Advocates celebrate Gateway Center 10-year anniversary, imagine change for future generations

September 18, 2020

Domestic violence experts, advocates, and local leaders gathered virtually Thursday, Sept. 10 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence and envision domestic violence services in the decade ahead.

The Gateway Center serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their families. Programs include domestic and sexual violence advocacy, counseling and therapeutic supports for adults and children, legal services, as well as temporary financial support to help families and survivors whose safety may be at risk. On-site childcare and housing advocacy services are also available for participants. In its history, leaders estimate the center has served more than 20,000 adult survivors and at least 10,000 child survivors. 

“It’s a huge collective, individual-level impact,” said Martha Strawn Morris, who directs the Gateway Center. “I find it impossible to properly express the debt the Gateway Center owes to the advocacy ancestors from the women’s movement, the movement against gender-based violence. Without them we would not be having this conversation.”

In 2018, thanks to an agreement between Multnomah County and the City of Portland, the County took over operations for the center. The agreement expanded the County’s ability to serve domestic violence survivors under its role as a safety net provider. The City remained a partner and continued to provide financial support. 

The anniversary took place during an unprecedented confluence of crises -- the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating wildfires across the entire state of Oregon, and a social justice movement for Black lives. Those collective events have made the center’s work more important than ever, said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who serves at the Co-Chair of the Gateway Council with Portland City Commissioner Joanne Hardesty.

“Domestic and sexual violence sits at the intersection of public health and public safety,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “And domestic and sexual violence is experienced along the same fault lines and intersections of race, economic status, gender, and sexuality as have been highlighted by the pandemic and the movement for racial justice.” 

The theme of the anniversary -- Imagining a Future Without Violence -- focused on celebrating the center’s history while envisioning a domestic violence system that better serves survivors. A panel of experts, advocates and survivors shared their perspectives on how the system can be reimagined.

The central theme of the discussion revolved around transformative justice. Members of the panel spoke about creating a system that involves immediate safety, changing the conditions that cause harm, and looking for the resources to allow that change to happen.

“[Transformative] justice to me means that we solve problems, and we solve them at the lowest possible level, and we solve them at the community level first,” Commissioner Hardesty said. “Prisons haven’t solved problems, locking people up hasn’t solved problems, over-policing hasn’t solved problems. I am happy to be part of a movement that says, ‘Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s do things differently.’”

Members of the panel said the criminal justice system's handling of domestic violence--as it’s set up--is structurally oppressive. Instead of focusing on healing for survivors, they said, there’s a disproportionate focus on punishment for the perpetrator. 

“The systems we work in are essentially ableist and determined by white supremacy,” Vo, a radical educator and artist said. “We are seeing those systems not address structural oppression. . . . We tend to neglect the survivor, or so-called ‘victim,’ and it tends to be focused on punitive measures for the perpetrator.”

To achieve progress, members of the panel said that the criminal justice and domestic violence systems need to better communicate with one another and support each other’s missions. Culturally-appropriate services need to be prioritized and developed by and for black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. 

“We’re coming at two different views on how to solve something, and as long as that remains the case we’re not going to get very far,” Alexxis Robinson Woods, the program and services director at Bradley Angle said. “We have to de-criminalize blackness as it lives in our system right now. Are the culturally-specific services being designed by the cultures who need those services, or is it being designed by someone looking at black, indigenous and hispanic folks and saying this is what they need?”

The solution, panelists said, is to focus on the conditions that lead to violence in the first place and re-thinking the relationship between victim and perpetrator. Panelists also discussed how incarceration is not rehabilitating abusers, which perpetuates the cycle of violence. 

“We have to actually talk about healing justice,” Cory Lira, a survivor and prison-industrial complex abolitionist said. “None of that is ever served by putting people in cages. No cage is ever going to be the thing that begins healing work for everyone. . . . The consequences for our actions have to actually be transformative and they have to reflect the conditions that led to that.”

That change takes time and involves short-term measures and long-term work, the speakers said. While celebrating the past 10 years, leaders remained focused on the opportunity to achieve transformational change for future generations.

“I am keenly aware of the need to envision a future, even and maybe especially during times of crisis and uncertainty,” said Alix Sanchez, the senior manager of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office. Our elders teach us that we live and work and make decisions, not just for ourselves, but for the people who will be here seven generations from now.”