| By Jonna Rae Bartges |
When an estimated 10,000 people braved the weather in January to march in Asheville the day after the inauguration, one of the speakers they came to hear was a first-generation American daughter of Mexican immigrants. Angélica Reza Wind is the executive director of Our VOICE, the non-profit agency that serves victims of rape and sexual assault in Buncombe County. She spoke to the receptive crowd about the importance of working together towards the goal of eliminating sexual violence completely.“In terms of our agency,” said Angélica, “the feminist movement was born in 1974, and so were we. We’ve been there. This is not our first rodeo. We know what we are capable of doing. Here we are, 42 years later, being a stronger force than ever for intervention of sexual assault, and prevention education.”
In a way, the January protest was a throwback to the tumultuous decades of the 60s and 70s, when women were marching for equal rights and representation. Our VOICE was founded during this era in response to a total lack of services for victims of sexual abuse in Buncombe County. Photos of the recent Women’s Marches in Asheville, and around the nation and the world, included images of women holding signs lamenting, “I can’t believe I have to protest this s*#! again!”
Angélica noted that with the tone of the national conversation both prior to and since the election, our country’s pervasive “rape culture” seems to be emboldened.
“We’ve found individuals reporting more sexually aggressive behavior, and some people commenting that they can do whatever they want to do as a result of all that is being said on the national level.” While the actual number of reported rapes does not seem to have risen dramatically, Angélica is quick to explain that’s not necessarily good news.
“Because rape is such a horrendous crime, even if there was an increase, we wouldn’t automatically see more survivors reporting it because victims don’t feel safe coming out,” she said. “A big part of Our VOICE’s push to educate is the goal of creating a larger community that says, ‘We believe you—how can we help you?’ Only when we create that environment will we really get a sense of how prevalent sexual assault is, because survivors will feel safe disclosing.”
Another consequence of the “locker room talk” so pervasive in the news recently, along with allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby and Jerry Sandusky, is how untold numbers of survivors are being “triggered,” and reliving the trauma of their attack. Victims urgently need the counseling and crisis services Our VOICE provides. The feeling of being dismissed, trivialized or judged can be paralyzing and debilitating. “We must make survivors feel like they’re part of the judicial process, and they’re being heard and believed,” Angélica said.
While she chooses not to expend energy worrying about the future, Angélica is very realistic about possible action that may be required to protect the services Our VOICE has provided to Buncombe County residents since its creation. “We need to be proactive and figure out what’s coming down the pipeline. The issue may not be just defunding Violence Against Women grants, but actually dismantling the federal office.”
“This action would not only threaten funding for Our VOICE, but for other essential programs like sexual assault services provider training, which works with officers. It could hurt agencies that provide vital services and training to all the systems that a survivor needs: law enforcement, district attorneys, legal aid. That’s my greatest fear,” said Angélica. “It’s not only Our VOICE, but so many other essential agencies that provide services to victims and those at risk. This would adversely affect everyone impacted by domestic and sexual violence, and child abuse.”
“My vision for 2017 is for Our VOICE to continue to provide comprehensive intervention services to victims of sexual assault and their loved ones like we do now – and we do it well. I also want to expand prevention work. Since funding may be threatened, we’re proactively figuring out how we sustain our existing programs so no survivor of sexual violence in Buncombe County is faced with a lack of services.”
Our VOICE knows the power of community support. For its first seven years, it existed solely because of the continued commitment and compassion of passionate volunteers. “We know from our beginnings that the community can step up,” Angélica said. “We know how important volunteers are to nonprofits. But I hope we don’t go back to where we were in 1974. Our volunteers continue to be at the heart of Our VOICE, doing essential duties like accompanying victims to a hospital and staying with them, answering the crisis hotline, helping in the office or participating in outreach opportunities. But through the decades the demand for services has continued to grow, and the need is too great to be handled solely by a team of volunteers.”
“I‘m seeing many more people stepping up, and asking how they can be involved. People want to become more active personally than just writing a check. They want to know if they should be organizing meetings in their home to educate people about sexual violence, or hosting a hospital-bag packing party.”
The hospital bags, Angélica explained, are frequently a sexual abuse victim’s immediate lifeline to compassion and a sense of dignity after a horrific attack. When an Our VOICE advocate is dispatched to provide emotional support to survivors getting a forensic examination, the advocate takes a hospital bag. Each bag contains a change of clothing in the event the victim’s clothing might contain DNA evidence, and is collected by the police. Also in the bag are toiletries, and a traveling postcard created by another community member with words of encouragement, assuring victims they are not alone.
Another item placed in each bag is the recovery booklet, a guide Our VOICE produced that lists a victim’s rights, and offers important information about other local resources available to them. Included in the booklet is a reassuring description of the rollercoaster of emotions a survivor may be experiencing.
“When survivors experience trauma,” Angélica explains, “there’s not one response. Some may feel guilt, some anxiety, others might feel anger, or a complicated mixture of emotions. We want them to know that everything is completely normal. They’ve just been through great trauma, and everything they’re feeling emotionally is OK.”
Because a victim may employ a self-defense mechanism of acting calm, said Angélica, an officer might not believe an attack occurred. “Part of our work is training officers to understand the wide range of emotions and coping mechanisms victims employ. We advocate allowing survivors to have a few days to take care of themselves emotionally and physically before they file an official statement.”
An apparent lack of emotion, Angélica explained, can occur because trauma impacts the way the brain stores memories. A victim’s recall of the incident is not linear, but fragmented. There is frequently some discrepancy in a survivor’s recalling the timeline of the attack, for instance, not because it didn’t happen, but because trauma makes them store memories in different parts of the brain. It’s an automatic and subconscious coping mechanism. This is the type of information Our VOICE shares that makes such a positive difference in so many lives during a time of crisis.
“It is more vital now than ever for community members to be informed about the dynamics and realities of sexual assault, and to become familiar with the Violence Against Women Act,” said Angelica. “If any bill is introduced to decrease funding or dismantle the office, we must be ready to step up and educate our representatives about the dangers and consequences of defunding sexual assault agencies.”
Angélica remains passionately optimistic and committed to serving victims of sexual assault, protecting their legal rights, and working to change the rape culture so prevalent in our society. “You can go regressive in policies, but you can’t break someone’s spirit and determination of wanting a better tomorrow. There is power in numbers. Collectively we can create that better tomorrow.”
Both the enthusiasm and the wide range of people participating in the Asheville Women’s March fueled Angélica’s optimism.
“My eight-year-old daughter and her friends were selling Girl Scout cookies at the march,” Angélica said. “The girls were carrying signs of empowerment, while the mothers were pulling wagons of cookies. I thought this was the most beautiful thing to see. Mothers of the Movement, many women who protested for women’s rights in the 70s, were marching with their daughters and granddaughters, the next generation of powerful women.”
“I didn’t start getting socially active until I was in high school. Can you imagine where these girls starting at age seven and eight are going to be, and what they’re going to do? If we don’t get it right, I don’t doubt that they will.”
For more information on how to support the work of Our VOICE, please visit their website at www.ourvoicenc.org, or call them at (828) 252-0562. The 24-hour crisis hotline number is (828) 255-7576.
Author, Emmy-winner and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent WNC Woman contributor. She’s balanced intuitive abilities with a career in print and broadcast news, and promotion for TV stations and clients including Disneyland, Legoland and Medieval Times. Upcoming classes include an intuitive development weekend workshop March 11 & 12 that provides 14.16 CNE hours for nurses. For a consultation or a complete listing of events, visit jonnarae.com.