Reflections on 2020 from Vera House Executive Director Randi Bregman
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close this year, I am acutely aware that in over 30 years at Vera House, I have never experienced a year like 2020.
Our staff and volunteers have been amazing, helping guide us through an incredibly challenging time. When the pandemic struck, we were immediately overwhelmed by raw fear. We knew that people trapped in their homes with their abusers would be terrified, likely to be further harmed with little recourse, and we weren’t sure how to reach them. We reached out to as many people as we could to try to offer support. We maintained all of our shelter services with the help of staff from all parts of the agency, as we had shelter staff sick and quarantined with COVID and lost staff who feared being exposed to the virus or exposing others. We kept our 24-hour support line operational and added a chat line to our website to maximize opportunities for people to reach us. We moved many of our services to remote interactions and continued in-person emergency services for people who had nowhere else to go.
As hard as our staff worked, we knew we weren’t reaching everyone who needed us. We were reminded at this time of a fundamental truth we had been wrestling with over the last couple of years, and that truth was how racism and other forms of oppression intersect with our work.
The people who struggled the most to connect with services were often people of color, economically disadvantaged and/or marginalized in other ways. A little over two years ago, we passed a strategic plan that called upon us to become better allies to those experiencing oppression. Our staff and Board read White Fragility and participated in small group discussions to deepen our understanding. Leaders of our Board, Foundation and staff participated in the Intercultural Development Inventory to assess where we are as individuals and a community in order to determine our next steps.
We came to understand very well the connection between racism and other forms of oppression and domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse. We have always understood abuse to include behaviors that hurt, humiliate, cause fear or force another to do something against their will. These are fundamental aspects of racism as well. Black and Brown people we serve and others on our staff and Board helped us to see how intimately connected the experience of racism and oppression was to the experience of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.
As we moved through the summer, with protests over racism occurring throughout, we recognized that we have to do more than we have ever done before if we want to truly serve those who need us but may not have found us accessible.
I first learned about institutional racism as a high school student more than 40 years ago. Unfortunately, not enough has changed since I learned the concept that we now call systemic racism, a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. Recognizing that systemic racism exists was essential for us to examine how we move forward. We have committed to identifying how systemic racism shows up at Vera House and doing what we must to change our systems to ensure our services are as welcoming and comprehensive as possible. This is not easy work, but we are committed to it.
The recent 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, led by United Way of CNY, had thousands of participants representing almost 100 organizations. On Day 19, we were challenged to consider that “white supremacy is a foundational piece of America’s narrative.” We were then asked, based on our knowledge of systemic racism and its impact, how we would reframe our own personal narrative. That is essentially what we are trying to do at Vera House: reframe our communal narrative to acknowledge systemic racism and to commit to dismantle it where we find it.
Some believe that acknowledging systemic racism in ourselves and our community means that we are somehow anti-police or abandoning past supporters. That is absolutely not our intent. Many people we serve are anxious for a criminal justice system response, and we will always continue to support them as they work with police and prosecutors to find justice. Local police and prosecutors in specially trained units have provided essential services to victims for more than 25 years. We also honor and will work with those who choose a pathway of healing and justice in other forms.
Although 2020 has been an incredibly challenging year, I must say how proud I am of the Vera House family. The services that have been maintained and enhanced during this pandemic are only possible due to our dedicated staff and volunteers. The critical anti-racism work ahead relies on our shared commitment to a vision for our services. Vera House is an organization I have been proud to serve for over 30 years, and I know that I will be even more proud in the years ahead as we do the work necessary to further our vision of a world free of violence and abuse.
Executive Director, Vera House, Inc.