Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Pursuing a Radical Anti-Violence Agenda Inside/Outside a Non-Profit Structure

Reprinted with permission from The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009).

In the summer of 1999, Seattle Rape Relief (SRR), one of the first three rape crisis centers in the US, was closed by its board of directors. Founded in 1972 by women who had organized a “Speak Out on Rape” at the University of Washington campus, SRR began as a volunteer organization with explicitly feminist politics. Through its 27-year history, SRR witnessed the transformation of the US anti-violence movement, whereby organizations became less associated with a progressive feminist politic and more invested in gaining legitimacy with professional fields such as the criminal justice system, the medical industry, and the social services industry. SRR itself was impacted by the professionalization of a once grassroots anti-violence movement, and SRR’s volunteers identified this shift in the organization’s political identity as the main reason for its demise. Eventually SRR closed in a dramatic turn of events that included resignations of nearly the entire paid staff, the dissolution of the 70-member volunteer corps by the acting executive director, and significant speculation by the local press. SRR’s board of directors identified a $50,000 shortfall in its nearly $500,000 budget as the reason why they felt forced to close.[1] However, SRR’s volunteers argued that an organization that had become such a mainstay within Seattle’s community for nearly 30 years would not pursue the shut down of the entire organization for a financial loss that was far from devastating. Instead, we identified a political assessment of the closure of SRR within a larger movement-based context. In a letter to all former volunteers and staff, we wrote:

So why is [this closure] happening now? What is happening in Seattle Rape Relief is part of a larger national movement occurring in sexual assault and domestic violence agencies. The movement is attempting to streamline these organizations into being more professionalized and less grassroots oriented. This means less critique of institutions that perpetuate sexual violence, no connection between anti-oppression theory and violence against women theory, less outreach to marginalized survivors (sex workers, prisoners, etc.), no community based fundraising initiatives, thinking about survivors as “clients” rather than people, and perhaps, most importantly, little to no organizational accountability to the community, specifically survivors.[2]

Later that same summer, former SRR volunteers established a new organization, Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA). Unlike SRR, CARA did not include crisis-based services for sexual assault survivors such as counseling, hotlines, and legal advocacy, mostly because these services were offered by other existing organizations in Seattle. Instead, CARA prioritized community organizing as the primary tool to increase support for survivors. The organization’s founders also wanted to work specifically with survivors from marginalized communities. Such communities have a disproportionately high rate of sexual violence, and survivors from these communities are less likely to have access to support from crisis-based institutions. Assessing the “gaps in service” by reviewing the work of other local anti-violence organizations, CARA built projects specifically for people with disabilities, Black people, and young people.

CARA did not yet have a clear and public analysis of institutional oppression and its relationship to the prevalence and experience of sexual violence, though we acknowledged that these things existed. We asserted a somewhat vague distinction between being a “social service” organization and a “social change” organization, meaning that we did not simply want to “manage” sexual assault, but to seek strategies to transform the way communities confronted sexual violence. However, this distinction, though meaningful, did not carry with it a clear political analysis of violence and oppression, making us interesting to city funders but not necessarily threatening.

Asserting Legitimacy

After the closure of SRR, the local Seattle government re-allocated SRR’s abandoned funding to other non-profits addressing sexual assault. Ultimately, the city decided to distribute the funding that was specifically for crisis services to other organizations that did similar work, and the rest of SRR’s funding was allocated to CARA. The staff at the Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Office, most of whom were white liberal feminists (and one of whom was an original founder of SRR), supported funding CARA for two reasons. First, they endorsed community organizing as an important strategy to address sexual violence, and they recognized that, with the other existing organizations providing medical and legal services, a group that used a community organizing approach could offer a useful complement. Second, the women endorsed a multicultural approach to service delivery; they supported organizations that worked with identity-based communities recognized as “underserved.”

However, the decision by the city to fund CARA immediately disrupted the relationship between CARA and the other two major anti–sexual assault agencies in Seattle (one is based in a hospital and primarily does medical advocacy and therapy and the other maintains a crisis line and offers legal advocacy services), who felt entitled to the money left over by Seattle Rape Relief. The executive directors of these two established agencies—both older, middle-class white women—were astonished that the city would want to support an organization started by a group of 20-somethings who were virtual unknowns in the sexual assault “field.” The volunteer who represented CARA in most of these early meetings was a 25-year-old queer Black woman. (This same woman eventually became staff leadership at the burgeoning organization.) Her experience of racism and ageism was explicit in the early meetings with the executive directors and the city funders. In one meeting, for example, an executive director called her incompetent and said that CARA had not earned the “right” to this funding. Despite the conflict, the city provided CARA with $250,000 in 2000, allowing us to establish ourselves quickly and hire four full-time staff members.

Re-Centering Our Work

From 2000 to 2002, CARA staff created a critical shift in our identity and work from being a “social change” organization that provided a multicultural approach to anti-rape services to being an organization with a radical feminist of color and disability politic which manifested as grassroots anti-violence projects and campaigns. There are three factors that provoked this shift. First, CARA staff spent significant time reading and discussing Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which taught us to critique the way organizers objectify their constituents rather than learn from them. This critique informed our organizing model of centering the experiences of the communities we organized and letting those experiences reframe the work we chose to do, and how we chose to do it. The staff began to figure out not just how to make anti-violence services more “accessible” to marginalized people, but how to have the marginalization of people inform how we define violence and what kind of work we would do. Andrea Smith, co-founder of the national grassroots organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, describes this method of organizing as “re-centering” rather than “inclusion.” She writes:

All too often, inclusivity has come to mean that we start with an organizing model developed with white, middle-class people in mind, and then simply add a multicultural component to it. We should include as many voices as possible, without asking what exactly are we being included in? However, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has noted, it is not enough to be sensitive to difference, we must ask what difference the difference makes. That is, instead of saying, how can we include women of color, women with disabilities, etc., we must ask, what would our analysis and organizing practice look like if we centered them in it? By following a politics of re-centering rather than inclusion, we often find that we see the issue differently, not just for the group in question, but everyone.[3]

The process of re-centering created political agendas at CARA is illustrated in the development of our campaign against the sterilization abuse organization Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK). CRACK pays $200 to women currently or formerly addicted to drugs to get sterilized or to take long-term dangerous birth controls. When we centered the experience of women of color and poor women who had been raped, we noted that many women used illegal drugs as a strategy to cope with trauma. We also noted that, as a result of the mass criminalization of drug users that occurred throughout the 1980s and 90s, women of color and poor women were experiencing an unprecedented rate of incarceration. Further, their reproductive capacity was being demonized and targeted by groups such as welfare offices, public hospitals, and organizations like CRACK. Members of CARA’s Black People’s Project found CRACK’s flyers on buses that went to low-income neighborhoods and in front of homeless shelters and recovery programs. They were outraged at CRACK’s racist approach to addressing the problem of drug addiction and reproduction. Members of CARA’s Disability Pride Project also critiqued the anti-disability component of CRACK’s agenda. As a result of centering marginalized survivors, CARA recognized how rape and abuse places women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities at the intersection of multiple kinds of violence. Following the wisdom of their constituents, CARA developed a campaign opposing CRACK, which contributed to CARA’s multi-movement approach of undermining sexual violence by also organizing for issues such as reproductive justice and disability rights.

The second factor that contributed to CARA’s political shift was our emerging relationship with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. INCITE! organized its first Color of Violence conference in Santa Cruz, California, in the year 2000. It brought together over two thousand women of color to articulate a more radical conception to what is entailed under the category of “violence against women.” CARA sent two staff members to this conference, both of whom were deeply moved by the comprehensive analysis of violence, which included a critique of the prison industry, colonization, imperialism, and capitalism. These members returned to CARA with a radical revisioning of the kind of work they wanted to see happen within the organization. Over the next several years, CARA worked with INCITE! on projects such as contributing to the INCITE!/Critical Resistance joint statement, “Gender Violence and the Prison-Industrial Complex.”[4] Working on this statement pushed us to develop a political assessment of the prison industry as antiviolence activists. As a result, we organized a film festival in collaboration with Critical Resistance (a prison-abolition organization), the first of its kind in Seattle and the first Critical Resistance film festival organized by an outside group. CARA also began to organize community-based accountability responses to sexual and domestic violence as alternatives to the criminal justice system.

The third factor was the inauguration of George W. Bush as the president of the United States in 2001. Bush’s radical conservatism deeply impacted the women at CARA and the kind of work we felt compelled to do. After 9/11, the Bush administration built an unapologetically nationalist, war-based agenda, explicitly citing imperialistic political ambitions. In a moment when many mainstream antiviolence organizations were silent about the war on Afghanistan because of the liberal feminist stance that war would dissolve the Taliban and, therefore, liberate Afghan women, CARA took a public stance against the war and mobilized their constituents for anti-war organizing. In our statement on the 9/11 attacks, CARA made a connection between our primary political issue—sexual violence—and militarism and racism. We wrote, “We recognize that rape is often used as a tool of war and know that women are often the most brutally impacted by war. We also challenge our leadership’s tokenization of the plight of Afghan women to justify carpet-bombing their country and their people.”[5] The devastating political context of Bush’s “war on terrorism” facilitated CARA’s process of incorporating a clear feminist of color analysis on militarism and colonization into our local anti-violence agenda.

These developments at CARA contributed to an increasingly clear and radical politic deeply grounded in our primary accountability to local survivors of sexual and domestic violence. However, as CARA became more articulate about our radical feminist of color, pro-queer, and pro-disability politic, the local government became increasingly conservative.

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  1. Judi Hunt, “Financial Problems Force the Seattle Rape Relief Agency to Close,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 23, 1999. [Return to text]
  2. Alisa Bierria, “Letter to Seattle Rape Relief Volunteer Advocates” (June 30, 1999). [Return to text]
  3. Andrea Smith, “Re-Centering Feminism,” Left Turn, no 20 (May/June 2006). [Return to text]
  4. Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, “Gender Violence and the Prison-Industrial Complex,” in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006), 223–226. [Return to text]
  5. Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), “September 11, 2001 and Next Steps,” CARA,, 2001. [Return to text]