Haven on Earth

There is a place in Westchester County where people can go to break free of gender-based violence. It’s safe, it’s confidential, it’s transformative and it’s where even the most basic truth is reinforced. 

“It’s OK to tell your story,” says Cheryl Greenberg, chief development officer at My Sisters’ Place (MSP), a leader in domestic violence advocacy with offices in White Plains and Yonkers.

The core of the organization’s mission is to believe survivors of abuse and tackle the humiliation and outright dismissal they often face. “The stories are extraordinary,” says CEO Karen Cheeks-Lomax.

“MSP is like family,” says one woman helped by the organization. “They took us in with open arms and protected us when we needed it the most. With their help, I was able to find the strength that I had lost. After all, I had a daughter that …   depended on me to keep her safe and loved.”

Her story and many stories like them have dominated the political climate recently.

The core mission of My Sisters’ Place is aligned with the #MeToo movement.  

“I think what we are seeing is a culture shift,” Cheeks-Lomax says. But she’s quick to point out the shift is “slow moving.” 

Just one year after the movement mobilized and the nation began to embrace a new paradigm of female empowerment, its limits have been exposed. 

Christine Blasey Ford’s public account of her own sexual assault — and the subsequent confirmation of the man she accused, Brett Kavanaugh, to the highest court in the land — riveted a nation and frustrated many.   

“We’ve seen (the likes of) Dr. Ford in our offices,” says Cheeks-Lomax, who issued a statement in response to Ford’s testimony stating in part “It takes tremendous courage and fortitude to share a story of sexual assault — no matter how and where you communicate it. We are committed to continuing our work to improve the societal response to those who come forward.” 

Adds Greenberg, “What we know is that this (reality of abuse) has always been the case.” 

But in the era of #MeToo, “This is on everyone’s mind right now,” Cheeks-Lomax says.

As if to drive home this point, in October — exactly one year after the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke — the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two anti-rape activists, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad.

Since high-profile individuals have come forward or been accused, agencies such as My Sisters’ Place have “gained that public view,” Greenberg says. “It reminds people that there are organizations here. We have the phone ringing off the hook. We see the bravery of individuals every day. It’s an amazing outpouring of people.”

Cheeks-Lomax couldn’t help but think back to attorney Anita Hill’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. She noted one encouraging difference in people’s perception of events this time around. When Ford’s testimony was televised “a lot of people wanted to see what she was saying. A lot of times, in the past, even women may have blamed (the victim) in a way. #MeToo took that away. That shift for me is the bigger one. People are saying, ‘I believe you’.” 

Cheeks-Lomax says, if nothing else, that’s progress. There is new understanding of why the victim may have held onto her story for so long. Society is saying “I am not going to blame the woman that says, ‘me too.’”

The more we take these issues out of the shadows, the freer women feel to come forward with their story. But to say “it hasn’t been an easy road” is an understatement. The statistics are shocking. For instance, marital rape was legal in New York state until 1984.

Greenberg notes that often women say things like, “‘I didn’t realize that was me, because I didn’t have that language’ or ‘I can’t believe I can finally talk about it and not be blamed.’”

Cheeks-Lomax adds, “We see people who are traumatized. When people reach out to MSP, they may not even fully realize the extent of what happened to them. We begin to peel that onion.” 

While the organization advocates against domestic abuse, it also deplores human trafficking.

“Believe it or not, there is an intersectionality,” Cheeks-Lomax says. Oftentimes the partner is the trafficker. “Probably 95 percent or more have a sexual component, because they are intimate partners.” 

Attention to domestic violence began during the women’s movement in the 1970s. The name My Sisters’ Place came from an underground code for someone who was in need. It was an often-used phrase. “A bunch of us kept that name,” Greenberg says.

Women and children who were running from abuse, “could easily say, ‘I’m going to my sister’s place,’” she says. It was also easy for a man to say that phrase. 

“We serve all in the community,” Cheeks-Lomax says. Men, women, children, transgender, gay or straight — all are served. Though women can also instigate abuse, “men are the primary aggressor,” Cheeks-Lomax says. “Ninety-three percent of all abuse is perpetrated by men against women.”

My Sisters’ Place offers an array of supportive services like emergency shelter (it has 20 beds), counseling for children, legal help, help for teens so they may learn what a healthy relationship looks like and even foster care for pets so that no one is left behind. “We see safety planning as a verb,” Cheeks-Lomax says. The organization can provide someone to accompany people anywhere they feel nervous to go. “We want to make the woman feel like ‘We can get through this,’” she adds.

But she wants one message to get across to anyone suffering abuse: “Remind people we are here to help them.”

For more, visit mspny.org.

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