IDVAAC News Fall 2007, Volume 8, Number 2

"I want every one of you to see how you can do something. It matters to me that each of you come out of here with something specific that you [can] do. This is the time for us to make a change…We have to be a peaceful people." —Dr. Gail Wyatt

by Susan Bonne

Spring conference highlights:

Civil rights successes inform movement to end domestic violence



n the 1960s, the civil rights movement created a transformation in the experience of African Americans in this country, illuminating the dark reality of racism, enacting new laws and making substantive progress in changing attitudes, perspectives, and lives. Arising out of the women’s movement, the domestic violence movement’s goal is a similar transformation. Yet while progress has been made, it is a less dramatic picture of change. Violence, in all its many forms – societal as well as intimate partner violence – has actually increased over the past 30 years.

While significant progress has been made in both the civil rights movement and the field of domestic violence, many challenges lie ahead in both arenas. How can we meet these challenges? And how can the civil rights movement inform the domestic violence movement and vice versa? What are the major challenges we face in examining and addressing domestic violence? And who is responsible for creating change?

These are the questions that leaders in the field sought to answer in Long Beach last March at IDVAAC’s 2007 National Conference. Over 600 attendees were able to hear some of the best thinking on the topic from a broad spectrum of leaders in research, education, the faith community and those who work in the prison system and in the communities and the family, where violence lives. The discussion they brought forth and the issues they put on the table were extraordinary.

A call to action

Noted speaker, author and therapist Dr. Gail Wyatt opened the conference by issuing a call to action to the African-American community to embrace social challenges, including domestic violence, and to reexamine the work being done. Giving an impassioned talk, she discussed the roots of violence in our culture, violence in the media, dwindling social resources and intimate partner violence. She advised listeners to turn away from negative media messages, such as the persistent stereotype of angry, African-American mothers and screaming couples, and focus on positive, purposeful images.

Wyatt also urged attendees to be more public in their actions. “You have to get righteously indignaceous…you have to come at this with some grit,” she said, urging listeners to write letters, speak up in their churches and families and workplaces, and organize for change.

She closed her remarks by asking each person to think about what they can do. “I want every one of you to see how you can do something. It matters to me that each of you come out of here with something specific that you [can] do. This is the time for us to make a change…We have to be a peaceful people.”

Then and now: parallels for activism

In the morning panel discussion, Dr. Beth Richie, professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and IDVAAC Steering Committee member, moderated a roundtable on the history of activism during the civil rights era, and what parallels could be drawn for engaging and mobilizing communities today around domestic violence.

Among the topics for discussion was the early assumption in the domestic violence movement that all women were the same – white, heterosexual, middle-class, partnered – and would benefit from the same kinds of help. In truth, women of color reflect a wide variety of situations and complications. It was noted that the oppression routinely suffered by black women is typically not addressed within the violence against women movement as a whole, and that racial oppression needs to be identified as a particular kind of violence against women of color. Said Richie, “While the civil rights and anti-violence movements have been important to the liberation of people, it seems that black women and the violence they experience is minimized in both of those discussions.”

Questioning definitions

Panelist Phyllis Craig-Taylor, professor of law at North Carolina Central University, spoke of the wider context. “It’s all one thing…whether it’s civil rights, or domestic violence, it’s all about oppression.” Drawing on her own experiences as a child in Alabama where she entered a segregated school at age 7, Craig- Taylor advocates that racial attacks on children be seen as child abuse, another example of how we must broaden our definition of violence as a culture.

In analyzing why the movement against domestic violence has not followed the model of the civil rights movement, Craig-Taylor noted that racial issues were always a highly public issue, while domestic violence was, and is, seen as a private matter.

Time and place also played a role. Civil right leaders were stretched fighting for societal rights …there simply wasn’t enough time or energy left over for anything else. Charles “Chuck” McDew, cofounder of the ‘60s activist group, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, agreed that violence against women simply had not been on their agenda in the civil rights era. “We were busy trying to protect blacks as a people. It was never our issue,” he added. “But we were not insensitive. We just didn’t have the luxury to say we were black men and black women….we were just black people fighting against a common foe.”

Richie noted the fact that those in the domestic violence movement did not confront or communicate with other groups. “We didn’t go to civil rights organizations and say, ‘here’s another form of injustice affecting black women;’ we still don’t talk about it very well.”

Working across boundaries

Owing to the legacy of the civil rights movement, African Americans have been the ones to carry the idea of liberation, paving the way for others, including the women’s movement, the GLBT community, disabilities rights and the like. There was consensus among the panelists that this was important to acknowledge and that it was the responsibility of the African American community to continue to work across boundaries for social justice.

As the conversation returned to the present, Craig-Taylor observed that laws precede changing attitudes and opinions, and new laws are a necessary first step in forging major cultural transformation. She advocates building coalitions but expressed concern over the difficulties inherent in doing so. “Black women endure beatings because they know that black men will not get the same treatment as white men” in the criminal justice system, and that once in the system, it’s hard to get out. If the anti-violence movement is to be successful, it must work to address underlying issues such as these as well.

The erosion of progress

In the ’80s and ’90s, economic funding for resources to communities of color began to dissolve, and affirmative action came under attack. Funding for women’s shelters increased, but violence was also increasing as a result of the drain on resources. Looking back, it is as if society decided to treat only the symptoms, and not the underlying causes, of violence.

Problems also arose within the domestic violence movement around issues of race and power. Women of color were organizing to gain culturally specific programs. Many women in the movement feared divisiveness, seeing it as an attack on sisterhood. “That was an error…there was an incredible amount of backlash for women of color who organized,” recalled Catlin Fullwood, principal consultant at On Time Associates in Chicago.

While fear and racism within the movement created dissention, it became clear that one size fits all treatment simply wasn’t working. Domestic violence workers assist women with mental health issues, with substance abuse issues, with sex workers, with those in the criminal justice or child protection system.

Panelist Phyllis Craig-Taylor, professor of law at North Carolina Central University, spoke of the wider context. “It’s all one thing…whether it’s civil rights, or domestic violence, it’s all about oppression.” Drawing on her own experiences as a child in Alabama where she entered a segregated school at age 7, Craig- Taylor advocates that racial attacks on children be seen as child abuse, another example of how we must broaden our definition of violence as a culture.

Re-examining our efforts: what we don’t talk about

An afternoon panel discussion led by Dr. Esther Jenkins, professor of psychology at Chicago State University and IDVAAC Steering Committee member, sought to reexamine efforts to address domestic violence in the African-American community. What has been overlooked? Why is self-examination so difficult? What could we be doing differently?

One of the ideas put forth was the notion that as a culture, we don’t identify violence as a tool of oppression. In connecting issues of racism and sexism, for example, African-American women may internalize racism, and then integrate violence into their gender identification as well. Long histories of family violence further cloud the issues.

“Racism and sexism can be layered, and violence is a tool used in both,” said Shelia Hankins, project director for Michigan’s Department of Human Services. “We integrate violence into our gender id; we say it’s part of how we grew up instead of rejecting it.”

By not naming violence for what it is, we minimize it. “There was a lot of violence in my ghetto, but it wasn’t called that,” said author and domestic violence advocate Rev. Al Miles. “It was called fights, it was called, ‘she likes men who are mean to her,’ it was called ‘she must have done something to cause this.’” But at the most basic level, before violence can be named, it must be identified. Domestic violence and anger management counselor Jolene Jones noted that in her work with individuals, education comes first; because violence is so entrenched in many families, women don’t necessarily recognize the dysfunction they are living in. Recognition may bring help, but that process can create pain of a different kind. “For some, it’s devastating to find out what violence is,” added Jones.

Separating blame from responsibility

In addition to calling violence exactly what it is, said Joseph White, professor of psychology (UC-Irvine), we need to explore our societal inability to separate responsibility from blame. In White’s view, the African-American community can rightly lay blame at the feet of historical oppression and ongoing racism, but at some point, personal responsibility must also take a role.

“What are we as a people responsible for?” asked White. “If you beat your wife, is that the white man’s fault or your fault? At what point do you begin to accept responsibility for your own behavior?”

That’s a teachable idea, according to community activist Warren Edwards. A formerly violent man who now counsels men coming out of prison, Edwards pointed out that these men are released into a void, with little support and nothing to grasp onto. “It appalls me that they don’t get the information that they could turn it around before they come out. We can do a better job.”

Challenging definitions of manhood

One explanation for why so many African-American men fail to take responsibility, White offered, is the lack of a social structure to define manhood. In the past, tribal, religious and cultural rites helped boys make the transition from boyhood to manhood. Today, the lack of socially approved rites of passage has been replaced with negative role models, the gangstas and pimps glorified in the media.

Panelists agreed that institutions, churches and even families have not been proactive in challenging the definitions of manhood and womanhood. One of the most important ways we can work to change the pattern of violence is to reach out to boys who will be the men of tomorrow, said White. “We as men have to model an effective combination of tender and tough. Boys never see that; they see the extremes.”

On the flip side, women need to take responsibility for their own choices. The culture teaches women to respect tough men and media reinforce the message constantly. Consequently, many women are drawn to “bad boys,” said Jones. “There’s a price to be paid, and we need to be honest about that.”

The role of the church

It’s not just rap music and movies that give men the upper hand. Rev. Al Miles raised the issue of the church’s patriarchal teachings, naming God as a “father” who must be obeyed. Men identify with that, developing, consciously or unconsciously, the sense that maintaining control over their wives and children is a God-given right.

Both Miles and Rev. Mary Walton, a domestic violence counselor in Long Beach, agreed in saying that the church has not done enough to face this aspect of scripture and condemn intimate partner violence.

What can be done?

In trying to stop domestic violence, asks the panel, what are we trying to start? What are we prepared to replace [violence] with? What are the needs that must be filled? Human closeness, belonging, patience, trust, communication – these are skills we aren’t teaching our kids, said White. Other ideas included organizing for change, training young people to organize and working to shape policy.

Learning from the past and each other, we can start again to address these issues. But real change will require leadership from the bottom up, and as Wyatt pointed out in her keynote address, a willingness to get involved and push domestic violence out into the public sphere.

We all share the charge. “It’s about being in the community,” said Jones. “We have to step forward, be role models, tell the truth, stand up. My job is 24/7, if I’m awake.”

“If we don’t raise the issue [of domestic violence], then there’s not going to be a conversation about it, because it’s politically unacceptable for somebody else to raise these issues,” Hankins concluded. “We have to be willing to air our dirty laundry and to speak the truth to our communities. We can break the silence.”


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