Fighting the Many Faces of Violence

By Bernice Yeung Dec 15, 2000

Three women’s groups build innovative approaches to anti-violence work.

When Angela Davis took the podium to deliver the keynote address at the Color of Violence conference in April, she called the event a "milestone" that would mark a "new moment in the history of anti-violence scholarship and organizing."

It was indeed one of the few times that women of color were both placed at the center of discussion about violence and asked to discuss the subject politically. As Davis put it, the conference made a fresh call for people to "radically subvert the institutions" that make violence against women of color a daily occurrence. (Davis’ speech is in the Fall 2000 issue of ColorLines.) It asked participants to clearly make the connections between oppressions.

Conference organizer Andrea Smith said she was motivated to put together the event because she, like many activists she knew, was frustrated by the movement’s tendency to avoid politics and marginalize women of color. In the 1980s, as the U.S. government took on a larger role in addressing issues like domestic violence and rape, anti-violence organizations turned away from political organizing and focused on providing services. And, though women of color have contributed to the anti-violence movement since its inception, those at the conference roundly criticized the white mainstream anti-violence movement for ignoring them.

Another negative development in the anti-violence movement has been the narrowing of the definition of violence against women to include only the most obvious: domestic or sexual violence. Many women of color argue that violence against women must also be understood as part of labor exploitation, government land-grabs, attacks on immigrants, militarism, and racist violence.

As a result, many anti-violence organizations for women of color have tried to link the fights against sexism, racism, classism, and imperialism. They argue that violence against women must be fought on all fronts, and understanding the connections between oppressions is key to mobilizing effectively against violence.

Korean Women in Need in Chicago

Ten years ago there were no domestic violence organizations in Chicago that catered to the needs of Asian American women, let alone Korean American women. With nowhere else to go, women who faced violence in their lives often turned to Helen Um, a Koreatown community leader.

Once, a woman came running to Um in the middle of the night. Her husband followed, wielding a knife in one hand and a broken bottle in the other. As she had again and again, Um interceded. Finally in 1990, she and six other Korean American female activists founded Korean American Women in Need (KAN-WIN).

With little funding, the organization set out to serve as a liaison between battered Korean women and services. It set up a domestic violence hotline, began placing survivors in shelters, and finding culturally sensitive counselors. The leaders of the organization began taking training courses on domestic violence–ones taught in English and created for mainstream America. Then, KAN-WIN adapted all the pamphlets and lesson plans to its needs and translated the materials into Korean. "We were able to train other Koreans in Korean, and it evolved from training ourselves to community building," said Inhe Choi, a founding board member.

And because race and culture play a key role in the lives of their clients, the organization goes beyond the role of service provider. "Domestic violence occurs because of social power structures where the roles of men and women are predefined, and domestic violence is how that power is played out," Choi explained. "But it’s not just gender. Power is everywhere. Look at race and class and sexual orientation. We’re really trying to approach this issue much more broadly, crossing other issues of oppression."

Choi continued, "My personal concern is that domestic violence stems from power injustice in society. Society is creating this issue, but the quick remedy, and the remedy that is most used, is the police and the courts. But in some ways, the state itself is an oppressor, so how much are we really revolutionizing? The system is convoluted: on one hand, we’re trying to change it, on the other hand, we’re working with it."

Though the organization now receives federal funding, Choi said KAN-WIN is dedicated to "maintaining our political edge through community organizing and education." It negotiates the tension between its politics and government funding by dividing the responsibilities of its paid staff members and volunteer board members. "Staff members, because they’re government-funded, have specific goals geared toward direct services," Choi explained. "So the volunteer board takes on the community work. The board takes on the work outside of direct services."

This strategy has led the organization to participate in immigrant rights demonstrations and labor rights rallies. KAN-WIN also organizes community events, such as sponsoring Korean "comfort women" to travel to Chicago as part of a film festival showcasing a documentary on the subject. And the organization does extensive community education. Members go to Korean American churches, local schools, and community groups on a regular basis, broaching taboo subjects like dating violence and same-sex violence. "Because it’s represented in mainstream media and they don’t see an Asian face, [Koreans] don’t think it happens to us," Choi said. "Our goal is to make sexual violence a community issue."

KAN-WIN also puts its 40 volunteers through a rigorous 40-hour training session infused with politics and an analysis of oppression. Sometimes, the material is met with resistance. "Some people don’t feel comfortable because of the political aspect," Choi said. "It’s a struggling point. How do you talk to a volunteer who is an immigrant woman who is retired and has good intentions, but may not be political at all? How do you talk about race and class, which makes them feel uncomfortable? Sometimes, people tell us that they didn’t come to get lectured on."

According to Choi, KAN-WIN often brings up oppression by talking about class–something that immigrants can readily identify with–then drawing the parallels between racism and sexism. The organization asks the volunteers-in-training to analyze the expectations placed upon them as Korean women–bearing sons, serving men–in hopes that it "wakes them up a little."

"To end violence, we do things to change power structures and change how people think about women," Choi said.

Arkansas Women’s Project

Since its creation in 1980 the Arkansas Women’s Project, one of the first organizations in Arkansas to tackle domestic violence issues, has always sought to help populations that get the least attention, including women of color, prisoners, and youth. And because the organization reaches out to the marginalized, it learned early on that oppressed groups were all suffering in similar ways.

"Since the beginning, we have always connected racism, homophobia, classism, and sexism," said Executive Director Judy Matsuoka. "We’ve always said that oppression is similar and connected, and you cannot dismantle one without all of them. People see it as a ladder of `isms,’ and first they’ll tackle racism, and then move onto something else, when the reality is that many people live at the intersections of those oppressions."

Convincing others of this approach has taken some work. In 1989 the group began documenting hate crimes against women of color and calling it domestic violence. "A lot of violence against women comes from the social belief that women are inferior, and the need for them to be controlled through violence and discrimination. That’s just like what happens to people of color," Matsuoka said. "We saw those connections and we monitored violence against women, and initially we drew a lot of flack from other domestic violence groups. They said we were diluting the message."

But Matsuoka said the organization’s philosophy has since gained wider acceptance. Because activists have pushed the linkages between oppression and violence, federal hate crime legislation has been broadened to consider disability, sexual orientation, and gender–not just race.

"Groups are now saying, `Of course hate crimes can be gender-based,’" Matsuoka said. "That’s something we feel we were at the ground level of helping people understand–to see violence against women as something other than what’s happening between two intimate partners."

True to its dedication to working in "untapped areas," the Arkansas Women’s Project has now turned its attention to educating prisoners in state penitentiaries. Through a support group that educates women in a political context about domestic violence, women inmates are given the space to talk about their experiences. Without fail, violence–whether it was child abuse, domestic violence, or the battery of poverty and racism–is a major component of these women’s lives.

"It’s a chance to recognize the issue of violence in [women prisoners’] lives, that it’s not unique," Matsuoka said. "And to recognize ways that they have been controlled. Domestic violence is a power and control issue, and there are the same aspects of power and control in racism and economic injustice."

A Women’s Project trainer once heard a prison guard make the offhand observation that battered women make the easiest adjustment to prison. "Well, what does that say, when women with a history of domestic violence make easy adjustment to incarceration?" Matsuoka demanded. "Because all that restriction is not that dissimilar to what they were experiencing from the life outside."

At the request of the female inmates, the organization is also working with male inmates, who, according to Matsuoka, are known to say when they are released, "The first thing I want is a beer and a woman." Women’s Project trainer Felicia Davidson goes to prisons to remind the male inmates that they too have survived the violence of racism and economic injustice. By asking the male inmates to question power structures both in and out of prison, the mostly African American inmates can connect their own oppression with the sexism that women face.

A domestic violence survivor herself, Davidson talks to the male inmates about healthy relationships and asks them why they feel they have the right to control women. "It boils down to people saying that [sexism] is all they’ve ever known," Matsuoka said. "It’s poignant from both sides. Men didn’t realize what they were doing; they had always seen men treat women in their family that way. They never thought about it, yet through their prison experience, they are being controlled and yelled at. We ask them, `How does that make you feel? What gives the correctional system the right to do things the way they do them? Let’s look at the treatment of women, how they’re harassed and abused and constricted too.’"

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio

Since 1987, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, TX, has followed the Latin American model of using art as resistance and a way to fight for social justice.

Esperanza proudly considers itself a feminist organization–and one that operates without hierarchy. But the way it chooses to fight violence against women is a truly holistic one. "It’s hard to pinpoint one specific project that deals only with violence against women," explained Marissa Ram’rez, who has been with the organization for almost two years. "A lot of projects deal with a wide range of issues, including violence, immigration, and all those things that affect violence: racism, sexism, and homophobia."

Through art exhibits, guerilla theater, marches, rallies, newsletters, and seminars, the center aims to show the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression. They have protested U.S. military action in Central America and in the Middle East, celebrated International Women’s Day, organized counter-protests to the Ku Klux Klan, and exposed gay bashing.

The center also hosts a festival showcasing women artists and sponsors women artists who live in low-income housing through a program called MujerArtes. As the women work with clay during a typical MujerArtes session, they talk about issues as far-ranging as cultural imperialism, Mexican history, racism, and sexism.

If the center is a model of inclusive organizing, it is also a case study of the tension between radical politics and the government. Indeed, the center’s unabashed leftist leanings and untiring quest for social justice has raised hackles in conservative San Antonio. In 1993 Esperanza was evicted from its building the day after the opening of its annual gay and lesbian art show. In 1997 the City of San Antonio completely de-funded Esperanza because it did not approve of its progressive politics, even though it had supported the center for many years. Despite the recommendation of the San Antonio Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the city council voted not to fund Esperanza–the only arts program in San Antonio not to receive city money that year.

The center cannot re-apply for city funding until 2001, and several programs, such as a gay and lesbian film festival and a program that brings international politically charged artists to Texas, have been cut as a result. The center believes that city council members bowed to the political pressure of right-wing religious groups, including the Christian Pro-Life Foundation, which mailed out "Family Alert" fliers urging supporters to call council members and speak out against funding Esperanza. Perhaps most disturbing, a reactionary group of gay white men is said to have encouraged the Christian Pro-Life Foundation to speak out against Esperanza.

The center, however, refused to accept the city council’s actions. In 1998, Esperanza filed suit against the City of San Antonio, alleging that de-funding Esperanza was an example of "viewpoint discrimination," and thus, a violation of the organization’s free speech. The center has also rallied the community to support its legal efforts against the city, forming a group called Todos Somos Esperanza (We Are All Hope). Esperanza educates the community about its legal fight through street theater, passing out literature and stickers, and going from home to home to talk about the center’s message and why Esperanza is suing the city. Because of tenacious outreach, the center has received an avalanche of local and national press coverage. Media outlets once wary of picking up the story are now running front-page articles on the lawsuit.

"Even if we don’t win the lawsuit, we still win, because we have educated a lot of people about free speech, said staff member Barbara Renaud Gonzales.

After a week-long trial, the center is now awaiting a decision from the judge. In the meantime, Esperanza continues its fight for social justice. "Not only are we working on the trial, but our other work must go on," Renaud Gonzales said. "The trial just adds to the struggle."

Bernice Yeung is a staff writer for the San Francisco Weekly.