Finding Our Voices, Living Up to Sheila’s Legacy

August 15, 2014

Twenty-four years ago, Sheila Wellstone crisscrossed Minnesota.

Her husband had just been elected to the United States Senate, and she was determined to seize the opportunity to make a difference. At the time, domestic violence was reported as a crime, without attention to prevention or solution. It garnered little public dialogue, so Sheila set out to change that.

She spent those early years driving across Minnesota, meeting with survivors, advocates, doctors, police officers, judges, educators, and organizers. Listening. Learning. She’d speak at the occasional fundraiser for a shelter, she’d convene coalitions behind the scenes, and she’d frequently advise her husband, Paul Wellstone, on relevant legislation. But she rarely spoke publicly until she really knew the issues.

After a year or two, something happened: Slowly, surely, Sheila found her voice:

“It is very important that as individuals and as a society that we say that we are no longer going to tolerate this violence, that we will no longer ignore it, but that most importantly, we are not able to say any longer that it is someone else's responsibility. We all have a responsibility, and I think we all have the power, to make someone safe who is not safe today.” – Sheila Wellstone

For over a decade, Sheila Wellstone served as a vital voice in the movement in Minnesota and nationally to end violence against women, raising awareness, teaming up with people like Joe Biden to secure groundbreaking public policy like the Violence Against Women Act, and bringing people together to start to do the hard work of ending the violence in our families and communities.

During those early years, Sheila’s driving companion, advisor, and friend was a community leader named Marcia Avner. Marcia remembers the role Sheila played in shaping the national movement, “What Sheila did was pretty incredible: she brought communities together to get the whole picture of the problem and the solution. She spoke, she educated the media, she collaborated with service providers and advocates, and she identified the importance of the issue in Paul’s work. Sheila found her voice in a powerful way.”

Sheila became a big part of a national movement to give voice to survivors, to define domestic violence as a public health issue, and an issue worthy of a community-based solutions spread nationally.

When the world lost Paul and Sheila, Marcia, Mary, Tom and Will, one thing was especially clear to Sheila’s family, friends, and colleagues:  the work wasn’t close to over. Sheila would expect nothing less from them than to build on her legacy, and continue the vital mission to which she had dedicated so much of her public life.

In response, Sheila’s loved ones created the Sheila Wellstone Institute (SWI), a program of Wellstone Action, that would continue the important work that Sheila had started.

For over a decade, that’s exactly what SWI has done. From trainings with survivors, to convenings among stakeholder organizations, to an annual awards ceremony honoring key leaders working to end domestic violence and sexual assault across the nation, SWI has steadfastly continued Sheila’s work to build power and engage communities around this issue of fundamental human rights.   

Just this month, we headed to Albuquerque, NM to train over 40 statewide leaders as they work to end domestic violence. We talked about the power of advocacy, we talked about the importance of collaboration, and we talked about power mapping and building power that can make immediate change in people’s lives and also build our movement for the long term. One of the most meaningful pieces of the training was on storytelling. Julie Koob, an advocate at Planned Parenthood New Mexico and one of our key partners in delivering this training, says:

“After working for more than 20 years on efforts to end violence against women, I am convinced that we will not end this violence until we empower survivors to tell their stories to decision-makers and effect change.  SWI's engaging and dynamic training does just that by providing the skills and training survivors and advocates need to win meaningful change.”

In the years since driving across Minnesota with Sheila, Marcia has become a state leader in her own right. As the former director of statewide public policy organizations, and a highly sought-after national consultant, (and a Wellstone Action board member!), Marcia continues to help lead our SWI work along with Wellstone’s Movement-Building Principal, Edith Sargon. Reflecting on the New Mexico training, Marcia reports, “The group was highly engaged and enthusiastic. Our work on the power of storytelling got the group particularly excited. It gave them a framework to work with clients to tell their story in a way that’s of value to an advocacy campaign, to give clients agency to tell their own story and use the power of their personal experiences to advance the work.”

The New Mexico group came from every corner of the state, both big cities and rural communities, many of them are already successful advocates and organizers. Wellstone is proud to have provided an additional dimension to their work, helping to strengthen the statewide collaboration of groups planning and mobilizing for the great deal of work yet ahead of us. It’s the kind of work that Marcia and Edith will continue to build with SWI for years to come – and we like to think, it’s the kind of work that would have made Sheila incredibly proud. We invite you to join us.

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