Voices Heard

by Sabrina Readinger

The Silent Witness exhibit serves as a reminder and a record of domestic abuse.

silent witness

Storytelling is an important part of our lives. We narrate who we are and what we did. Stories recount what happened to us. The Silent Witness project is used to recollect how victims of domestic violence did not have a voice.

October was Domestic Violence awareness month, which was initiated in 1981 to make more Americans aware of abusive relationships that often hide within U.S. households. As part of this public awareness program, RACC hosted the Silent Witness exhibit, a collection of red silhouettes, each of which bears the story of someone who was killed by domestic abuse. The silhouettes appeared in the Student Union Building from October 2 to October 6, displaying the haunting stories of people from Berks County who suffered and died because of fear and abuse.

Those silhouettes serve as testimony for those whose lives were cut short by domestic violence. Though they lived lives like us, they aren’t survivors. One day someone snapped, killing a wife, a girlfriend, children, or even bystanders who were with the targeted victim. Sometimes these victims initially escaped an abusive relationship but were later killed by the same abuser. Venus D. Marsh, for example, survived an attack, but was killed the next day by the same attacker. A mother and child were killed to make it look like the mother killed her child and herself. Some of these silhouettes show the name of the victim; some do not; all of them give voice to their experiences.

Unfortunately, these problems with domestic abuse are common in society. Over 90 percent of women murdered by men are killed by someone they know. Rebecca A. Paull, a student facilitator for the Keystone Education Yields Success Program (KEYS), knows this problem well. Through the KEYS program, Paull has helped many women over the years with domestic violence. She has seen that violence is not just physical; the scars extend below the surface and the trauma, which is even deeper than most can see, extends to their children.

According to Paull, education can help women gain their self-confidence back and break the cycle. The cycle starts with the incident, then the honeymoon phase where the abuser says, “I’m never going to do it again”. Then, life stabilizes. But, at some point, the abuser attacks again, starting the cycle all over again.

These victims can’t always get out because the abuser has isolated them: they have no money, no family, no friends, and no support. They feel like their abuser is the only one supporting them; they fear leaving and losing everything, from food to shelter and clothing. Going from having a house to having nothing, or not being able to clothe your children is more trauma than many are prepared to take.

For those in violent situations, there are many resources around Reading to get help. On Campus, some students could turn to the KEYS program, which is a support program for students who are receiving benefits through the Department of Human Services and helps them overcome obstacles in the way of their education. The goal is to have them graduate and get a family sustaining wage to be independent of the system.

Paull has witnessed many instances of domestic violence situations and wanted to bring awareness to her students as well as the campus at large. Paull claims that an important part of her work as a facilitator is seeing women get out of bad situations and grow to be strong, empowered women. With this in mind, she contacted Berks Women in Crisis (BWIC) and developed a relationship with them in order to bring activities to campus. This helps to improve awareness as well as bringing more resources to students who might need help

Off campus, women can go to Berks Women in Crisis (BWIC) for help. This organization started almost forty years ago with a group of women who were concerned about the effects of domestic violence. Some supports that BWIC provides are safe shelter, counseling, legal help, medical help, and a safe haven program for pets.

Jan Cramer, who works for BWIC, explained that her job is important because she witnesses BWIC saving lives every day. She helps by providing opportunity to people who are in great need of help, specifically a safe haven. She likes being a part of the program, doing whatever she can to help people. If you want the same experience, you can become a volunteer, which requires training over a 10 week period.

Angelica M. Rojo-Monserrate, who is a KEYS program assistant, states that training at Berks Women in Crisis can inform people of laws and rights that can protect others. Some domestic violence victims feel isolated because of their legal status. Often a women can’t seek out any help and her abuser uses that against her, threatening to report her to INS or immigration. But there are special circumstances where the women can be protected from abuse even if they’re not legally in the country.

These many problems are addressed in the Silent Witness Memorial. There are always events to raise awareness about social issues like violence, harassment, and substance abuse. In many colleges, there are several activities that happen regularly. One, called Take Back the Night, isfor survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It was introduced to RACC’s campus five years ago when a director wanted to bring issues like sexual and domestic violence to light.

Paull said that RACC also hosted a clothes line project, which was started in Highlands, Massachusetts by a group of women who survived sexual and domestic violence. In the project, survivors create their own shirt about their experience as an artistic form of healing. The color of the shirts tell what type of violence the women suffered from. The shirts are hung as a visual display of what those women went through.

Cramer stated that BWIC is always attempting to raise awareness as part of its mission. According to her, awareness is crucial, so the event and exhibits are important. BWIC have an event in December called the Celebration of Peace where 200 to 300 people attend. Their Peace Works Group has frequent programs in schools for young and middle school children, as well as health fairs, and other public events where they can spread the word about BWIC.

Rojo-Monserrate states “As a woman and as a bystander, it’s important to me, because everyone deserves respect. Women should know that they are not alone, that there is a whole community of victims out there. So it’s important that awareness is raised so it doesn’t continue and [is] no longer a situation that is kept behind closed doors and that people don’t have to learn to live with it. We are a nation that is trying to progress not regress.”

What matters is that the victims’ stories inform the people who need it, inspire others to get help if they are in a domestic violence situation.

The abusers that wasted these victims’ lives don’t get to kill their stories along with them. The Silent Witness exhibit – as part of domestic violence awareness movement – serves to spread their stories and to give these victims a voice so their voices can be truly heard. No one deserves to be hurt; we all have the right to feel safe.