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Nov. 1, 2023

Staff voice: A personal journey into domestic violence advocacy

Lauren Nelson is a survivor advocacy coordinator at Safe Place — Michigan State University’s on-campus domestic violence shelter. As Domestic Violence Awareness Month closes, Nelson shares the importance of continuing the conversation on increasing awareness and supporting survivors.

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As the vibrant hues of autumn engulf Michigan State University’s campus, October takes on a profound significance. It’s a time for students, staff and faculty to delve into their academic endeavors. It also is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, offering a unique opportunity for campus service providers to engage the community in discussions about this critical issue.

For me, this work is deeply personal. The inspiration behind my journey into domestic violence prevention and response advocacy arose from the realization that so many people in my own life had been deeply affected by relationship violence, sexual assault and abuse. I was driven by a desire to educate myself on available resources, to be an unwavering source of support for those who might not have someone to believe in them and to make a tangible difference. Choosing to work at a university added a distinct layer to my mission. I recognized that college life could be challenging on its own, and even more so when one is grappling with the profound impacts of domestic or sexual violence.

Safe Place written in purple

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my role at Safe Place is the opportunity to engage with the various support groups we offer. These groups have evolved over time, and they serve as a space where survivors can come together, learn and lean on each other. It's a place where people realize they are not alone, and it helps build a community of support while imparting tools to navigate their healing journey. Although I cherish one-on-one advocacy work, the sense of community fostered through group sessions is truly remarkable.

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to an end, MSU's domestic violence and stalking program, MSU Safe Place, has taken proactive steps to raise awareness and support the community. Our initiatives encompassed pop-up events and opportunities to engage in open discussions with staff about domestic violence across campus. This is something that Safe Place leads the charge on every year.

Identifying domestic violence

Domestic violence, often referred to as relationship violence, intimate partner violence or abuse, involves one person in an ongoing relationship employing a range of tactics to control another. These tactics can leave survivors feeling responsible for the abuse or trapped within the relationship, impacting various aspects of their lives, including access to academics, finances, technology and physical well-being.

Abusive actions

  • Acting jealous, which may be flattering at first, but may also feel smothering and isolating. The abusive partner often makes accusations that the other partner is flirting, cheating or betraying them.  
  • Seeming too good to be true, presenting a charming and attentive focus that can change with time. Often the good times in the beginning make it difficult for the other partner to make the decision to leave after the relationship is no longer safe.  
  • Blaming behavior on external factors such as drinking, drugs, stress, growing up with abuse, problems at work, being unemployed, things the other partner may have said or done or because an ex-partner allegedly treated them badly.  
  • Isolating their partner by discouraging them from spending time with family, friends or others or punishing them if they do so. Their partner may feel lonely and blame themselves, as they lose support and validation from others when warning signs of abuse occur.  
  • Engaging in criticism can affect their partner’s self-esteem and mental health. Abusive partners may use sarcasm, a condescending tone, blame their partner are “only joking.”
  • Moving quickly in the relationship, by convincing their partner to move in together, get married, get a pet and/or have children together. They may create financial and emotional dependencies by convincing their partner to move away from their community, leave school or a job or give up their car. 

How can you help?

  • Listen to survivors and believe them. Recognize that disclosing to you took great strength and courage. 
  • Understand what they are saying and validate their feelings and strength. Devote your effort to understanding the thoughts, feelings and experiences they have chosen to share with you. 
  • Talk with them about their physical/emotional safety. One way to open the dialogue is to say, “I am concerned about your safety.” 
  • Help the person understand that the abuse is not their fault. The person may feel guilty about being abused. You can help by saying, “It is not your fault,” or “You have done nothing to deserve this type of treatment.” 
  • Support the person’s right to control their own life. Don’t expect the survivor to follow your advice. Remember that, ultimately, they must make decisions regarding their own life. 
  • Provide helpful resource information. Give the person contact information to local shelters and/or crisis lines. Encourage them to call. 

Awareness is the first step in eradicating domestic violence. By understanding the signs and knowing the available resources, the MSU community can support survivors and strive for violence-free communities. Every person deserves love and respect from their partner.

The challenges we face in this field are both real and daunting. Often, there simply aren't enough resources to go around. Survivors are affected in multifaceted ways — financially, legally, educationally and emotionally. Our commitment is to link individuals to the appropriate financial, legal or other resources, but the demand is substantial, and this can create a waiting game for support while other service providers are stretched thin. Accessing these resources can be a cumbersome process. This is where the presence of an advocate becomes invaluable, as they can navigate these complexities, problem-solve and serve as the bridge to overcome the barriers faced by survivors. Access to more resources eases the burden on those we serve.

Looking ahead, my aspiration is to witness our community approach domestic violence and relationship violence and sexual misconduct topics with curiosity and openness. Frequently, these subjects are viewed as daunting or scary, and they often remain unspoken. But ignoring them will not make them disappear. I envision a world where these important conversations are normalized, where anyone can approach a friend, colleague, or even a stranger and discuss concerns about their relationships. Just as you might recommend a doctor to a friend feeling unwell, we should encourage people to seek help from an advocate when they encounter signs of domestic violence.

By making domestic violence a part of our conversations, we can ensure that no one feels alone and can readily access the support they need. This shift in culture necessitates more training and open conversations on related topics to empower staff and students.

Safe Place staff are always ready to consult and engage in discussions with those navigating domestic violence issues on campus. Our commitment is to support those who support others. Activism can involve more than attending events; it can also mean having a conversation with someone who might need supportive services and conveying that our campus is one that cares and unequivocally condemns RVSM.

Learn more about domestic violence or MSU Safe Place services.


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