Asian Women United will continue to serve

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The need for an organization that provides Asian and Pacific Islander women and children safety and protection from family violence, means that despite the troubled history of Asian Women United of Minnesota AWUM), the nonprofit will continue to operate rather than shut down as many had thought after more than two years of management and legal problems.

With new board leadership and management, AWUM’s experienced staff will continue its vital role in advocating for an end to domestic violence and providing culturally appropriate services at their 25-bed House of Peace shelter to protect APIA victims of violence, to offering more support services and referral counseling for self-sufficiency and healthy families. They also offer a 24-hour crisis line, domestic violence awareness and education programs.

The new AWUM Executive Director, Lani no last names of staff for safety), is now in charge of all aspects of the organization, from staff and programs to fundraising and public outreach. She has been with the organization since May 2006 as a staff social worker and was selected by the new board to lead the day-to-day business and implement the new changes to the organization.

AWUM has about 25 staff that work three shifts. About 10 of them work fulltime. They have an outreach education specialist, a cook, an advocate for children, a family manager, an administrative assistant, and they contract out their maintenance and security to ICON, which offers free escorts for women to get their belongings and documentation from home.

Some of the AWUM staff has been there for ten years, which helped AWUM’s capacity outweigh their recent difficulties to earn back the trust of community and funding organizations. The staff are bilingual and can offer English, Hmong, Vietnamese, Japanese, Khmer and Tagalog in-house, and use outside interpreters for other languages.

“For our organization to be successful, we had to create internal synergy on the board and staff,” said Lani. “That makes a big difference and when we talk about a mission driven philosophy, our mission is to serve the Asian community and acknowledge the fact that there are poor victims and offer an open door to anyone.”

Lani began working in the battered women’s movement around twenty years ago. She began volunteer work in case management at the AWUM shelter around ten years ago while a student at the University of Minnesota. She previously served as director of the PRIDE program at Families and Children’s Services, and for RESOURCE, Inc. at the Employment Action Center.

“I love to bring organizations back from the dead, especially when the mission and drive is making a different in community,” Lani said. “I have always had a passion for victims of domestic violence.”

“After talking to Lani for less than two hours, I was convinced that she could be the director,” said Gloria Fressia, the new AWUM Board Chair. “At that moment the organization was going through a lot of trouble and it was not easy to convince her, but once she decided then things began to improve.”

Originally from Italy, Fressia is an attorney who lived and worked in Uruguay for 30 years. She was practicing in the area of human rights and because of her strong passion for her work, and was invited to join Casa DeEesperanza, a battered women’s legal advocacy project. She eventually became a managing partner.

Fressia was invited to join the board two years ago by fellow board member, Grace Vigilante, and was asked to chair the organization through its restructuring. A Minneapolis Police Officer, a county judge and social workers also serve on the board.

She oversaw changes in staff, finances, policies, and worked with Lani to develop a new philosophy of how the director will work together with staff and the board.

Part of this restructuring meant that AWUM had to close their administrative office at 1954 University Avenue, St Paul. This allowed Lani to work all-day on-site, where she managed the staff along with administrative duties and grant writing duties.

“We have changed the dynamics of the staff, and they feel that they have a career there now and can move up if they earn it,” said Lani. “It feels good, and they respond very well.

“If someone feels they have no support out there and they feel there is no way out, then I think it is really important for them to know there is a place to help them and that they are not alone,” she added. “When people are very desperate oftentimes they feel there is no hope and we need to tell them that there is help out there.”

Despite its troubles, AWUM served about 50 families last year, and has the capacity to house up to 24 families at a time for up to thirty days. Advocates are available day or night on the phone or in person to answer questions or just talk. You don’t have to be ready to leave home just to call and have help with understanding your own concern.

There were many management complaints over the past few years, and they came to light when the former board was sued for pay by the former executive director, Sinuon Leiendecker, who won on Appeal. The board had dismissed her for misconduct and there are still some legal hurdles from old issues pending.

To top it all, an AWUM board treasurer was found guilty of embezzling over $250,000 between 2000 and 2003 to fund gambling debts.

Jean Miller, Office of Justice Programs OJP), worked in partnership with AWUM to rebuild every aspect of the organization before their 501c)3 nonprofit status was restored after it was revoked for two months. The major areas of restructuring were with administration, financial program management and board capacity.

OJP could have had AWUM shut down for good, or at least ensured that they would never get state or federal funding again. However, Jeri Boisvert, executive director, OJP, Department of Public Safety, Crime Victim Services, said AWUM is a vital shelter and advocacy component in multicultural outreach, and with provided high quality crime victim services in the API community.

They were in the midst of several long term programs and found it more valuable to hold AWUM accountable and partner with them in rebuilding the organization, as they had developed expertise in addressing cultural aspects in family services.

“They have capacity to deliver high-quality services,” she added. “It’s very different in the immigrant community and having accessible services available throughout the state is crucial. Our numbers are steady in terms of accessing services.”

Internally, OJP helped to develop and standardize personnel matters, from salary structuring and position descriptions, performance evaluations, supervision protocols and policies and procedures that sync with both staff and the board.

In the process, AWUM was able to build better programs, outreach and security. The finances became more efficient and transparent with the closing of multiple accounts and required more than one authorization for release of funds.

It worked, Boisvert said, because the new board and staff understood the gravity of the situation, yet remained committed to rebuilding at a time when it would have been easier to walk away, because of their dedication to the work.

“We recognize the great value of this program to the community,” said Boisvert. “We are really impressed in the strides that the board and Lani have made over the past 18 months.

“We don’t want the program to fail and at the same time we also take very seriously our stewardship of taxpayers money,” she added.

AWUM cannot work alone in fulfilling their mission as a community-based organization. They partner with county social service agencies, police, hospitals, and API organizations for client referrals and outreach education.

There is a stigma with APA women who leave a troubled home, and so some of them prefer a mainstream environment – but others, especially newcomers, will need services from people who know their language and identify with their culture and life experience. To keep beds available to those in need, a screening program and community plan was devised to serve women who need services but don’t not necessarily the shelter.

Victims are often in an emotional struggle, having putting up with emotional or physical abuse for many years. They choose to leave for safety of the children or themselves, but some choose to attempt to resolve the conflict and return to their spouse.

Lani describes this as “the dynamics of violence”, where there is a need to support a victim and teach them about the pattern of violence, and the effects of violence, from the emotional and material costs the family and children, which carried over into the schools, the workplace and the community. In the end, it is the victim’s decision on which path to take. For the APA community in particular, there are traditional roles to also contend with and AWUM helps them develop a “safety plan.”

Often with victims, self-esteem is completely destroyed and so they might think that everything their fault and blame themselves. They don’t feel strong enough or smart enough to make their relationship work.

“In the first stages of becoming independent they are afraid,” she added. “In the Asian community, by-in-large, victims of abuse are victims of multiple abuses, by their partner, mother of their partner, sisters and brothers of their partner, and so they might be afraid they will find someone in a shelter who will know her or their spouse.”

Lani said that this happens a lot in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and they spend a lot of time working on trust and ensuring the victim that they will respect confidentiality.

She said it is important to acknowledge that abusive partner know and understand that there is help for them as well. It is a very different approach for them because the abuser does not usually want to be violent, and has to be show that to seek help is better than losing the family or winding up in the criminal justice system.

“We are not here to destroy families; we are here to provide support and end violence in our own community and families,” said Lani.

The children are sometimes confused and feel anger toward their mother for leaving, or blame themselves for breaking up the home. AWUM sometime puts the kids in a different school, and offers counseling to help them understand what they are feeling and what their mother was going through and why she made the decision to leave.

“This is not only about education, or just a one-way projected message,” said Fressia. “We want them to be convinced and buy into the benefits of prevention. Educating them is really us just working together with community.”

“We need to respect and value that process and not forget that this is a process of hope,” she added. “Eventually, they will come to a conclusion that they want to be free of violence and can use the system available to them.”

Another concern is to avoid codependency from women who come to them in a state of shock. The staff are aware that each case is different, and that miracle cannot be set in a timetable, but that most times the client can be helped to help themselves.

“We want to empower them, to teach them self-sufficiently and life skills,” said Fressia. “That is part of the group sessions, empowerment and how the abuser effects self-esteem.

AWUM works closely with Civil Society to help victims understand their legal rights, to seek court orders for protection and other advice. They also help with immigration issues that might arise at the fault of the abuser holding passports, visa).

The duration of a victim’s stay may require medical and dental services and this is complicated when each family might have some kind of coverage, or may need AWUM staff to help them apply for insurances and schedule medical services.

AWUM would like to eventually develop transitional housing for women needing more support as they adjust to the shock of independence.

Volunteers, from doctors to hairdressers, come in to donate their time and give the women and children free services. When a woman finds work, perhaps her first job ever, there are people there to support and congratulate them on a tremendous accomplishment

The idea is not to make victims feel ashamed, shunned or isolated. When they see that the community is on their side and pulling for them, it may be all they need to adjust to a new situation.

Contact AWUM at PO Box 6223, Minneapolis, MN 55406. The 24-hour Crisis Line is 612-724-8823, and the daily business line is 612-724-0756. Visit AWUM online at www.awum.org under construction) or email Lani at lani2378@hotmail.com

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