In October, I was contacted by Stephanie Coggin from Safe Horizon—a New York City-based victim services agency offering shelter, counseling, and legal assistance through 57 program locations–about profiling two emergency hotline team members chosen as heroes for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. These two heroes, Nancy Dorsinsville and Ruth Schulder, have over 50 years of experience collectively in public health and welfare, and are deeply impacted by the survivors (and their stories) they speak with and counsel on a daily basis.
So I jumped on the chance to interview these two women for my website*. Through email, I asked Dorsinsville and Schulder the same set of questions about their role with Safe Horizon’s emergency hotline, and what drew them to this work. In this post, you’ll meet Dorsinsville, a native Haitian, anthropologist and Kellogg Institute for International Studies Scholar who formerly served as personal advisor to Hillary Clinton. As a Safe Horizon volunteer emergency hotline staff member, Dorsinsville works the overnight and weekend shifts, taking a “soft-spoken, warm” approach to victims needing immediate support (in addition to English, she provides services in French, Haitian Creole, and Spanish), while being looked to by other staff as a team leader and role model. Below you’ll find an unedited transcript of my questions and Dorsinsville’s answers, which were facilitated through a media relations rep with Safe Horizon.
(*The interview questions were original sent mid-October, but due to schedules and other factors, Dorsinsville and Schulder were unable to respond until mid-November)
Annamarya Scaccia: How did you become involved in Safe Horizon?
Nancy Dorsinsville: I came on board when the Runaway Hotline was being created. In addition to the emphasis on crime victims and domestic violence survivors, a decision was made to have a line dedicated to runaway youth. The goal was to provide support, information and advocacy on behalf of youth who were contemplating running away or had already runaway. The target was not only youth from NYC, but also youth who had runway to NYC from other states.
Why did you want to become an emergency hotline team member?
When I learned about the new runaway hotline, I called to get more detailed info about the scope of services and the approach that would be used with callers; I participated, as an auditor, in the training that was developed for those who would be answering calls. Pretty much at the beginning of the training, it was mutually decided by the program director and me that I would participate fully and not just as an observer. After the training, I began to answer calls. As a new hotline, the volume of runaway calls was rather modest and so I was trained on crime victims and domestic violence in order to help with those calls, as well. It’s one phone with dedicated numbers for each topic. I was always interested in service delivery from a human rights framework and this was a concrete way of making options available for women and youth, who often are marginalized or members of vulnerable populations. Many of the people who worked on the hotline at the time came from a social work, as well as social justice-based activism background, so I was very drawn not only to their ethics but also their political stance. It’s interesting that we were called counselors then and are now are called advocates. I find the world less politicized now but the drive to serve remains strong and a core issue for the team.
What is your social justice background?
As an immigrant, I have always been interested in the plight of the “other”. Coming from a country with a turbulent political history I grew up with a keen awareness of systems and institutions as potential change agents or as tools of repression. As a Roman Catholic, I grew up inspired by Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero, among others. Theology of the Poor otherwise known as Liberation Theology was a strong philosophical framework in my development. The advent of AIDS in my part of the world and the early tensions between public health and human rights also influenced by trajectory as a public health practitioner. My training in medical anthropology gave me the tools to bring together my search for a better understanding of illness and disease within a cultural context. Social violence is a prevailing theme in public health. Gender-based violence is a transversal issue that brings to the fore the individual and societal prism through which DV is handled at a community level while also informs policies.
Tell me about a call that has changed or had an impact on your life or way you view the world.
The hardest placements are for single women. There are very few spaces for single women. Families with children get priority for space. Those of us who answer calls often feel helpless about not having recourse to single spaces where we can direct callers. This particular single woman had been calling for several days and I felt bad that we had not been able to find a space for her. As usual, we did safety planning and went over the limited options, as we continued to look for space. The woman was crying, her sobs expressing her distress very clearly, even through the phone. I validated her feelings but mostly listened. After a while, she said thank you for listening, thank you for being there. She said even if there is no room now, at least when I call I know someone will listen to me. Resources are limited and often we want to say all kinds of things to explain this to callers. During training, we are told to adopt the 70:30 ratio of listening VS talking. I always remember that caller and draw comfort from the fact that even when resources are limited we can help by being present and fully listening. On a broader scale the impact of how I see the world is that we can each be a balm for the others’ suffering by being present. The hotlines were not always 24 hrs. That program shift makes a difference because the impact of DV can be continuous. Lending a sympathetic ear to a survivor is not a panacea but it can help set the tone for redress.
How has domestic violence impacted your personal life?
Perhaps because of doing this work, people tend to confide their DV related issues. This has allowed me to see firsthand, how prevalent DV is. The literature makes it explicitly clear that this is a cross cutting issue with no class, ethnic or other demographic boundaries but there are still some myths and stigma about who, where and how abuse might manifest itself. In my personal life, being aware of the pervasiveness of DV and the complex dynamics between parties involved has made me more aware and sensible to the issues.
In your view, what’s the most prominent way domestic violence advocacy has changed over the years?
Awareness has made a big difference in opening the door to DV as a recognized societal issue, not only as a crime but something that is endemic. Not too long ago, DV was a secret, something that caused shame and one that was not openly discussed. That is changing significantly. Many of the legislative changes have also helped to provide avenues for redress. Labor laws recognizing and making allowances for DV related absenteeism for example, are an important step forward. Zero tolerance adopted by many corporations/institutions has made a huge difference. Immigration Laws that take DV into consideration for asylum petitioners or regular residency request are another important stride in advances made by advocates. The introduction of DVPP (domestic violence prevention programs) units in the police force or the complementary psycho-social and legal model of the Family Justice Centers has improved access to help for survivors. Although still limited, the slowly increasing number of shelter spaces available and the proliferation of hotlines, including culturally specific hotlines (Arab, Asian, Muslim, Russian, Jewish) have brought help to divers communities making access more available and navigable.
Tell me about one survivor who has really touched your life.
Each DV survivor touches me. For the most part, it is a long and circuitous journey. The “offender” is also a “loved one” and that makes for a big challenge in staying or leaving. The call that I go back to was a 9/11 call. The caller had lost her best friend who was a colleague of her now husband, whom the friend had introduced her to. They both died in the tower. The new couple had moved in their first apartment located next to a fire station. They had befriended the guys from the ladder company and the new wife would sometimes bake cakes for them. Many of the firemen from that ladder company perished during 9/11 rescue. The caller told me the story in detail: her love, friendships, her pain, her move to NY and then, said “all I want to do is scream”! I said it was ok to do that and she screamed the most deafening scream on the phone for what may have been 5-10 minutes but seemed like an eternity… The scream came from deep within her and brought up what sounded like all the pain in her universe…