Formerly Casa de Esperanza, we are now Esperanza United, and to honor our past, we are continuing to refer to our constituent email list as the ‘National Latin@ Network.’ As part of our series highlighting National Latin@ Network members, meet an organization making a difference in the lives of survivors. In this conversation, we speak with Violence Intervention Program’s Sexual Violence Project Manager, Jennifer Ruiz Diaz.
What brought you to the work of supporting survivors and sexual violence?
I began my career working as an intern in an in-patient substance abuse treatment center for mothers and their children. In this facility I was able to work with women who for the first time were learning how to regulate their emotions and feelings without substances and in those interactions, many disclosed livelihoods with multiple violent and traumatic incidents. As many participants readjusted to sobriety, they were able to recollect abusive relationships, and sexual interactions. This opened my eyes to the significance of a holistic approach to sobriety and towards the treatment of sexual violence. The women in the facility were there to start and/or continue their sobriety journey, however, if you do not look further into their lives, you will not be able to recognize that they are also survivors of violence, sexual assault, domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse. This work sparked my interest in working with substance abuse, and later solidified my desire to work with families, especially mothers surviving traumatic experiences.
During my seven year tenure at VIP, I have built relationships with women and their families in order to address their concerns after the separation of their abusive partner. During the individual work, the participants would share how they did not know that some of their sexual relationships with their partners were considered rape, and/or non-consensual. This revelation in individual counseling sparked an interest in starting support groups at VIP that address the many questions surrounding consent, gender roles, healthy relationship, cultural stigmas surrounding sex and bodies. In this work my team and I used informal conversation groups or “charlas” to address these questions, and provide a safe space to ask questions to facilitators and other participants. Whenever we held these groups, participants felt more open to disrupt and challenge old traditional views held.
What do you currently do in your position to support survivors of sexual violence?
Currently, I am the Sexual Violence Project Manager at VIP.I lead a team that provides individual and group counseling to survivors of sexual violence. We are currently providing workshops discussing improving emotional health, understanding cultural stigmas surrounding gender roles and sex. Additionally, we provide survivors the opportunity to create digital stories using Wevideo.
How can we support loved ones who have been impacted by sexual violence?
The first step is to align yourself with other survivor voices, and begin to follow and learn about consent, and its application to everyday life. This practice of allyship will then radiate to your loved ones and inform them that you are someone they can trust. . Your loved ones will reach out to you when they are ready, and that’s when you have to listen to them and provide them with emotional support, and validation. The third step is to ask them what they need from you, it might be going to the hospitals, researching community-based organizations they can be connected to, support with meeting their basic needs, escorting them to places in order to feel safe, and listening and validating their experiences.
What advice would you give advocates working with Latin@ survivors of sexual violence during the pandemic?
I would tell advocates to really listen for the language used by the survivors, many times survivors are using language used by their abusers, or the language used to minimize the actions perpetrated towards them. Listening and validating clients is the first step, providing them with information on how to best find justice or healing is the second. Providing the survivors with options and possible outcomes lets them regain their power and make informed decision on the next steps. The journey towards healing is not linear and helping them identify their support systems along the way and connecting them to community organizations can be lifesaving.
How do you practice well-being and self-care?
During this pandemic, as all the outside entertainment was closed down, I found a new hobby of embroidering. This has help me center and realign my emotional self to tangible successes. Calling my friends and family for support when I am feeling overwhelmed has also been important. Work-wise I have been reaching out to colleagues and supervisors for support and trying to leave work related items in my home office area. Work-life balance has become harder to accomplish now that I am working from home, but trying to tidy up my work space and putting pending items away helps me clock out of work and focus on my own personal health.