By: Katherine Heflin
I chose Judaism in college—driven by my strong connection to the ideas of tikkun olam and community. AVODAH is in some ways the manifestation of these two values, and my placement at Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (D.C. SAFE) has revealed to me the complexities of social justice work.
The foremost lesson I’ve learned is that applying band-aids to immediate problems, rather than addressing the underlying issues, is exhausting. In my placement, where I provide vital safety resources and legal guidance, I have realized just how many health barriers inner-city women experience, including impediments to escaping abusive relationships, to gaining financial independence, and to accessing care for physical and emotional illnesses. Having come to see the need to address the underlying circumstances—such as the causes and effects of poverty—I now aspire to move beyond such one-on-one work to learn how to shape policies that empower women in their relationships and health.
But AVODAH has allowed me to see what a gift it is to be able to commit ones life to one-on-one work with impoverished or tragedy-stricken persons. I concede that client work is essential to real change, even if I can’t handle it personally for an entire career. Indeed, my placement and those of my fellow Corps members have helped me to see how much the world of social justice relies on direct service work.
One of the calls I received on the domestic abuse response line at D.C. SAFE demonstrates the difficulty—and necessity—of providing emergency services for disempowered individuals. A hospital social worker called on behalf of a homeless woman, and the woman had been evicted from her home by an abusive boyfriend a few months before. The survivor had wanted refuge from the frosty park bench that was her temporary home, and had been invited in by two strangers, a father and son, to warm up and eat dinner. Later that night the men gang-raped her in their apartment and stabbed her several times, once near the heart.
My original priority had been to find the survivor emergency housing. But following deeper discussions with the client and the hospital social worker, I discovered an underlying history of substance abuse that quickly became a more consequential focus. I hoped that I could get my client into a specific D.C. program that would treat her alcoholism in a comprehensive and long-lasting fashion while also housing her for 28 days without charge. With such targeted institutional support, the client might have the ability to heal from the trauma, homelessness, and addiction that plagued her since the domestic abuse she suffered earlier that year.
I view the experience of working with individuals as conceptually analogous to finding immediate shelter for the survivor that night. Housing for the woman was essential, but since she had no cell phone, I had little expectation that I would be able to help connect her, as we did with other clients, with resources over the following months. My AVODAH placement has showed me how frequent these situations are; and now, inspired by the realities of the world, I want to work to mitigate the underlying circumstances of her entire predicament through crafting better health policies and funding programs supportive of women’s ongoing needs.
Indeed, AVODAH has inspired me to work towards devising or advocating preventive measures for many, rather than limiting myself to responding to the immediate crises of a few. But I don’t think I’m weak for finding my work at D.C. SAFE unbearably difficult. Rather, I have learned just how strong some social workers, counselors, and social justice activists are. Furthermore, I know know how to utilize my strengths while supporting this vital part of the field—likely through policy work to increase funding and inter-agency cooperation.
AVODAH has also helped me to understand just how important a Jewish community is to me. My synagogue and my adopted Jewish family back in Palo Alto helped me through my honors thesis, my transition into the Jewish world, and perhaps the hardest part—my transition away from college into the real world. But now that I’m living in a house with nine other wonderful, dedicated, loving Corps members, I know even more about how invigorating and sustaining a Jewish community can be. Without my housemates to talk to each night, I’m not sure I could perform the emotionally taxing tasks at D.C. SAFE.
With my community’s support, as well as skills and knowledge obtained from my work at AVODAH, I hope to eventually direct my passion toward policies with the promise of advancing the health of impoverished women around the country.
Katherin Heflin is from Silver Lake, KS and attended Stanford University. She is a Lethality Assessment Project Advocate at DC SAFE, Inc., which works to ensure the safety and self-determination of domestic violence survivors in Washington, DC through emergency services, court advocacy, and system reform.