This post originally appeared on the Herizon House blog. It has been published with the author's consent.
Working at a women’s shelter has opened my eyes in so many ways, to so many things that I thought I knew but never truly understood. I’ve been able to witness first-hand pure kindness and generosity day-in and day-out as multiple people stop by with donations for the shelter, asking absolutely nothing in return. I’ve been able to be a part of a selfless team that gives nothing but their greatest effort to help women and children who have nowhere else to turn. But most of all, I’ve learned that no matter where we live, in an apartment, a house, or a shelter, and no matter what life has handed us, some paths seemingly more difficult to tread than others, we are all the same.
This epiphanous enlightenment of sorts didn’t start out as that. My mounds of research through the years on domestic violence, abuse, and violence against women have taught me that it can happen to anyone. There is not one “kind” of woman who is more susceptible to being violated than others. There is not one “kind” of woman who acts in such a way as to convince that she is asking for it, asking to be abused. Women of all socioeconomic levels, all races, all ages, and all around the world end up in violent relationships, and I know this. If I knew this though, why, when leaving the shelter at the day’s end this last Monday, did I question why one of the staff assumed I was a woman staying at the shelter rather than an employee?
I had decided to exit through a different door rather than my normal route that day, deciding that I needed to familiarize myself with the place at which I work. For safety reasons that Herizon House abides by, before exiting I asked one of the staff members if she needed to lock the door behind me. This granted a reply that no, it locked automatically, but that I would need to sign out first. I was confused, seeing as I’d never gone through this procedure before, until another worker who was present interjected. “That’s Rebecca, she works upstairs,” she stated. I don’t often have any opportunity to explore the rest of the building and generally stay confined to my office, so I immediately understood why there would be a confusion. The three of us laughed it off and I continued on my way.
Although I knew what had happened, I found myself questioning for a moment why the other employee had thought I needed to sign out like the women who stay at the shelter do. Before I got in my car I found myself looking down at my outfit, wondering if what I was wearing had added to the confusion. This caught me extremely off-guard and I was immediately ashamed – did I really think that I would look better than the women who had to stay in the shelter, or they somehow would look worse? No, I thought to myself, that’s not the case. I’m a woman and so are they – in that way we are identical. They may talk different, dress different, or act different in some ways, but that’s not because they’re staying in a shelter. That’s because everyone is unique in their own way and has their own way of being.
There are some things that all women who find safety in a women’s shelter do have in common though: bravery and strength. Think about it. These are women who have been faced with some horrifying situations, with betrayal, manipulation, and physical violence, and yet they still have the courage to leave and to do what they know is right for them and in some cases, their children. They have the strength to flee and the self-respect to grab the hands of those who are willing to help.
I honestly didn’t believe, before starting my work at Herizon House, that this was a lesson I needed to learn. Now that I have though, it’s a lesson I hope to teach to others. I chose to share this initially shaming but ultimately humbling experience of mine in an attempt to enlighten today’s society about the negative effects that stereotyping and stigmatizing can have. I never thought of myself as someone who would stereotype others until I found myself doing it in an almost subconscious way. I thought, albeit for only a moment, that somehow I was separate from women who stay in shelters, from women who are abused. This way of thinking is one that is unfortunately very present in today’s society and needs to be diminished if we ever hope to live in a truly accepting world.
I urge you to take a step back, to question yourself the way I did and begin to understand that placing others in these separate and negative categories should not have a role in your mind. We’re all different in terms of likes and dislikes, style choices and ways of speech, our passions and our goals, but in the end we’re all human. In that way, we’re all the same.