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Moving From Victims To Healers

When a small group of artists and writers in Minnesota first developed the idea of the red life-sized figures we now call Silent Witnesses in the summer of 1990, we never imagined that what we were birthing would some day become an international initiative. The project simply grew out of our anger, our powerless feelings and our compassion for the women whose lives had been lost.

The Silent Witnesses started to take on a life of their own.  We came to experience the figures reverentially. The murdered women had become real to us, their spirits touching ours. When we carried them from trucks to exhibit spaces, we felt we were carrying their stories. When we "hugged" them in order to fit them into their stands, we were reminded of how much love each of them needed. They had come alive for us. But they were all dead. And that is the reason for this project.

The Silent Witnesses took us on a journey

One incredible thing we learned that had not been clear at the inception of the project was how healing these Silent Witness figures would be for so many of the survivors and the families of the victims. Nor were we aware of how powerful these figures would be for public officials.

In one of many such comments, a survivor:  Your Silent Witness creation has had a great effect on opening me to surrendering my anonymity as a formerly battered was the springboard, the catalyst for my going public with my own truth.

And the mother of one of the Silent Witnesses wrote us:

You may remember me. My 15 year-old daughter was murdered by her  17 year-old boyfriend while she and my family slept. She is now part of  the Silent Witness silhouettes here in my city and I am very  grateful for this program. I have had the opportunity to speak to kids  from the local high schools as well as other community groups.  I  never thought I could do this but strength has come to me from my  daughtersı spirit, to try to make hers the last silhouette needed.

Many public officials have been involved with Silent Witness. They include 20 Attorneys General and several Governors. Three especially strong supporters are Minnesota's former Attorney General Hubert Humphrey, Senator Paul Wellstone, and his wife, Sheila Wellstone.  Senator Wellstone describes the power of the Witnesses at the national march when he said I want you to know that these Silent Witnesses in their own way speak more loudly and with more eloquence and with more effect than any of the rest of us.

Our transformation
In the movement that the Silent Witness originators entered in 1990,  most of the people involved were victims of domestic abuse themselves. Our major motivation was to see that no other women had the same experiences we had, or to see that if they did, they would be able to leave the relationships.

The mentality of our initiative began to change when we realized that we didnıt get very far by staying victims. We needed to get beyond our anger. We began to see ourselves in a different way and we  began to change internally. We started looking for programs that offered solutions and hope. We saw people move beyond a victim role to a survivor role and from there to a victor role by getting involved in hopeful, exciting, positive, results-oriented events and programs.

The word healing entered our initiative when we began to consider what it would mean to actually solve the domestic violence problem. Putting all the perpetrators in jail isnıt enough, because when they get out they batter again. Building a fence down the middle of the country with men on one side and women on the other wouldnıt work, because men and women still want to be together.

So we started using the word healing. It changed the mission of our initiative and it changed us forever. No longer were we victims or survivors or even victors. We had to think of ourselves as healers if we were ever going to solve this problem. Healers of ourselves, of women, of men, of children, of  organizations, of churches, of synagogues, of courts--healers everywhere. We became passionate about healing domestic violence. And our passion generated hope.

Passion in Action

As a result of passionate people, our domestic violence initiative was transformed. Silent Witness is now filled with passionate people for whom healing is the goal. There are so many acts of good will within our initiative that we call our participants angels.

And what do angels with passion look like in action? At one meeting we found out that one stateıs coordinator didnıt have the funds to create an exhibit using our figures. By the end of that meeting, several other states had donated one or two of their figures to her and she had her whole exhibit.

Another woman found out about a successful and healing treatment model for perpetrators. It affected her so strongly she quit her job to dedicate her life to this work, without knowing initially where her income would come from.

Our passionate approach has attracted the interest of many high school and college students. One of our thrills was when one of our youngest collaborators, a 12 year-old girl, spoke out about her experience  at the March to End the Silence in Washington in 1997.

Soon it was time to march. We picked up our witness figures and set  off. The figure seemed very heavy in my arms. As we went farther and  neared the end, my witness (Angel had been her name) seemed lighter  than when Iıd left, as though sheıd let out her deepest, most inner  secret.  I personally can tell you that this was a very important and  inspiring trip and I know that it will influence my life in the future. I  will not allow others to control my life to the point of such despair. In  addition, I will not be abusive of others.

Our healing stance encouraged us to welcome men into our initiative and to believe that batterers could and would change. At our March in Washington a man who had been abusive in his marriage and who was now, with his wife, one of our state coordinators, spoke poignantly on this issue of healing.

I speak from experience. I was an abusive husband. Iım not proud of  that fact. Iım merely here to tell you what I know to be true. I may not  be the man that I could be, but I thank God every day Iım not the man I  used to be. And I know that if I continue on my road to recovery  someday, working with the Silent Witnesses I can become the man I  should be.

With passion, compassion replaces anger. Generosity replaces competition. The sharing of ideas and resources replaces turf battles. Hope replaces despair. And miracles occur.


These examples describe our passion. What about our tangible results? First and foremost, people's lives are being transformed by their involvement in the initiative. But more than that, once we focused on healing, the types of successful programs we discovered were nothing short of miraculous: A court watch and a community criminal justice program that bring dignity to the process and more responsibility to the system; a treatment model for perpetrators and survivors that is highly successful in healing them; and prevention programs that change adolescent and adult behavior. Nine of these results programs are outlined on this website.

All over the country, the domestic homicide rates for women are dropping, as this site testifies. After 20 years of little change, there was a drop of more than 400 (more than 25%) in four years. Are these all due to our efforts? Obviously not. But the momentum is shifting--in us and in the country.

When we work to heal and to restore, our motivation comes from a deeper place within us. That demands of us more reflection, courage, persistence and passion. Having  seen the effects of a healing stance, we know of its power and we will keep working to ensure that we move steadily towards our goal. Will you join us?

Janet O. Hagberg


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