At Guard Llama, we feel it is our responsibility to create and maintain relationships with organizations that align with our core principles of advocating safety and spreading awareness of issues involving the prevention of violence. Not surprisingly, one of our longest and most important of these relationships is with the Metropolitan Chicago YWCA. When the Guard Llama system was still in development, it was volunteers from the YWCA that helped us beta test the original devices. This process provided us with the invaluable feedback we needed to create the best possible version of the Guard Llama remote that is hanging from your keychain or purse or briefcase right now. And when we need insight into what we can do be doing better to understand or positively impact the issues facing our community, we turn to the leadership of the YWCA.
With that in mind, we wanted to highlight the work being done by the YWCA right in our hometown of Chicago. Many are not aware of the scope of what The Y does, and we wanted to use our platform to highlight the many resources they provide and the indispensable work that they do. Because unfortunately, the prevention of violence involves a lot more than pressing a button. It involves education, resources, counseling, and a continuing commitment to recognize the new ways violence manifests itself in people’s lives, and especially the lives of women.
We sat down with Manager of Education and Outreach Alexandra Kumin and Director of Education and Training Nabilah Talib at the Guard Llama offices in the West Loop to get a better idea of how all of this gets done.
GL: I’ll ask first, Alex and then Nabilah - how long have you been with the YWCA, and what brought you there?
Alex: I’ve been there for 6 ½ years, and I started actually as an educator and later became a coordinator. What brought me there initially was being able to go out and interact with kids, teach kids about violence prevention and safety. And what’s been really cool is seeing the program grow, and seeing us - along with state laws and prevention becoming a little more of the forefront - our program growing with that, and really moving into prevention, rather than just sort of talking about awareness.
Nabilah: I’ve been with the company for 11 years, I also started as an educator. I actually didn’t know that it was sexual violence work because that’s not how they promoted it, which was interesting. We do a better job now of actually saying what we do.
GL: How did they promote it originally?
Nabilah: Just like an educator - you did some health information in the classroom. You know now we’re talking about it being specifically sexual violence and support services, and providing information about how to prevent sexual violence, how to intervene, and what are the additional intervention services connected to the work - and how we’re a comprehensive service within the state. So we’re re-branding. If we talk about the Y generally, we help people. And we have a number of ways that we do that. And so that’s really tightening our brand for the Y.
GL: Which makes sense because I feel like the general perception of the YWCA is sort of antiquated - you’re there if people need help. But that’s a very small version of what you do. So what would be the markers of your re-branding?
Nabilah: We help people in their journey through life from surviving to thriving through our three empowerment priorities: freedom from violence, education and training, and economic sustainability. And a part of that is also their reciprocity: so when people receive the comprehensive services through the YWCA, they have the intrinsic value of the service and they’re compelled to give back - whether it’s their time, whether it’s fees, or connection, or networking.
Alex: Or volunteering with us after having gone through one of our services, or it kind of comes back internally to us, or they spread it through their community too.
GL: How does one get involved to become a volunteer? What can you volunteer to do?
Alex: So specifically within sexual violence support services, you can volunteer with our 24-hour rape crisis hotline, or with our 24-hour advocacy services. We’re also tinkering with volunteers for the education program. That’s a little bit different because it depends on people’s availability. But we have had ed. volunteers in the past. But our two big ones - especially because they’re 24-hour programs - are advocacy and hotline. That’s kind of word of mouth through ed. programs or outreach opportunities, or partnerships like the one we have with [Guard Llama]. Health fairs, partnering with colleges, things like that. That’s how we let people know that hey we’re looking for volunteers. Because the need is certainly there. They’re 24 hours for a reason - this happens at all hours of the day.
Nabilah: We also have an ambassador council and a future leaders council. So we work at the level that people are at professionally and create a networking space, a communal space for them to have activities and events that work towards our cause of helping people.
I think on average once a week, we can have a call to a hospital. Because our service area is so big, we’re talking about DuPage County, Cook County, and South Suburban Cook. In terms of the hotline, we get calls - a minimum of 5-10 a day per volunteer. Not all of them are crisis situations—there are times when there are peaks, there are slow days, but I would give that as the average. And the thing is that we always need someone on call. So they’re always used, and then there’s general work to do in the time when they’re not actually engaging with a potential victim or person requesting information and services.
GL: I would be curious as to how you stay on top of changing information so well. Obviously, you guys are at the forefront of the best and newest information about these subjects - rape intervention, crisis services, education. You’ve said already that the job itself evolves and has changed a lot since you’ve been there. How does that work? How do you stay abreast of all the stuff that happens?
Nabilah: I think it’s two prongs - I think it’s with leadership opportunities within the state, and then it’s also making sure that we’re definitely connected and embedded in the communities that we serve. And so we make the connection and advocate on behalf of the people that need services, irrespective of socio-economic background. Alex chairs the prevention planning committee for the state, where we bring all of the state rape crisis centers together to talk about prevention initiatives and strategies and provide recommendations. We also have colleagues that will support the legislation that’s getting put forth and analyze it, and advocate directly to legislators to say “vote no,” or “vote yes,” and “here’s why - because this is the impact, and here’s the data behind it.” So I think that connection, but also knowing the stories, having the on-the-ground experiences, really feeds into how the systems need to operate when we see gaps. And our job is at this point really gap-filling at some times, and then also evolving and being cutting-edge for the work. Seeing not just what’s happening today, but where we actually need to be. I think Alex has done a really great job of pushing us forward in terms of shifting our language from being about intervention to being more about prevention, and believing that it’s possible.
Alex: Sexual Assault Awareness Month Campaign, which is in April, was “Prevention is Possible” - that was the theme. Each year has a theme, but prevention was the theme this year. So we’re really seeing a turning point in prevention and to add to what Nabilah was saying about how we sort of bridge the gap - we also know the communities we’ve been living in. The people who come to work in the ed. program and in the Y stay, and we know the communities that we’re working with. We know that we will have to go to a bilingual school, and we know we’re culturally competent in knowing that maybe this group is not going to be as comfortable talking about this subject. So how do we filter that through our experience and through what we know they need to know, and will want to know for keeping their communities safe? We’re really good at doing that. And again, because we get information from across the state of Illinois, we also know that the stuff that’s maybe gonna work in rural Illinois is gonna be a little different in the South Side of Chicago, where one of our major bases is.
GL: I wanted to just touch on why the YWCA decided to partner with Guard Llama, and what value you see in the relationship going either way.
Nabilah: I think we need to diversify the way we look at violence. And we need to diversify our approach. One of the things that we’re recognizing in the industry is that we’re very niche. Specifically going into diverse communities - but if we’re looking at a professional opportunity, it’s very specific. We’re looking at social workers, we’re not necessarily looking at corporate America. And what we recognize is that the sexual violence that occurs there, you all bring some corporatized experience and connection to the work. Real Estate agents weren’t on our radar. In terms of saying, “Well, we should provide some prevention services to you all, and just talk about issues of sexual violence or create a group that supports you.” Never thought about it. My mother for a moment was a real estate agent. Didn’t think about it in that context. The more you meet, the more diversified our partnerships are, the better we’re able to evolve. We’re large, but we also need to be efficient and nimble and so we look at how you all operate, what your tool is, what your device. It’s nimble, right? It’s mobile, it fits in my pocket. That’s important. We don’t want to come with this big book of “Why You Shouldn’t Get Raped.” That’s not the goal either. So really looking towards how we can uniquely evolve the work in a cutting-edge way, it was just on the mark.
GL: Can we talk a little further about the sort of switch you’re talking about in the cultural conversation? The switch from “Here are the things you need to do as a woman to protect yourself” to “We need to stop assaulting women.” It’s a difference of “We need to make sure women are guarded against rapists” vs. “We need to stop creating the opportunity for people to rape people.” When would you say that shift started to happen in the culture of what you guys do and in the conversation? Was there a specific time?
Nabilah: (joking) When we got there!
Alex: Erin’s Law.
Nabilah: Erin’s Law really made the shift, along with President Obama from the White House. A renewed call to action. When the President and the Vice President are saying, “You know what - people shouldn’t be raped, you should not rape people, rapists are responsible for rape” it’s real simple. Fixing it is the hard part, and we’re working on it. I think also shifting how we talk about rape. We are removing the focus on men being rapists and we’re focusing on people who rape. We are including men in the work. And so it’s really important to create a space and content and frame the information to make it accessible to anybody. Versus making it focused on “women are responsible for telling men not to rape. Women are responsible for educating, women are responsible for…” No. We are responsible. For ensuring that we’re holding ourselves and others accountable for being appropriate and having a culture of consent. Recognizing the importance of consent and coercion, and how easy it is to coerce somebody. And it doesn’t have to be about sex or the lack of consent.
Alex: Yeah, the community responsibility. And I think the national spotlight - for years, rape crisis centers have been like, “Look! Over here! It’s a problem,” and then finally we had someone put a spotlight on it and we’re like, “Okay! We’re ready to do this, we can do this.” Having more press about what prevention needs to be and more “It’s on us” campaigns.
GL: How does The Y try to keep this issue top of mind for people? National news and social media have a very short attention span, even for issues as big and terrible as the Orlando massacre. Zika, for example, is still a huge problem and is getting worse as we speak but has been largely forgotten. How does The Y ensure that people are thinking about issues of violence and rape and trying to make a change, and not letting it be brushed under with everything else?
Alex: Specifically for me in the programs with kids and adults that I do, it’s not scaring people. Orlando, Zika - that is scary. That’s stuff that we don’t want to talk about. Are there components of today’s presentation that are not so fun to talk about? [Note: before this interview, the Guard Llama staff went through a sexual violence awareness course with Alex and Nabilah] Absolutely. But we laughed, we were able to do something. We talked about things you can do later, and this was just a one-time session. When I have multiple sessions it’s more about “Why is this important to you?” Because this is your community that you live in, and you want it to be safe. But also letting people know that they can individually do things. I think people think it’s too much of a problem, and they can’t do anything about it. But it’s the job of rape crisis centers and big organizations who have big problems to break that down for people and say, “Ok, yeah, it’s a big problem. But you can volunteer with us, and you can do the hotline, and if you don’t want to do either of the things, you can write a check for us.” Giving people actual things that they can do that day, the next day, that week - that’s how at least I specifically try to get things accomplished.
To learn more about what the YWCA does in your community, visit YWCA.org.
To assist as a Rape Crisis Hotline volunteer, a Medical Advocate Volunteer, or an SVSS Outreach Volunteer in the Chicago Metropolitan area, follow THIS LINK.
If you or someone you know needs to contact the Chicago Metropolitan Area Rape Crisis Hotline, operators are available 24/7 at the following numbers:
Chicago Metropolitan Area: 888-293-2080
DuPage County: 630-971-3927
South Suburbs: 708-748-5672