Some Nuts and Bolts of Work (in Sitka)

For six months I have successfully avoided talking about too many of the specifics of my JV life here in Sitka while still managing to post pretty regularly about the adventures I’ve been having since I arrived in Alaska last August. The title of my blog is “Liz Purdy’s Adventures” after all, so I often leave the “everyday” just out of view. But many have asked how my job is and what I spend my time doing when not hiking on ice-covered trails, so, with a few months under my belt, perhaps now is a good time to do a little explaining.

Obviously there are several things I can’t post on a public blog about my job since I work with domestic violence survivors, so I’ll tread lightly while still trying to present some form of reality. My job title is “women’s advocate” which means exactly what it sounds like: I advocate for women. But that takes so many different forms that rarely do I walk into work ever actually knowing what will happen that day. I will also say that I have been out of my comfort zone so many times since I started work in the shelter and have thought to myself on several occasions, “If only the woman sitting across from me knew how long I’ve worked here, what my background is, and that I’m not really trained for this kind of work . . . I wonder what she might think?” So, yes, often so much of my/our work feels inadequate to actually “solve” or combat many of the issues the women who come to shelter are presented with. I have had to become more comfortable with the idea of “gray area,” which I was told in the beginning, there is a lot of when it comes to shelter work. Staff meetings can seem laborious with no clear conclusions and solutions. The intricacies of people’s lives, relationships, and feelings are our daily work. We are not mental health professionals or counselors . . .  we are women willing to help other women navigate an often challenging legal and social service system that is rarely “user friendly.” Sometimes we care too much, sometimes boundaries are broken, sometimes we fail to know what’s “right.” It’s all part of the day’s work.

There are about seven or eight women who work at the shelter in the same position. As a JV, I just jump in with the rest of the employees and do all the same work they would do on a normal shift. I sit in the “advocate office” each day with the door open and a rocking chair in front of my desk. I joke (rather morbidly, which is common among my burned out co-workers) that it isn’t a successful day unless a woman has cried in my office. That’s a rather crude way of saying that the women who are in shelter or are seeking our services have experienced and are processing a lot of trauma and violence in their past. A woman may come to shelter for a short while to temporarily escape an escalating situation in her home or she may have finally cut all ties with her partner and be trying to get her feet back on the ground and start a new life. Or she might be staying in shelter while she returns to an abuser each night. It doesn’t matter, the doors are open assuming we have room for another warm body. We at the SAFV shelter are there, regardless. I should state, however, that we try to always stick to our no tolerance policy of alcohol and drugs within shelter for obvious safety reasons and to honor the fact that the presence of those items in shelter, even the faint smell of alcohol, can trigger memories of a woman’s violent past.

On a practical level, we offer referrals, help fill out applications for housing, pro-bono legal work, public assistance, prepare protective orders with women and accompany them to court if so desired. In the midst of all the paperwork we offer “personal support.” We are not psychiatrists, but we listen. We never tell a woman what we think she should do, but we let her know what her options are, offer objective feedback, and inform her as best we can about the tools she has at her disposal. After that it is up to her. (Note: Personal support is most definitely the part of the job where I feel the most inadequate. I don’t say this to be down on myself, I say this because it often feels that my life experiences have had few parallels to the women I serve and these times are particularly emotionally draining. How do you care, but not too much? Where do you find the common  ground and connection of spirits between women when hearing her story? These are the questions people spend their lives answering and write dissertations about!).

I’ve learned a bit about the “shelter movement” as it arose in the 1970s and has transformed into what shelters look like today. In Alaska in particular, where domestic violence numbers are about four times what they are in other parts of the country, shelters use the “empowerment model” which tries to give control to the individuals (who likely has come from a situation where they had little to no control) to make changes rather than someone doing it for them or telling them what and how to do it. Some structure is good for people, too much structure is invasive for people, and at times it causes vague boundaries and frameworks to work within. This emphasizes all the more the need of our staff to collaborate on ideas and work as a team as we try to sift through the details of people’s lives and circumstances without being obtrusive. Perhaps I’ve made it clear that it’s a bit of a fine line we walk.

So I write all of this after experiencing my first round of burn out here. It’s a combination of still learning about work and how to make sure I am actively seeking “self-care” as well as living as a JV in a community and attempting to understand and uphold the four values of the program. So I guess I’ll admit (yes, even on my blog) that it’s not all fun, games, and adventures up here. It’s challenging work much of the time. It takes a lot of energy. There seem to be far more failures than successes. So perhaps this isn’t the work that I will commit my life to, but my time here so far has been invaluable. And I can really only begin to imagine what the next six months will offer. I, also, am very happy to entertain any thoughts, questions, reflections, or comments about this work.

One thought on “Some Nuts and Bolts of Work (in Sitka)”

  1. You are amazing, Liz – not just because you are doing good works and adventuring around the world, but because you are willing to confront and accept your own relative powerlessness, and to continue in difficult work that you feel barely equipped to manage. That is bravery and the women you work with will benefit from being in its presence.

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