Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving Thanks by Showing Thanks!

Kate Kirbie served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2012 to 2013 at the Racine Dominican Eco-Justice Center in Racine, WI. After serving she was hired as the Assistant to the Director of the Eco-Justice Center where she continues to minister, leading environmental education programs and helping to care for the farm.

Is it just me or has November gone by fast? Maybe it is the cold quickly confronting us, making the outdoors feel more like the frigid weather after Christmas, or maybe it is me overly occupying my days with fall events. Either way, Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Thanksgiving is a time to make a point to acknowledge the relationships we have, appreciate our health and the experiences we’ve had, and maybe even acknowledge the simple blessings, like food, water, and clean air. 

On Thanksgiving, no matter if you have a large turkey for twenty family members, or spend a small meal together with few, we can easily recognize our thanks for food. Living and working at the Eco-Justice Center, I’ve grown accustomed to praying in thanksgiving for “the hands that worked to prepare and grow the food we eat.” For Thanksgiving on the farm, we gather the squash and potatoes from the root cellar, defrost beans and fruit from the freezer, open cans jarred last year, and prepare the turkey that recently left the farm. We, as do many, become closer to our food as we cook and eat our Thanksgiving meal.

But there are many gifts in our lives that we can easily overlook. The fact that the food is safe enough for us to eat is a great blessing. Most of us probably also pay little attention to the water that fills our drinking glasses. Along the same line, I only think of the cleanliness of the air I breathe when I drive by the Oak Creek coal power plant just north of Racine. Still, many others are living with the health consequences of drinking contaminated water or breathing in air pollutants.

On Thanksgiving we can make a simple verbal acknowledgment of what we are thankful for, but how do we show our thanks? For example, if we spend one day in the year thanking our family but don’t regularly call, lend an ear, or see what we can do for them, then how else do we show our appreciation? How can we show our thanks for our air, our water, or our food? Certainly not by continuing to pollute, destroy, and ignore the environment.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Eco-Justice Center, a small group from the community went to the Lake Michigan shoreline, just a mile away, to pick up trash. As we were approaching the site, I mentioned to the group that only two months ago fifteen high school students and I visited the same difficult-to-reach beach front and picked up loads of Styrofoam, plastic and glass. After hearing that, the group I was traveling with expected a minute amount of refuse. Instead we were greeted with a shoreline covered in trash. While some of the garbage was left by people having late night bonfires, much of the Styrofoam surely washed in from the lake after blowing from someone’s possession on land.

It’s not just this beach front. There are few places now that you can drive, bike, or walk without spotting litter. If it was just an eyesore, I wouldn’t be so worried. Many of us know that animals can get trapped in litter. When I recently watched the documentary Bag It, I was shocked to find that there are 40 times more plastic particles in the oceans than there are plankton! Plankton – the organisms that provide a crucial amount of food for fish and whales. There are more plastic particles in the oceans than plankton!

Kate (kneeling in front) gathers with volunteers to clean up Racine's shoreline.

Recently, while meeting with a group of LaSallian Volunteers to discuss “peace” in our weekly “Spiritual Literacy,” I had a realization: entropy. I’ve always compared the second law of thermodynamics to my bed room. In the morning, it is easy to throw my pajamas over my chair and leave my bed unmade. I have to use energy to tidy my room. This seems to be true with most worldly issues. It takes effort to make a peaceful world, it takes effort to educate, it takes effort to have a healthy, clean environment, and it takes effort to think of new alternatives. If we continue to live our lives saying we are thankful, but not really showing it, what will our futures look like?

The Water Conflict Chronology sites nearly 100 attacks on water or conflicts over water around the world in the last four years. These numbers are sure to grow as our population continues to increase, as we carry on polluting the environment, and as we delay reducing our unnecessary use of water. There are a lot of challenges to caring for the Earth. Many Americans feel entitled. Cheap food, cheap electricity, cheap oil, and cheap water are expectations without acknowledging the actual cost of health or the cost to clean up the land. Doing nothing and accepting what we currently have will lead to a future generation making even harder decisions.

Still there is hope. Communities are joining together to learn, educate, and find solutions. On September 21, over 300,000 people marched in New York to advocate against climate change and to promote positive action. Close to home the Racine Dominicans, like many other religious communities, are paying attention to the companies in which they are investing their finances and working to leave a lighter footprint. There is even an Eco-Justice Committee within the Dominican Alliance, which includes representatives from the Racine Dominicans, Sinsinawa Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Dominican Sisters of Houston, Dominican Sisters of Kenosha, and Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids. As individuals we can work to make small changes: buy local (reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to transport food), be conscious of your water use, properly dispose of trash if items can’t be reused or recycled, reduce your use of plastics, write to politicians and support those in favor of protecting the environment.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I push you to stretch your mind. We are blessed. I personally feel blessed to have had the opportunity to serve as a Dominican Volunteer, to still have a number of sisters as close friends and mentors, and to live in a safe environment with access to organic produce and clean water. Now, this November, let’s not only give thanks, but show thanks for these many blessings.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why Domestic Violence Matters -- and not just in October

Amelia Vojt serves at Sarah's Inn in Oak Park, IL as an intervention advocate to victims of domestic violence.

When October rolls around every year, Americans expect to experience certain things. In many parts of the U.S., the changing colors of the leaves signify the change in seasons from summer to autumn. The introduction of fall items to restaurants and grocery stores ensures that people will be able to stuff themselves with plenty of pumpkin-flavored foods and drinks. And if you are sports fan, you can be sure that your television screen will be filled with players wearing pink athletic attire. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and major sports leagues have capitalized on the opportunity by outfitting teams in special pink hats, sweatbands, and jerseys, which are then sold to fans with a portion of profits going to breast cancer research. Pink is pervasive in October, but this year also saw the biggest push to date for teams to begin wearing an additional color throughout the month: purple.

Less known to the general population is that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and purple is the color! The first Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month was observed in October of 1987. This was only two years after the inaugural Breast Cancer Awareness Month, yet that movement has swept the nation while domestic violence seemingly remains on the backburner. Looking at the statistics, it makes sense that breast cancer research garners high responsiveness from the public. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that about 40,000 American women will die from breast cancer in 2014.1 The ACS also states that a woman in the U.S. has a 12.3% chance of being diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime, which is about 1 in 8.

In contrast, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men in the U.S. are victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.2 Approximately 20 people are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner every minute in this country, over 10 million men and women every year.3 I am not suggesting that people are wrong for supporting breast cancer research programs over domestic violence programs, but why is there such a discrepancy between the two causes? Why is pink visible everywhere and purple nowhere in sight?

My year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA started in mid-August as I moved to Chicago and began my ministry at Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency based in Oak Park. Sarah’s Inn offers free counseling and advocacy services to victims of domestic violence and their family members in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. My position at the agency is as an intervention advocate. I, along with several other advocates and counselors, work directly with victims to provide them with emotional support, help during crises, education about domestic violence, and ongoing assistance as they work through the myriad of problems that often occur in abusive relationships. We do everything we can to satisfy the needs of victims. If for some reason Sarah’s Inn cannot satisfy those needs, we refer victims to outside agencies that may be better equipped to aid them. Our main prerogative is to offer victims options for moving forward and to accompany them as they pursue whatever path is right for them.

Staff photo taken before Stand Tall with Sarah’s Inn, an annual agency fundraising event held during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Amelia Vojt is on far right in green, and former Dominican Volunteer Erin Hallagan (12-13) is in the center in blue.

Before continuing, I would like to point out that Sarah’s Inn works with both male and female domestic violence victims, but the large majority of clients are female victims with male abusers. So from this point forward, for the sake of clarity, I will be referring to abusers using male pronouns and to victims using female pronouns.

One of the most frustrating things to hear from those who are unfamiliar with the complexities of domestic violence is “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Many people are unaware that by asking this question they are partaking in victim-blaming. Saying that the victim should simply leave to escape abuse implies that it is her fault that she is in or remains in the abusive situation in the first place. The one thing I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence is never the victim’s fault. No words that victims say or actions that victims take justify abuse.

The real question we should be asking is “Why does he abuse her?” This shifts responsibility for the abuse from the victim and back to the abuser, where it rightfully belongs. People sometimes forget that the abuser is the one committing a crime—abusing another human being—and he often gets away with it. Conceptualizing domestic violence in terms of the actions of the abuser causes us to think about the root of the problem, that the abuser wants power and control over his victim. Abusers use various methods to establish power and control in domestic violence relationships. An abuser might coerce and threaten his partner, isolate her, emotionally abuse her, use her children against her, downplay the abuse, financially abuse her, or use intimidation to get his way. Domestic violence victims usually experience a combination of these non-physical abuses to varying degrees, and from there the situation frequently escalates into physical and sexual abuse.

For outsiders it can be easy to say that the victim should leave the abuser. Besides this perspective entailing victim-blaming, a deeper examination of domestic violence reveals just how difficult it can be for victims to get away. Abuse can take a toll on all aspects of victims’ health, including their mental health. Domestic violence victims are at an increased likelihood for developing depression and suicidal behavior.3 Furthermore, financial abuse is one of the most widely-reported types of abuse.

To only briefly mention the case, suspended NFL player Ray Rice’s publicized domestic violence characterizes how economic circumstances can influence a victim. His shocking physical abuse of his then-fiancĂ© was caught on video and made headline news. However, she went on to marry him immediately after the incident. Many people did not understand her actions. Only she knows the true motivations behind her decision, but the fact that he is the source of financial viability for her and their young child was certainly a factor. When the abuser earns the income, victims commonly feel that they have no choice other than to stay. When a victim is an undocumented immigrant, there is a persistent fear of the abuser getting her deported, which could also mean a mother being separated from her children. Finally, when you consider that a victim’s risk of being murdered by her abuser is highest within the first few weeks of her leaving, fleeing can feel like more of a danger than a solution.

Part of the reason that domestic violence receives much less attention than breast cancer awareness lies in the name itself. The classification of the violence as “domestic” indicates that it is occurring within the home. Yet this classification can work against victims because it perpetuates the idea that matters should be settled within the home and misleads others into thinking that they should stay out of it. It is disheartening to hear clients explain how they called 911 after being abused and the police did nothing to help them. Sarah’s Inn conducts training for law enforcement officials and medical professionals to instruct them on how to handle domestic violence situations, but there are still some officers who are hesitant to get involved. Even worse is hearing clients report that their abusers are police officers or other civic officials, the people who are supposed to be helping their communities.

Amelia Vojt stands next to America’s Next Top Model Winner Jaslene Gonzalez, who spoke to children’s, teen’s, and women’s support groups about her experience in a domestic violence relationship and how she overcame her abusive past to launch a successful modeling career.

Another point I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence can affect anyone. Victims and abusers can be of any gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, religion, etc. You may have family, friends, and/or neighbors who are in abusive relationships. There is no “typical” example of domestic violence because the circumstances are different for every person and the abuse that a victim endures is unique to their situation. The ability for domestic violence advocates to assist victims lies in their ability to work with each individual to identify the most appropriate plan of action. We at Sarah’s Inn walk with clients in their journey towards healing and work towards breaking the cycle of violence.

As citizens living in a nation where domestic violence is all around us—and doesn’t just happen in October, we can all do our part to stand up for victims. Many people are uncomfortable discussing domestic violence or would like to help but are afraid to reach out. However, domestic violence warrants the same level of attention given to other major causes, and it is time for us all to let go of our fear and uncertainty. It is time for us to hold abusers accountable for their actions. It is time to rid ourselves of victim-blaming attitudes. It is time for us to stop criticizing those who suffer for not fleeing their abusers and to instead provide the resources for them to do so safely. It is time for us to stand up together and show victims that we care.

Going to Sarah’s Inn and constantly hearing stories of the horrible abuse that clients have lived through can be very tough at times. However, I go home every day remembering that they are survivors. Our clients have been through so much and they will likely face more obstacles in the future. Still, they push on. Their strength and resilience is a constant inspiration and gives me hope that we may one day live in a society free of domestic violence.

If you or someone you know is in a situation of domestic violence, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at www.thehotline.org for help or for more information. 


1. American Cancer Society. (2014, September 25). What are the key statistics about breast cancer? American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/detailedguide/breast-cancer-key-statistics

2. Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

3. World Health Organization. (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-partner Sexual Violence. Retrieved from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/85239/1/9789241564625_eng.pdf?ua=1

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Be of Service – and Seek Justice – Wherever You Are

Two and a half months after they were commissioned at Orientation, the 2014-2015 Dominican Volunteers are fully immersed in their year of service. With time in ministry and living in community comes occasions of challenge and occasions of blessing. Living the Dominican motto “Laudare, Benedicare, Praedicare” (To Praise, To Bless, To Preach), this year’s volunteers are praising and praying together, blessing those with whom they serve, and preaching through their words and their lives.

The 2014-15 Dominican Volunteers at their Commissioning Ceremony

In addition to preaching through their ministries, one way in which the volunteers will preach this year is through sharing stories on this blog – stories of great challenges caused by injustices accompanied by great reasons for hope. Throughout the year, current volunteers as well as Dominican Volunteer alumni will share with us the injustices they encounter in their ministries, the hope they find in the face of such injustices, and how we can “preach” with them through educating ourselves and taking action.

"Praedicare," the main Dominican Motto, means "To Preach"

You can learn more about the 2014-2015 Dominican Volunteers on the DVUSA homepage or on our Facebook page: Dominican Volunteers USA.

If you are interested in applying to be a future Dominican Volunteer or if you are an alum who would like to submit a blog post, please email info@dvusa.org.