Claudia Stahl is the new Executive Director of Asian Women United of Minnesota, an organization that has rebounded from administrative troubles for the past decade – and was saved in large part for its unique need as the only shelter of its type to serve Asian and Pacific Islander victims and families from domestic violence.
Ms. Stahl takes over from Interim Director Cheryl Jensen, a nonprofit consultant, who served for seven months to stabilize the organization, its financial operations, and put its systems and program protocols in place.
AWUM will continue utilizing the MACC commonwealth, a fee-based system where an alliance of organizations provide administrative services at a fraction of the in-house costs. It allows smaller organizations to focus time and attention on their mission and less time worrying about accessory costs.
“The organization is definitely more stable,” said Stahl, who credited Jenson for reconnecting AWUM with community and contract managers and private funding organizations.
Stahl said she takes over with a strong understanding of expectations and will continue expanding AWUM’s funding portfolio beyond the state grants. She said foundation revenue would help them to provide better support and enrichment programs for women and youth. They hope to add job counselors and self-sufficiency specialists for long term support.
“With Claudia’s leadership we will continue to promote safe and healthy families within the API communities by building new relationships and making new inroads in this important work,” states AWUM Board Chair Valerie Wurster in the introduction letter for Stahl.
Wurster is the new Board Chair, taking over for Gloria Fressia who came during the crisis transition two years ago.
According to an AWUM survey approximately 41 to 60 percent of Asian women report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime. The organization is dedicated to end domestic violence by promoting safe and healthy relationships within the APIA community.
AWUM provides culturally appropriate services with a 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 (612-724-8823), domestic violence awareness and education programs.
During these difficult times the safety net for families has disappeared and Stahl said AWUM is not just there to take people in and find them an apartment. There is a lot of counseling, emotional and mental health support.
“The mission to end domestic violence is a lofty ideal but it is our goal,” she said. “The advocacy piece is huge; really helping a person position herself for stability and security for the long term.”
A fully licensed family therapist who specializes with women and teenaged children performs pro-bono work for AWUM. They also have a full time advocate to work with helping children understand why they are living in a shelter, with arts and crafts to normalize the experience.
They work with school aged children to help them maintain continuity in their lives and with transportation to and from their schools.
Stahl said the program director is the key supervisor of the staff and volunteer advocates. They speak several APIA languages and also use outside interpreters. The part time and fulltime bilingual and bicultural staff work three shifts.
“We never have the place un-staffed, or we couldn’t operate,” said Stahl. “I have been extraordinarily pleased with the staff,” she added.
Most of the staff is Asian, which Stahl said is a great source of comfort to limited English speaking victims in distress. The familiarity with someone not using a translator is helpful in connecting quickly on sensitive issues.
Stahl said the staff shares the cultural norms of participants, in terms of a threshold for the treatment of others, bringing with it a tolerance for the hierarchy and power dynamics of family, along with race, religion and culture, to present a recognizable framework that is fairly consistent across Asian cultures.
“In some of the immigrant cultures there is a huge effort to not expose the family to any shame,” she added. “If something is going on at home or if kids are not doing well at school, they are less apt to seek support from the outside for fear or revealing cracks in the family or shedding light on something else that is going on.”
Stahl said it is important to understand these dynamics. Support staff do not blame the culture or associate it with violence.
“This is a familiar dynamic that is respectful of the positions of men, women and mothers, and the role of the elder to be sought out before seeking help,” she said.
In setting up education and support, Stahl said it is important to draw from the community itself and to work within the cultural norms of a patriarchal home. It is important to respect that and the worst thing to do, she said, is to tell people their family and cultural norms are wrong and to do it this way.
“That is not realistic and it’s not respectful,” she said.
One key staffer is an Asian male who is committed to helping educate Asian and Pacific Islander boys and men about nonviolence.
She said he completes a component of helping equip men with tools to deal with anger when it surfaces and the urge is to lash out verbally or physically – to learn to do something different.
“There is no shame as a man in letting wives and daughters lead their own lives,” said Stahl, noting that a wife with an opinion or a defiant child does not mean that the father is not a competent man.
After 16 years in the Twin Cities non-profit sector, Stahl gained experience in research, management and program evaluation. She worked for most of that time with diverse staff and clientele at Pillsbury United Communities – including as Director of the Waite House.
For the past 10 months, she has served as Development Officer for Foundation Giving at Goodwill/Easter Seals of Minnesota.
“I have to say that it is exciting at this stage of my life and career to be really immersing myself and dedicating myself to an Asian focused organization,” Stahl said. “Its feels right. Its feels like a good thing to do.”
Stahl is half Chinese. Her mother came to New York when she was 12 years-old in the late 1940s from China via Hong Kong to the New York Chinatown.
Raised in the Boston area Stahl graduated from Wellesley College.
“I have had my foot in two cultures my entire life,” said Stahl. “My ‘default’ in suburban Boston was being surrounded by the majority culture, and that was punctuated by massive family dinners with my Asian side.”
Stahl came to Minnesota after working as a Vista volunteer in Estherville, Iowa. She enjoyed the region and decided on the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute for graduate school. She and her spouse, who works at United HealthCare, are raising three children, ages 12, 9 and 4.
Stahl saw the difference between the Twin Cities and other urban centers as lacking a Chinatown. She has enjoyed watching the influx of Asian community and businesses since she came here in 1992, and more that the cultural competency of services has risen to the challenge of becoming more sensitive to people of other cultures.
Nearly a decade ago there were internal and external management complaints that led to a dismissal of one executive director that resulted in legal tangles for several years. Then, it was discovered in 2003 that a board treasurer had embezzled.
AWUM could have been shut down but there were ongoing programs and it was determined that the shelter was vital and could not be easily replaced.
The Office of Justice Programs called AWUM a vital shelter and advocacy component with multicultural outreach for its high quality crime victim services in the API community. OJP partnered with AWUM to rebuild the organization so that its 501(c)3 nonprofit status and trust with funding organizations could again be restored.
AWUM needed this trust as a community-based organization that partners with county social service agencies, police, hospitals, and API organizations for client referrals and outreach education.
AWUM programs work to overcome the stigma within the APIA community that women who leave a troubled home, will leek mainstream support to avoid possible complications with people that know them or their families at Asian organizations. AWUM says its culturally and linguistically appropriate services are necessary for victims that are often in crisis from emotional or physical abuse.
Programs work on the “dynamics of domestic violence” where the victim may sometimes choose to leave for the safety of their children or themselves, but then attempt to resolve the conflict and return to their spouse. AWUM supports a victim and instructs them about the pattern of violence, its effects, and the emotional and material costs to the family.
In the end, it is the victim’s decision on which path to take. AWUM helps the victims develop a “safety plan” that includes the children and the schools.
The victims often exhibit self-esteem problems from the abuse which can lead to blaming themselves for the failed or failing relationship and abuse.
AWUM also works with abusers, which in most cases are men. Stahl said this is an important component of AWUM, as preventing abuse and saving relationships is much better than picking up the pieces later on.
It is easier to teach people about anger management and maintaining healthy relationships than it is to get someone to admit they are an abuser later on when they have lost their family and are facing the criminal justice system.
Another concern is to avoid codependency from women who come to them in a state of shock. The staff and victims work on a timetable and AWUM does not make decision for the victim but help to empower them toward self-sufficiently with life skills and other resources.
AWUM works with Civil Society to help victims understand their legal rights. They will often need a court order for protection or to help with immigration issues from the abuser holding their passports or visas.
Volunteers help victims and children with medical and dental services, legal and even hairdressers, clothing and food. 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 daily business line is 612-724-0756. Visit AWUM online at www.awum.org. o