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The 1975 origins of SafePlace

“Young-hippie-students” rowed upstream in provincial 1970s Thurston County to create refuge a for battered women

In 1975, one of Olympia’s social spots for young adults and students was, oddly, the local crisis clinic. Many Evergreen and Saint Martin’s students looking for ways to connect volunteered there. Word of mouth got around that the clinic offered exceptional training in communication skills, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and de-escalation of acute mental health episodes. It was also the source of expansive knowledge about local agencies and resources along with contact numbers and eligibility criteria.

The team of young women who formed the Womens’ Shelter Task Force on the front steps of the YWCA on Union St. Top step left to right: Sarah Albertus and Colleen Spencer. Bottom step left to right: Susan Davenport, Lisa Pontopidan, Lauren Herbert, Kathy Haviland.

This was a treasure trove for students studying sociology and psychology and those interested in internships or social-issue policy work.

Another draw was Kathy McKinnon, the founding executive director of the clinic. She was a force to be reckoned with. She designed and led the training and held the young women she mentored to a high standard. She taught grant writing, organizational development and facilitation skills to those who sought her guidance.

Two best friends, Colleen and I, decided to take the graveyard shift—a weekly opportunity for a girls’ night sleepover. The clinic had two twin beds adjacent to the phone room for rest during the night shift. Two people took turns—one awake and alert responding to calls while the other slept. Not much rest though, as Coleen and I talked the night away.

One morning, Kathy McKinnon asked us if we ever responded to calls from battered women. Kathy had been reading about “battered women” in the New York Times and books like Battered Wives and Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear. This was some of the first public examination of “wife abuse” as a social problem, brought to light by feminist activists in the 1970s. Until then, battered women had essentially been invisible.

Yes, we had had such calls, and we had responded with the clinic protocol: get permission to call the police, get the address, put the woman on hold, call the police, and then get back to the woman to support her until the police got there.

Kathy saw from our work on the phone lines that this was an issue. Colleen and I knew it because we were survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Kathy gave us volunteers the assignment to log these calls with “women in crisis” under a new title “battered women.” One morning she showed us the total for eight weeks. It was substantial. She looked at us and asked, “Would you be interested in starting a women’s shelter for our community?”

Kathy encouraged us to take on the task. She laid out steps we would have to take to get established as a task force, including the type of supporting data we would have to collect to demonstrate need. She handed us an application packet for a community needs assessment put out by the Law Enforcement Association of America–and offered us guidance for writing the grant. The FBI reported that a quarter of all fatalities encountered by law enforcement were due to “domestic disturbances.” We were briefly put off by the idea of working with the FBI and law enforcement, but being pragmatic community activists, we forged ahead.

The justification for the grant was our experience at the clinic. The grant was to pay for a comprehensive community needs assessment, including data from law enforcement, hospitals, doctors, dentists (tooth loss due to beatings), the community mental health center, the Department of Social and Health Services and other child and family service agencies such as Head Start.

In order to receive grant funds, we needed an administrative body. Kathy suggested the YWCA. As Colleen and I had no experience with this type of ask we went to the meeting raw and unpolished, speaking from our hearts. Ethel, their Executive Director, was an old-school, refined, charitable agency administrator. She gave our young hippie-student selves a once-over, saying this was a “highly unusual request.”

She also said “Yes” and gave us the attic in the YWCA building at Union and Franklin for an office.

Coincidentally, I was enrolled in the Community Advocacy Program at Evergreen (1975-76). Our class assignment was to form teams to do a community needs assessment and write a fictional program proposal. I presented the idea for our shelter project as “unformed and fitting the criteria for the assignment.”

My professor was not pleased when he discovered my subterfuge. He knew what we were getting ourselves into and saw it as conflicting with our work in the academic program. It wasn’t a short-term, one-quarter fictional assignment. It was the real deal. Our team would be committed to a twelve-month timeline. (I did get credit for the course–and a terse note in my evaluation about not following instructions for a one-quarter project.)

The women who worked with us were all survivors of child abuse, sexual abuse, rape or domestic violence. We were committed to making the shelter happen. We formed the Women’s Shelter and Support Services Task Force under the mentorship of Ethel at the YWCA. Kathy fed us high-level community contacts essential for moving the project forward.

Our team embarked on an amazing journey, rowing upstream in 1970s provincial Thurston County to bring the issue of battering to light and accountability. We were young: Sarah, age 23; Lisa, 19; Lauren, 19; Kathy, 21; Colleen, 21; and me, Susan, 19.

We did one-on-one contacts to educate community leaders. We put on “dog and pony shows” to local civic groups. We researched and examined models, including one through Radical Women in Seattle run by Coyote, a Portland-based prostitutes’ union. Colleen and I travelled to Portland to attend their meetings about rape and violence against women. We looked at their “safe house” model—taking women off the street and away from violent pimps, sheltering them in private homes in a network across the West that got them out of state and safe. We thought this might be a model for our project prior to finding a facility.

Colleen and I kept our shift at the clinic. On occasion we arranged to help women get out of their homes to stay with people in our personal network. Any domestic violence worker today will faint hearing that. All the “safety rules” forbid anything like that now—one woman helping another, unencumbered by agency policy.

My role on the Task Force was collecting raw data from hospitals and law enforcement. There were no computers—records were kept in huge eleven-by-seventeen-inch ledgers like something from the 1800s. In hospital ER logs listing injuries, I found a pattern of “doorknob bruises” (black eyes the women claimed were from falling against a doorknob); kitchen counter bruises (bruised ribs), falling down stairs bruises (sometimes internal injuries) and various red marks or bloodied noses with no explanation. Mental health admission records were even more vague. The term “domestic violence” had not come into common legal usage yet.

In speaking with municipal police departments and sheriff’s offices, I learned they had a designation called “domestic disturbance.” This was more specific for our data gathering. In one Thurston County municipality the police chief told me, “There is no need to look over our ledger because that’s not a problem in this town.”

Most police and sheriffs took the same approach to these calls. They described taking the perpetrator out of the home to “walk him around the block” or “sit and cool off in the squad car” with admonitions to “stop doing that”—whatever “that” was—and send them back into the house warning they better not hear about “that” happening again. No one went to jail in those years unless there was extreme assaultive behavior requiring hospitalization.

We completed our report as a well established program of the YWCA. Eventually we merged with the local Rape Relief program, also under the YWCA umbrella. Local women politicians and community leaders now opted to get in on this growing part of the Women’s Movement. Once the shelter project became “legit,” the Task Force was disbanded and a new name was created: “SafePlace.”

As funding rolled in and a facility was established, women committed to feminism and anti-oppression kept SafePlace operating as a collective, non-hierarchical, anti-oppression organization for over twenty-five years.

Eventually, the shelter movement began morphing into a program beholden to governmental agencies and grant funders. At that point, the element that was social justice activism was replaced by standard social service policies and procedures. Once the board for SafePlace hired an executive director, the collective model was disbanded. It was the end of an era.

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