Institute will

by Brian Close

Dealing with a woman fearful of an abusive husband or boyfriend is always challenging. But the task is even harder when shelters and program providers are not familiar with the couple’s culture.
That is the motivation behind the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community at the University. Located in McNeal Hall on the St. Paul campus, the new center opens Friday with a public presentation and open house at 1 p.m.
Oliver Williams, executive director of the institute, said center officials hope to create a community of scholars and practitioners to research methods of improving service in dealing with domestic violence among African-Americans.
First conceived in 1993, the institute formed after people working on domestic violence issues found there were few programs that adequately responded to the specific needs of African-Americans.
Eventually, several researchers and program providers became the steering committee for the institute. One committee member is Beth Richie, an associate professor of criminal justice and women’s studies at the University of Illinois.
“Different communities of women need different kinds of intervention, and so to focus specifically on the African-American community is fully appropriate and long overdue,” she said.
The institute will provide assistance for researchers, offer annual public conferences and work to improve public policy.
Richie said the center’s goal is to connect research with field applications.
“The application is everything,” she said. “What can battered women’s shelters and batterers’ programs do to be responsive to the needs of those they are serving?”
One committee member who applies the research to her program is Antonia Vann, executive director of Asha Family Services in Milwaukee. Vann, who was a battered woman herself, said conventional programs didn’t work when she needed help with her ex-husband.
“The way traditional methods were going, they wanted me to put him in jail; to get the man out of the house,” she said.
Vann said the African-American community has not generally been friendly with the criminal justice system, and that women may fear how others will view their choice to turn in their black husband or boyfriend.
Officials said African-Americans in traditional programs for both batterers and victims had high dropout rates.
After founding Asha, Vann sent hundreds of letters to batterers and victims, asking them what was missing from traditional programs. Many men replied the programs consisted of white men and women who could not relate to their history and experiences.
“You have to really know something about the people you serve,” Williams said. “You can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach.”