.C., if they are elected? Can the connection between sexual assault and addiction be made more transparent as part of a strategy of harm reduction? When was the last time when the talk radio pundits in Rhode Island had a guest on from Sojourner House to talk about sexual assault and domestic abuse?
What was most impressive about the awards given out at the SoJo MoJoe breakfast was the way in which three generations were honored: Toby Simon, now retired; Laura Marrin, now approaching 30-something, who founded Camp Eureka, a free summer camp for children who have witnessed domestic violence, when she was 15; and survivor Vilma Sierra, whose daughter, about to graduate high school, gave the acceptance speech for her mother.
Since Sojourner House was founded in 1976, it has evolved into an intergenerational success story of champions. The SoJo MoJoe breakfast raised more than $47,000 in contributions to support the work of Sojourner House.

PROVIDENCE – For more than 40 years Sojourner House has served approximately 60,000 victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Rhode Island. Sojourner House has remained true to their mission by promoting healthy relationships through culturally appropriate support, advocacy and education.

They’ve been enormously successful as a statewide community agency dedicated to breaking the silence around this epidemic and eradicating domestic abuse.

When I received an email from Sojourner House, telling me I had been selected to receive the community champion award at their May breakfast, I felt incredibly humbled and, of course, deeply honored.

While my professional career has consisted of advocacy for women and occasionally men who have been in abusive relationships and/or have been sexually assaulted, I hadn’t necessarily thought of myself as a community champion.

The nature and nurture of risk taking
Maybe because, in some ways, I think it is genetic.

I was raised by a single mother, who was way ahead of her times; she was perhaps one of the original social justice warriors. If she were alive, my mother would be 102. In addition to being active in the 1960s civil rights movement, she re-cycled before anyone did and was a fierce environmentalist.

My mother was widowed at 38 and had three young children. She had been extremely happy as a homemaker but was forced to return to work once my father died. Her job allowed her to take courses at Syracuse University where she eventually earned her Masters degree in Social Work.

I remember being intrigued with her graduate school thesis in the early 1960s, which was all about teenage mothers. As a naïve 13 year old I couldn’t believe girls my age had babies.

Reading her thesis had a lasting impression and ultimately led me to working with sexually active teens who didn’t want to be mothers but didn’t know how to access services to prevent it. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A teaching moment when myth, reality collided and courage prevailed.]

Throughout the 1960s my brothers and I accompanied our mom to weekly civil rights marches and demonstrations. This was our initiation to human rights, social justice and equity work. Before taking me shopping for a dress for the junior prom, we had to stop by Woolworths to join the protesters, who were boycotting the store’s refusal to serve people of color at their lunch counter.

A family of community champions
I was also fortunate to marry someone who came from a family of community champions, in their case, champions of the arts. The gene was passed along to our children who as adults have worked hard to start and/or support initiatives or interventions of a particular group or of the community as a whole.

As parents, Peter and I talked frequently to our kids about risk taking. Although some risk taking has severe negative consequences, we taught them that not all risks are bad.

Community champions are risk takers. Some start movements or organize people or fight city hall on their own. Whatever they do, they think of the community before themselves: they’re committed to making things better for everyone.

Like many domestic violence community champions, my career, as well as the work I’ve done in Haiti, has been full of the now infamous Sen. Mitch McConnell admonishment.

We fervently believe in the work we do to make women feel safe and we want to support anyone who’s being abused to come forward and break their silence. So yes, we’ve been warned, we’ve been given explanations yet we’ve persisted.

It is precisely the work of so many warriors in our community that will make the path different and so much better for my young granddaughters and grandsons.

Challenges, disappointments and victories
Community champions know that the work to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence has its challenges and disappointments. But there are also the victories.

If there is any silver lining to the #MeToo movement, it’s that this time, change might finally be coming to corporate America, Hollywood, the media, professional sports, youth sports, universities, churches and synagogues, our State House, restaurants, the hotel industry, newspapers, the White House, law enforcement, the political arena, and the arts and literature world. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Truth and consequences: Striking a resonant chord.”

This community champion would love to see women hired to fill each position of every man who is forced to resign.

A wise man and one of my heroes, Dr. Willie Parker, said recently that politically engaged women of a “certain age” confirmed two of his observations: First, that women who fight for justice don’t grow old, they grow fierce; and second, once you awaken to justice work, you never retire. Ditto for community champions.


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