Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Sharing his words

Featured Speaker, Corey Yarbrough (Hispanic Black Gay Coalition) 
2013 Domestic Violence Awareness Event
Public Safety Building, Union Square, Somerville 
October 2, 2013

Thank you for the warm welcome, here this evening.  Thank you especially to Sonja Darai and the City of Somerville for inviting me here today to speak.  It’s also great to be back in Union Square – the neighborhood where my work in Massachusetts began as a community organizer in 2008.  It’s quite a full circle moment that takes me back to my hunger for creating a difference and passion for seeing meaningful change in all of our communities.

As it was stated in my introduction, I am the co-founder and Executive Director of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition.  HBGC is an organization I co-founded with my partner out of our own experience moving to Boston as two gay men of color looking for community, social support, and fierce advocacy provided by others in our community who looked like us, could identify with us, and had a sense of urgency to unite the resources in our communities to provide for our community. 

As the only non-profit organization in the Greater Boston area solely invested in serving and empowering the Latino and Black LGBT community, we face a heavy burden for meeting the unique and diverse needs of our community. Some ways in which we are doing so include offering coming out support, sexual health testing and counseling, spiritual care, sensitivity trainings and civic engagement opportunities.

One of the highlights over the last two years that I look forward to discussing more today is our TOD@S initiative.   TOD@S  is an inter-agency collaboration of The Network/La Red, The Hispanic Black Gay Coalition, The Violence Recovery Program at Fenway Health, and Renewal House. Together we work to improve and increase access to intervention and prevention services for LGBTQ  Black and Latino people affected by partner abuse.  Since 2011, we have worked together to bring culturally grounded services and awareness raising events to the LGBT community in Boston and surrounding cities like Somerville.

But my desire to see a world rid of discrimination, violence, and partner abuse is not just a professional calling – but a deeply personal one as well.  As many of you may be able to identify with, my upbringing has always been saturated by acts of violence. 

As a Black male rooted in American culture, I often witnessed the multi-faceted violence perpetuated by our government and society through racist behavior, educational disparities, and police harassment. 

As a child, one of my earliest memories is of my parents having heated arguments in their bedroom and, one night, peaking in to witness my father shoving my mother down to the ground. 
As a young adult, those childhood experiences would haunt me once again after hearing of my own brother’s suicide, following a string of intimate violence with his girlfriend that everyone simply dismissed as two young people being crazy in love.  

And then there is my own experience as a gay male growing up in a society that made me ashamed to live openly and freely.  Believe it or not, at one point, I actually felt more protected and secure buried deep in the closet rather than “coming out” and facing isolation from my family, ex-communication from my church, and discrimination from a harsh, judgmental world.   These fears would bring be face to face with my own experience with sexual assault and partner abuse as a teenager. 

In that moment of experiencing abuse, I was faced with a Catch-22:  Do I publicly “out” myself as a gay man to expose my abuser?  Would I risk religious, societal, and family rejection by doing so?  Is it even abuse if another man is the perpetrator?  Isn’t part of being a strong, independent Black man, learning dealing with things like this on my own?  Did I deserve this for being different?

For the first time in my life I felt powerless, a lack of control over my own body, and more shameful than I could’ve ever imagined. 
I share these stories with you today not to list my credibility for serving as today’s featured speaker.  Not even to further contribute to the somber mood that is to be expected at community vigils like these.  I share these stories with you all here today to help shatter the stigma and reveal that you are not alone.  You are not alone in your experiences and stories.  You are not alone in your feelings and pain.    And you are not alone in your anger and desire to fight back.   

At today’s vigil, we are here to remember those we have lost to domestic violence and uplift others who have been impacted by domestic violence and partner abuse.  For me, remembering and honoring those affected by violence and abuse (like the names we just heard today) requires restoring power --- power in ourselves as individuals, power as a collective community, and the power of our community agencies to effectively identify and respond to the needs of everyone in our community.

First, we find power in knowing that we are not alone.  Though the “who what when and where” may shift periodically, the impact that violence has had on us all is difficult to ignore.    Our stories, regardless of how irrelevant or embarrassing we have been conditioned to believe they are, are powerful beyond measure.  For example, your story of experiencing domestic violence as a heterosexual male may help a friend take a relative more seriously when they reach out for support.    Your story of cultural abuse from a partner, may help others realize that abuse come in other forms beyond physical.  Your story of supporting a friend through partner abuse, may inspire someone else to learn the warning signs of partner abuse and how to respond accordingly.  

For those who are still a little skeptical, I have the data to back it up to.  Earlier this year, TOD@S completed a community assessment among individuals who identified as Latino or Black and also as lesbian, bisexual, gay, and/or transgender.  We asked them to share their thoughts on finding and accessing domestic violence services as LGBTQ people of color in the Boston area. 

When asked “What is the best way to communicate information about partner abuse to the community?” 80 percent of respondents said “hearing personal stories from those affected by partner abuse” would be most helpful.  This complimented 55 percent of our respondents admitting that partner abuse is rarely or never discussed in their community.

Embracing and sharing our experiences, in a safe and appropriate environment when one is ready and able, holds the key for healing from our pain, uniting others across cultural and socioeconomic lines, and igniting a cultural shift that can bring meaningful change on both an individual and social level. 
So I will hope you stand resolved with me to find the power in our own experiences as a means to find healing within and impact the world around us.  We all have a story, even if it is one that comes from your experience here today. 

But if I was to be honest, I must share that it will take more than our individual stories to create the conditions where we will no longer need to have vigils like these for generations to come.  Though storytelling is a great start, It will also take pulling together the resources of our community and working with our community agencies to force the change we wish to see. 

In the same TOD@S community assessment, we asked:  “What Would Prevent You From Seeking Support Services if You Were Experiencing Partner Abuse in Your Relationship?” .  Multiple responses were recorded and we found:

 51% - over half of all respondents, said fear and distrust of law enforcement would prevent them from seeking support services if they were experiencing partner abuse.

53%, said fear of discrimination from service providers

55%, revealed lack of cultural understanding would prevent them from seeking support services if they were experiencing partner abuse

and at 58% concerns regarding confidentiality topped the list.

These findings reveal that it will take more than our stories, more than our well intentions, and more than our language of inclusion for all to overcome the mountain of fears and barriers that exist for survivors of domestic violence, particularly those who come from underserved and marginalized communities.  It will take us asking the hard questions and finding the right answers that will guide our actions.

Questions such as how our privilege (be it our race, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our education level, our resources) can be used to uplift, rather than oppress, other communities?     

Questions that analyze the impact of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia in our ability to provide meaningful services at our local agencies.

It will require exploring how violence and abuse are replicated on a societal level through our education system, in our criminal justice system, and in our health care system, among others. 
It will take challenging the agencies, that WE may feel comfortable in, to do more to create a welcoming and safe environment for others from a different background.  

And yes, it will take holding our elected officials and community leaders accountable to all of the communities they are in office to represent.

So, I hope you all will also stand resolved with me to use today’s vigil not just to mourn and bring awareness to those who are no longer with us, but to also challenge ourselves to play a  greater role in this movement to eliminate all forms of abuse in our community. 

Together, we truly can dismantle this system of violence with everyone at the table, but it will take us building off of the strength of today’s vigil to create new opportunities for those unable to stand with us here today.  

I hope all of you will join me, and the other agencies represented here today, to move that work forward. 

Thank You.

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