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Community Matters: Violence prevention is a community responsibility

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

by Susan Birns

November 6, 2018... As we leave behind October and Domestic Violence Awareness month, we want to ensure awareness is not designated to one month. The Elizabeth Freeman Center, a member agency of Northern Berkshire United Way, supports victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

We are activists in a field where the ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business. It is the true mission of everyone working to end domestic violence and sexual assault. This year tragedy again hit the Berkshires, but so did an upsurge of community action to stop violence.

In addition to the #MeToo movement which has encouraged many sexual abuse survivors to come forward, tell their stories, and name their abusers, the Berkshires made national news early this year with the horrific murder of Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, of North Adams, the first transgender homicide victim in the United States in 2018, and the first domestic violence homicide in Massachusetts this year. She was one of five women slain by their male partners in the Berkshires in the past three years. This is hardly a statistic to be proud of, but the collective response of the community, particularly in North Berkshire, is indeed something that inspires hope for change.

Following Steele-Knudslien's slaying, Mayor Thomas Bernard immediately reached out to Elizabeth Freeman Center. North Adams city councilors pressed for a city response. And the community came together to develop a plan of action.

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in partnership with Elizabeth Freeman Center, Christa Collier from Northern Berkshire United Way, Mayor Bernard, and North Adams City Councilors Ben Lamb and Marie Harpin, hosted two community forums — the first in March and the second in October — on relationship violence with over 60 attendees at each. The goal was to raise awareness, gather partners and allies, and involve the community as a whole in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault in North Berkshire. Shortly after the first forum, 45 North County police officers attended a training on domestic violence hosted by the Adams Police Department and Elizabeth Freeman Center.

Men Initiating Change in North County (MICiNC) also formed after the first coalition forum. According to Benjamin Lamb, a founding member of the group, its goal is to help challenge white male privilege and empower women and girls and other marginalized groups. Members aim to be role models for behavior that exemplifies nontoxic notions of masculinity. MICiNC members were active participants in both community forums, held a standout in front of North Adams City Hall, and participated in the Freeman Center's Eighth Annual Walk a Mile in Her shoes, raising $500.

At a North Adams City Council meeting, Mayor Bernard declared October 2018 to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the city of North Adams. He also has endorsed a Yes vote on Question 3, "An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination."

Elizabeth Freeman Center's youth education and violence prevention program has increased its presence in North Berkshire middle and high schools, and its award-winning financial independence program, Money School, just graduated its first North County class.

This year 800 Berkshire residents, businesses, and service organizations took to the street against violence and increased their commitment to funding services for abuse survivors as Walk a Mile and raised over $90,000.

Until children of all genders and races are protected by law and are raised to respect each other and themselves; until all currently marginalized people are brought into the fold; until women and people of color have achieved pay equity; until we have single-payer health care and affordable child care for all working parents; until minimum wage is a living wage; and until we have national gun control legislation, we will not achieve safety at home for all. We have a great deal of work yet to do and we must all be engaged in doing it. We owe it to ourselves and to our children. We have made incredible progress in increasing the visibility and community awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence, and North Berkshire deserves a special salute for their activities to date in 2018, but our work is far from over.

We have a great deal of work yet to do and we must all be engaged in doing it. We owe it to ourselves and to our children.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Elizabeth Freeman Center's toll-free 24/7 hotline at 866-401-2425. You are not alone.

Susan Birns is a member of the board of directors of Elizabeth Freeman Center and professor emeritus at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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