Women of Industry: Shannon Barry takes domestic abuse out of shadows

Shannon Barry is taking a cue from the breast-cancer movement for the benefit of domestic abuse victims.

Barry, executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Madison, recalls when breast cancer was a taboo subject and notes the success of cancer fighting fundraising, research, and programming since the topic came out of the shadows. The same situation now basically applies to victims of domestic violence.

By presenting the new DAIS facility as a well-known public space rather than a confidential, undisclosed location, Barry has brought domestic abuse out of the shadows, as well. She’s not only removing the stigma from abuse victims, she’s improved access to local services, and it’s the key reason why she was selected as a member of the 2017 Women of Industry class.

Barry gave a lot of thought to the incredible amount of work by the breast cancer movement to get people to talk about something that also was, for many years, taboo. Regarding breast cancer, people didn’t want to talk about cancer and didn’t want to talk about screening, and when those barriers were taken down, the matter came out into the open and saved or prolonged countless lives.

The recipient of a 2015 Distinguished Social Worker Award from the National Association of Social Workers-South Central Wisconsin, Barry was trying to figure out how domestic violence services could take a lesson from the breast-cancer movement, get people to talk about something that’s very uncomfortable, bring it out of the shadows, and let people know that what they are experiencing isn’t their fault.

“Domestic violence is an issue that still is very taboo in our society, and a lot of people don’t really want to talk about it,” Barry explains. “Yet every single person in the community has been touched by domestic violence because one in four women and one in seven men will be the victim of either physical or sexual assault by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.”

Unintended consequences

Every single person in Dane County might know someone who has been touched by this issue, but they may not be aware of who that person is. When domestic violence is shrouded in secrecy, an unintended message to victims is that it’s somehow their fault and it reinforces what their batterers are telling them about how they deserve to be abused, that the abuse is their fault, and nobody believes them and nobody will care about them, Barry adds.

Barry notes that twice as many women will be victims of domestic violence than will deal with breast cancer — one in eight women will have breast cancer and one in four women will be victims of domestic violence. In Barry’s view, they represent a lot of unwarranted shame. “Bringing it out of the shadows and having a very public facility sends a very strong message to victims that they don’t deserve what’s happening to them,” she states. “They do deserve safety. They do deserve support.

“It also sends a very strong message to batterers that this community cares about the victims of their crimes and that we will collectively hold them accountable.”

To some, the decision to build a public facility at 2102 Fordem Ave. might not seem revolutionary, but it already has had a profound effect on local victims of domestic violence, the services DAIS provides, and public awareness in general. These impacts extend well beyond having a newer, larger facility with electronic access control and enough exterior security cameras and 24/7 security staff to make any stalker think twice.

One of the ways the new, very public facility has increased access is by welcoming walk-ins — more than 80 since the start of 2017 alone. Barry recounts the story of one woman who came three years ago, just after the new building opened, pretending to be a potential donor before confessing that she needed help. Being warmly attended to by fundraising staffers helped coax the confession.

“Just being able to walk in and receive a warm and compassionate response from people whose role is fundraising for these services provided her with that opportunity to disclose and get the help she needed,” Barry notes.



Even though the location of the building is publicly known, the perception that it’s safer has actually grown. According to Barry, DAIS also has had women who stayed in the shelter tell staff that their batterers knew where they were staying here but would never come close to this building because they know about all the [security] cameras around the perimeter because they are visible and they know that people are watching.

“She talked about how it made her feel so much safer,” Barry notes, “that in a publicly known facility, not only were we watching but the community and the neighborhood was also keeping an eye out. It’s really about an environment that’s warm and welcoming but it’s also people feeling safer. That has been huge. A woman who stayed in our old building on Monroe Street, the secret building, she told us that her batterer told her not to bother going to that place because ‘I know where it is.’ If it had been this new building, she would have said, ‘Big deal, everyone knows where it is.’ It takes away that tool of control.’”

Another path Barry has led DAIS down is embracing the concept of reaching the “Last Girl.” The Last Girl, which has been brought into DAIS programming within the past year, is a national movement within domestic violence and sexual assault programs to examine their work to ensure it’s largely accessible and open to anybody who might need these services.

Whether that’s people of color, or people for whom English is not their native language (served by bilingual staffers), or people with disabilities, or people in the LGBTQ community, “the Last Girl is thinking about the most vulnerable and marginalized person who may need services, and are we doing all we can to reach that person?” Barry explains. “That has been a shift in mindset over the past year about our programming. With every decision we make from now on about our programming and services we’re offering as a staff, we’re looking at that through the lens of how the decision increases access to the most marginalized in our population.”

Humbling honor

For Barry, the Women of Industry honor is overwhelmingly meaningful on an organizational and a personal basis. She characterizes victims of domestic violence as some of the strongest people she’s ever met because they have to survive things that most of us can never imagine, so it’s truly an honor to work on their behalf.

“This recognition is incredibly humbling,” she states. “I have a very deep personal connection to this work, and this is work that I felt called to do. I’ve never done it for accolades.”

Read the rest of our 2017 Women of Industry features:

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