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The Interview: The Courage Of Esta Soler

With Janet Reilly

Esta Soler, president and founder of Futures Without Violence, has been a champion for justice her entire life. At age 6, she lodged a protest when her first grade teacher assigned students to tiered reading groups based upon perceived proficiency. Esta thought this unfair and said so, landing her a time-out in the corner and her mother being summoned to the school. She wasn’t deterred.

Janet Reilly
Janet Reilly

Decades later, she became a social worker in San Francisco, working at a drug treatment program where many of the women suffered domestic abuse with nowhere to turn for help. This experience led to the founding of 

Futures Without Violence more than 30 years ago, one of the world’s most effective violence prevention agencies and a driving force behind the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Today, the nonprofit’s headquarters is in the bucolic Presidio, where plans are underway to build the Courage Museum on its site. The museum, designed by Jake Barton (who also designed the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York), will be an immersive experience designed to nurture empathy and the prevention of violence of any kind.

Last month, I caught up with Esta, who is elegant, passionate and on a mission to rid the world of violence. If anyone can do it, it’s Esta.

Esta Soler is focused on the upcoming Courage Museum and the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act.
Esta Soler is focused on the upcoming Courage Museum and the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act.

I’m always curious to learn how people developed their passion and purpose in life. You grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1950s. Tell me about your childhood.

It was a wonderful childhood, but it was a childhood with a lot of history. My dad was an immigrant — he came to this country from Russia when he was 8, fleeing the pogroms. My mom was born in the United States, but my grandparents were not. They fled Poland right before World War II and were among the few in the family who survived. My mom — who is an extraordinary role model for civic good and social activism — tried when she was 18 years old to get passports for her family to bring them here in the 1940s. She figured out how to raise the money, tried to do it, but it didn’t happen.

Incredible.

So, that’s the history. We lived social justice and social action for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was all about doing good in the world, taking stands and fighting injustice. [My parents] were loving, the house was always open to the neighborhood, we were active in the local synagogue, and it was a wonderful journey. People often ask me, “Why are you working on issues of violence in the home?” And I say, because I had a chance to learn from two parents whose family of origin were murdered or killed, but they were so loving, and everybody should have that chance.

I read that your mother brought you to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak when you were young, and that had a profound impact on you.

Absolutely. We all had to go because she was so inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and what he stood for: peace, justice, nonviolence, and against: hate. She wanted us to be there, to learn from a great orator, a great political leader, and somebody who was making a huge difference. It meant so much to me.

How did you get involved in this work around violence prevention?

I worked in the Department of Health and Human Services on issues around substance abuse when Jerry Brown was governor the first time. That’s when I first discovered so many women were being hurt, and there really weren’t any services to help them. When I came back to San Francisco, I got involved in a coalition. And I say the word “coalition,” because it was really five women: Mimi Silbert, Eva Paterson, Nancy Walker, Del Martin and me. We called ourselves the Coalition for Justice, for women and kids who were being hurt.

One day, Nancy came into one of our little meetings and said, “There’s this opportunity to get some money from the federal government to do some of the work that we’ve been talking about for women who go to the emergency room, or women who might call 911 for help.” And they looked at me and they said, “You’re a consultant, why don’t you write the proposal?” I stayed up for about 48 hours and wrote it. And San Francisco was one of six cities selected to be part of a national demonstration. Everyone looked at me and said, “We all have real jobs, we need you to have a real job,” and so that’s how it all started. We became the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Stills from powerful public service announcements the Ad Council and Family Violence Prevention Fund ran in the early 1990s to raise much-needed awareness around domestic violence.
Stills from powerful public service announcements the Ad Council and Family Violence Prevention Fund ran in the early 1990s to raise much-needed awareness around domestic violence.

 

That was in 1980?

Yes. We had our offices behind the Public Health Department in San Francisco. That’s where we did all of our initial work. What do hospitals need to do? What do schools need to do? We were doing work both locally with all the major departments, but we were also going to the state Legislature and saying, “Here’s what needs to happen to provide more support and protection for women and kids who are getting hurt.”

And then I realized, you know, I’ve got to go to Washington because that’s really where the action is, and that’s where the real money is, actually. I’m proud of it. We were at the table when the first national piece of legislation was drafted and passed in 1984, and 10 years later we did the Violence Against Women Act with then-Senator, now President, Biden.

Was there a pivotal moment or event that brought the issue of domestic violence out of the shadows?

That’s a really good question. I think it was building. I remember in the ’80s, when I started working, I was trying to get this national piece of legislation passed, and I called everybody. Belva Davis was one of the few reporters who would call me back. We started to see the story out there, but it was basically the back page, not the front page. Then the O.J. Simpson trial happened, and it exploded.

That day, I probably got 400 to 500 calls from media across the nation. It was televised 24/7, and we all watched. By this time, more people felt OK about telling this story. This was such a private issue, and part of my journey has been to make what was private public and to make what was invisible visible.

And you certainly have.

When I did my TED Talk, I told a story about how we put Polaroid cameras in emergency rooms across the country so that women who came in would have the picture to show what happened. It was part of the story. I think that was a turning point.

You also had some very powerful ads running on television around this time.

Yes, we did. They were really powerful and award winning. Ruth Wooden, who was chair of our board, was chair of the Ad Council at that time. And I knew prior to the O.J. murder trial that we needed to have a national conversation. People were not taking the issue of violence against women seriously. We needed to move the needle.

I went to the Ad Council, and Ruth made it happen. The other piece is that these ads came out right around when the O.J. trial was happening. So, there was obviously an incentive for the media to partner with us, but it was awesome when the FCC not only allowed but required the networks to reserve some prime-time space for nonprofit media campaigns.

The kid on the stairs [hearing his father abusing his mother] and then the man and the woman in bed listening to the [spousal abuse in the upstairs apartment] — I mean, what’s so powerful about both those ads is you can feel the pain, you can feel the horror, but you don’t see it.

You were raising a lot of awareness, which is fantastic. Did the resources follow?

Hopefully raising awareness was a resource in itself, because most people get support from their friends and they don’t feel so alone. Simultaneously, we were working on a more robust piece of legislation called the Violence Against Women Act that provides resources in communities across the country. The money that comes from HHS and DOJ funds programs in San Francisco. I’m really proud we were able to do all of that.

You should be.

Part of it is just building the infrastructure so that people can get the support they need when they need it. That’s all it is.

“ I think people are born to be good. I really, really do. … And if they’re born to be good, where do they get the values and the behaviors? They’re learning it.”

 

I’ve heard you say that violence is a learned behavior and therefore, it can be unlearned. What evidence have you seen of that in your work? Why do you feel so strongly about that?

Well, I think people are born to be good. I really, really do. And I loved what Chloé Zhao, the woman who directed Nomadland, said. “99.9 percent of people are born to be good.” And if they’re born to be good, where do they get the values and the behaviors? They’re learning it.

So, if they’re learning, they can unlearn. We have a program that goes directly to that point. It’s called Coaching Boys Into Men and we have evidence that shows you can increase positive bystander behavior in middle school and high school boys. Athletes are such a powerful, influential group of students. And coaches, they have so much leverage.

We’ve provided a playbook for coaches to have conversations with these kids about respect and healthy relationships. We’ve done two amazing randomized control trials. Now the CDC is recommending this as one of the best programs in America, because we’ve decreased assault and violent behavior among middle and high school boys.

If you grew up in a home where you witnessed this, that’s your pattern. You can break patterns, but you actually have to do the work. You have to be more intentional, and people who harm need to be held accountable.

You have always engaged men in this movement because you know you won’t be successful if 50 percent of the population is sitting on the sidelines. And like you said, 99 percent of the people are born to be good.

That’s exactly right.

How do you engage men who stereotypically may not be as good at talking about their feelings in those difficult situations?

We were changing the conversation for women in America, but I was really concerned we weren’t for men. That’s not OK. Men are husbands, they’re dads, they’re teachers, they’re coaches. They have to be part of the solution. And I wanted to make sure we invited them, not indicted them, into the conversation. Because if they’re a man, that doesn’t mean they’re going to commit harm or be abusive. It doesn’t mean that. And if they do that, then we hold them accountable. But most men, when we did our survey research, said, “We want to be involved. We’re dads.” So that’s when we created Coaching Boys Into Men. And that was a national campaign. We did that with the Ad Council as well.

Let’s talk about the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. What did it do?

It’s a grant program that funds a lot of violence prevention on college campuses and on tribal, native land. It funds community- based programs. It’s a diverse portfolio in terms of all of the different types of violence, and we were able in the CARES Act — as well as in all of the different pandemic response packages — to increase the amount of money going to communities for housing, food and support for kids who are in foster care. The Violence Against Women Act is an overarching piece of legislation that has also created the Office of Violence Against Women, which has a Senate appointment attached to it in the Department of Justice.

So how do we know that your work has been successful?

One of the things we did when we created the Violence Against Women Act was we made sure that we collected data. We’ve been tracking data about incidents of violence against adult women from year to year. For adult women, the data shows that it’s down by more than 60 percent.

That’s remarkable.

Well, it’s public now. You can’t solve a problem you can’t see. Now people talk about it and there are resources in the community. But we still have a lot of work to do.

You touched a bit upon the pandemic. I would imagine some women who are abused at home find an escape at work, which, for many, hasn’t been an option this last year. Is that true?

Well, sometimes. We’re also doing a lot of work around workplace safety, because so many women are harassed and abused in so many industries. Unfortunately, the home has been a pretty unsafe place for far too many people. We don’t have perfect data yet but we know that calls have gone up. That’s why we really pushed for immediate cash assistance, housing assistance, so people had the ability to be safe.

If a woman is in an abusive situation, what’s the first thing you tell her? I would tell her that there’s support, that if she feels comfortable talking to people in her community, that would be great. If she wants an anonymous number to call to have a confidential conversation, we would give her that number, and we’re always available as well.

__________________

LIGHTNING ROUND
I’m happiest when: I’m with my kids and grandkids.
My biggest regret is: Probably that I didn’t go to law school.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken: Refusing a Daughters of the American Revolution award in high school because the group had discriminated against a Black woman — Marian Anderson — singing at the DAR Constitution Hall.
If I had a magic wand, I would: Do away with all violence and hate.
__________________

So, what’s the next big challenge for you?

The big challenge is that we want to live in a world where nobody’s hurt, where we don’t live with violence and we don’t live with hate. That’s what we need to focus on. We need to do more work to make sure that childhood adversity and trauma is prevented, because it becomes part of the journey if you have an experience early on and we don’t heal it and intervene.

We’re involved in a wonderful Bay Area initiative called All In for Kids, with Genentech, the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the Lisa Stone Pritzker Family Foundation where we will be granting money to community collaboratives and policy coalitions to figure out the best way to identify and end childhood adversity. We want the Bay Area to be a national leader in addressing childhood adversity and intergenerational violence. We want to address these issues early, before we see them on the street. Another exciting project is the Courage Museum.

Tell me about that.

Many years ago, when we decided to come to the Presidio, it was to build a public museum. The Courage Museum examines why violence happens, to help us find our own courage and our own place in stopping it. People will go through this journey in a wonderful building on the campus of the Presidio Main Post, where they will bear witness to the problem of violence in all of its manifestations. What happens in our homes, in our schools, in our community — from violence against women to gun violence to what’s happening at our border. You have to bear witness to the problem to feel its magnitude.

Then, we’re going to ask people who go on this journey to rethink. Why does it happen? People are born to be good. So why does it happen? Sandy Hook — what happened? Our hope is, while they’re going on this journey, they will see all the opportunities to make a difference: “If only we had done this.” And it’s not we; it’s if only I had done this. You bear witness, you rethink why it happens, with the hope that we do not have to live with this. Violence does not have to be part of the human condition. There’s no reason why it has to be, but we have to really understand all of the different inflection points, how biology influences us in terms of child trauma and how our culture supports behavior, our values and our policies.

And once we rethink that, and people have the epiphany “Oh my God, I don’t have to live this way,” we could end this.

That’s lovely. Do you believe we can truly have a future without violence?

Yes. And that’s why we call ourselves Futures Without Violence, because it’s the futures piece, which is the personal piece. It’s not a concept. It’s about people, because the future is about people.


If you would like to learn more about the Courage Museum, please visit futureswithoutviolence.org.

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