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Women Against Abuse is the winner of the 2017 Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize. Chosen from more than 100 applicants around the globe, Women Against Abuse is Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence service provider and advocacy organization, and one of the largest in the United States. Susan Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is also director of the university’s Ortner Center on Family Violence, spoke to Jeannine Lisitski, executive director and president of Women Against Abuse, about the organization’s work and goals.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Susan Sorenson: You give survivors of domestic violence a continuum of care that prioritizes their independence and dignity. Can you explain what that continuum of care is?
Jeannine Lisitski: I want to start with saying that although we have a continuum of care, our focus is on crisis intervention and life-saving intervention. That would be the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline, safe havens and legal services. We believe in focusing on partnerships with community-based organizations and city agencies, to be part of responding and intervening earlier. So we provide a continuum of crisis-intervention and life-saving services. We do that for people who are experiencing intimate partner violence, which is sometimes called domestic violence. In our new plan with the city, we refer to it as relational violence. It means that someone you have a relationship with is using different tactics of abuse with the goal of controlling you. The tactics become very coercive. There’s fear involved and a great deal of danger involved as well.
Sorenson: How is Women Against Abuse different from other domestic violence organizations?
Lisitski: We really prioritize going to where survivors are. Rather than waiting until they call us, we go out into the community. We have someone stationed at the Office of Homeless Services, where the families come for intake, so we can screen and intervene earlier because we know that families that come into the homeless system have a very, very high percentage of domestic violence and history of violence and trauma in their lives. If we can intervene there, we can help them get on a better path instead of continuing to recidivate back into the system. We have similar programs like that at the probation department in Family Court.
That’s our model. Other domestic violence agencies will provide individual and group counseling at an office in kind of out-patient services, which is great. We don’t want to duplicate other people’s work in the city, but we’ve chosen to try to find the most at-risk people and intervene earlier.
Sorenson: That sounds like a very useful way to approach people who may be in crisis and have a particular need for your services.
Lisitski: Yes. What we know from the literature is that most of the people experiencing relational violence will not be seen by a domestic violence organization. They’ll be seen in a hospital. They may be seen by the courts, by the police. We have to equip our community to be partners in addressing it, assessing it and intervening much earlier so that we have a chance of preventing the violence.
“We really prioritize going to where survivors are. Rather than waiting until they call us, we go out into the community.”
Sorenson: I wanted to ask you about Women Against Abuse’s new Shared Safety Initiative. I understand that’s a coordinated community response to domestic violence. You’ve managed to get a wide variety of government and community agencies across the city to participate. Can you describe it in detail?
Lisitski: It’s based on a collective impact model, which says there are certain issues in our society that are so large that we have to share resources among the public and private sectors, work together on shared goals and have shared measurement tools so we can see how we’re moving the needle. That’s what shared safety is. It’s Philadelphia’s response to relational violence that’s not just solely for law enforcement, but it goes into the whole realm of health and human service agencies. Agencies like Child Welfare, behavioral health, the homeless system, the Department of Health, and a lot of community-based providers are involved — more than 70 at this point. We have a coordinating council that meets every other month and four subcommittees that are meeting monthly, doing the work of the plan.
The work of the plan is now focused on intervention, and that means that no matter where a person comes into the system, they would be screened and there would be an intervention, not just a referral. We will develop new interventions, especially for people who are acting abusively, because the range of interventions available is very small. We know that we need to engage those folks in change earlier, as well as hold them accountable through the criminal justice system when that’s appropriate.
Sorenson: You’ve made an excellent case for why it’s important to have community involvement in this issue, but how did you get so many agencies to be involved? How did you persuade them?
Lisitski: You don’t have to once they realize that in order to achieve their own goals, they must look at this issue. Nobody in this culture or in the world can ignore relational violence and think that they can achieve some other social goal or human service goal. It can’t be done because the one really impacts the others. For example, in the behavioral health sector, a lot of people are seen and given medication. It’s really trauma-based. Maybe they’re still unsafe, but people never get at that. What does that cost, not just in terms of dollars wasted but in human suffering and the ripple effect on families and on society at large? Once people realize, “Hey, my goal is your goal,” they see that it’s productive work. They also see that Women Against Abuse is a great partner — we do what we say, we work hard so that the meetings have a productive outcome. They’re very excited about being part of an effort that is really changing things. It’s a long-term effort, so it’s not going to happen overnight. But we’ve seen very positive signs of early change.
Sorenson: Is the private sector involved in this effort?
Lisitski: That’s a great question. Right now, they’re not involved in this, but we need them to be. We just got a foundation to be part of the coordinating council, so our hope is that they are going to bring in additional foundations and from there we can bridge into the corporate world. We do need a lot more partners, especially on the funding end. Not that it costs a ton of money. Actually, it’s a great way to save money because we’re going to all be doing more holistic work.
Sorenson: Under your leadership, Women Against Abuse has grown considerably. You have some impressive statistics on your website: You’ve helped the organization double its emergency safe haven facilities; expanded its transitional housing capacity by 25%; created 60 opportunities for permanent affordable housing units with supports; quadrupled the number of clients receiving attorney representation; and you reach thousands of high-risk victims to make them aware of supports that they might not otherwise be aware of. Can you describe your leadership style?
Lisitski: What’s most important to me is scaling up. Are we meeting the need and developing models that can change, and then helping those to be replicated? That’s the focus. My leadership style is very servant-leader, team-building, collaborative, helping to build leadership in others, recognizing that there’s no one person who could do any of this. It really takes leaders at every level in our organization. We have leadership development programs and processes, and we also are certified in the sanctuary model, which is excellent because at the foundation of that are seven principles.
Those seven principles also translate into the leadership world. It’s not only a way to help our clients heal in a safe, trauma-informed care environment, it’s a way to develop leadership. Those principles include social learning, social responsibility, emotional intelligence, open communication, democracy, embracing growth and change. We have ways that we can deal with trauma because this work is very traumatizing to see and to work in. There’s vicarious trauma. The model allows people to deal with that and still be able to be effective as an instrument of healing.
“Nobody can ignore relational violence and think that they can achieve some other social or human service goal.”
Sorenson: The frontline workers with your organization probably do see a lot of people in really bad situations. I can imagine they would be traumatized and risk getting burned out.
Lisitski: Absolutely. That’s why we couldn’t do this work effectively if we didn’t have the model such as the sanctuary model. We rely on that heavily, and it’s not just words. We were certified in 2015, but we continue every day to use the tools to commit to that environment, which is very aligned with our mission at Women Against Abuse to empower survivors. We want to empower our whole community to be leaders in change. We have to model what we want to see in our society, which is respect, peace, love.
Sorenson: How do you think your leadership style has helped you accomplish these goals?
Lisitski: One thing that’s really important is humility and to not be resting on your laurels. As you have achievements, realize it’s great but ask yourself: How does that act as a catalyst to move us forward? There’s no stopping at Women Against Abuse, and personally, there’s no stopping to say “Oh, we’re at a great place” — not until we can really lead this struggle to end domestic violence. We always are thinking, learning and trying to figure out how we can get further.
Sorenson: A lot of agencies focus on after-the-fact services. It sounds like it’s really important to you to address domestic violence itself and try to prevent it from happening, in addition to helping those who experience that.
Lisitski: Yes, that’s correct. One of the ways we do it, which makes our model so effective, is because we do direct services with so many people that we have groups with survivors, and we talk to them about what the barriers were for them. Everything that we learn, we put back into the second half of the model. Our mission is two-pronged. The first is to provide life-saving services for survivors. The second is to lead the struggle to end domestic violence. Everything that we do in Shared Safety is a direct reflection of what our survivors need or would have needed in order to move forward and get intervention at an earlier point.
Sorenson: The Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize is an annual global prize that celebrates leadership and innovation among organizations that are creating positive social impact. As this year’s winner, Women Against Abuse will receive an unrestricted cash award of $250,000. In what ways do you imagine that award will help you realize your goals?
Lisitski: Our goal is to utilize the funds in ways that will create a larger impact on the back end. We’re going to put a certain percentage towards Shared Safety and the highest-priority items that we need some money to accomplish. Second, we’re going to build capacity in our advancement and development department so we can generate more funds in order to support all of our work.
We’re also going to put some aside for capital needs for our transitional housing because we have five buildings there. When I first came to Women Against Abuse in 2009, the transitional housing was in disrepair. We did a rehab and an expansion, so the buildings are great, but we want to sustain that for the long haul. And we want to do something to recognize our staff and to take care of them and support them.
Sorenson: What kind of background did you have coming into the organization?
Lisitski: I’ve been now almost 25 years in the social sector, focusing on domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, poverty, mental health issues, drugs and alcohol abuse. There are so many overlaps among everything I’m talking about. When you have poverty, it’s another layer of oppression. People who are experiencing intimate partner violence with the poverty, perhaps with discrimination, being minorities, would experience a lot more difficulty or oppression.
So, I have 25 years of experience and a lot of experience in the area of homelessness and housing programs, developing new housing and managing it all — the property management side as well as the services side. I have my bachelor’s in criminal justice, master’s in psychology, and almost my Ph.D. in social research and social work. I went to a couple of certificate programs for executive leadership, which I think is really important for someone who’s in the human services to learn more about the business end of it. I went to the Bryn Mawr [College’s] Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute. I also went through Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management course, and that was really helpful. Also, just learning from people who have been around a long time to see how they do it and then putting it all together.
“We have to model what we want to see in our society, which is respect, peace, love.”
Sorenson: Women Against Abuse is now a member of the Lipman, the Wharton, and the Penn community. Describe your wish for this partnership?
Lisitski: We’re very, very excited to work more closely. We have worked with Penn. We have many interns from Penn every year. We also worked with the Ortner Center on the Domestic Violence Law Enforcement Committee of Philadelphia, so we have that connection. To get outside of our sector and move into other sectors that Wharton and Penn have — like data management, data analysis, marketing, communication — we feel that cross-sector collaboration will help to spark change and to move our model forward more quickly. We really plan to utilize as much support and collaboration as we can with Penn and Wharton, and the Lipman Prize former honorees as well.
Sorenson: How does it feel to be this year’s winner of the Lipman Family Prize?
Lisitski: It’s kind of surreal that out of an array of international organizations, we have been awarded this as a Philadelphia-based organization — but with a big model that could change things nationally and even perhaps internationally. It’s really, really exciting. We’re really honored, and we also feel that it gives us even a greater responsibility to utilize this as a way to catalyze our work and our impact.