Stirring the Fire is dedicated to highlighting women around the world doing ground-shifting work and bringing their stories to you. We are excited to start including more local women doing similar work of this caliber. We recently interviewed Merril Cousin, Executive Director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, asking her about the depth of her work and what keeps her going. Here is the first of a two-part interview.
When did your work in Domestic Violence begin?
I came to domestic violence (DV) through politics. I grew up in a progressive household with an activist tradition. I went to anti-war marches and union pickets before I could walk. I also was a life-long feminist from the time I was very small and I got involved in some feminist organizations on campus. I started focusing my action there. I got involved in anti-violence work because during my sophomore year there were a number of stranger rapes on my college campus. I found myself being really frightened, then being angry because I was frightened. I then saw a notice posted that the rape crisis center was recruiting volunteers. It was interesting because despite the fact that I had been involved with feminist organizations I didn’t realize that feminism had taken on sexual assault (SA) as an issue. I had visions of these “do-gooders”. I almost didn’t go to the training. Instead, when I walked into the room I saw that I knew half the people. I didn’t know they volunteered for the rape crisis center and it was totally coming from a feminist perspective. So I went through their training and it was a very experiential; I was just totally hooked. So I became a sexual assault/rape crisis volunteer and that became the focus of my activism. I had been a biology major and had wanted to be a veterinarian but politics started taking on more of my energy so I decided to try to get a job at a rape crisis center or battered women’s shelter.
Merril Cousin, Executive Director of King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence
How did you start working at the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence?
I moved to Washington State 1989 and got involved with relief work at homeless shelters. My first job was as a program coordinator in Everett with the DV organization there (the only one in Snohomish County). The organization was not doing well and by way of being the last person standing, I inherited the job of Executive Director. I was ED for 10 years. I was also on the board of AABL (now the Northwest Network), and I got involved with the state coalition and was an active board member for 6 years. In 1999 I applied for the job of Executive Director of the King County Coalition, which until then did not have staff. It felt like jumping off a cliff, but the job and the challenge spoke to me. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with this gigantic cell phone – we had no office at that time and one staff person: me.
Can you give us a brief overview of what the Coalition does? Why is the organization so important?
KCCADV builds capacity, leads, connects and educates. We serve as a hub for many organizations in this county and collect and distribute information to key entities. Our main function is to identify emerging issues, develop potential solutions, and advocate to have those solutions adopted. We connect all sorts of different players and people in leadership positions. For example we work with the state coalition to organize a policy agenda and a Lobby Day in Olympia (save the date – the 2013 statewide DV Lobby Day is January 31st!). We defend current service funding and advocate for increased funding for human services, especially during these years of recession, and we work to influence policy and the City and County level around most aspects related to domestic violence. This year we were very successful in getting new and expanded funding for DV and SA services from both the city of Seattle and the County (and we thank the Mayor, County Executive, and Seattle City and King County Councilmembers for that!). But it’s not because of the money, but rather what it translates into: more survivors getting the help that they need.
Merril Cousin presenting Senator Patty Murray with a KCCADV award, with Grace Huang of WSCADV.
Describe a typical day working at the Coalition.
The typical day at the Coalition is that there is no typical day. It is rare that I am in the office all day. I am usually out and about at different meetings in the community. I also spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time doing email, either sending, responding to, or sorting it. I recognize that some of that is just a symptom of where we are at in society, but also that is what my job is: to stay on top of who is doing what and to communicate to people the information they need to know. Then there are the days where I sit through a County Council meeting to be there for the vote because they are passing a budget that includes funding for domestic violence and it is important for us to be there to let them know that we appreciate it. So for some of that time I’m sitting through discussions on things like waste water, but that’s part of the job. Then there are the other things that are related to being a director of an organization. We have a Board of Directors (our board is fabulous), and the Board has a number of committees and I need to attend most of those meetings. Right now we are recruiting new members. There is some grant writing, though more and more I contract out for that. There is the financial management, talking to other staff members about how they are doing and help them problem solve. There are six staff now including me, which is pretty good considering that we started with 1.5. What I love about my job is that there is always variety. It is also a difficult part of my job. I think any ED is pulled in a million different directions and in this job one of the difficult things is to figure out what to prioritize getting involved in. It is balancing being flexible enough to be responsive to the issues people need us to be responsive to, but also staying clear on what our goals and direction are as an organization. We work closely with both the Seattle Human Services Coalition and the King County Alliance for Human Services. I have co-chaired the Alliance for a number of years now; we are focused on getting dedicated, adequate funding for regional human services. I really see as part of the role of the Coalition and my job specifically, is to make connections between the DV agencies and the movement as a whole with other social justice organizations and issues. We get very involved not only in advocating for DV issues but also related issues like immigrant rights and anti-poverty initiatives.
Merril with KCCADV staff, Alicia, Lauren and Alyssa.
What progress have you seen since you started?
I’ve seen incredible progress. It is interesting to me now, to be one of the ‘longer-term’ people in the field. DV and SA programs were still pretty marginalized when I started doing this work. It was considered the purview of radical feminists; we weren’t taken seriously. Having any voice in government or criminal justice initiatives was difficult. Now DV is a topic of major concern for the mainstream. The level of awareness around DV has grown astronomically. I think most people now understand that DV is a pervasive problem. Most people do believe there should be resources for victims of abuse and that abusers should be held accountable. We still have a ways to go in terms of more nuanced aspects like victim-blaming attitudes and who people see as “deserving” or “real” victims. And we have a long way to go in terms of people knowing what to do about the problem. But the basic premise that DV is a social concern is accepted by most people, and that wasn’t the case when I began. When I began this work most public officials wouldn’t want to say the words “domestic violence” or “sexual assault” and now clearly, many community leaders and public officials want to be seen as on the ‘correct’ side of the issue. I think that is why we have been successful in holding back some of the worst of the cut backs during the economic crisis. As much as policy makers have had to cut, most are reluctant to be the one to cut back on DV program funding. There was no such thing as the National Office on Violence Against Women or DV units in police departments or courts when I started. Some of the things I would have hoped would be different haven’t necessarily changed, things like images in the media and some of the values people have around relationships, though I do think that a lot of younger people are able to talk about these issues in a deeper and more nuanced way than when I was younger. The backlash when I started doing this work was about “it’s not an important issue” or “it’s in the family”, or “it doesn’t happen as frequently and isn’t as bad as you girls make it sound.” They thought we wanted to split up families and that we were anti-male. Today’s backlash has shifted to the assertion that men are being victimized by the measures we have put in place to support and protect women. In some ways it’s more difficult to counter. I also think it is an indication of the progress that we have made.
Stay tuned for the second half of our interview!