A Conversation with Azucena Ugarte, Director of Education and Training at Women Against Abuse

June 14, 2016

The Philadelphia Folklore Project’s Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change initiative has relied on an advisory committee for input and guidance regarding programming, outreach and impact for the past couple of years. One member of that advisory committee is Azucena Ugarte, whose expertise in issues related to intimate partner violence has informed the efforts of the Chorus. Azucena works for Philadelphia-based Women Against Abuse, an organization that provides services for victims and survivors of intimate partner violence and disseminates information about the complexities of this dangerous scourge.

According to the annual census of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on one day in September of 2015, close to 72,000 domestic violence victims received services across the United States. Of that number 40,000 found refuge in shelters or other transitional housing; more than 30,000 received counseling and legal services. As many as 12,000 requests for shelter, transportation, childcare, legal representation and more -- on that one day -- went unfulfilled because of a lack of resources. In Pennyslvania alone, 2,600 victims were served in one day. And almost 750 people used the domestic violence hotline.

Philadelphia has its own harrowing statistics. Women Against Abuse serves more than 15,000 people each year. They operate Safe Havens – shelters for victims of violence in the home; they staff a Legal Center and help with community-based care and financial assistance for those who have escaped violent relationships. They coordinate a 24-hour city-wide hotline that provides crisis counseling and referrals, and they offer education and training for professionals, students and community members so that people can recognize, intervene in and advocate against the cycle of abuse.

In what follows, Azucena Ugarte shares insights and hopes, and talks with us about some special concerns of immigrant communities regarding the addressing of violence in the home.  

Azucena: Our ultimate goal is to take ourselves out of business – to get to a place where our services are not needed any more. It’s not just about providing services to victims and survivors. It’s also about aiming for that day when intimate partner violence doesn’t exist. And it’s also not only about providing for victims, but doing prevention work and work with systems. So that would be our ultimate goal, in which we are not needed, either because [intimate violence] does not exist any more, or, if there are some cases, then the city or state government would take care of it, instead of a non-profit coming in to try to help.

We know, for example, that HIV transmission from mother to baby has almost been eliminated. A friend of mine has worked on that for decades and she’s saying, “I’m so privileged to be able to work on a problem for 30 years and retire at the moment in which it’s not a problem any more.” And that’s what I would like to have happen. That at some point there’s no need for this [service] any more.

Toni: The name of your organization is Women Against Abuse. How do you define “abuse”?

Azucena: We consider abuse a pattern of behavior in which one partner gains and keeps control over the other partner. And that pattern of behavior includes the physical violence that everyone’s aware of, but also might include emotional or psychological violence, economic or financial control and sexual abuse. For us it could be one of those or all of them, but it is about power and control. And lately we are using the term “intimate partner violence” to be clear that it is between any intimate partners, whether married or not married, heterosexual or homosexual, and of any age.

Toni: And this differs from an attack by a stranger.

Azucena: Yes. This is very, very different from an attack by a stranger. The consequences on the victim or survivor, the tactics of power and control are going to be very different. And even your ability to cope, to react, to protect yourself, is going to be very different when it’s a complete stranger attacking you, and when it is the person that you love, maybe the parent of your children, maybe the one who pays all the bills, the person who yesterday was great to you And with whom you had a great weekend.

Toni: Who promises never to do it again.

Azucena: Exactly. And, I think it is interesting, also, if we look at approaches to bullying in the case of teenagers. School districts have been really good at putting policies in place for bullying and doing awareness about bullying. But, when we try to push for teen dating violence education, a lot of people say, “Well, but we’re covering bullying already.” It’s very different when it’s one of your classmates bullying you versus when it’s your boyfriend or your girlfriend [abusing you]. There is a different dynamic there.  I think some people are not aware of that.

Toni: Would you give me an example of emotional abuse versus psychological abuse?

Azucena: They can overlap, but I would consider, for example, emotional abuse to be saying things like, “You’re no good for this, you’re no good for that.” “I could find somebody else, easily.” “You’re not a good mother,” or “You’re not a good father.” Kind of like attacking  your self-esteem. In the case of psychological abuse, we would consider that things your abusive partner does that make you doubt your perception of reality. So, for example, we call it crazy-making, which is your partner hiding things from you and then putting them back. Or your partner denying things that they did when you are sure they did them and they are like, “No. That never happened.” And you start thinking, “Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe it’s my mental health.” Another example would be if you do have a mental health condition, but with your medication you are completely balanced, and your partner starts messing with your medication, or not letting you have access to your medication and it affects your ability to function. So that’s how I see the difference. We usually put them together, just for the purpose of training, but there is a difference.

Toni: Would you describe the terms “domestic violence,” “gender-based violence,” and “intimate partner violence”?

Azucena: We would consider it domestic violence when the abuse is perpetrated by a family member, so it doesn’t have to be an intimate partner. It could be an adult child abusing their senior parent; some people may call it senior abuse. Or a brother abusing a sister. That would be domestic violence. We work most specifically with intimate partners. And that could be teenagers, adults, seniors. But it’s an intimate partner. Or a former intimate partner perpetrating abuse.

I think intimate partner violence is one instance of gender-based violence because gender-based violence is much broader. Gender-based violence is sexual harassment in your workplace, it’s being sexually harassed on the street, it’s having these impossible standards of beauty that put so much pressure on women that I consider that a kind of violence, too. Sexual violence can be perpetrated by an acquaintance or a stranger. You’re being targeted just for being a woman. And intimate partner violence is part of that.

When it’s a woman abusing a man, or when it’s same sex partners, I think there is still an underlying issue of gender roles in all those situations. Because I think the same gender roles, rigid gender expectations that somehow allow a man to get away with abusing his female partner, the same expectation plays against a man that is being abused by a woman. From one point of view, as a man, it was your privilege and you use it as a kind of power; but now, when the roles are reversed, when you’re being abused, there’s still the expectation that you have to be strong. You have to be in control. How can you say you’re a victim? So, there are still things about gender role expectations. And I think in some same-sex relationships that may be happening, too. That you’re bringing those expectations. Because you’re exposed to a society in which you get those expectations. We need more research, though, in the case of the LGBT community. There’s more to find out.

The name of our organization is Women Against Abuse and a lot of people assume that we only provide services for women. And assume that it’s for heterosexual women, which is not true. We provide services for women and men in any kind of intimate relationship.

Toni: As director of education and training, what are your responsibilities?

Azucena: Jeez… do you have time? [laughter] I oversee the education department, which is composed of a full-time supervisor, who reports to me, two full-time community educators and a part-time clinical educator. I supervise my people. I coordinate the trainings. We do trainings in schools; we do trainings with professionals; we do trainings at recovery houses. I’m responsible for any grants that are directed toward education, so I’m in charge of doing the reporting. If we said we are going to do this, I have to prove that we did it.  And to manage my department’s budget – at a certain level. (We have a finance department that oversees everything.) I’m the one who gives input about what things the education department can do or not, what our capacity is, and also try to think strategically, what makes sense for the organization, for our department. I also have to be sure that the quality of our services is what we want it to be.

Toni: Do you train your staff, or do you hire only people who already have sufficient experience and knowledge?

Azucena: Everyone who provides direct services at a domestic violence organization has to take a 45-hour training. That’s six full days and a half. My department is in charge of that training. So we train everybody – every new staff person, volunteer or intern. And it used to be only [for] those who provide direct services, but now we train everybody.

Toni: How often are those trainings held?

Azucena: Until a year ago, it was three times a year. Now it’s six times a year. We opened a second shelter. Our number of employees just increased exponentially. And because we have two shelters that run 24 hours, we are always hiring relief staff. And everybody has to be trained. So it’s great. But our trainings went from being trainings for the case manager or the behavioral health interns or the legal interns to being trainings for the case managers and security staff and kitchen staff, and, yeah, everybody. Administrative staff… We set the tone for what is going to be expected of the work, your relationship with clients. I used to do the training by myself. Now my staff helps me. And we get guest speakers. We have our behavioral health team coming and doing the counseling piece. We have an attorney from the legal center coming and doing the “protection from abuse order” piece, and other organizations like Menergy, Nationalities Service Center, and the Bryson Institute at the Attic Youth Center. So it’s good. But we coordinate everything and we host it. The expectation [for our department] is that we have to be good intimate partner advocates, and also good educators. So there’s a lot of discussion with the team and a lot of training about how to write a learning objective, how to write a lesson plan, how to include an assessment in the lesson plan.

We go into schools with specific lesson plans for different topics. I think that kind of work separates us from other community education programs that are a little more informal.

For example, it might turn out that we’re going to talk about dating. The teachers have the right to know what information we’re going to provide, and when we present the lesson plan, they are like, “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.” We also developed a training for educators about teen dating violence that has been approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide Act 48 credit to teachers. In that training, we go over the dynamic of dating violence and also share three lesson plans. We make the educators practice, as if they were students. We split them into three groups, and each of the facilitators is doing a mini lesson plan. And at the end they have the three lesson plans in hand. They love it. They’ve said, “You’re not only giving information, but you’re also giving us tools that we can use.”

Toni: What are some of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of the work you do?

Azucena: I think the most difficult and frustrating aspects are when you can’t change the situation. Like after giving a training for adults someone comes and tells me, “This is happening to my sister and I don’t know what else to do to help her. And the only thing I can do is to be supportive, to not blame her. Not pressure her. To not give her ultimatums.” One of the most recent difficult conversations was at a local university. They asked me to do a presentation on intimate partner violence for the Greek system – all the sororities and fraternities. It was in an auditorium full of boys and girls. At the end, everybody left [saying] “Thank you very much.” One male student came to me. “Thank you very much. Everything you said is happening to my mom.” He stayed for about an hour and he said, “The things I’m telling you I’ve never told anybody. And my biggest fear is that my father is going to kill her and that I won’t be able to protect her.” And this is a 22-year-old guy, being very clear that the father is manipulating the other siblings, the mom is trying her best, but she’s so rundown. I gave him props for the incredible job he’s been doing. I gave him the hotline number. It’s so difficult not to fall into the role of the rescuer. Because I wanted to adopt him! I wanted to give him my cell phone number and say, “Listen, if you ever need anything, just call me, any time…” But we know that’s not the solution. And it would be impossible for us to do that with every single person who tells us something. How can we be clear with our boundaries, but, also, how do we provide the support knowing that that person is never going to come to our shelters, never going to use our direct services? It’s like providing support during that hour and then letting them go on with their lives without knowing. I think that’s one of the most difficult parts.

The most frustrating is when you encounter people during a training, [and they] don’t get it. After two hours of training, they are still blaming the victim. And that’s where sexist attitudes come in a lot, and that is very difficult to change with just one training.

Toni: The Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change has been focusing on raising awareness and understanding of intimate partner violence among Liberian immigrants in the Philadelphia area, through performances of traditional songs. In your experience, what are some concerns or considerations that might be particular to immigrants as opposed to non-immigrants in the context of this kind of violence?

Azucena: There are so many things. One of the things that I see in some immigrant communities is the idea, “This is something we should not talk about publicly.” This idea that domestic violence is very private. You don’t talk about it. Either because culturally you don’t talk about it, or because you don’t want to air your dirty laundry in front of everyone. And I think that happens with a lot of marginalized communities and minorities. Already you’re being labeled as such and such. The last thing you want to do is let the world know that abuse also happens in your relationships. You just don’t want to put that out there. So that’s one aspect. And in some cultures, gender roles can be very rigid. That can put up extra barriers to talking about the topic or to holding the abusive partner accountable or even to helping the victim connect with anyone, because of gender roles. Of course there are language barriers. And access. Even when we are providing interpreters, there’s still the problem of access. You have an interpreter but how comfortable are you going to be speaking through an interpreter? Going to a different part of the city that you aren’t very familiar with? Or trying to use a legal system that you don’t understand?

And I think, from our perspective, from our side, our efforts to reach out to immigrant communities have not been good enough. We know they are underserved. We know that they are more vulnerable. We know there are specific tactics of abuse that are used within immigrant communities that you wouldn’t see in other ones. Like, using your immigration status against you. Or your lack of immigration status against you. We know that. But I don’t think we’ve found a formula for how to reach out to these communities and make them feel comfortable coming to us.

When I train professionals in other cities, I can see how those systems, too, are not prepared [for immigrants].

We recently went to the police academy, to do a training for the cadets. I asked them, “If you’re called for a domestic violence call [and the victim and/or perpetrator doesn’t speak English] is it ok to use the children to translate? To interpret? What if it’s a 13- or 14-year-old. Is it ok?” And some of them said yes. And then we were like, “No.” The children might not know everything that’s going on and do you think the parents want the children to know everything? No. So I was very clear. In the case of intimate partner violence, don’t talk to the children.

Toni: Why did you say “yes” when we at the Philadelphia Folklore Project invited you to work with the Chorus?

Azucena: Precisely because we are not doing a good enough job to reach out to immigrant communities. We need to find alternative ways to do it. I thought this was a different, out-of-the-box way to reach a community that we wouldn’t otherwise be reaching. And, what I like about it is that it is representatives from within the community that want to bring the message. How can you not support that? We just provide the information or the resources. We just make the link, but, I think, that is the best formula. When people who have social capital within the community can bring the message and deliver it [in a way] that makes a link to our resources. It doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, or that it’s smooth. It’s still a lot of work. But I think it’s a good approach. It may be more effective than me going by myself and talking. I may be able to go into a Liberian church, and they are all thinking: Who is this woman? It’s very different if it is one of the women from the Chorus, or the whole Chorus giving the message. And I’m just sitting in the corner with my [domestic violence hotline] cards.

Even if I cannot be at each of the Chorus’s events, or none of my staff can be there, still, the hotline cards should be there. And if the Chorus could introduce the program with, “If you know anyone who needs help, please give them these.” So it doesn’t feel like it’s for “me.” “If you think anybody needs help, please take it with you.” And to send the messages very clearly that nobody’s going to ask about immigration status. All conversations are completely confidential. Nobody’s going to force you to make any decisions you don’t want to make. Because I think those are things people might be afraid of. If they start and finish with those messages and that information -- “There’s this number. Call here. It’s confidential. It doesn’t matter if you have documents or not.” – they reinforce the fact that help is out there, help they deserve to access.

Women Against Abuse's Education and Training team, under the leadership of Azucena, was honored in late 2014 by the Pennsylvania State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance with an award for Community Teachers of the Year in the Health category, recognizing their work in Philadelphia-area middle and high schools, throughout the Philadelphia community at large, and within the field of education.

If you are looking for ways to get involved in efforts to eradicate intimate partner violence, check out Women Against Abuse’s IPLEDGE Toolkit.

Everyone deserves to live in safety and with dignity. If you know anybody in need of Women Against Abuse’s services, please share this toll-free hotline number: 1-866-723-3014.