A conversation with SAFE: how advocates can support people struggling with domestic violence

Jan 21, 2020

SAFE's Gregg Marxmiller discusses advocacy, what it means to be an advocate in the community and how to support people struggling with domestic violence

Dillingham residents gather outside the police station downtown for SAFE's annual Choose Respect march in March 2018.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Izzy Ross: Thank you so much for coming in for a third time to chat with us about this. So what do you have on the table today?

Gregg Marxmiller: Yeah, thank you again for having SAFE here and allowing us to speak more about these issues.

Something that people — I’ve always felt was really important is ‘How do I help?’ And we’re not just talking about volunteering and stuff. I’m talking about like, how do you help if a friend of yours is hurting? Defining advocacy is the first thing, and what that means. Advocacy – the root word is basically a call to one’s aid. And so for us at SAFE, we are victim advocates. We are advocates for people that have been victimized by domestic violence or sexual assault and/or personal violence. We support victims of a crime. We offer them information, help, support, we kind of go and make phone calls on their behalf, if they want that. It’s victim-directed advocacy, and we don’t make decisions for people. We try to help people have those decisions meet the goals that they want.

Ross: Yeah, I’d like to jump in here. You mentioned talking not just about advocacy, but about how you implement that advocacy in your own life, if you see a friend who’s in trouble, and then what the line is between providing support and helping them — I feel like there’s a line that could very easily be crossed, where someone that has good intentions ends up doing something that the person they’re trying to help doesn’t want them to do. 

Marxmiller: Yeah, I think that’s the crux of the situation. What are you doing? Are you advocating, or are you trying to solve the problem? I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, we see a problem. We want to solve it.’ Sometimes that’s not that helpful, and I can tell you a few things that we generally try to shy away from in advocacy, basically. In advocacy we take everything they say at its face value, like that’s the truth. We’re there to listen to the truth from that person. We’re not there to judge, we’re not trying to figure out the answers here. We’re there to support somebody. If you keep that in mind, like, you’re there to support. I guess there’s that old adage, “No man is an island.” We need people. We need relationships in our lives. We need good relationships. And that’s what you’re providing in that case, is advocacy, is like a helpful relationship for somebody when they need that.

I can give you a couple different things that would be helpful to a victim of domestic violence.

You notice something, like, sometimes people don’t want to say anything, right? So starting the conversation – a way to do that is, ‘I’m worried about you,’ or ‘I care about you.’ Statements like that. ‘I’ve noticed this… If you want to talk about that…’ Leaving it open for someone to continue that conversation. You can even add, ‘I won’t judge you. It’s not you, it’s something that happened to you.’ Or if that’s not something safe for them to talk about, then they could say, ‘Well, I don’t want to talk about that,’ or ‘No, everything’s fine.’ But in that act, you’ve let them know that you care about them, and that you’re willing to talk about it. That’s helpful.

Then giving people the safety net of, ‘Ok, I will make time for you, and I’ll be here for you on this time.’ We’re not going to get into something and like — ‘Whoops! Gotta go.’ That’s not going to happen. I will have this time for you, and I’ll make sure you get the time you needed.

Then there’s some skills that are hard to pick up — listening without judgement.

Ross: One could say almost impossible. But I think that it does just take practice.

Marxmiller: Yeah, I mean, somebody is going to disclose something that’s really on their heart. And it may be about somebody you know. It’s really important to try not to add anything. You’re not adding judgement statements in there. A lot of times, when people are victims, they already feel judgement. There’s a lot of societal issues around this. It’s not up to you to find the solutions or answers. It’s for you to be there for that person.  

Ross: I think being there for someone like that — that can really deconstruct this idea of being a failure because something happened to you. Listening without judgement can kind of take you out of that mindset.

Marxmiller: Yeah. You’re a victim of a crime in this case. Somebody else decided to do something. That was not your fault. You did not make a choice for someone to abuse you. You know, I think there’s a lot of discussion about responsibilities of people, and they say, ‘Well this happened to me,’ or ‘This person did that.’ It’s something we learn as children as well: ‘This person did that, so I did this.’ That doesn’t absolve you of your responsibilities for what you did. I mean, if somebody did something to you, that’s terrible. But if you did something bad to somebody else because of that, you’re still responsible for what you did. There’s a lot of terrible things that happen, and it’s really hard to move on from those things sometimes.

So that’s what we’re there for. I mean, that’s our basic thing at SAFE, is to become advocates to listen to people, to listen non-judgmentally, and also validate people’s feelings. They might not be the feelings you have, but these are extremely important feelings for the person. And it’s perfectly reasonable for somebody to be afraid. And then believing somebody. You tell people that ‘I believe you.’ You’re not the police, you’re not the court — unless you are — but you’re an advocate. That’s what you are.

So many times, some of these things are so difficult that people don’t believe them. To be somebody that’s there, to help somebody out, it’s essential.

Ross: You mentioned not being the police. But as an advocate, as a friend, as a support for someone, is there a clear line when you say, ‘OK, this happened, there’s obviously a bad situation here, I’m going to the police?’ What are some guidelines there?

Marxmiller: Kind of the two rules here are: we don’t do anything unless we’re asked to do something, as an advocate. That’s something that we don’t take leads on. We try to promote and give options for things and courses of action. But our course of action is to listen, believe, and offer support.

There are times, though, where there is a clear and present danger in a situation where it could get lethal. I’ve called the police before when there’s people that are screaming, ‘Help, help!’ in a house. Something needs to happen right then. There’s clear and present danger. That’s reasonable. But a lot of times you have to kind of make a value statement. If it’s not something like that, that’s for the person to decide that’s in the situation, ‘cause they know how to survive.

And that’s key, is looking at survival. I mentioned the cyclical nature of violence. There’s a lot of situations that could end up becoming more lethal and end in somebody dying if you take it upon yourself to make sure somebody else is safe in that case. They know exactly what’s going on. They know when it’s safe to leave, and when it’s not safe to leave. If you’re helping and get to the point where you are at the safety planning stage, that’s where that stuff becomes a little bit more clear. And safety planning is like: trying to figure out safe places to go in an emergency; phone numbers for shelter; transportation; code words in a phone conversation; important documents; escape bags; keys; and emergency contacts of people.

So that’s where you kind of get an idea of, OK, what is safe for that person? They come up with that, and that explains to you how you’re able to help them out, if that comes to that place where they need to leave that situation.

If there’s active violence, that is a time that the police probably need to get involved, and also when children are involved in a situation. People may not know this, but the state of Alaska defines instances of children in a domestic violence situation as child abuse. And so children need to be safe and live in healthy homes. And that doesn’t mean, like, people are arguing. That means domestic violence.

Ross: What are some things that people can take with them to prevent domestic violence, or preventative measures that they can take away?

Marxmiller: So prevention’s kind of … there’s so many definitions, and things like that. But preventing domestic violence, for me, is creating a community, creating a place, where first of all there’s a peer culture where people know that there’s going to be consequences for violence — that people don’t accept that in our community. I would love for us to get to a place where violence isn’t even a thing that we deal with in our community, and that we treat people with respect. We may not agree with them, but we treat people the way that we want to be treated, that we lift people up. We feel a sense of pride in our community, and in the people that we are. We have economic stability and a way of thinking that promotes happiness wherever that may be for each person. That requires us to recognize people in our community, and be supportive, and be willing to give people the time. And also have good boundaries, and being able to communicate those boundaries. Like saying, ‘Hey, not right now, but maybe in the future.’ Or, ‘This isn’t OK with me. I don’t mean it in a judgmental way, about what you’re doing is wrong. But I’d love to talk about it, why it’s not OK with me.’ And we can share our values and maybe we can kind of understand other people’s way of thinking.

I don’t think it’s impossible. I think we can do some small part of that. What does that mean? Is that like recognizing kids’ names in grocery stores? Saying hello? Is that offering a helping hand to somebody that’s having a hard day? I mean, we get stressed. And I think that when I see people in our community, and I look at people, I know that I live in a community that is trying to do it’s best, and I have that sense. And I expect people to call me on stuff too, and we have accountability. Everybody has a way of seeing this, I think, and maybe sometimes it’s just remembering that we call ourselves Dillinghamers, or why we live in Bristol Bay, you know, and why we think this place is special. What we’re going to do about it, too.

I just really appreciate everybody that’s listened in. I’m hoping that people take this to heart, and are able to take at least one or two things away from these conversations. Whether it’s the breath work we did, whether it’s holding the stress points, whether it’s knowledge about advocacy; recognizing the signs of abuse — whether it’s within your friend’s family, yourself, in our community — and being willing to take a little bit upon yourself to help us be well here. So I appreciate people listening in, and I appreciate everybody out there.

Ross: Great. Well we appreciate having you here. Thank you so much for coming in to talk.

Marxmiller: Thanks.

If you need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the NDVH website

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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