Vanessa Volz is executive director of the domestic violence agency Sojourner House, a position she assumed in 2011. She graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law, J.D., in 2006, and previously served as a staff attorney for the Rhode Island Disability Law Center. Long an advocate for women's issues, she also has worked as legislative counsel to Rhode Island NOW, as board president of the Women's Health and Education Fund, and was co-founder of Healthy Youth Rhode Island, a statewide coalition that promotes comprehensive sex education. For the past four years, she has served as an adjunct instructor in Rhode Island College’s Gender and Women's Studies program. She is now also a visiting assistant professor of Women's Studies at Wheaton College in Norton.
PBN: Sojourner House supports and advocates for victims of domestic abuse in many ways, providing shelter, youth programs, empowerment groups and more. How many people do you serve today and is this number growing?
VOLZ: Domestic violence continues to affect approximately one in four women in the state of Rhode Island. It is estimated that these rates are comparable in same-sex relationships, and we also know that men under-report. In 2013, Sojourner House provided over 850 people with our direct services, which include shelter, transitional housing, support groups, immigration assistance, financial literacy workshops, individual advocacy, HIV testing and counseling, and youth advocacy and programming.
We also staff a 24-hour hotline that provides support and referrals to callers who may be in crisis or need information about the next steps to take if they are looking to leave a domestic violence situation.
In 2013 alone, more than 3,300 hotline calls were answered by our staff. Moreover, we also present dozens of educational trainings throughout the year, thereby providing information about domestic violence, teen dating violence, and/or how to identify warning signs of an abusive relationship. Last year, more than 1,300 middle and high school youth received education from our staff about healthy relationships.
PBN: What percentage of the battered adults you serve are men? Are there misconceptions about the need for this type of service and if so, how do you try and dispel them?
VOLZ: Approximately 15 percent of the clients we serve are men, but that includes young boys who stay in our residential program. We know that dating violence happens to all individuals – women or men – in heterosexual or same-sex relationships. However, there is still considerable stigma for adult men to report abuse, and the LGBTQ+ population doesn't always see traditional domestic violence agencies as resources.
Here at Sojourner House, we have tried to address these issues, and to that end we make our advocacy and transitional housing services available to men. We have also received funding for the last two years from the Equity Action Fund to provide educational trainings and outreach to the community about the prevalence of intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships. This is an issue that we are very aware of and are working consciously to address.
PBN: You have a strong history of advocacy on women's issues and teach as well as lead the Sojourner House. Do these two roles ever dovetail and overlap, and if so how?
VOLZ: Yes, these two roles definitely overlap, and in very positive ways. I truly enjoy working with students and teaching, but the academic world can sometimes seem isolated from the rest of the real world. I often get the sense that students appreciate having a professor who not only has conducted research in the subjects that I teach, but is actually doing work in the field.
It has also been my experience that my teaching is enhanced by the “real life” examples that I am able to bring to the classroom. As an undergraduate, I was a gender studies major, and then I went on to law school, so I love to tell my students to follow their passion – even if it doesn't seem like it will make them money! I've also been surprised but pleased that many of my students come to Sojourner House looking for internships or volunteer experience, so I find that the agency benefits from my teaching jobs as well.
PBN: Your website features "Weekend Warriors" who work for social justice. How do you select your subjects and what role do they play in elevating the conversation from a domestic abuse victim's perspective?
VOLZ: “Weekend Warriors” came into being as a way for Sojourner House to contribute to a dialogue about all of the great social justice-centered work that is being done in Rhode Island and surrounding areas. The day-to-day realities of implementing domestic violence programming can be emotionally draining, to say the least, so we saw this spotlight as a positive way to celebrate successes.
Our subjects were initially researched and sought out by one of our dedicated staff members and volunteer extraordinaire, both of whom were vital in creating this website feature. As our website has gained more visibility, we have started to receive outside nominations from others about people they know who are engaged in inspiring and effective social justice work.
“Weekend Warriors” has also been a great outlet for Sojourner House to focus on different areas that relate to the domestic violence advocacy that we do. For example, we have featured “warriors” who work in HIV prevention, the LGBTQ community, substance abuse counseling, homeless services, and education, among other fields. The work we do in the domestic violence movement intersects very closely with so many different fields, and it's important for us at Sojourner House not to be working in isolation, but to be addressing social problems holistically. “Weekend Warriors” helps give us a forum to have that discussion.
PBN: Why are you hosting “The Vagina Monologues” on April 11? How does it speak to your mission?
VOLZ: “The Vagina Monologues” is a play (as well as a book) that was written by Eve Ensler, and it has become a worldwide movement to address violence against women. Sojourner House's production is bilingual, LGBTQ inclusive, and draws its cast members from Sojourner House staff, volunteers, survivors, and community members who support our work.
The play itself is a poignant collection of many different women's stories about relationships, sex, perseverance, and loss. There is also a fair amount of humor and space for reflection about how violence still has such a large impact on so many women's (and men's) lives. The cast members are all volunteering their time, and proceeds will go directly to Sojourner House to support our direct service and educational programs.
I also teach “The Vagina Monologues” in my gender and women's studies college classes, and when students give me feedback about the semester they frequently cite Ensler's work as one of the highlights of the class.