How One Women’s Center Is Speaking Up About Domestic Violence

by Robyn Smith

Take a piece of paper and draw a circle. Now imagine that circle as your center for support. Who would you put in the middle? Your family? Your partner?

For many clients at the East Los Angeles Women’s Center, that circle is empty inside. They have no support—but they do have hope. And that’s why they’re getting help.

Since 1976, ELAWC has supported and empowered countless women—survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and HIV/AIDS—through its bilingual 24/7 helpline, counseling services, and community outreach programs. Last Friday, the center hosted a gala celebrating those 40 years, and it’s launching a new project this week: 40 Years/40 Stories, where survivors, volunteers, and workers from the past 40 years will share their stories.

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For the last nine of those 40 years, Barbara Kappos has served as ELAWC’s executive director. In that time, she’s worked with hundreds of women and taught them how to set boundaries and build their self-esteem. It’s her goal to break the silence that surrounds domestic violence and sexual assault.

“What they do in their life is their choice, but everyone needs a circle of support,” Kappos says. “It doesn’t mean that they need to come to us. It could be anywhere, even if it’s just a friend, it’s your church.”

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Though sexual assault and domestic violence are often portrayed as issues that only affect a single type of person, that only adds to this sense of loneliness that comes with silence. One of ELAWC’s messages is that it’s a place “Where your silence is heard.” For ELAWC to listen, survivors and their loved ones must be willing to speak out about their experiences. Many of the women who come into the center for domestic violence are still with their partners—Kappos insists that if they aren’t in immediate danger, it’s their choice whether or not they leave.

“You see this across all ethnic lines, across ages, across women, men, gender,” Kappos says. “It is a silent issue because it’s a very private issue; it’s a very painful issue. The problem with that is that if we don’t talk more about it, those individuals feel sometimes that it’s their fault that this happened to them.”

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Men need to be involved in the movement as well in order for it to be truly effective, according to Kappos. It’s a society’s movement, not just a women’s movement, and men’s involvement is the only way things will change.

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When we spoke on Sunday, she was still recovering from the 40th anniversary gala—it was emotionally draining to be so immersed in the work she does every day, and to watch others react to survivors’ stories.

“It still affects me because I understand their pain—Well, I don’t understand completely, none of us can understand someone’s complete pain, correct?” Kappos says. “It still impacts me, and that’s important because it allows me to do this work. It allows me to be interconnected and do something about it. Once…this all becomes numb to you, that’s when you need to leave.”

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For a study on human trafficking last year, Kappos and her team of researchers worked with a woman who was abducted with her six-month-old baby when they were in Mexico visiting relatives. After hearing this woman’s story, the team had to distance themselves from the project temporarily—according to Kappos, when something disturbs you that deeply, it’s important to take care of yourself.

“They made her turn 20 tricks a day in order to to feed her baby,” Kappos says. “Afterward, they took the baby and they solicited the baby. She never saw the baby again.”

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Another woman Kappos worked with was sexually assaulted by her stepfather for 10 years. She had lived in poverty, she had been gang-raped, and she had four children with a man who abused her. Kappos helped her develop a support system, and watched her build enough strength to overcome her trauma.

“They want to have a better life,” Kappos says. “They want to heal from all these wounds and you become a part of their journey. And that’s what inspires me because I remember them because we have to be there and I want to be there. I am just amazed at their strength, so that gives me strength.”

Though she’s the first to admit that ELAWC has helped shape the lives of women in the surrounding community, Kappos questions whether or not its efforts to raise awareness have truly made a difference.

Recently, Los Angeles boasted that the overall crime rate had gone down—but reports of sexual assault and domestic violence had increased. Why is this happening? The hope is that due to more awareness, more women and more survivors are coming forward and getting help. But the reality is that this is all too common of a reality. In some cases, people have told Kappos that they believe the violence is a social norm that’ll never change.

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“We want to be out of business at some point,” Kappos says. “We want to do other things…We cannot do this by ourselves. We need to be able to be interconnected with the community and with the other organizations so that we can really be effective.”

40 Years/40 Stories is a part of that interconnectedness. It’s not meant to be PR—Kappos has a problem with asking someone to share their story. Each of the 40 individuals have chosen to share their experience because they believe it will empower them and potentially help someone else to come forward and get the help they need.

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“Yes, it’s a celebration of the organization, but it’s also a celebration of the survivors,” Kappos says. “Although our focus is to prevent this, at the same time we embrace those individuals who have been inflicted by this type of pain and help them get through it so they are empowered to live a life that they should.”

If you or someone you know in the Los Angeles area has been affected by sexual assault or domestic violence, please call ELAWC at 1-800-585-6231. If you aren’t in the Los Angeles area, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

photos and quotes via the East Los Angeles Women’s Center

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