Resistance: Volunteering at your local crisis line and/or shelter

A row of rainbow coloured phone booths.

One inevitable consequence of the Trump Administration’s rise to power has been an uptick in hate crimes, and crimes closer to home, like intimate partner violence and rape, are also going to be a growing part of the landscape. After decades of work to bring this kind of interpersonal violence down, it’s bouncing back up, and when those in power have committed the same crimes without consequences, it’s hard for victims/survivors to believe they’re going to see justice. For this week’s dispatch of ways to resist, I offer up the advice to volunteer for your local crisis line and/or shelter, with a challenge to follow up: Help them expand their offerings at a time when they’re needed more than ever.

Volunteering is great, and if you’re scared or uncertain about what to expect, the first thing to do is to ask your local crisis line/shelter about their training and expectations. I can speak only to my experience training for a specific crisis line over a decade ago, but I suspect what I found was fairly typical. I attended several weeks of trainings during nights and weekends where we learned about policies and procedures at the organisation, did exercises to build trust and a collaborative attitude, and talked more broadly about the politics, sociology, and psychology of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. We also discussed the options available to victims/survivors, had opportunities to tour the area of the hospital where rape kits are collected, went on police ride alongs, and had an opportunity to shadow counselors. Once we were certified, we took shifts on the hotline.

Other crisis agencies also have chat or text lines, or rely on volunteers at their shelters as well. If the thought of working directly with victims/survivors is something that’s intimidating or scary for you, that’s okay. You don’t need to do all the things for all the people. Your volunteering services could still be useful for things like helping with mailings, sorting donations, and providing administrative support.

Volunteering is a commitment. Be prepared to attend potentially extensive training and to work a set number of shifts per month. Crisis lines and shelters invest a lot in their volunteers and it’s important to be able to give back. When you approach to ask about volunteering, be realistic about what you can offer, so they can decide if you’d be a good fit, and where to place you. Also be forthcoming about special skills and interests that may help. Multilingual volunteers are incredibly valuable, for example, as are those with a specific focus on LGBQT issues or disability issues — because those populations are often poorly served by groups that don’t have knowledgeable staff.

Once you’ve contacted them about volunteering, whether independently or in response to a call for volunteers, they’re probably going to want to interview you to learn more about who you are and where you come from. You may also need to be fingerprinted, and to get a background check. If you pass, they’ll get you started on training. At the completion of training, you’ll be set up with credentials to work on the hotline and/or in the shelter, and if you’re nervous, you can ask for a mentor or shadow to help out.

You could stop here. This is great work to be doing and your decision to join the ranks will make the world a better place. But there’s more to do, and that’s where the challenge comes in, because not all hotlines and shelters are created equal.

Some are explicitly inclusive, and they work hard to ensure that they are open and safe for everyone, not just a narrow population. That means that they are fully accessible, with lots of options for disabled clients. Their staff are trained to be LGBQT-inclusive, and they provide support sensitive to the needs of those communities. Their staff are also knowledgable about cultural issues they’re likely to encounter in the area, and the concerns of people from various races and backgrounds. When they feel like they have shortcomings, they go out and actively seek the training and skills they need to do better.

Others…are not. Some, for example, refuse to serve trans women, or refer them to men’s shelters. Others make insensitive and inappropriate comments to people of differing sexualities and genders, or judgmental comments to poly and kinky people. They may have inadequate services for disabled people, and could be dismissive and disablist — for example, they may assume that disabled people can’t be raped, or may not understand the role of caregiver abuse in the lives of some disabled people. Some are racist, and don’t have respect for variances in cultural backgrounds.

Maybe you’ll luck out and be placed with an inclusive organization that’s open to discussion when you want to push them to do better. But maybe you won’t, and that’s when you need to become That Person for the organisation, to push people to expand their minds and improve their services. That’s not always an easy thing to do, and it’s not going to come overnight. You may need to spend a while volunteering to build up weight and credibility before you start to steadily push. If you start talking about LGBQT equality in your first week of volunteering, expecting decades of attitudes and policies to fall away, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. If you spend a year there getting a sense of the origins of those attitudes and policies before plunging in, you can make a difference. And given that members of underrepresented groups are bearing the brunt of horrible policies and social attitudes, your work will be incredibly valuable.

Image: Pretty Maids All in a Row, Andy Read, Flickr