Peace Bound: Two Students’ Quest for Non-Violence

sarahAlthough women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence, it’s everyone’s problem. Domestic violence occurs across all races, genders and socioeconomic levels, and within all communities. And yet there is a shocking amount of silence surrounding the issue.  Not only is domestic violence celebrated in popular culture, but often it’s the victims are blamed for the violence inflicted upon them.

This summer, two undergraduate students at Vassar College, Emma Redden and Jeffrey From, took action to raise awareness about the issue. With a $10,000 grant from the Davis Foundation’s Projects for Peace, Redden and From set off on a 10,000 mile road-trip across the U.S. Their goal was to visit various domestic violence service centers and interview staff members and counselors, as well as members of the public. They wanted to empower those abused rather than portraying them as victims who are weak and need saving.

Redden is a photographer, painter, and poet who has volunteered as a counselor and court advocate for victims at Domestic Violence Services of Dutchess County, N.Y.; Jeffrey is a multi-media artist dedicated to the cause. On their trip, they interviewed and photographed more than a hundred Americans, keeping a blog that they plan to compile into a book, Peace Bound: Portraits for Non Violence. The Ms. Blog caught up with these student activists in the midst of their journey.

Ms. Blog: What is your route, and how did you choose it?

Emma Redden and Jeffrey From: Our route was Vermont, Virginia, Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boise, Sioux Falls, Chicago and Massachusetts. We chose these places because we felt that it would expose us to diverse parts of the United States and a diverse population. This diversity is an important aspect of book because it demonstrates support and solidarity among a broad group of people.

What particularly interested in you in the cause of stopping domestic violence?

From: Violence prevention is something that has always been present in my family, be it from my aunt’s work in preventing child abuse, my grandparents’ roles as ministers at the United Church of Christ or my mother’s work with young children at a local public school.

Redden: I began working at Domestic Violence Services of Dutchess County because I was very interested in feminist issues as well as working in a field that challenges violence.

Emma, how did working at Domestic Violence Services enhance or change your perspective of domestic violence?

Redden: It introduced me to a community that I didn’t fully realize I was apart of. The experiences and training have given me a language to talk about and recognize violence and abuse that exists around me that I had never understood or recognized before.  I now realize that violence is in our homes, most often against women, and that it affects me profoundly as a woman, a member of my community, a citizen of this country, and a human living on this Earth. Additionally, it has given me profound admiration and respect for a people who society often greets with judgment and blame.

Jeffrey, do you think being a man changes your perspective with regards to domestic violence?

From: I think it does and it doesn’t. Anyone who engages with this cause can see the severity of the issue, regardless of gender, race, creed, etc. Yet being a man in this field absolutely shapes my understanding of my role in challenging and preventing domestic violence. The huge majority of people working against it are women, despite the fact that domestic violence ultimately stems from our construction of masculine identities and patriarchal understandings of how we treat the people in our lives—namely women. This being the case, I feel a responsibility to try to reconstruct my masculinity and demonstrate how I can still be a “man” while embodying the compassion and awareness that is so important in preventing this form of violence. This is not to say that I want to tell people who they should be or how they should act, but my gender makes me identify with the perpetrators of these crimes and thus see the importance of differentiating myself from the “masculinity” that facilitates violence.

Do you think being a man influenced the way people responded to you and your project?

From: I don’t think my gender affects people’s reception to or interest in our project, yet I do think a male presence is unfamiliar in these efforts and environments. These [domestic violence] centers are matriarchal settings in which men are often the perpetrators of these crimes, so seeing a man in my position seems almost surprising.

Many people think of domestic violence as strictly a “women’s issue.” 

Redden: Treating domestic violence as a women’s issue turns the attention away from men. While the majority of victims are women, this is an issue about men. Abuse is not only harmful and corrosive to women but to their children, loved ones and their entire community.

Is there a significance to that fact that your project is lead by a woman and a man? How do the two perspectives work together?

Redden and From: It wasn’t a conscious decision to have a woman and a man lead the project. While our own genders do diversify our outlook, we both see it as the gendered issue it is.

What do you think is the most common misconception about domestic violence?

From: This is actually a question that we pose to all of the advocates we interview, and the most common responses we get are, “That it is only physical” or that “ It is specific to one group of people.” More generally, a huge misconception is that it is a “private issue,” which outsiders are not entitled to engage with or try to prevent.

Were there any photographs or responses you chose not to include in your project?

Redden:  Some people’s statements reflected attitudes about victims being powerless or voiceless—which they are not. Additionally, we didn’t include any statements that suggested that victims needed to be “saved.” Statements that in any way undermined a survivor’s strength and capabilities, we left out.

If someone can take away one thing from your photographs what would it be?

Redden: No one is alone. Victims aren’t alone because, unfortunately, despite devastating feelings of isolation, violence is something suffered by an enormous number of people. [But also] there are people around the country who care deeply and passionately about this issue and are very committed to reconstructing our society into a place where violence is not tolerated.

What are some powerful memories or experiences that have stuck with you from the trip?

Redden and From: The first day on the road we stopped at a flea market by the side of the highway. We were still in the very early stages of our project and eager to talk to everyone we could. (We later changed strategies and only approached strangers when it was clear we were asking large groups of people instead of just one.) The first two women we approached immediately told us they were survivors of abuse. That experience was very profound for us because we knew the statistics, but walking up to two strangers and discovering that they both had survived abuse really cemented for us how prevalent this issue is.

The first time canvassing in Austin was another momentous day for us. Taking a leap of faith and then being greeted with a warmth that we didn’t necessarily expect from strangers on the street was inspiring and encouraging. That engagement and interest in this issue was something that rang true in all of the places we visited. It was uplifting to see that no matter what divides exist in our country, there are people who care in all corners and pockets of the nation.

In what ways is challenging Domestic Violence a feminist issue?

Redden: Challenging domestic violence means challenging men’s positions in society, the standards in which we hold men accountable and the way men and society value women—all of which are at the heart of the feminist movement.

Domestic Violence is a global issue and yet your project was a distinctly “American” journey. Have you considered ways in which this issue could be better understood globally?

Redden and From: Our journey was distinctly American due to travel limitations, but the sentiment and intentions are relevant globally. The responses people gave us were not limited to certain places or groups of people. Statements of solidarity such as “because we are human” address this issue as an issue that extends beyond our country’s borders.

And finally, I will ask you each to answer the question you asked others: “Why is it important to support victims of domestic violence”?

From: Even if we are never able to fully understand, we can always help, love and support.

Redden: Violence against women is violence against me.

 Photo taken from Peace Bound blog