By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Bettie Williams-Watson has been doing “the work” for more than 30 years.
Her work with sexual assault and abuse survivors might seem to resonate more in this time of #MeToo.
But in the communities where she helps survivors – “We’re not there yet.”
The West Seattle resident’s organization is called Multi-Communities. She works with “predominantly African American faith communities, where we are still trying to break the silence and shame that exists.” And her work just earned her another award – today the King County Council honored her with the MLK Medal of Distinguished Service.
She started with a simple hope: “If I could just help one survivor, one woman and her child or children, be able to heal from the impact of physical and sexual violence, that it was worthwhile … now it’s been my shopping cart to push around for the last 33-plus years … I’m a 33-year-plus overnight sensation.”
While the #MeToo movement has erupted in a big way in the entertainment industry, government, and other arenas, Williams-Watson says, in her arena, “it’s a whole different ballgame because people have a hard time naming their experiences still … we are not there yet … In communities of color, we’re still wrapping our brain around, yes indeed, I was sexually abused … yes indeed, someone in leadership who had more power over me (did something that) was wrong, and it violated me … it’s hard to wrap your brain around. … Someone that loves us wouldn’t hurt us, my God, not a family member .. not a trusted person you’ve had a relationship with for years and years … you have built up other parts of that relationship that are really impacting and powerful so you can’t wrap your brain around the fact that person could indeed hurt you, could violate you, could kill you…”
And the silence is double trouble in the communities she serves, because: “Face it, black and African American women have three to four times higher risk of being killed by a partner,” a rate surpassed, she says, only by Native/Indigenous women. “I sit with having to understand that we are still grappling with the language and the experience and what happened to us and keeping it quiet and not wanting to be identified as a victim of abuse …”
What she does with Multi-Communities includes “a lot of time educating, using teachable moments … Services don’t look the same as they do at a traditional mainstream agency. People want to tell stories … they have to feel safe in who they tell the story to that you’re not going to judge them, blame them or accuse them.”
And in helping those she works with, she says, she has “two very strong African American male colleagues who have worked with me … given me ideas, applauded ideas I’ve had …(and have) helped me model healthy relationship skills” – one, she had learned just before our conversation, was celebrating 44 years of marriage. “They help me to realize how important it is to have the man in the process at every level. Healthy men can hold other men accountable, and encourage (them) … not just for the short term but the long term.”
Working to connect generations and to break intergenerational cycles of violence is vital to her work as well: “Many different levels of people coming together around multiple approaches within faith communities to address, reverse, and change the tapestry of violence, to provide resources, education, awareness, and whatever is needed to bring about their healing process … It goes back to a very basic Biblical principle … helping people at the point of need.”
The point of contact is within a church – where people are aware of Williams-Watson and what she can offer, and might contact her as a third party, to explain what’s happening and see what she might be able to offer, or even if she could make a referral.
“I work with a different network of churches … they know my face … men as well as women, leaders as well as parishioners … sometimes the situation is that they have a co-worker that they are concerned about, and they want to know what they can do. (Or) another church member is concerned about someone in the congregation; they want to know what they should do to get that person to come to me.” That requires active listening, she says, and acknowledgment that people heal at their own time and pace. More than being an advocate with “a goal for a survivor,” she says, “we really need to remove ourselves … and listen to what their needs are.”
At a recent panel discussion, she was asked about her definition of success. “It might mean you were able to get out of bed this morning and deal with all you’re holding from the impact of that abuse …
… it’s the small steps that really count; those are the ones that speak to my heart.”
Sometimes when she gives a presentation, someone might suddenly “feel comfortable enough to speak their truth,” telling a story they have kept inside for years, decades.
Williams-Watson also knows what that is like, as a survivor herself. She speaks of a former husband who was a minister, “and he could stand in the pulpit, he could preach, he could pray, he had these invisible angel wings … when I went home, there was hell to pay.”
She says he was very controlling, over every aspect of her life, yet she felt she couldn’t leave “because I wanted my children to have a father.” So she endured the abuse. And she takes care to say that abuse is not always physical: “It doesn’t always start with somebody hitting you … they may hit you emotionally and devastate you psychologically, putting you down, accusing you of having affairs … isolation, interrogation, manipulation … they will use whatever will work.” She added that her “religious upbringing” also was a barrier to her leaving – “if you marry, you stay married for life … my parents told me, ‘you made your bed, you lie in it, he’s a nice guy’ … they didn’t see what he did behind closed doors … the people in church couldn’t see it … they didn’t believe me.” She blamed herself, and felt that if she changed herself, somehow the abuse would stop. But “I wasn’t aware at the time that abuse continues to increase … it kept getting worse … we would have that cycle of violence … tension building up … he’s going to hit me over something … but not knowing when … I would walk on eggshells … he would hit me or accuse me of wearing too much makeup … or of staying too long in the grocery store … Shelters were for abused women and I didn’t identify … I felt like going to a shelter would have been going to hell and back .. but the shelter (helped) save my life,” and her small children, after one incident in which she thought their lives were in danger. A shelter advocate “told me the steps to take to leave and get away … ‘pack what you can and get out’.”
What she didn’t know at the time: Women typically leave seven times before they are finally out of the relationship. She says her husband stalked her for years. She had to change day cares, had to change faith communities, to truly and finally get away. “So I tell women, just because you physically got away doesn’t mean they are going to stop. … The abuser doesn’t want to let go, doesn’t want to lose power and control; they still feel like ‘it’s not over until they say it’s over’ …
“This is what motivated me to help other women.” But not just women and children: “I soon learned that men deserve love and help and support in their journeys, to heal or to change violent behavior … even just to keep peace in the community, with other communities as well … that’s what I mean by multi-communities.” That also means how many issues are related – domestic abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, chemical dependency, homelessness, poverty … and more.
Williams-Watson says a sense of humor helps her cope. She encourages others to “take good care of themselves,” and does the same for herself. “I practice what I preach – I think that’s how I survive in doing the work that I love.”
And she credits so many for support and help – businesses, foundations, churches, organizations, and private donors. Getting operating funds “is a struggle,” but private funds can assist with projects, like adopting families at holiday time or something simple like a utility bill for someone experiencing a financial emergency. Earlier this year she was beginning to work with a group of individuals and organizations on a new violence-reduction program involving community peace teams, from within the faith community as well as from outside. Also on her agenda for this year, support groups for people at every level of involvement: “We’re concerned about every generation.”
One part of her work for and with a younger generation involves “writing a curriculum for traumatized boys, black and African American, to help them to heal from adverse childhood experiences – to build self-esteem, cultural appreciation, to build healthy relationship skills, in school and with family and the community.” This is for boys in third through fifth grades.
Preceding that, there was a Men’s Circle Journey group that Williams-Watson explains was “for black and East African young men between 18 and 24,” an 11-week series to break stereotypes, build healthy relationship skills, working with partners, peers, and families; it had city summer-program funding. She recalls a video of some participants’ stories, including a “men’s clothesline project” modeled after this project, painting T-shirts “with messages of the impact of abuse or encouragement for survivors. … We displayed them in several different libraries, and within church settings in predominantly African American faith communities – we still have those T-shirts and want to build on that.”
That building, she hopes, will lead to “circles of healing, support, and accountability … we hope to build a model (to help) other churches and community groups that want to know how to implement these models – prevention, education, to save lives.”
She sees success in bits and pieces. Asked on that recent panel how she found her place in the movement, “my answer was, I designed my own place, I didn’t find it, I made it what it needed to be …there are doors of opportunity; I’m going to look for the door of opportunity. I find a place where there needs to be something happening … I design a window and I go through a window.”
And Multi-Communities can always use more help so that those windows can be designed and opened. Even some technical assistance or at least funding to help update their website – the “donate” button’s been broken for months! (You can find contact info here.) And they appreciate simple donations like gift cards or gas cards for the emergency assistance some clients might need – or even a supermarket gift card to cover food for the free trainings she does.
More resources also help the word get out – the word that there’s help – the word, for victims and survivors, that they are not alone. This fictional “letter” Williams-Watson wrote more than a decade ago still resonates, and is circulated, she says. “There are victim-survivors who want help but they don’t know if it’s safe to get help – shouldn’t a church be a place of healing and support and encouragement as opposed to just a place of rituals and looking pious?”
Today’s award is one of several that Williams-Watson has received several over the years. But, she says, “I feel like my award has been to put my heart and soul into the work that I love and have a passion for .. to help survivors.”