Crisis at the Rape Crisis Center

Has Idealism Become the Victim of Financial Reality?

To some volunteers, the failure of ARCC's board to award volunteer Rev. James Rigby (above) with a board seat represented a philosophical shift against community activism.
photograph by Laura Skelding
On the morning of May 3 of this year, Paul Garlinghouse was hunched over his desk at the Austin Rape Crisis Center (ARCC). He was rewriting a grant request for funding that the agency had recently lost, when Ginger Eways, the executive director, called him into her office. She told him that he was being let go because the agency could no longer afford to fund his position as head of ARCC's public education department. His termination was effective immediately.

While he was packing the contents of his desk into boxes, Garlinghouse's co-worker, Sindi Elloriega-Valdez, the head of minority outreach at the center, was called in and given an identical immediate dismissal.

Garlinghouse, who had watched funding for his department steadily cut in the 20 months since Eways had taken over at ARCC, was not surprised by his ouster. "I had been struggling hard for such a long time with less and less support. I felt relieved," he says.

What shocked Garlinghouse, however, was being told his duties as director of the public education department's rape prevention program would now fall to Jamie Avila, Eways' assistant. Avila, who, to his credit, had served an impressive eight years as a volunteer at the center, still had no professional or academic training, and had been a paid staff member for only three months. Garlinghouse, on the other hand, held a masters degree in Social Work and had been on staff for almost two years.

The firing of Elloriega-Valdez, who declined to comment for this story, was also a head-scratcher. The presentations to Spanish-speaking women's groups which she had slated for the following weeks had to be canceled because no one else on the staff could give bilingual presentations.

Seven months earlier, Amy Wong Mok, who was then head of public education, had been let go under similar circumstances. With Mok, Garlinghouse, and Elloriega-Valdez gone, only Eileen Cowan was left in the department. Several days later she resigned.

These departures are just four in a string of staff dismissals and subsequent staff, volunteer, and board member resignations which represent a sea-change at the non-profit agency. Since taking over as executive director of ARCC in September of 1994, Eways has moved the center in a new direction, changing everything from its mission statement to its fundraising methods in an effort to create a more professional image for the center.

Underlying those efforts is a shift in philosophy from a grassroots activist environment that addressed the causes of sexual assault, into a more traditional women's charity organization that focuses on dealing with the aftermath of rape. As a strapped-for-cash non-profit with a yearly budget of about $500,000, few can blame Eways and ARCC's board members for doing anything and everything they can to attract new funding sources. ARCC is facing a financial crisis, and like non-profits throughout the nation, the center's leaders have had to make tough choices about what to do about it. It is apparent that ARCC has decided to reinvent itself -- to tone its activist tendencies down -- in order to attract a wider range of donors. Is that so wrong?

Longtime volunteers and activists who have been displaced in the philosophical shift seem to thinks so. Eight people formerly involved with the center and two current volunteers say that this shift and its effects -- the elimination of the public education department, the weakening of minority outreach, the termination of peer counseling, and the gutting of the volunteer training program -- were unforgivable. They say that Eways, together with powerful newcomers to the center's 22-member board, have lost sight of ARCC's original purpose. Cutting back on public education programs that operate at a grassroots level has limited the scope of ARCC's client base, claim these critics, leaving minority and non-English speaking victims out in the cold. These victims are the unempowered women who are less likely to seek help at the center under its new, less proactive, regime, they say.

Eways concedes that the center has moved in a new direction, but stresses that she "has nothing to apologize for." She says that the dismissals were merely cost-cutting measures in dire economic times. The cuts freed up almost $45,000 to provide more services to the clients.

And the fact that the cutbacks occurred in public education and minority outreach doesn't mean that the center is less dedicated to those causes, she says. "What we did in restructuring was not eliminate those services, we reassigned those responsibilities so that we could live within our means," says Eways. "Unfortunately our financial statement speaks for itself... [the cuts] were not based on anything but dire economic necessity."

Still, Eways admits that she has no intention of rebuilding public education, even in better economic times. "It's not like there's a missing piece that needs to be put back in," she says. She explains that a fully funded department "does not right now fit in with the proram we have for services."

Tough Choices

In 1974, 12 volunteers from the National Organization for Women opened ARCC, the first rape crisis center in Texas. Since that time it has grown to be the largest and most innovative of the 63 rape crisis centers in Texas and a model program for the nation, serving more than 1,000 clients annually. ARCC was the first program in the U.S. to include men as staff and volunteers, and currently 20% of the volunteers are males. This year ARCC launched the Personal Safety Awareness Center (PSAC) to serve people with mental and physical disabilities who have been sexually assaulted. It is one of only five programs in the U.S. to provide such services. "Many programs look up to ARCC, hoping to become ARCC," says former staff member Mok. The eight staff members and 175 volunteers provide a wide range of services including a 24-hour crisis hotline, group and individual counseling, and hospital visits in which someone from the center, often in the middle of the night, accompanies sexual assault survivors through the initial emergency room exam and police investigation.

The dual mission of the ARCC has always been to provide crisis intervention, and to educate the public about the causes of rape. Before Garlinghouse was fired last May, the public education department coordinated the center's varied outreach efforts. Speaking to schools and community groups, representing the center to the media, producing brochures, educating grand juries and judges, and bringing ARCC into ethnic minority communities were all under the department's purview. But Eways says that things had to change after she took over the agency two years ago. "By the time we realized we were in trouble, we were in the hole," she says.

Eways -- who was executive director of the Hays County Women's Center in San Marcos for two years before taking over at ARCC two years ago -- explains that in light of scant resources, she and the board decided that issues of empowerment through public education had to take a back seat to crisis intervention. "When you're a small agency, you just don't have the time or the staff to work for other causes that you may hold near and dear and may be related to your fundamental philosophy," she says.

Eways describes her decision to eliminate the public education department as a difficult one. "A lot of study and analysis went into [it]," she says. "There was no decision to cut public education per se; we did some restructuring and realigning. Our mission talks about prevention through education, and that's something we're all dedicated to doing."

Amy Kite, ARCC's director of counseling services, agrees with Eways' contention that priorities had to change. She defends the center's decision to de-emphasize public outreach, which is considered the bailiwick of the hands-on grassroots activists, in favor of more counseling. "I'm a little biased towards counseling services," Kite says. "I understand the importance of public education, but my concern has always been counseling."

Despite the demise of public education and minority outreach, Eways says that clients continue to receive the same level of service. But former ARCC supporters say that Eways' decision to wipe out the public education component -- once the cornerstone of the agency -- is inexcusable. "It was equivalent to a person cutting off a limb," says former volunteer Grant Hartline, referring to the losses of the successful prevention programs administered through the public education and minority programs. Hartline stopped volunteering at the center in protest of the changes.

Mok, who was dismissed from the center's public education department last year, echoes Hartline's concerns. She argues that prevention and crisis intervention should go hand in hand. "We should not have to make a choice to favor one over the other," she says. "If we only deal with crisis, then we'll continue to deal with crisis." Furthermore, Mok points out, prevention is the more cost-effective solution, since educating possible victims and perpetrators would cut down on the prevalence of rape. (Mok, who heads Austin's Asian American Alliance, is now President of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.)

However, the attitude of Phillip Poplin, Vice President of ARCC's current board, reflects the board's new focus on the aftermath of sexual assault. He says that equal emphasis on prevention is "a good mission, but I question whether in pursuing that goal we cut into the resources for crisis intervention."

Programs like ARCC's children's play therapy room may be an easier sell to big-money donors than its minority outreach program.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Reaching Out Is Hard to Do

Before the shakeup, it was the responsibility of the public education and minority outreach staff to represent ARCC in ethnic communities which might otherwise overlook the center as a resource. For example, Mok, who worked in the public education department, used her fluency in Korean to have the center's brochures translated into five Asian languages. And she alone could communicate with Korean-only rape victims. She says that the language barrier is not the only obstacle with getting these victims help; there are also cultural barriers. "For Asian American rape survivors, it is very hard for them to come forward and say `I've been soiled.'"

The center's minority outreach efforts extended to East Austin until 1995 when ARCC closed a small satellite center which provided services and outreach to African-American churches and community centers in an area where sexual assault is three times higher than in the rest of the city. In the wake of the dismissals in public education and minority outreach departments, such efforts are now dissipated among the job descriptions of the entire staff, consequently diluting ARCC's presence in minority communities.

Eways' aide Avila acknowledges that increasing minority outreach efforts is "definitely something we identify as something we desperately need to do." But Eways defends ARCC's outreach efforts, in part by expanding her definition of `minority' beyond simply ethnic populations to include people with disabilities and gays and lesbians. For example, the People of Color Committee has been reframed as the more generic Outreach Committee to include these other minorities. The name is beside the point, however, since ARCC board member Charles Pankey, the committee's chair, admits that "we haven't really got it going yet."

While the loss of staff whose jobs were specifically dedicated to seeking out low-income victims from diverse ethnic backgrounds is regrettable, Eways says she prefers to redirect focus on the center's new PSAC program, which counsels physically and mentally disabled people who have been sexually assaulted.

Another change instituted by Eways -- the abolishment of the volunteer-driven peer counseling program -- has left many veteran volunteers questioning whether the center's commitment to the cause is as deeply felt as their own. Peer counselors were volunteers who, in addition to regular training, went through additional training to counsel survivors who were beyond the acute stage of their recovery from trauma. Amy Kite, director of ARCC's counseling services, says that the paperwork involved in maintaining accountability to funding sources was too time-consuming to make the program worth it. She does recognize, however, that peer counseling "allowed us to see more people than we normally would." Clients who would have received free peer counseling at ARCC are now referred out of the center to receive therapy for a fee. "It's obviously in contradiction to the history of the center" to refer these victims elsewhere, sighs current volunteer Armando Rodriguez regarding the program's demise.

Eways also cut the number of hours that volunteers must train in half -- from 40 to 20 hours. One current volunteer and one former volunteer point to the decrease in mandatory volunteer training hours as the cause of peer counseling's decline. However, Avila points out that the number of volunteers has increased, and Kite credits the laxer standards, noting that the center now has a lot less trouble filling volunteer shifts. Nevertheless, one former volunteer protests that the new recruits are less prepared. "I couldn't believe it," she says, offering one example in which a new volunteer did not know that a survivor needed a police report to get a hospital exam.

As with the weakening of public education and outreach, Eways says that dismantling ARCC's peer counseling program was not something she enjoyed. It's just that money is tight: "I think you have to accept the fact that you can't do everything." And just as Kite worries that peer counseling would overwhelm the center's resources, Eways expresses concern about keeping management of the center under control. "We don't want to expand services without having the administration base to support those services."

Popularity Contest?

While Eways claims poverty regarding support for those programs, resources were found for the recent refurbishment of the children's therapy playroom -- which is used as a safe environment to counsel children who have been sexually assualted. Money was also freed up to create the PSAC to counsel disabled clients. (When Eways first arrived at the center in 1994, 26% of ARCC's clients were children. Now that percentage has increased to 40%, she notes.)

One current volunteer and two former volunteers are offended by the general impression that programs for children and the disabled have simply been easier for the board to market than programs for ethnic minorities. Even ARCC board member Pankey concedes that "rape crisis is not a popular subject" in the world of corporate giving. He says that programs like the children's and disabilities' programs are "a lot easier to sell."

This desire on the board's part to market the rape crisis center has created an imbalance at the agency between a very well-funded children's counseling program and the neglected public education, minority outreach, and volunteer programs. ARCC volunteer Rev. James Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian explains that because children require professional counselors and special facilities, resources for the other, prevention-oriented programs suffered. He says ARCC is "really out far on a limb (in terms of overhead expenses associated) with the children's program," but adds that such realignment of resources may be a necessary evil. "If you can't sell something to rich people, it dies. It's absolutely heartbreaking."

Eways denies the suggestion that the new programs drained resources from other programs at ARCC. "In terms of services, we did indeed completely restructure the agency, but we did not take money away from any service and put it into another program," she says.

That Seventies Mentality

Before its decimation, the public education department not only responded to requests for educational presentations that profiled the causes of rape, its victims, and its perpetrators, it actively sought the opportunity to make ARCC a voice in the community. While Eways chalks up the cuts to financial reasons, two former staff members and three former volunteers insist that it was the staff's and volunteers' activism, rather than financial necessity, that was at the root of the department's elimination. "In a transparent way, I was let go because of my beliefs and my advocacy," maintains Garlinghouse.

Mok agrees that certain people were dismissed because of their politically charged beliefs. "It's not about who I am," Mok says, "but what I represent."

One former volunteer board member adds that when the newer, more fiscally minded board "found out that the `Amy Moks' of the center were talking about choice, feminism, and empowerment," they became concerned that such rhetoric would cause ARCC to lose funds from more conservative sources.

Indeed, another former board member says the shakeup that Eways instituted was actually initiated by some board members who, in the search for more funding, decided that the feminist education and outreach agenda being pushed by longtime activists at the center was a tough sell. To win grants, and appeal to the hefty pocketbooks of the more affluent, the board -- which had recently acquired more upper-income members -- decided to concentrate on rape victims after they sought help. "My image of the (new) board was of a Junior League operation with an emphasis on dealing with people who have been raped," recalls this former board member. "But if it was going to offend possible donors to talk about what's causing violence against women, then we just won't talk about it."

Some longtime volunteers who had helped build the center on an activist/feminist foundation suddenly felt unwelcome. What they believed to be heartfelt volunteerism was seen in the new board's eyes as useless hippie activism, say one former board member and two current and three former volunteers. One former board member recalls overhearing Cindy Lind, then head of ARCC's fundraising efforts, lament what she said was the prevailing "Seventies mentality" at the center. "(Lind) was talking about `Seventies thinking' as if it were some kind of disease," the ex-board member recalls.

Lind, who later become an ARCC board member, and at one point, the center's director of development, would neither confirm nor deny the story. Her thoughts on the volunteers in general is that they need to "work with" the fact that "the center has evolved in each decade."

It's that anti-activist attitude that old guard volunteers -- many of whom have opted to leave ARCC in the wake of the changes -- say is creating a gap in services. "The ARCC, since this change-over, has severely limited themselves," says Sally Jacques, spokesperson for the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, which co-sponsored events with ARCC until recently when the group had a falling out with Eways. "If you are not connected to your community and don't make time to find out how this community operates at a grass-roots level, you are not going to be effective."

A Board in the Hand

Perhaps it's no surprise that as the board shifted its focus from activism to fundraising, communication between board members and long-time staff and volunteers fell apart. Many devoted ARCC supporters felt alienated by the board's efforts to recruit more affluent citizens. "My impression was that somewhere along the way, money was more important than taking a stand on women's rights," says Charles Moore, who resigned from the board amidst the shake-up.

Rev. Rigby, the former volunteer who is well-known locally for his activism with regards to abortion rights and gay and lesbian issues, says that he has witnessed this battle between administration and activists at many agencies. "The board is looking at it from a fundraising base, but the activists are much more pristine," he says.

One former board member goes even further, stating "feminist was an f-word and the board and Ginger (Eways) were afraid of it."

Late last year, Rev. Rigby lost a vote to be seated on the ARCC board. Amid tearful pleas for his inclusion, several board members resigned in disgust. "I was stunned," says then-board member Moore. "Any board that Jim Rigby's not welcome on, I don't want to be a part of." According to one former board member, only a "powerful few" showed up on the night of the vote. Moore was not among them, but says he was told that Rigby, who is a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League, was rejected because the conservative contingent on the board had to be appeased. Another former board member agrees: "Too many conservatives on the board didn't want ARCC and abortion associated."

However, board vice-chair Poplin says that the vote against Rigby had nothing to do with the reverend's public positions, explaining that some on the board "felt we should not use a `spokesperson' [like Rigby] as a board member, but... where they are really the most valuable." And Eways, who is not on the board, confirms that ARCC is entirely pro-choice.

ARCC's eight staff members and 175 volunteers provide a wide range of services, including the operation of a 24-hour hotline (above).
photograph by Jana Birchum
The battle over Rigby encapsulates the battle over the soul of ARCC between the activists and the more conservative board. "We were labeled a radical feminist organization, and we were proud of it," Mok recalls. Apparently the board disagreed. The word "feminist" was recently stricken from all ARCC documents, including the principles and mission statement.

Eways says that the philosophy taught by the center has always been, and still remains, that rape is the outgrowth of a patriarchal society. She holds firm that the changes under her administration continue to support the center's primary purpose. "People in the community say, `What we want is ARCC to be about a certain political attitude,' but our mission has always been to counsel people who are sexually assaulted."

An example of how differently some board members and some volunteers view the center came during ARCC's annual Spring Gala fundraiser earlier this year. For years ARCC has held a silent auction and a $15-per-plate dinner donated from area restaurants. This year's Spring Gala, themed "For the Children," was a fully catered event that cost a whopping $100 per plate. While it was the most successful Gala to date, netting over $39,000 and attracting the upper echelons of Austin society, some volunteers and supporters were disappointed that many former Gala contributors could no longer afford to attend. "A lot of people at the Gala once a year [had the] feeling like they were a big part of the cause," says Lynn Thompson-Haas, the former executive director of ARCC, who could not afford to attend.

To further fuel the feeling that long-time volunteers were no longer as valued at the center was a controversy surrounding the Junior League's donation of a dove hunt to the silent auction, with proceeds specifically earmarked for the children's play therapy room at the center. (Never mind that the therapy room was already primarily funded by a $30,000 League grant.) What offended some ARCC supporters and attendees about the dove hunt was the fact that a dove released from a hand is the symbol of the local Week Without Violence which ARCC co-sponsors. Over the protests of these attendees and volunteers, Eways firmly stood by her decision to accept the donation. "The dove is a symbol of peace, but it is not a symbol of the center," she states. Garlinghouse found in response to his protests that "the bottom line was `It doesn't matter what y'all think.'"

This clash of attitudes and philosophies finally came to a head in the form of an organized protest of the volunteers against the board of directors in May of this year, just after Garlinghouse and Elloriega-Valdez were fired. Volunteer organizers were upset about the broader issue of change at the center, but believed they could achieve more effective results by narrowing their focus to specific points which they brought to the board's attention. One change they insisted on was more representation on the board of ARRC volunteers. ARCC bylaws state that volunteers should make up 20% of the board. That percentage had been dropping for about a year and a half, fueling the communication breakdown between the board and volunteers. When word got around that the board was considering cutting volunteer representation altogether, Laura Lyons, Grant Hartline, and Armando Rodriguez, all volunteers for at least five years, drafted a letter to the board. "Although none of us wishes for conflict," it reads, "we come today to lay out our concerns over the direction the board and center seem to be taking."

The letter went on to protest several proposed changes in the bylaws, including some which would allow closed-door board meetings, and to suggest the formation of a Volunteer Liaison Committee. All of these changes were adopted, but despite these concessions, Lyons and Hartline, both former Volunteers of the Year, felt that philosophical differences between volunteers and administration had become too great to remedy. Both subsequently quit the center.

A Matter of Survival

Many Austin area non-profits have experienced growing pains in the Nineties. A new business climate has permeated what was once primarily grass-roots territory. "There is no question but that funding sources are asking for more accountability," says Kelly White Rountree, executive director of the Center for Battered Women. Accountability means more paperwork involving polling clients, who might be in a state of intense trauma, on their satisfaction with the agency's services, and keeping close tabs on statistics. Without such hard evidence of their work, many agencies find corporations unwilling to support their causes. However necessary it might be to attract corporate sponsors, though, the changeover to a more business-like environment has alienated many activists who find their heartfelt concerns get lost in the shuffle.

In addition to accountability issues, corporations are reluctant to fund politically driven causes led by true believers; they prefer more neutral charities that deal with less weighty issues -- i.e., children and ballet rather than rape and AIDS. ARCC volunteer Rev. Rigby, who is also a member of the Center for Battered Women, takes a broad view of this situation as it applies to all non-profits. "I see it in every organization I'm in," he says. "A lack of integration for a while between the starry-eyed hopes of people on the front lines and the new reality of a numb America."

Dr. Sheryl Civjan, director of ARCC's PSAC, admits that the center "used to be more of a mecca" for grass-roots advocacy, where former staff and volunteers were able to address not only sexual assault but also other related social issues such as the freedom to choose an abortion, and gay and lesbian rights.

"Before I left it was almost like a Camelot," Mok agrees. "The staff were very empowered to be the advocates for the [survivors] and to take on every oppressive issue."

Kite paints the problem as primarily a financial one, saying that activism "is energizing and exciting, but probably does not get you funding."

Civjan concurs: "It's a survival thing. You close your doors, or you do these things."

Editor's Note: All sources interviewed for this story, despite their differences, strongly agree that the Austin Rape Crisis Center is a valuable resource. If you need help, call the center's Hotline at 440-7273.

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