By Erica Brown
Both my recent article and Shana Brouder’s response to it surfaced the devastating effects of domestic abuse and the importance of outreach and support. It’s encouraging to learn that 13 percent of JCADA’s referrals in 2018 were from bathroom posters. They are clearly having an impact. The statistics in her article underscore the good and critical work JCADA is doing in this arena and point to the important role that nonprofits play in combating domestic violence. It’s work we all must do so that no one in our community is scared, unaided or unprotected in the face of emotional or physical violence. The investment such organizations are currently making with teens to teach them about safe and loving relationships will hopefully grow the sensitivity, compassion and equality that all strong relationships need to flourish.
I disclosed my own personal experience of abuse in bathrooms to surface how essential it is to offer support of different types and for different ages in spaces that are both a place of refuge for some and a place of risk for others. I summoned the courage to write about being bullied as an elementary school student because watching young women paint empowerment murals in their bathrooms on a day of service offered a thoughtful and constructive way to make bathrooms feel safer and happier, especially for children. I wonder how many other adults harbor “bathroom” anxiety because of childhood torment. If bathrooms were brighter, more affirming places would it make a difference? As it turns out, the service project I wrote about was actually created in reaction to social drama and bad group behavior in school bathrooms.
I confess being taken aback when the response to my article did not acknowledge my own suffering, diminishing my own experience with a dismissive sentence: “The author of the article indicates that the signs make her “feel strangely” (I wrote “strangely uncomfortable”) and remind her of a time in her childhood where the bathroom was a space for bullying.” The bathroom was not a space for bullying when I was a child. The bathroom was where I was personally bullied for years. In decades of writing for the Jewish community, I have never uttered those words and barely spoken about them in any public forum. Of course, I support all work against abuse. I recognize the need for it all too well myself. And I believe that support should come in a variety of forms for a variety of people. There is no one size fits all. Subsequently, a multi-tiered approach in messaging may be the most effective to help bystanders become upstanders and all victims to feel supported in ways that bring genuine reassurance and comfort.
There is a difference between questioning a strategy and questioning a mission. I want to reiterate that the article closed with the importance of placing posters in places of prominence. The article opened with my strong support of both the work and the outreach. I did not have JCADA in mind specifically because such posters appear in the “Jewish bathrooms” across the country. That JCADA spurred other communities to raise consciousness of abuse is a tribute to their meaningful and influential work. Having said that, I have seen such posters in corporate settings, in other nonprofits and in university bathrooms.
If Brouder’s response brought attention to the incredible work of JCADA and other organizations supporting victims of domestic abuse to even one person who needs the help, I am grateful. I sadly learned from private responses to my article that I am not the only one who associates feelings of powerlessness with bathrooms. My suggestion to add positive affirmations to bathrooms is not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there is space in Jewish bathrooms for more than one poster. A poster that says “I am brave, fearless and strong” can also contain hotline information to let all women and men, girls and boys know that they are not alone.
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.