Susan Birns: In 2020, Walk a Virtual Mile with us

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As a member of the Board of Directors of Elizabeth Freeman Center, I have done a lot of baking during the past six months for the guests in the shelter we run for abuse survivors. As I deliver homemade baked goods and fresh fruit every week, I think about how significantly the world has changed in 2020, while the violence has not only continued, it has escalated. This is true because the very thing that helps contain the virus — isolation in our own homes — increases the danger to those victimized by domestic abusers.

Shelter residents are safe in their domicile, but what is it like to shelter at home with a person who abuses you? You have all of the stressors that others have faced since mid-March plus quite a few others including:

How do you reach out for help when direct contact with other people poses a potential threat to your physical health?

How do you call for help when you have no privacy to safely make the call?

What if you can't access electronic devices and the library is closed?

How do you get medical treatment if the emergency room is currently one of the scariest places you can imagine?

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How do you get a restraining order when the courthouse is closed?

What happens when you have to choose between your physical health and your physical safety?

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and regional orders to shelter at home, many domestic violence agencies, and the hotlines and shelters they run, were forced to close admissions and many completely closed their doors. Among those that remained open, many reported a significant decrease in the number of calls they were receiving. Victims were afraid and/or unable to call and the abuse they suffered was much less likely to be detected by others because they were seldom seen in public.

Elizabeth Freeman Center is one of the few domestic violence agencies in Massachusetts that has remained open consistently throughout the pandemic. While initially we noted a disturbing decline in the number of calls we were receiving, in recent months the numbers have soared and the severity of the violence has increased as people postpone calling for as long as they can.

Ordinarily at this time of year, Freeman Center board and staff are busy preparing for Pittsfield's final Third Thursday celebration of the summer and our major annual fundraiser, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. Over the years, this event has grown to include significant donations from more than 30 business underwriters, 900 walkers, and more than $90,000 raised to fund the many services EFC provides.

The money raised by Walk a Mile is incredibly important to the agency. It enables us to offer free and confidential services 24 hours a day through our hotline (866-401-2425) as well as shelter, legal advocacy, safety planning, teen dating violence prevention education and specialized services for marginalized and generally underserved populations. Each year we reach over 5,000 people from almost every city and town in the Berkshires and yet we know we are only scratching the surface.

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But Walk a Mile is much more than a fundraiser. It provides a vehicle for education and conversation about the many issues raised by domestic violence and sexual assault as they exist in our homes, workplaces, schools, and on the street. We discuss the connections between gender-based violence and racism, homophobi and transphobia, classism, and ableism. And as we walk through downtown Pittsfield, together, we join as a community to make a public statement calling for an end to violence — now!

Because of the virus, we can't do this all together in 2020, but we are still doing it — just differently. The fundraising component is happening completely online: go to pledgereg.com/EFC2020donate to register whether or not you actually plan on joining one of the mini-walks. If you want to actually do a walk solo, map out a route of your own or follow one of ours, posted on our website, through the downtowns of North Adams, Adams, Pittsfield, Lee or Great Barrington and walk it any time during the month of September.

But if you'd like a little company, join us in one of five socially distanced mini-walks scheduled between Sept. 8 and 18. These walks will occur on Sept. 8, 10, 15, and 17 in Pittsfield; Sept. 9 in Great Barrington; Sept. 14 in North Adams; Sept. 16 in Adams; and Sept. 18 in Lee. Visit elizabethfreemancenter.org for times, places and walk leaders. And if you come, don't forget your mask!

Spread the word that EFC is open, donate, fundraise in your personal circles, walk a walk (or two). But please choose to say no to domestic violence and sexual assault. #WereHereWeWalk.

Dr. Susan Birns is professor emerita at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.


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