Emma Redden and Jeffrey From are two artistic juniors at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY who have just recently concluded a six-week, 10,000 mile road trip across the United States, asking people one question: “Why is it important to support victims of domestic violence?” The two received the Davis Foundation’s “100 Projects for Peace” grant to implement their project, which involved collecting photographs and statements from members of the public as well as employees from a variety of domestic violence service centers. Their blog is an online collection of the portraits they’ve gathered along the way, which they plan to publish in a book along with excerpts from selected interviews. They hope that the book will become an artistic source of support, solidarity, and strength for individuals whose lives have been affected by domestic violence in any respect, and perhaps encourage others to recognize and end cycles of violence in their own lives.
As an issue that primarily affects women, domestic violence has had a place among the artworks of Woman Made Gallery (WMG) since its opening. One of its first exhibitions in 1995, “Home is Where the Hell Is,” included a gravestone in the form of a welcome mat, entitled Til Death Do Us Part. The piece, by artist Geri Connelly, is now in the gallery’s permanent collection.
WMG has exhibited various other shows with works entirely devoted to the trauma of domestic violence. In many of these pieces, the healing process of making art accompanies the artist’s own journey of survival. The 2003 show Women, Trauma & Visual Expression includes several of such pieces; one of which, Joy Bertinuson’s The Inevitability of the Future, depicts a deceptively safe and familiar domestic scene in which the most troubling incidents can take place. Another piece, You Have Shown Me Where My Strength Is… Thanks Grandpa by Beata Rafflewska Jacobs (part of the 2009 exhibition “The Emotional Body”) , explores the emotional aftereffects when violence permeates through generations of a family. These pieces and others, along with Emma and Jeff’s peace project, recognize domestic violence as one poignant aspect of the female experience.
Emma and Jeff stayed with me in June 2013 while they were passing through Chicago, where I interviewed them about their amazing project.
Jeff From: I think for me, because I didn’t have the formal experience with domestic violence (DV) in terms of working at a center like Emma did, I didn’t know how truly pervasive violence is. I know the statistics and I’ve heard the numbers, but it’s been incredibly illuminating to see how many people are affected by this. We’ve talked to so many people who’ve have an obvious physical or emotional reaction to our question. The advocates whom we’ve talked to at service centers have constantly reminded us of how many different forms it can take, and that it’s not just physical. And in that way, this project really opened my eyes to the ways in which a lot of people, even if it’s not domestic or intimate, can be abusive emotionally or through manipulation. And that has gotten me to reflect on what it means to be abusive, and maybe how it’s touched my life or can touch anyone’s life. Because, it really is, in a lot of ways, easy to do. It’s easy to abuse and manipulate and control. And recognizing manipulation as something that is so violent, in a way that isn’t only physical, has been a change in my perspective.
What has the most surprising aspect of your journey been? Have there been any points where you’ve had to re-think something, or gotten a strange response?
Emma Redden: I don’t know if this was surprising – it had more to do with our methodology. But there was one moment that really stands out to me. At the beginning of the trip, we weren’t in busy places where it would make sense to stand on the street and talk to everyone who walked by, so we decided we would just start by asking people we came in contact with—wherever that may be. And it was interesting – there was a moment when we were at a fireworks store in either Virginia or Tennessee, and there were a couple women working alone inside. So I walked in, explained the project and said, “Would you be interested in participating?” And their reaction made me feel very conscientious of, in terms of our methods, not making people feel singled out. Because for me, I thought I had been very clear that we weren’t trying to seek out victims, and I wasn’t identifying one of these women as a victim by trying to talk to her – she was just someone who possibly could have some insight about our topic. If she was a victim or not, it didn’t matter; she still might have opinions and feelings about why it’s important to support victims. But her reaction made me feel like I had hurt her, and that this was something that had touched her life closely, and I think hearing the words ‘victim’ and ‘domestic violence’ were painful enough that the rest of what I said were no longer relevant — regardless of my intention. So the ways we needed to approach the project really shifted for me – in casual, public settings, it had to be clear that we were approaching a hundred people and we weren’t singling people out to talk about this. Our intention for the project was to create and reinforce feelings of solidarity—so needless to say, if our process was in anyway making people feel alone—we were doing something wrong.
Jeff: But I think the flip side to that is, once we did start conducting the project in public settings in an open-canvas way on the street, I thought the amount of people who care was surprising. There are so many who are willing to stop, and even the people who don’t stop will tell us that what we’re doing is amazing. DV is perceived as such a taboo topic, and to see that a lot of people think it’s important has been really great. One of the statements that popped into my head when you asked that was just that we’re human. You interact with this subject in such a formal way, through people who are advocates or have a lot of experience in shelters. But to see people with the perspective that as humans we have a responsibility for one another, that was really surprising to me.
Jeff: On one of our days that took a lot of twists and turns, we went to a church and asked the minister to participate because we thought he’d be interested in peace. And through this series of connections, we ended up at this organization called Thistle Farms – and the story behind it is inspirational in itself. It is an organization run and staffed by women who have experienced drug addiction or were former prostitutes, and it was amazing that all of these women had turned their lives around. There was a café open, and a pretty industrial workshop employing women to make and sell natural beauty products. To see people come together and rise above their adversity, whatever it may have been, and beyond that, go so far, was hopeful.
Emma: Yeah, I think another one of the most powerful stories from our trip happened before we even left, in an interview with one of the women who works at a service center in New York. The amount of gratitude that she feels for the work she does, and her attitude towards the people that society so often views as helpless and weak, was so moving. Her ability to understand her job as a gift, and for her to understand the amount of strength, courage, and resilience it takes to survive abuse — not only in terms of living, but in terms of raising a family and having a job, and sustaining relationships with other people — was incredibly inspiring to me. I felt really grateful that we talked to her in the beginning because it really framed our project — not that I didn’t agree with her, but when I would go to work during the school year, I would come home and feel like the work was so hard. And I think for her to re-frame that work as a gift was helpful in terms of how I looked at this issue and this population of women going forward.
Jeff: She told this story about the support group that she runs, which is in a large building full of other support groups, and people will stop her and say, “Hey, you know, you all are really loud in there.” And she’ll say, “Yeah, because we’re laughing.” Just to hear that was so inspirational — not only the people who work there can recognize these women for how strong they are, but that the survivors themselves could lift each other out of past struggles and maintain such a positive outlook.
Emma: Yeah, we hope the word “victim” implies that the person is without fault, and that if someone’s a victim, some external force has acted upon that individual in a harmful way beyond their control. So I think in that sense, the idea behind using the word victim is important because it not only distinguishes between an abuser and the person being abused, but it also eliminates the idea that someone had a role in their own abuse — whereas it’s so important to recognize it’s NEVER that person’s fault. It doesn’t matter how someone behaves — being responded to in an abusive way is never the fault of the person who’s being hurt. But on the other end, I think the word victim has lot of connotations with weakness, and while I think that’s something we really want to challenge, the idea of being a “survivor” has more associations with strength. Because that’s exactly what people are doing — they are surviving. While they can be victims of something, they’re also very much — every day they move forward, every day they’re alive — surviving what is happening to them. So I don’t think one word is wrong, or one necessarily is better. I think the word victim is used more, and therefore more people may identify with it — and it’s important to use language that people can relate to. However, I think the empowering nature of the word ‘survivor’ is incredibly important, which is why we’ve tried to shift from using ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’. That was a really long answer.
Jeff: No, but that is exactly the answer.
Jeff: I think at the most basic level, our project is about raising awareness. Just by saying the words “domestic violence” on the street is really important because again, it’s usually an issue that’s contained within four walls. We want to bring it to the table in a public way. Once the book is published, it can be an empowering resource for people who might be feeling down. One of our biggest questions is, what are the misconceptions about DV? And those misconceptions apply to the public but also the victims themselves. We want to remind them that it isn’t their fault, that there’s help out there, and there are so many people who care. But our other goal is to just to spread the word to non-victims. Maybe a person didn’t want to be featured in the booklet, but they talked to their friend about how two students on the street were talking about DV. And maybe that conversation makes their friend think about domestic violence in their own life.
Emma: A pattern that we’ve found with victims is that there are a lot of feelings of isolation because domestic abuse is so rarely talked bout. DV isn’t something you hear in the news, or talked about in a coffee shop; it’s such a taboo subject. There often aren’t opportunities for camaraderie, and that’s why support groups are so important. Every time we told someone about our project or asked them to participate, we engaged with people about a subject that is rarely brought into public spaces. I also think the fact that someone can open up a book and see 150 different strangers who care about something, shows how big of an issue it is. This is a huge enough problem that we can travel all over the country and people everywhere can have strong opinions and feelings about it, so we want to create a universal sense of community surrounding the people who often feel so isolated and singular in their own experiences.
Jeff I think another layer to that is, because it’s such an incredibly heavy topic, service center advocates share those feelings of isolation as well. You feel like you’re challenging this thing that no one else is concerned with. So I think that gathering voices from around the country is another source of solidarity for advocates — that there’s support everywhere, in 25 other states, for everyone to keep doing what they’re doing.
Emma: We’ve heard literally the exact same story from so many people in this line of work, where they’ll go to a party and everyone will be talking about what they do for a living. And when they say, ‘ I work with victims of domestic violence, or at a women’s coalition,’ — and it’s amazing that they tell the exact same story — everyone backs up like they’re going to be infected. And that’s hurtful to people who have dedicated their lives to this. You feel like you’re doing good work and then you tell someone your job, and they so often respond in a hurtful manner. Creating support for people who support victims is really important too.
How do you plan to distribute the book?
Jeff: Right now the plan is to send 2-3 copies to all of the agencies that we visit on our trip, and then whomever we’ve talked to that might want a copy. But I think we’re also going to send more to other agencies, just to really get it out there. The most important thing is to get the book into as many hands as possible.
Emma: We’re hoping to print 100 to give away, and then see what the response is. We also want to buy an ISBN for it so it can be sold online, ideally, as a fundraiser. Maybe we can make a little money for the Domestic Violence Service Center in Poughkeepsie.
Jeff: Wow! Yeah I mean it’s funny because the trip has been an interesting balance of the seriousness of the work we’re doing, and the shenanigans that go on in between. Because I mean, when you’re spending 11 hours, in a car, with Emma Redden, it’s not going to be silent (laughs). I think the memories will be equally distributed among sleeping in parking lots, and you know, almost catching National Forest in Santa Fe on fire, and just talking to people. Because that was totally foreign — neither of us had ever just stood on the street and approached strangers all day.
Emma: (Laughs) Okay I won’t list off all of my favorite memories of Jeffrey, so I’ll talk about the project. I think our country can very quickly feel divided. I think I, and a lot of people, can (maybe unintentionally) create lines and borders between each other. I at least had a lot of preconceived ideas about different parts of the country, never having been to them. But it was really powerful to see all these different corners of this huge enormous place, which can often feel so segregated, and talk to these incredible people who have all been committed to doing really great things to help people. So I think I’m a renewed patriot. It’s easy for me to be critical of our country, and I do think it’s important to recognize its problems; but at the same time there are a lot of really amazing people who come from really different backgrounds, and are all doing the exact same thing, passionately, intelligently, and thoughtfully.
Jeff: Absolutely. We divide the country in so many different ways — the conservative South, the liberal North, whatever — but it was amazing to go everywhere, and find that people are nice. People smile at you, and people talk to you. Whatever people believe in, whether it’s religion or politics, you can get along with people and talk to them.
Jeff: Wow, that’s a big one. Answering the question in the moment is really hard, but really helpful in that you only have this one window; but we’ve been thinking about it for seven months, so there’s a lot of pressure. But I think I actually came up with mine while we were talking, and I think it’s: while we may never be able to understand a situation because everyone is so complicated, we can always love. That’s what it’s about. There’s always something you can do even if it’s on the most basic level of just loving someone unconditionally.
Emma: I’m taking the plunge here and making this a gendered issue about women, but my answer is: because violence against women is violence against me.
Wow, those are really powerful.
Emma: This is the first time we’ve actually said them out loud.
– Emma Gregoline
Read Emma and Jeff’s full grant proposal here.
Photos taken from Peace Bound Blog.