By Alix Tarnowsky, LCSW, MBA
Advocacy Director, STAR New Orleans
Alix Tarnowsky (center) with members of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
As the Advocacy Director of STAR’s New Orleans office, I feel fortunate to work with survivors of sexual violence each day. This past January, the New Orleans office celebrated its two-year anniversary in the community. Our office provides services to hundreds of survivors in the Greater New Orleans area through our 24/7 hotline, accompaniment and advocacy services, and counseling.
As a staff member of STAR for the past two years, I have witnessed the organization steadily increase its impact in the communities we serve. STAR is a unique organization in many ways. We are one of only two stand-alone sexual assault centers in Louisiana, meaning our organization’s sole focus is on serving survivors sexual violence. By and large, most sexual assault services available in communities are provided by collaborative or multi-focused centers. These centers often provide a multitude of services to the community, which typically include domestic violence intervention, transitional housing, emergency shelter, or other targeted mental health services. While the benefit of these centers is the range of services that can be acquired at one time, there is often a lack of focus on sexual trauma services.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center recently dedicated resources to studying this trend of sexual assault services being provided by large, multi-function agencies. The findings from this project, the Sexual Assault Demonstration Initiative, indicate that in many of these agencies, sexual assault services were given the least attention and dedicated resources of the agency. This is reflective of the funding for sexual assault services across the nation and in our state. At this time, STAR receives only a fraction of our funding from dedicated Federal dollars—less than $200,000 per year. In addition, no sexual assault service provider in Louisiana receives state funding for sexual assault services. No wonder we are unable to sustain specialized centers.
While this work is rewarding in many ways, working for a stand-alone sexual assault center can often feel isolating due to the consistent trauma staff members are exposed to and the inability to connect with other stand-alone centers to share ideas with. With the recent increase in media attention on sexual violence, our organization’s capacity to continue providing free services to those in need has been stretched more than ever. We are finally seeing decades of silence and shame being shattered by the many brave voices are speaking up about their experiences; however, the infrastructure of services and support in our communities is severely lacking and is ill-equipped to handle disclosures of this magnitude.
Part of my self-care includes traveling and visiting friends and family to reconnect and return to my roots. While not originally from Wisconsin, I was lucky enough to spend 4 amazing years living in Madison and attending the University of Wisconsin. The school has over 40,000 students enrolled between undergraduate and graduate programs, compared to LSU’s 30,000 students and Tulane’s 13,000 students. Having friends that still live in the area, I try to make it back to UW every year, and was lucky to schedule my 2017 trip the same weekend as the Wisconsin/Michigan football game (U-Rah-Rah, Wis-Con-Sin!).
Knowing I had a free day in Madison while friends were at work, I reached out to the Rape Crisis Center (RCC) in Madison to see if I could get a tour, learn about their organization, and share how we each support survivors in our communities. Jaime, RCC’s Director of Client Programming, was able to take time to meet with me to share information about their program. The experience of connecting with colleagues from across the country was incredible, and it reminded me why we do this work for our community.
RCC, just like STAR, is a stand-alone sexual assault center that provides 24/7 hospital accompaniment, runs a 24/7 crisis hotline, as well as provides free counseling and advocacy services to survivors of sexual violence. Unlike STAR, the RCC has a space located on UW’s campus where students can enter a nondescript building and receive services without having to leave campus. During our time, we discussed the campus satellite office as well as our volunteer trainings, ways we support clients and staff members, fundraising ideas, and the importance of connecting with other sexual assault centers to build a network. We shared outreach material and provided feedback on ideas we had for our programs.
While it was great to meet with Jaime about the work our agencies were doing, it was even better to connect with someone fighting the same battles in a different city, whether it’s in America’s Heartland or down in the French Quarter. We were able to share similar experiences about navigating relationships with community partners and ways we support our teams when facing vicarious trauma.
Even though I was only able to spend a couple hours with Jaime at the RCC, it dawned on me that advocates often feel parallel experiences to survivors. While at times we can feel lonely and isolated, in reality, we are not alone – we just need to reach out and connect. We need more support from our government and our communities to do this work well.
Sexual violence impacts all of our communities and it’s with the support of agencies like the Rape Crisis Center and STAR, we can work to create a community free of sexual violence.
Do you work outside of Louisiana for a stand-alone sexual assault center? Let us know and maybe I’ll stop by for a visit — you never know where my next trip will take me!