The Jewelry Project

The Problem

Domestic violence is one of the most common, yet hidden problems today. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and a total of 1.3 million women are assaulted per year in the United States. (http://www.ncadv.org/resources/FactSheets.php) That number means that 16 times more women are affected by domestic violence than breast cancer; yet, prevention and advocacy about domestic abuse are far less common. The impact of violent relationships is not just physical. Emotional and psychological scars often take longer to heal than bruises and broken bones. Survivors of domestic abuse are often left with decreased self-esteem and little to no sense of agency, even after escaping the situation. Without support or intervention, the decreased sense of self that victims experience can be debilitating, leading to future victimization and chronic lack of self esteem. In a search for power, victims can become abusers. Art is an incredibly effective way that domestic violence survivors can process their experience, heal, and regain their identity. Since 2007 I have worked first as a volunteer and then as an AmeriCorps member at the House Of Ruth Maryland’s emergency shelter for domestic violence victims. Although the agency offers individual and group therapy, I find that art-making has the unique ability to help survivors heal and exercise their voice. More than half of the facilitators of a California based arts program for domestic violence survivors report that the arts are more useful than any other program in helping survivors to regain confidence. One House Of Ruth Maryland art participants, Sharlene McNeil*, stated: “Everything is not pink clouds and cotton candy in my life. Quite the opposite actually. I’m still in a shelter. I don’t have a job where I have a steady income, I don’t have a home right now to put my son and me in, and little other parts of my life are not really where I want them to be. But I’m really happy, you know I’m still happy, I find myself being content, because I’m expressing myself once again. Whether it’s in the written, the word, or the song, I’m expressing myself.” 96% of victims who participate in the California based organization’s programs felt more positive about themselves and their futures as a result of engaging in arts activities. (http://www.awbw.org/awbw/programs-women_windows-program_results.php). But, funding for domestic violence services is scarce, and so there are minimal resources available sustain arts initiatives for domestic violence survivors.

Plan of Action

While developing the arts program in House Of Ruth Maryland’s shelter over the past three years, I am always looking for mediums that resonate with the women there. We began making jewelry in the fall of 2008, when an anonymous donor gave the House Of Ruth Maryland jewelry supplies; the ensuing jewelry making sessions in the shelter provided a space for conversation and creativity that proved to be healing and empowering for participants. The medium, which most women feel connected to, is more accessible than painting or drawing and allows them to feel confident about mastering new skills. Whether a fashion statement or family heirloom, jewelry is a part of women’s dress that makes a statement about the wearer’s personal identity. The seemingly simple object carries an immense amount of power. When women make jewelry for this project, they take back control over their identity, regain confidence, and add their voice to create awareness about domestic abuse. Over the past 15 months, the Jewelry Project has touched 96 domestic violence survivors and their children in 50 workshops; 16 volunteers have contributed 250 hours, and since founding the project I have dedicated 320 hours to this initiative. Over 10,000 people have become aware about House Of Ruth Maryland through craft sales and events, and 88 individuals have purchased jewelry either for themselves or as gifts. The project is self-sustaining, because participants trade jewelry they make for supplies; we then sell their jewelry to purchase new materials. The Jewelry Project had its first sale in December 2008, and has since raised $1323.40. Most participants donate one piece of jewelry for each piece that they keep; more regular participants design a line of jewelry that tells a story about their experience, and they receive a jewelry supply kit in exchange. I am now working with the House Of Ruth Maryland to create an apprentice program that will complement the weekly shelter jewelry workshop. A core group of up to fifteen people will sign up for a 6-month apprenticeship, learning sophisticated techniques as well as gaining some entrepreneurial skills to use for their own jewelry business. We will develop partnerships with area jewelry programs at Maryland Institute College of Art and Towson University, in addition to connecting with local artists. In the first year, past residents who have already established their own business will co-facilitate monthly team meetings, sharing their passion and drive with newer members. Eventually, the apprentices, former abuse victims themselves, will facilitate the shelter-based workshops and will reach out to young women throughout the city by teaching jewelry making and dating violence. The program will provide a window into alternatives and choices. “I started thinking to myself, maybe I can make something, make my own beads. I think making jewelry really has helped me. I can make the money for myself, that’s the way am looking at it now. I’m looking to get a career out of what I’m doing. I want to do all of what I can to make this work.” Each apprentice of our 20-30 apprentices will: ==> Share jewelry skills with up to 25 domestic violence survivors per year ==> Mentor/educate approximately 20 at-risk teens per 6 months ==> Sell at least 35 pieces of jewelry per year ==> Affect hundreds of people through events and outreach. The core group will make it possible to engage even more people in the program the second, third, and fourth year. Over time, the program will affect thousands of people, and, with enough resources, can serve as a model for similar initiatives nationally and internationally.

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