Willows out of Mud: taking a survivor centered approach to domestic violence in Rochester.

Although the pace is often torturous for victims, history shows that we are making progress on domestic violence. Just think, there was a time when most legal systems in the world viewed wife battery as a legit expression of a husband’s  authority. In Ancient Rome, for instance, a father could legally kill his children.

Today, these practices still occur but they are no longer permitted by the vast majority of global societies. What is more, even though religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all traditionally supported male-dominant households- and all three have sanctioned unspeakable acts of violence against women- these cultural forces are diminishing in power as the world grows more educated, interconnected, and secular.

“Hand of Mercy”         Photo by George Payne

As a result of these trends, son preference in Asia, the caste system in India, and child marriages in Africa are waning in prevalence with each generation. In the next 50 years, it will be internationally forbidden to practice any of these traditions without facing significant legal and social consequences.

Most encouraging is that a number of international committees, conferences, and conventions have assembled over the past few decades to strategically address the issue from a variety of viewpoints, including religion, economics, politics, public health, and psychology.  The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, the Maputo Protocol, and the Istanbul Convention, have- in their own unique ways- addressed the physical, sexual, emotional, and economic effects of domestic violence. For the first time in human history the entire international community is responding with one voice to this crisis.


Photograph by George Payne


Nevertheless, cultural traditions and religious customs still plague the domestic violence abolition movement. A recent survey in Diyarbakir, Turkey, found that, when asked the appropriate punishment for a woman who has committed adultery, 37% of respondents said she should be killed, while 21% said her nose or ears should be cut off. Horrific acid attacks for adultery are still common in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, and honor killings are a frequent subject on the news in the Middle East and India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, no less than 8,618 dowry deaths occurred in India last year alone. Despite growing opposition to female genital mutilation, stoning, bride burning, honor killings, and other forms of domestic violence, these barbaric rituals are still way too common throughout the world.

In America, we have our own forms of culturally sanctioned violence within the family. The methods of control and abuse may look and sound different, but the suffering inflicted on victims is the same. So, despite historic progress, the crusade against domestic violence must be waged anew everyday. This is a never ending fight that demands the most compassionate, competent and courageous members of our communities to take the lead.

Enter Pamela Graham and the work of the Willow Center for Domestic Violence in Rochester.

“Threatening a current or former partner isn’t passion, or love, or heartache. It’s violence, it’s abuse and it’s a crime.”
Miya Yamanouchi


willo logo 2


Known previously by the name Alternatives for Battered Women (ABW), this 40 year old organization based out of Rochester, NY, offers free and confidential services to victims of domestic violence. Their role is to empower those going through domestic violence, not tell them what to do. Their ultimate vision is a community free from domestic violence, where healthy relationships thrive.

I was surprised to learn that the Willow Center is the only New York State certified domestic violence service provider serving Monroe County, NY. Just over half of their clients are from the City of Rochester and nearly half are from the surrounding suburbs. In fact, 51 percent of the 4,709 incidents of domestic violence reported in Monroe County in 2014 came from suburban communities and 49 percent from Rochester residents. It was the first time the rate of suburban incidents surpassed the city rate since 2006.

Monroe Community College holds conference on domestic violence

I also didn’t realize how comprehensive their services are. The Willow Center provides a full-continuum of free and confidential services, including:

  • 24/7 Crisis and Support Hotline
  • Short-term Counseling
  • Court Accompaniment
  • 40-bed Emergency Shelter
  • Children’s Programming
  • Prevention Education & Training

For readers already familiar with the rich legacy of Alternatives for Battered Women, the name change goes beyond creative marketing. As one long-time advocate and staff member said:

“Willow speaks to the tremendous strength, action, planning, determination, perseverance, tenacity, and power that the survivors we work with possess in their most difficult moments.”

While over 90% of those Willow serves are women and children, the name change is meant to be more inclusive of the services they provide (by mission and law) to men and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. They recognize entire families are impacted by domestic violence. Nearly 300 children receive services from the agency each year. And since dating violence is also on the rise – with young men and young women reporting abusive relationships in record numbers, Willow needed to expand its identity as a women’s shelter and empowerment organization.

Photo by George Payne

Today, all are welcome. As their website states,

“Domestic violence knows no boundaries. It affects women and men of all ages, income levels, cultures, religions, races, and sexual orientation—in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.”

Willow Center Website

I was also edified by my 30 minute Broken Spear Vision interview with Pamela Graham, who has served the organization for 9 years as a Prevention Training Coordinator.

“We all know someone impacted by domestic violence, ” she told me. “The statistics show that  1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime.” That means at least 1 out of every 4 people you see on the way to work is involved in an abusive relationship. That means 1 out of every 3 women in line at Wegmans is being stalked, shamed,  threatened, or worse. That means one of your friends is in trouble, or that someone in your family is suffering in silence. It may be you. As Graham explained to me, there is a false assumption that we are actually talking to one another given how often we are communicating through social media and texting. The truth is we need to be really checking in with each other.”

As Graham has seen more times than she probably cares to admit, countless times, many victims don’t even realize that they are in an unhealthy relationship until it becomes dangerous to get out. To paraphrase something I heard her say that caught my attention, “All abusive relationships start out as being loving and beautiful.” After-all, what abuser convinces someone to fall in love with them by using tactics of fear and manipulation. What victim falls in love because they are stripped of their autonomy and self respect? The effort to control and abuse someone in a relationship built on intimidation usually happens over a period of time and can be expressed in extremely subtle ways.

That said, as a survivor based agency, the Willow Center provides services for anyone who may believe they are in a dangerous relationship. They are also a resource for family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other service providers who are concerned and want to know what they can do help someone they care about. According to their helpful website, “our services, including emergency shelter and non-residential programs, are available to all victims of domestic violence, regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, sex, marital status or disability.”

Although Pamela was apt to point out that the solution to domestic violence is actually quite simple- for we know what a healthy relationship consists or, and we also know how the level of abuse can escalate when partners begin to see themselves as being unequal and undeserving of happiness- Willow strives to work with each victim individually, allowing them to be responsible for their own destiny, and this can involve a certain level of expertise and attention to the more complex issues involved.

For instance, what can make domestic violence more complex is that each group has a particular context that they bring to this crisis. Immigrants, for example, may not report crimes because of their status, or fears that they will be accused of having entered into sham marriages. LGBT people in some parts of the world have very little legal protection from domestic violence, because engaging in homosexual acts itself is prohibited. In general, financial or familial dependence, normalization of violence, and self-blaming have been found to reduce the likelihood of self-reporting.

Responding to why some studies have shown black women to struggle more with domestic violence, Feminista Jones wrote in a Time article:

The reasons Black women suffer disproportionately from abuse are complex. Racism and sexism are two of the biggest obstacles that Black women in America face. But because many Black women and men believe racism is a bigger issue than sexism, Black women tend to feel obligated to put racial issues ahead of sex-based issues. For Black women, a strong sense of cultural affinity and loyalty to community and race renders many of us silent, so our stories often go untold. One of the biggest related impediments is our hesitation in trusting the police or the justice system. As Black people, we don’t always feel comfortable surrendering “our own” to the treatment of a racially biased police state and as women, we don’t always feel safe calling police officers who may harm us instead of helping us. And when we do speak out or seek help, we too often experience backlash from members of our communities who believe we are airing out dirty laundry and making ourselves look bad in front of White people.

Why Black Women Struggle More With Domestic Violence

pamela from willow
Willow Center trainer and domestic violence expert, Pamela Graham (far left), was featured on the Broken Spear Vision 106.3 FM. Listen to the Interview


To learn more about Jackson Katz, visit http://www.jacksonkatz.com and check out his on point Ted Talk.


If you are inspired to contribute to the Willow Center, they are always receiving monetary donations and actively soliciting other forms of help. One of the most creative fundraiser ideas I came across is the Willow Center’s collaboration with local jeweler, Marisa Krol, of Interstellar Love Craft. Krol has created sterling silver Willow Center necklaces. It is my understanding that the sale of these beautifully crafted necklaces directly supports their programs and services.

willow jewlery by
Willow by Marisa Krol

If walking in a charity event is more your thing, the Willow Center is organizing a special event on October 1 called “Walk a Mile In My Shoes.” For more info, visit the event page at: Walk a Mile in My Shoes Charity Walk

walk a mile in my shoes.JPG 2


Lastly, if you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, contact the Willow Center immediately. They can be reached at:

Call Willow Center:

(585) 232-5200

(585) 222-SAFE

(585) 232-1741

Mailing Address:

Willow Domestic Violence Center
P.O. Box 39601
Rochester, NY 14604-9601



wilberforce plaque



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