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Here is the second part of our interview with Merril Cousin, Executive Director of King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

What are the current pressing issues?

I think the whole family law arena is the most commonly cited problem from providers and survivors. I think a lot of it stems from the adversarial system that civil court is. It is incredibly complicated and over-burdened. There are competing interests: what is best for the child versus parents’ rights to have contact with their kids versus safety concerns. Even under the best of circumstances these can be difficult things to balance. There is still a lot of misinformation and gender-bias with people working in the system. Then you have abusers who have learned how to use the system to harass and control. You have all of these factors coming together and it ends up being pretty bad news for survivors trying to go through the process. There is a huge need for increased language and culturally-competent services for communities that are becoming increasingly diverse. The issue of poverty, what’s happening with the economy, is having a huge impact on survivors and what their choices are. The feminization of poverty was an issue before the economy went south and it is just being exacerbated now. Homelessness is a big issue. For DV service agencies, the increasing administrative burden from funders is an issue. Figuring out how to really prioritize prevention is important. We’ve been so focused on developing interventions and have made huge progress. But we also need to focus on how to prevent these problems. But it is really difficult to focus on keeping people alive and at the same time work on prevention in a way that is addressing these big problems in communities in a meaningful way. Not just doing a one-time outreach or even going into communities several times, but finding a systematic and cultural way to work on prevention and change. On the other hand I don’t think it is ethical as a society to pull money away from interventions that save lives, even to focus on prevention. Until we have community will to do what it takes, it will be an issue. I think there is a lot of exciting work that has been happening, some of which unfortunately been put on hold because of the economy, such as: different community engagement models, community organizing strategies, innovate work being done in specific cultural communities. There is a need and an opportunity to engage community. I hope we can get back to more emphasis being placed on these things. We – the DV agencies – need to really figure out how to integrate with other social justice movements. I think that is what it is going to take to turn it around and create permanent change. There has been an erosion of movement-based politics; there needs to be a resurgence. DV needs to be an integral part in this and see these other issues not as side issues but as central to what we are doing.

Domestic Violence Legislation Lobby Day in Olympia, January 2012

Why have you stayed in the field for so many years? What keeps you going?

The fact that there were these rapes on my college campus totally changed my behavior. The more I learned about it the more I realized my behavior was shaped by the threat of sexual and domestic violence. To quote the old slogan – my fear turned into anger and my anger turned into action. Taking action made me feel like I could do something. What depresses me is not doing something. What keeps me going is feeling like, or hoping on some level, that the work I am doing is making a difference. I also think that the people who work in this field are some of the most incredible people: smart, creative, interesting. Of course I don’t know if I know anyone who doesn’t work in this field (laughter). Being able to connect with my colleagues keeps me going. There are definitely days where I think I just cannot hear one more survivor story, but then I think about all the survivors who have changed their lives and that keeps me going.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about pursuing a career in the DV field?

I never made the decision to have a career in DV – I just started doing it and never left! It was where my heart and energy was. The fact that I was able to make a career out of it is amazing. I feel really privileged. The best thing to do is to get involved. I know many people who first get involved with DV starting out as volunteers like I did. I know more and more people who have gotten to it through college internships. More professions are integrating DV into their curriculums, which is good. There are not a ton of jobs in DV, so one of the best things to do is to learn about the issue. Many DV agencies have wonderful volunteer trainings where you can get a great education on the issue. This is a great place to find out if this is what you want to do before you invest time and resources into doing it and it is also a way for you to get a foot in the door. Other than that I would say you’ve got to be passionate about the issue. It is really hard to do this work if you’re not. You need to take care of yourself. Be open to learning. I thought I knew it all when I first started doing this work. Now I realize I know less and less the longer I do it. (Laughter)

Merril presents the superwoman award.

One of the things people admire about you is your balance between work and life. What’s your secret to maintaining a work-life balance?

I don’t know that I have a secret; I don’t know that I do keep a successful balance. I think it is always a challenge. I don’t think I would ever be happy doing a 9-5 and at 5pm being out the door. I’ve never had that kind of a job. I think you’ve got to figure it out and at some point say it’s enough and leave. You need to have strong connections and interests outside of work. There are times that I maintain that balance and times that I don’t. The times that I don’t have almost led to me leaving the work. I don’t feel that I’ve found the answer. If I don’t find the right balance, I work too much, I don’t sleep because I worry about things. I do have supportive family and friends that help pull me back. Therapy can help at different times, and the support of colleagues. I’ve noticed over the years that when I start to spin out – and I don’t even know what comes first – but it is times when I’m becoming isolated or when I’m not receiving input and feedback from colleagues. Not in the “yeah you’re great” but real help problem solving or giving me other points of view to consider. It’s been important for me to either formally or informally set up mechanisms for that collegial support, whether it’s calling up my peers and saying “we’re having breakfast this week tell me when” or pulling together groups to think through certain issues. Once I get that kind of support I feel like I can manage the stress.

If you weren’t ED of a large and influential coalition, what would you be doing?

I don’t know. I don’t know that that is a good thing that I don’t know. It is hard for me to imagine doing something else. I know if I do something else it has to be working for positive social change. I feel so lucky, most days, for my work. I get to do something that has a lot of variety and flexibility, is interesting and engaging. I get a lot of interaction and support from people and recognition that people think I’m doing a good job, and where I feel I’m making a difference. I don’t take it for granted.

2 Responses to “Merril Cousin, ED of King County Coalition, Shares More About her Work and Work/Life Balance”

  1. John Wasko says:

    I’ve known Merril for over 20 years. This is a really good interview. I especially liked her honesty and willingness to acknowledge ambiguity or not knowing something, as well as the clear and thoughtful analysis she brings to situations. I particularly liked her thoughts on family court proceedings and the challenges there, as well as the need to integrate prevention and intervention, and commit, as a community, to doing both. That certainly rings true. I think the best results in this field come when we look at situations in all their complexity, and apply our imaginations and energies to every possible point where we can disrupt the momentum of violence. That allows the best opportunity to see positive changes emerge.

  2. I’ve worked as DV Children’s Advocate for over four years and am still relatively new to the field. I have known Merrill for several years through trainings put on by the Coalition and through volunteering at the DV Take Action Awards. I found her interview really inspiring! I too struggle between the thoughts: Can I keep doing intervention and How do we create social change that prevents DV in our culture in the first place? I enjoyed learning about her journey! Thank you.

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