Rita Smith

(WOMENSENEWS)–Transition House, New England’s first battered women’s shelter, has always been known for its cutting edge work helping women and children escape abusive homes.

Recently, however, the Boston-based 30-year-old organization has set a precedent that makes some feminist activists uncomfortable. The board has not only hired a man as the interim executive director, but they are doing a gender-neutral search for a permanent hire set to conclude August 30th.

About Women, a collective of psychologists and social workers who were instrumental in creating shelters (including Transition House itself) in the 1970s, see this as step in the wrong direction. They wrote the board of Transition House a letter last October protesting what they called a “flagrant violation” of the organization’s founding principles to establish a space where “women could feel safe from male intrusion and could openly unburden themselves of the experiences of male violence they had undergone without fear of censure, criticism or inhibition by male presence.”

“I fear it’s becoming about the bottom line, not helping women,” Karen Schneiderman, one of the women in the collective, said.

The Board President of Transition House, Dr. Nanette Veilleux, argued that the bottom line is, indeed, central to their search. “As money shrinks, our E.D. has to be many, many things: developer, supervisor of programming, marketer,” she said. “We need to find the most qualified person for the job, so we go into these searches with a gender neutral perspective.”

The battle over the next director of Transition House has got activists in the shelter system questioning whether embracing male leadership is the next logical step in the progress of the shelter movement or a violation of its mission to protect and treat women and children affected by domestic violence. They question whether the decision will change hiring practices for the other 2,000 shelters across the country. Activists also wonder whether hiring a man as a shelter director will ultimately serve the best interests of the women and children fleeing violence and abuse in their homes.

Men in Various Capacities

Men, in fact, have been working in various capacities in the “DV community,” as those on the inside call it, since the early 1980s. Veilleux reports that Transition House has had many men over the years who work closely with residents, such as counselors, health care providers and cleaning-cooking staff. They had much more contact, in fact, than the new executive director will.

“I spend my time in the administrative offices, which are in a completely separate location from the actual shelter,” William Stanton, the interim director of transition house, said. “In truth, my contact with the residents is limited.”

Most shelter executive directors, like Stanton, report that the majority of their work is administrative as opposed to direct service. Their impact on the residents, therefore, isn’t interpersonal, as much as structural, through the type of programming established, shelter policy, and the state of the facility as a result of fund-raising.

Nonetheless, says Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, argues that the symbolic importance of a director within a given shelter is significant.

“When you do a gender-blind search, you are assuming that women in general have reached some state of equality that may not be true,” she said. “They are certainly not taking into consideration that seeing women in powerful roles impacts the victims of abuse and certainly influences their daughters and sons.”

Veilleux responds that “everyone on the board is much less attached to symbolism than finding someone who we really feel is going to do the job.”

The job description, notably, does demand that the executive director “represents the programs and point of view of the organization to agencies, organizations and the general public,” among a laundry list of other responsibilities. (The two page job description is followed by the Equal Opportunity Employer clause.)

The controversy surrounding the new hire may be symptomatic, not only of the discomfort with gender-neutral hiring policies, but also a larger schism in the domestic violence community over the direction of the field. The founders are accustomed to a grassroots approach to running the shelters and networking with one another, not the more professionalized climate that new hires appear to be establishing.

“I think there is a real generational transition going on as well,” Veilleux said. The board of Respond, another Boston-based shelter, “is much younger, in general, and that colors how they make decisions.”

Smith believes that as the field has attracted more money and become more institutionalized, men have followed. “What is interesting to me,” she said, “is that for a very long time men had absolutely no interest in this work because we didn’t pay well enough. I want to know: Where were you 30 years ago? Where were you when there was mold on the wall?”

The About Women collective, in their letter protesting the hiring practice, was even more emphatic: “We human rights activists have always had the vision of abolishing male violence–not making a living off of it. It’s such a regrettable irony that some men (and women) previously opposed to feminism are now doing just that by exploiting the initiatives of feminists and making a profit off of male violence against women.”

Transition House operates on an average annual budget of $1 million. Veilleux says that the shelter is chronically under-funded.

Building Coalitions

Smith also worries that male directors will affect the larger community’s capacity to build coalitions. While part of a statewide group of domestic violence leaders working in Colorado, Smith says two male directors “changed the dynamic in the room.”

“We had to address, as women, how our behavior changed when men were involved in that conversation–deferring to them or not getting out ideas heard,” she said. “Likewise, the men in the room had to hear that sometimes the way they presented information had an air of entitlement.”

“The truth is,” former shelter volunteer Amanda Watson, said. “Executive directors don’t have that much contact with the staff or residents in shelters anyway.”

Watson, now attending social work school at Boston University, bristles at the idea that a director’s ability to network is the foremost concern. “I think the real issue is not whether the directors are male or female, but whether they are in touch with the community within the shelter and their needs,” she said. “I found that the people doing the decision making at my facility were very disconnected from people on the ground, regardless of gender.”

Veilleux makes a similar argument with regards to the About Women collective’s criticism of the interim and now permanent executive director hiring process. “I know that we owe them our lives because they founded the Transition House and other shelters, but having said that, many of them haven’t been to Transition House in over 20 years,” she said. “Times have changed.”

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on the drive for perfection among young women (Simon and Schuster, fall 2006). You can read more about Martin’s work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com.

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