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BRATTLEBORO — The Women’s Freedom Center is hosting a month-long dialogue focused on reimagining and shaping a world where everyone is valued and everyone is safe to thrive.

“We’re really excited to host this conversation after the year we’ve been through,” said Shari, community outreach advocate for the WFC. For their safety, advocates at the WFC only use first names. “This feels like a time to have some of these conversations with each other. What will it take to create a culture where violence is no longer tolerated? How do we get there from here.”

The online forum, Inspiring Change for 2021, is being hosted in collaboration with Brooks Memorial Library and will be held on four Thursdays from 7 to 8 p.m., starting on Feb. 11. It is free and open to all.

“We’ll outline the scope of our anti-domestic and sexual violence work in a broader social context, and invite your questions and best thinking throughout the series,” states a news release announcing the four-part series. “Highlighting how different oppressions function in tandem, we’ll discuss various systems of power and their impact, not just on survivors of domestic and sexual violence, but on our whole community. The main focus will be on honing skills for the everyday social justice work facing us all.”

The topics include aiming for economic and legal justice, media literacy across the lifespan, bystander empowerment to address all forms of oppression, and domestic and sexual violence.

For more information on how to register, call the WFC at 802-257-7364, email advocates@womensfreedomcenter.net, or contact Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or info@brookslibraryvt.org.

“We really want to tap into the energy and solidarity that helped us all get through this challenging year,” said Shari.

The Women’s Freedom Center is the local domestic and sexual violence organization serving both Windham and Southern Windsor counties in Vermont.

The WFC bills itself as “a feminist organization working toward ending men’s violence against women while offering support and advocacy to all survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as well as prevention and educational activities to help create a community in which violence is not tolerated.”

“For the most part, people would like to know what they can do,” said Shari. “We welcome these conversations.”

The WFC has a hotline not just for people being hurt by domestic and sexual violence but also for people who see or suspect their neighbors are being subjected to intimate partner violence.

“We want to be there for survivors and also for those alert bystanders who want to take some action,” said Shari.

The four-part series is an opportunity to learn how people can safely advocate for their families and friends, but it’s also about how the culture minimizes violence against women.

“Part of the lens of the discussion will be about how we can be more informed to know exactly what survivors are up against,” said Shari.

ABUSE DURING PANDEMIC

Shari said this conversation is especially timely because there has been an uptick in reports of sexual and domestic violence over the past 10 months following the emergency declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Long before COVID, home could be the most dangerous place, particularly for women experiencing domestic violence,” she said. “Now imagine being shut in with your abuser. It’s much harder for a survivor to reach out for help, to make a safe and private call to our 24/7 hotline.”

To reach an advocate in Windham County, that number is 802-254-6954; in Southern Windsor County, that number is 802-885-2050.

“We’ll take a look at some of the ways alert bystanders can have an impact,” said Shari, who noted that in the first month of the COVID lockdown, calls to the hotline dropped by 50 percent.

“That’s not because it wasn’t happening,” she said. “It was because people didn’t have a safe way to call for help.”

Since then, the WFC’s daily call volume has increased as people find ways to safely contact an advocate, by themselves or with the help of caring people around them, said Shari.

“All of our crisis services are completely intact, even if we handle them a little different because of COVID,” she said. “We can still shelter survivors, we can still help survivors who need to flee the area, and we can help to get emergency protection orders. We can also meet with survivors virtually if they have safe technology.”

“The lockdown is not creating abusers,” said Shari. “What’s happening is people who are already abusive may escalate with all these conditions. It’s a chosen behavior that can escalate and can exacerbate circumstances when there is more stress in the household.”

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WHY NOT JUST LEAVE?

This includes economic stress, which can make it harder for a survivor to see how they can escape an abusive situation and put their lives back together.

”There are a lot of valid reasons a survivor doesn’t just leave,” said Shari. “Economic stress is just one of them.”

Other reasons include fear of their partner’s reactions and a concern they don’t have the ability to be independent. Many survivors have grown up in an environment where abuse was common and they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. As a result, they may not recognize that their partner’s behaviors are unhealthy or abusive.

Some survivors don’t leave because of shame, because they feel they must have done something wrong to deserve the abuse or that they are weak for accepting it. Others are intimidated into silence or staying in a relationship by an abusive partner who threatens them with the release of intimate knowledge.

Low self-esteem after years of abuse can also contribute to a person’s inability to leave an abusive situation, and others may be financially dependent on their abusive partner or have previously been denied opportunities to work, a place to sleep on their own, language assistance, or a network to turn to during moments of crisis. Other factors that affect a survivor’s ability to leave include disability, immigration status and the cultural context of their relationship.

And then, there are those with children, and many survivors feel may feel guilty or responsible for disrupting their family unit. In fact, that may be used as a tactic by their partner to guilt a survivor into staying.

And, of course, there is love. Experiencing abuse and feeling genuine care for a partner who is causing harm are not mutually exclusive, Shari explained.

She said the Women’s Freedom Center can help survivors work through these emotions and can also give the tools to family and friends concerned about the safety of loved ones.

CULTURE & MEDIA

She said it’s also important for people to understand how our culture uses media to minimize violence and sexism.

“These are such defining forces in our culture,” said Shari. “It’s not just movies, television or the news. Across the board we are steeped every day in a media landscape that has a potent impact on all of us.”

During the media literacy portion of the four-night series, participants will examine how the media landscape contributes to how power and control is wielded in the broader culture and how it is reflected back on an individual basis or upon a community, she said.

Participants will talk about gaslighting, where abusers attempt to deny or distort reality, or blame the victim for the abuse, or even make themselves out to be the victims, said Shari.

“What is the impact when someone can make up their own facts?” she asked. “You can’t even have a reasonable back-and-forth discussion when there is no common truth.”

Learning to extract truth from the noise of the media landscape, said Shari, is “a 21st-century survival tool.”

The Women’s Freedom Center is also hosting “Good Match or Mismatch?” an online health relationship workshop.

“Whether you’re single, dating, or whatever your status, join us for some lively conversation on intimate partnerships,” states a notice announcing the discussion. “We’ll take a look at the full range, from healthy to unhealthy to abusive, plus compare communication styles, share ideas, and enhance skills for creating positive romantic connections. We’ll also address red flags and share area resources.”

This virtual workshop spans two 75-minute sessions in the same week, on Feb. 15 and 17 from 6 to 7:15 p.m., and on Feb. 22 and 24, from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m.

Since space is limited for each workshop, registration is required. All genders are welcome.

The Women’s Freedom Center will also be hosting Care Collective, a healthy relationships social group for youth of all genders. This will include zine-making, Netflix watch parties, craft nights and more, and is open to ages 15 through 18.

For more information, call or email the WFC.

The WFC is also offering a new live chat option that is available through its website, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and its two virtual survivor spaces, free and confidential drop-in groups for people experiencing domestic violence, happen every Friday. For more information or to get the link, call the WFC.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.