When domestic violence issues arise, many undocumented Latinas continue to be unaware of their right to be protected by the law. They are much less likely to report domestic violence incidents out of fear of being deported or seeing their families split apart. They don't want to enrage their partners an risk making the violence even worse.
UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence's mission is to provide a bridge to a safe environment through assessment, direct support, referral, education, training and collaboration to break the cycle of domestic violence in Latino communities, one family at a time. Veronica Lazo is the new executive director. She has just held that position for a few weeks, but she has been working with women and domestic violence issues for years.
“I've really been enjoying it so far,” Lazo tells The Madison Times in an interview in the UNIDOS offices on Madison's south side. “I've been at UNIDOS for two-and-a-half years now working as a [domestic violence] advocate. I've worked very closely with [former UNIDOS Executive Director] Cecilia [Gilhouse] and learned a lot about what she is doing and how to do things here and there. So far, I have really enjoyed being the executive director and doing the work that this organization stands for.”
Originally, from Isabela, Puerto Rico, Lazo is also going to school for art therapy at Edgewood College. “This job offered me the flexibility to go to school full-time while being the executive director,” Lazo says. “When I looked at the job description, I was like, 'Well, I'm already doing a lot of that.' I didn’t think it would be too much of a change for me.”
Lazo really has a passion for the art and she's hoping to increase people's involvement in art at UNIDOS. “I would love it if everybody here paints or draws or does crafts,” Lazo says. “I do promote creativity as a way of healing at any given point. I would love to put workshops together so people have an opportunity to heal through art. I'm really big on that.”
UNIDOS was started in 1996 as a group of volunteers committed to helping Latina survivors of domestic violence access local services. “There was a need in the rural areas back then to support the farm community for the women who came here with their families to work in the fields,” Lazo says.
The research back then indicated that although domestic violence was a serious problem within the Latino migrant and immigrant community, local domestic violence services did not have the resources to work with this group of abused women. Staff from local agencies needed assistance to learn about Latino culture and how the problem of domestic violence was uniquely experienced in that community.
“UNIDOS began as a volunteer program with tons of volunteers that were called to rural areas of Wisconsin to help give information and provide support and inform people of their rights and help them get through domestic violence situations,” Lazo says.
Today, UNIDOS has grown bigger and stronger and more versatile as they continue to help comfort and educate women. “Over the years, UNIDOS has moved away a little from the rural areas and we are now focusing here on working with direct services for those victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Lazo says.
UNIDOS provides direct services in Dane, Rock and surrounding counties with a small staff of employees and many volunteers. They have a full-time sexual assault advocate and are in the process of hiring a full-time counselor. “In any given year, we get 15-20 volunteers,” Lazo says. “Volunteers help us quite a bit because we have limited staff.”
They also provide statewide education and technical assistance to colleagues and professionals who wish to improve their services to Latinos in Wisconsin. UNIDOS receives funding from the Department of Health and Family Services, the Office of Justice Assistance, and the City of Madison. Also, in addition to private donations, they are proud members of Community Shares of Wisconsin.
“We have support groups that happen here weekly. Every other week we have domestic violence support groups and once a month we have a sexual assault support group,” Lazo says. “When we provide support groups for women, we provide childcare that is not like the typical childcare that you will see in other places. We take that time to educate kids and to give them a place where they also have a voice to talk about the things they have gone through and how they have been impacted by the violence at home. We don't just want to focus our attention on the victim; but also the kids and the family.”
Everything UNIDOS does, Lazo says, is client-focused. “We do surveys at the beginning of the year and we ask the women what they want to focus on for the year and find out what they want to learn about,” Lazo says. “We ask them to set up goals and we find out how UNIDOS staff can help them reach those goals.
Domestic abuse and sexual assault can be a very difficult thing to talk about and open up about. Especially for women who may be poor, have children, and are undocumented.
“It's often very hard for an abused woman to come forward – especially if she is a Latina and undocumented,” Lazo says. “Being undocumented plays a huge roll in the decision making of whether or not that person is going to leave a relationship. In our support group we have three different type of women at the same time in the group — we have the women that continue living with the abusers who are coming here to look for support, we have women who have recently left an abuser and are trying to move forward, and we have our survivors. The survivors have gone through everything and they help and support the other two groups of women.
“Sometimes women will come here and they will continue to live with their abuser but that doesn't mean that they aren't looking for ways to get out of that relationship,” she adds. “We do a lot of safety planning and safety processing with our clients here. Especially, when we know that it is impossible for that person to leave that relationship at that time.”
UNIDOS works with local attorneys and other community resources to give the women all of the information that they need to know. It's important, Lazo says, that the staff and volunteers at UNIDOS be as honest with the women as they can.
“I'm not going to sit here and say, 'It's going to be easy. You are going to leave him and everything is going to be beautiful!' We don't paint that picture and the women know that and we are very realistic,” Lazo says. “It's not going to be easy, but you are going to have a life that you deserve. It will get better in time.”
And UNIDOS is not just about helping women.“One of the assumptions that people have in the community is that we only support women. That's not true,” Lazo says. “We do have men that come here and we do have men that open up to us. We do one-on-ones with those men and support them. We support anybody who needs support — anybody who walks through that door from the very young to the very old.”
Lazo also says that it's important to talk to the men — very often the abuser — to give them the knowledge and tools and networks needed to mobilize them to prevent violence against women and girls.
“We have different groups that we have started in the community to learn more about what UNIDOS is doing and to see how we can start these conversations with men,” Lazo says. “How can we get men involved in the work that we are doing? How can we get men who are not violent to talk to other men who choose that route? We need a social and support network for men on this issue — especially in the Latino community. It is time that we start changing that feeling that men are empty souls and bodies walking around with no feelings. Men do cry and it is OK to cry.”
To do the work that they do, UNIDOS also relies on fund-raising. On Feb. 13, they hosted “One Billion Rising” at the Brink Lounge. This was a night filled with women, men, and children coming together to support one another in solidarity, and dance together in a collective force against sexual and domestic violence. The day after that, UNIDOS hosted a St. Valentine's Day fund-raiser at their offices where they sold Valentine's Day cupcakes and other treats.
“We do little fund-raisers here and there but this year we are focusing on our annual event,” Lazo says. “We have some private donors and community support, but fund-raising is always so important to us. Part of the fund-raising comes from Mujeres Adelante.”
“Mujeres Adelante Leadership Group” is a group of individuals with similar intentions, needs, goals and purposes who organize and create an educational environment within the organization. This leadership group supports the members of the UNIDOS support group, community members, and other service providers.
“We work with them to put on a whole conference in October. This year will be our 7th annual community education conference,” Lazo says. “Everybody in the community is invited and we will all be talking about these issues that affect all of us. Violence is a community issue. It's not a woman's issue.”
Lazo's goals for the future include the growth of UNIDOS organization and being able to serve more clients.
“We're doing board development training right now and we're finalizing our strategic planning. I hope to continue to move the agency forward like Cecilia [Gilhouse] has done and continue to work to provide services to the family as a whole — especially the kids,” Lazo says. “We want to really focus on understanding that it's not just the victim that gets affected by domestic violence, but also the whole family. This woman is a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a friend. Everyone in the person's life is affected by violence and we need to be realistic with that and work with people as they come to us. We need to take the opportunities as people come to us to really provide that support to the whole family as a whole.”
Interested in volunteering with UNIDOS or find out more information? Please call (608) 256-9195 or visit www.unidosagainstdv.org