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Memorial Heart Star Tribune, Oct. 30, 2002

Silent victims, Vocal Wellstones by Janet 0. Hagberg


Several years ago I sat with Sheila Wellstone and one of her staff members at a table in her Washington office while a reporter interviewed her about her role in the current domestic violence legislation Paul was developing. In the interview Sheila mentioned that one in four women has at least one incident of domestic violence in her lifetime. After the interview the reporter quietly told Sheila that she was the one in four at the table. Sheila spent the next 20 minutes talking with her personally and giving her support, resources and encouragement.

That was the essence of Sheila Wellstone.

Paul and Sheila Wellstone worked relentlessly and successfully on legislation and programs to reduce domestic violence. Their work was showcased recently in the Washington sniper case. The alleged sniper's initial arrest was the result of a law Paul sponsored making it illegal for a domestic violence perpetrator to possess a firearm. This illustrates Paul and Sheila's work -- on a grand scale. But we all know that Paul and Sheila';s gift was their work at the other end of the spectrum. It was on the local and personal level with people whom the press likes to call "little people" but who most of us know as parts of ourselves. They worked on the issues that touch most of us, or our families -- issues involving health, work, mental illness, recovery from addiction, children, farms, veterans and domestic abuse.

My personal experience with the Wellstones began when Paul was first elected and they immediately contacted the Silent Witness National Initiative. A group of writers and artists had recently created an exhibit of 27 red life-sized silhouettes representing the women who were murdered in acts of domestic violence in Minnesota in one year. We formed a working relationship. Sheila appeared with the exhibit so many times in the next few years that she became synonymous with Silent Witness.

In the fall of 1993 the Wellstones asked us to bring the Silent Witness exhibit to Washington to help pass ground-breaking legislation, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). We placed the entire exhibit in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building as mute testimony to the tragedy of domestic violence in our country. Most of the senators passed through the exhibit on their way to the Capitol, reading several of the women's stories. Several senators told Paul that these stories moved them deeply because they made the issue of domestic violence so personal. Paul later told us that he felt the exhibit played an important role in passing the VAWA legislation.

A few years later, in October of 1997, Paul and Sheila were again central figures in the effort to end domestic violence. They hosted the March to End the Silence about Domestic Violence. We brought 1,500 Silent Witness figures from all 50 states to Washington, and thousands of people, led by mournful bagpipers, escorted the silhouettes down the Mall to the Capitol. Paul and Sheila marched with us even through Paul was in considerable physical pain. It was truly a grass-roots effort and he couldn't miss it.

Paul spoke cogently that day of the importance of the march and the eloquence and meaning brought so powerfully by the collective voices of the Silent Witnesses. His passion about this issue was inspiring, and he encouraged us to work relentlessly on our goal of zero domestic homicides of women by the year 2010. One of the young women activists attending the march commented to mehow down-to-earth and accessible Paul and Sheila were and how motivated shewas by their passion.

This involvement in grassroots social change was quintessential Paul and Sheila Wellstone.

Since 1994 the domestic homicide rates for women have fallen precipitously. We can all be proud of the work Paul and Sheila accomplished on this issue. They made a significant difference for our state and our country. And they made a significant difference in my life.

-- Janet O. Hagberg is executive director of the Silent Witness Initiative, which is now connected with activists in 38 countries.

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