Breaking the shame and silence with determination and love

Bettie J. Williams-Watson

Editor’s Note: Bettie J. Williams-Watson is the Domestic Violence Program Coordinator at our Broadview Emergency Shelter & Transitional Housing program. In addition to her work at Solid Ground, Bettie was recently awarded a Purpose Prize Fellowship for her work in a nonprofit organization she founded, Multi-Communities. Bettie was named a Fellow for her groundbreaking work with Multi-Communities to address domestic, youth and sexual violence in predominantly African-American faith communities throughout the Greater Seattle area and beyond. The following are Bettie’s reflections on her recent trip to Philadelphia to receive her award.

I was much more anxiety-ridden about flying than about going to be honored for my work. I have a fear of flying. The fear starts early, beginning with butterflies in my stomach, and I begin to imagine that the plane will definitely crash while I’m on it. Upon takeoff, however, fears decrease and my coping mechanisms kick in. I start praying, immediately visualizing comforting supportive hands encircling and guiding the plane throughout the flight. Those same hands are able to gently land the plane.

Normally, I travel in a zone where I am categorized, compartmentalized, discounted or dismissed, because my choice of issues to tackle is on turf where there is a lot of overt and covert resistance and reluctance. Let’s face it! Opening the can of worms about domestic and sexual violence is not something you ordinarily see within these (predominantly African-American) church settings. Often, tackling the issues is what I consider to be “pedaling backwards in quicksand.” Within these settings, there are no hard and fast rules that work the same way every time – each church setting presents different challenges. Accepting as well as embracing these challenges is largely by my own, passionate design.

From the beginning, I knew in my heart/head that with determination and love, I was going to do as much as possible to make a difference in breaking shame and silence within my own faith community – and if there weren’t “doors of opportunity” available, then another option would be to “design a window” as a source of opportunistic entry. Although there was no way to anticipate experiences, it proved to be heartbreaking, humbling, frustrating and painful at times, but also encouraging, energizing, inspirational and life changing. Also, I couldn’t have envisioned the number of very supportive and encouraging African-American men (leaders and others) as well as women who taught me – through encouragement, challenges and heartbreak – that this beautiful journey I have been on for the past 23 years was and is truly following a spiritual, mental and emotional path that feels so very right!

I started on this journey in 1994, after I was far enough along in my own healing to recognize my strong burning passion and energy to help women and children in predominantly African-American faith communities not have to experience the trauma I had been through. I am a survivor of physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse by my husband (who was a church minister). Upon disclosing the abuse to church leaders at the time, I was disheartened to see them look at me in disbelief, and then tell me to go home and be a good wife. There was nothing in place in my own faith community for myself or other survivors to feel safe in disclosing abuse. I didn’t even know if it was happening to other people there either, because of never hearing anything said within this church setting – or seeing any resources about abuse or what to do about it. I had to look to others in my faith community, not the leadership, for help and support. My family disowned me during the time that the abuse was going on because of a lack of understanding about the dynamics of abuse.

Going to Philly was an emotional journey for me, because this was a group of people who were “outsiders” in that they were not from my (insider) faith or work community. Letting go of feelings and hope that I had clung to for so long about my own faith community embracing my work before others did was hard, but necessary. I reflected back on what a family friend, who was also a faith leader, had told me a while back during a brief time of personal discouragement. An attempt was made by some of the faith leaders in my community to close the door on my work in Multi-Communities. He told me to keep doing the “cutting edge work” and not to wait for their acceptance or approval, but to just be of service to those who are in need and want the help now – but at the same time to reserve a place for these leaders when they finally were ready to receive what my program could offer. I sometimes feel disrespected, disheartened and disenchanted, but I don’t stay too long at the “pity party.” Rejection hurts, but remembering who I am and what my dreams, mission and goals are keeps me focused on not stopping the journey –  while still keeping the faith, making sure that head and heart are right, and continuing to go forward to continue to do what I can to help and inspire others.

That’s one of the reasons I have been working at Solid Ground as long as I have – the energized, talented, inspirational, resourceful, creative, committed team of people who really care about the people they serve. My work at Solid Ground provides positive reinforcement for what I believe in.

My trip was three days of connecting with others who: don’t define themselves by their ages; see a problem, and innovatively design and implement solutions; are deep thinkers with a wealth of experience; have successfully navigated on this planet; have heart, passion and commitment to solving huge problems; and (did I forget to mention?) are also humble, compassionate, energetic, and don’t stand by and let others define them, but creatively turn rejection into accomplishments and defy the odds – generationally as well as in other ways.

I embraced the sights and sounds of beautiful Philadelphia: the people; elegant gold elevators in the Franklin Institute; the elegant winding staircase in Constitution Hall; the historical presence I felt when visiting the National Constitution Center’s Signer’s Hall, which is occupied by life-sized bronze statues of 42 men who were the signers and dissenters on September 17, 1787; the speech delivered by Robert Moses, famed Civil Rights leader and Founder of the Algebra Project; an absolutely joyful storytelling workshop by Andy Goodman; scrumptious food; inspiring words of one keynote speaker emphasizing the importance of breaking stereotypes and myths about aging; sincere warmth and hospitality of the Summit organizers; past Purpose Prize recipients; my hotel stay; and a speaker who said people of our generation (ages 60 and over) continue to shape and design the definition of who we are and what we stand for. Rejection doesn’t deter, it simply spurs our generation to do greater things. The over-60 generation has an overall positive outlook on life, believe strongly in hope, and do not let temporary circumstances define the outcome.

Note: Encore aims to engage millions of baby boomers in encore careers combining social impact, personal meaning and continued income in the second half of life. Over 1,400 different programs were reviewed, with the top 60 being selected for recognition as 2010 Purpose Prize Fellows. These programs are led by Americans over the age of 60 who are making an extraordinary impact on their Encore Careers. Now in its fifth year, the six-year-old, $17 million Purpose Prize program is the nation’s only large-scale investment in social innovators in the second half of life. While in Philadelphia to receive their awards, the Fellows received training and information about how to take their organizations to the next level.

One Response

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience Bettie and congrats on being named a Fellow!

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