“Cultural-Specific Domestic Violence: ASHA Family Services, a Model of Excellence”
by Annie Louise Burton
Antonia Drew Vann, a domestic violence survivor has the spirit, tenacity and zeal to never accept “no” for an answer, particularly when it comes to advocating for victims of domestic violence. That drive is the result of surviving a relationship twenty-five years ago that was replete with abuse – and not taken seriously by law enforcement at that time. Her abuser, much like others, was controlling, constantly monitored her whereabouts, and if a man remarked “what a beautiful wife you have,” she had to pay penance for her natural endowed attractiveness. As she puts it, “He didn’t see it as an actual compliment to HIM for having a good-looking wife, but rather accused me of either soliciting the attention or having an affair.” Taught by her community’s emphasis on “Black Culture” to never expose or betray her people by talking about things out of the realm of its own people, abuse often went overlooked and unpunished. Drew Vann recounts, “Racism was so blatantly prevalent at that time that women were afraid of what would happen to a black man if turned over to law enforcement, so many abusive behaviors were simply tolerated.”
A woman who never quits, Drew Vann began working as the only black advocate for one of three traditional domestic violence agencies that were staples in Milwaukee as part of the “Battered Women’s Movement.” And although she never reported her own encounter with domestic violence to either agency, she became vigilant in her quest to learn more about what she had endured, particularly since many women of color often shunned traditional agencies for in-depth services, believing that their experience would not be relatable as a result of cultural differences. Drew Vann was enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee to study social welfare and later changed her major to “Africology” so as to focus on the etiology of the black family structure. During those times, African American Studies was not widely adopted as part of school curriculum nor did domestic violence interventions exist to deal with cultural nuances. Compounding the ability to obtain assistance was the geographic distance between the only three staple domestic violence agencies at that time and the “Black” community.
“I was determined to research and understand the needs of women who were just like me,” says Drew Vann. “I found that women, bruised and black-eyed, were ashamed to bring these matters to mainstream attention.” These women, rather, sought community support of other women who, too, fully understood the covert abuse that was occurring in the Black Community and concerns about being referred to as a “sell-out” and ostracized. She recounted one particular case of abuse where a black woman, whose husband had been selling household belongings to purchase illegal drugs telephoned the police, providing them with a bottle of barbiturates blaming the use on his wife; and claimed he was so doing out of concern for her safety. In reality, however, he conned the police so as to deflect attention from his abuse and illegal drug use resulting in an innocent woman being hospitalized (after law enforcement dispatched an ambulance), stomach pumped all the while he was free to clear the house of most it’s belongings. Drugs were never found in her system. Returning from a twenty-five mile journey back from the hospital with no transportation, she came home to a completely ransacked house – the abuser’s ultimate payback!
Like Fort Knox, the criminal justice system in Milwaukee was so rooted in the tradition of male dominance that many agencies never could find the magic code to unlock the barriers standing in the way of advocacy for victims of abuse. Drew Vann, however, did and that hard work resulted in a formidable relationship with the Commissioner where she averaged a 99% rate of gaining protective orders for her clients. She chuckled when remembering a comment made by a commissioner, “You know that woman should have been home cooking collard greens and making cornbread.” Drew Vann nodded but remained resolute in getting her protective orders issued. Drew Vann, although not an attorney, literally became “a friend of the court,” a term normally reserved for attorneys and other court officials given her stellar reputation and was primarily assigned to court advocacy to obtain protective orders. That flair, sadly, led to the elimination of her women of color group which had peaked in the numbers of attendance. And while the agency had originally charged her with developing an outreach program to reach women of color, she was asked to pull the plug on the program which had peaked to over 100 members, leaving them abandoned by a bureaucratic decision.
Compassion, however, compelled Drew Vann to continue to offer these women hope all the while working as a part-time court advocate and attending school full-time, creating a Harriet Tubman-like “underground railroad” to plan exit escapes for women of color who experienced domestic violence. She saw the need, rose to the challenge and recognized that she had a special spark with these women who felt comfortable sharing in “colloquial” language their experiences as women of color without fear of judgment or shame. Women of color, as aforementioned, had valid concerns for being perceived as betraying their community by turning over a black man to largely white police officers as a result of a deep-seeded mistrust of law enforcement in the Black Community. Police officers, after all, were more than likely white males and often simply told men to take a walk around the block without proper follow through; and according to Drew Vann, many of these officers were typically abusers themselves condoning male dominance in the household.
Through connections in the Black Christian community, she was offered space at the Harambee Ombudsman Project to host her gatherings and when word got out, the numbers of attendees soared; and so much so that it gained attention from the media, (the Milwaukee Journal published a cover story), Legislators as well as many local and state agencies. Understanding the importance of not abandoning women of color, she continued to volunteer countless hours to build her agency and was given her first City of Milwaukee grant through which she hired two women whom she mentored and had successfully completed her program. Recognizing the value of this program and Drew Vann’s strategy to include men in the process of preventing violence against women, members of both the Muslim and Christian Community rooted in the belief of responsible men and community accountability, offered gratis security to ensure the safety of women who participated. With the onslaught of racial tension as a result of the O.J. Simpson Case, funding began to pour in from the Federal Government for Domestic Violence agencies nationwide. It was at that point she, and the women she helped were betrayed as a result of greed by the agency that served as an umbrella for her program; and she was fired. Community outrage resulted in a televised hearing before the City Common Council. Drew Vann says, “I thank God for His Wisdom because it was time that I moved my program to another level.”
Luck on her side, she received a personal telephone call from the State Secretary’s Office who had learned about her termination, the program she started ripped away from her and inquired about her next plans. Dedicated to the cause she vowed to start a new program and that telephone call was the miraculous ticket opening the door for funds, once given to the program she started, to her new effort. The United Way even stepped in to right the wrong and offered funding as well as a local casino that funded the purchase of two vans to provide transportation to women. Recognizing her natural talent of persuasiveness and positive mediation, she launched ASHA Family Services. ASHA, in Swahili and India, means “Life and Hope.”
From that point, her lobbying gained vigor (with the support of women who participated in the program) and she was never turned down when requesting a personal meeting with the Governor of Wisconsin. They say, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” and the Governor, Tommie Thompson, ultimately acknowledged the barriers and challenges for women of color seeking relief from domestic violence and penned into Legislation in 1992, ASHA as the State’s official “culturally-specific” domestic violence program. The program evolved and also began to work with incarcerated women who had been victimized by a broken legal system to help them in their healing process (an element that did not exist in any other domestic violence program in the state).
At the tender age of eleven, Drew Vann witnessed an event that would forever change her life. She watched in horror the brutal beating of a woman in public view where an abuser beat his wife mercilessly, which left her bleeding from the cruel stomping of hard boots about her body while a crowd sat idly by doing nothing to intervene. She said it so disturbed her that no one would stop it; and when asking why no one would help, she was simply told: “That is their personal business, baby, now go ahead down the block and let them work it out.” Drew Vann remarked with sadness, “I felt so hurt by what I had seen and perplexed by the fact that none of the adults did anything to stop it. I knew something was completely wrong with this!”
With over twenty (20) years in the movement, Drew Vann is a highly respected national expert in the field of domestic violence. She is a motivational speaker, consultant, domestic and sexual violence advocate and founder and C.E.O. of ASHA Family Services, Inc., which currently employs twelve employees, has seven active volunteers and a host of students who launched a “Young Sister’s Group” for teen dating violence survivors. Drew Vann was astonished by two separate Presidential invitations to the White House and in the mid 1990′s, Drew Vann obtained support from the Milwaukee Police Chief and wrote and received a pivotal U.S. Department of Justice grant to implement an innovative Domestic Violence Crisis Intervention Team. The DV/CIT project teamed law enforcement officers and domestic violence advocates who together responded to domestic violence crime scenes. The major goal was to provide immediate victim support and investigate “scenario” based domestic violence forensic analysis (under the assumption that a homicide had occurred) where evidence such as spontaneous utterance, telephone cords pulled from walls, and other tell-tale signs associated with violent and destructive behavior were examined so as to avoid the incidences of domestic violence-related homicides in Wisconsin.
Drew Vann attributes her strength and tenacity, first, to Jesus Christ. “Without the Father, I would be a lost soul and perhaps a victim of a broken system” she said. Raised by two God-fearing parents, she says that her parents, Mavis and Moses Drew Vann were people who taught her to “fight the good fight” and to never quit. One of her favorite quotes is “No man or woman who tries to pursue an idea in his or her own way is not without enemies” — Civil Rights Activist Daisy Lee Bates. She lives by her archetypal character which is to bring peace to troubled waters and to help others discover their purpose. She is known for saying… “What we do for ourselves dies with us but what we do for others is and remains immortal” — Albert Pine.
Drew Vann will serve as keynote speaker at the “Speak Your Peace” Domestic Violence Awareness Month fundraising event hosted by Jodine Basterash (Harley Davidson Global Marketing), Masterpiece Enterprises and Distinctive Touch. For more information about ASHA or to read her compelling articles on Domestic Violence and Cultural competency, please visit their website at www.ashafamilyservices.org Drew Vann’s publication, Developing Culturally-Relevant Responses To Domestic Abuse: ASHA Family Services, Inc. remains one of the most requested publications from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence since its release in 2003. Free copies or downloads is available directly at: http://www.Vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/NRCDV_Asha.pdf
Until next time, Hope and Believe; and most importantly, BE GOOD TO YOURSELF! Join us at Healing Place at www.healingplaceshome.com or on Face Book at Healing Place to learn more about “The Power of The Pen.”