Beckie Masaki - Centering People of Color the Movement

The TRAILBLAZERS series highlights the intersectional identities of activists and changemakers in the gender-based violence and domestic/sexual violence prevention movements. 

Meet Beckie Masaki

beckie masaki

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it seems only appropriate to introduce you to another TRAILBLAZER in the movement during our annual month of awareness. Beckie Masaki is the Social Justice + Capacity Building Director at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence. In this role, she weaves together her international, national, statewide and local work that ranges from movement building, capacity building, program and organizational development. Ms. Masaki has worked in the movement to end violence against women for over thirty years. She co-founded one of the first programs in the nation that could meet the language and cultural needs of Asian survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, Asian Women's Shelter (AWS) in San Francisco, and served as its founding Executive Director for over twenty-one years. She has extensive experience in providing multilingual, multicultural services to domestic violence and trafficking survivors and their children, innovative program development, prevention, community building, policy-making, and institutional advocacy. Beckie has provided peer-based training, technical assistance, and facilitation to groups on local, state, national, and international levels. She currently serves as faculty and advisor with Futures Without Violence and Praxis International. She is a movementmaker through the past eight years in advisory, cohort, and alumni roles in Move to End Violence: Building Movement for Social Change. It is because of leaders like Beckie that the possibility of truly having an intersectional movement - one where we center and elevate the voices of people of color - is possible. We hope you will take the time to truly reflect and discuss the stories and wisdom that lie within this interview. 

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How and why did you initially get involved with the Gender-Based Violence Movement?

For over 30 years, I have worked to end violence against women, girls, and all people, and it has changed my life. I have had the opportunity to create and implement the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco, the national API Institute on Gender-Based Violence, and contribute training, technical assistance and support to hundreds of grassroots organizations on local, national and international levels. I have worked with thousands of survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, their children of all ages, their families and communities. I have had the privilege of meeting the most inspiring, smart and brave people in the world. It has been an honor to dedicate my life work to ending gender-based violence.

And to think that in my first two years, I nearly left this work, this movement, feeling isolated, devalued, and disheartened as a woman of color.

My first job in the Movement started in 1983, at a battered women’s shelter. I was the first and only Asian person to work at that shelter. No Asians used the services, even though Asians comprise over 30% of the population where I live, and represent over 40 different ethnic groups. There was a pervasive myth that domestic violence did not happen in the Asian community, or that Asians did not need shelter because they stayed within their families. I knew domestic violence first hand in my extended family and community. I felt silenced and invisible.

I got together with the few other women of color in the agency for support and to advocate for anti-racism training, The management of the agency began implementing policies that separated us, such as giving us different shifts, putting me in an office alone in a vacant part of the building, and prohibiting us from all going to lunch together.

Eventually my closest colleagues in that agency, two African American women, quit and went into other fields. I too was on the verge of quitting when I met Debbie Lee, from the Family Violence Prevention Fund. She invited me to our state coalition, women of color caucus. We called ourselves California Women of Color Against Domestic Violence. Every month, on a Saturday (because our agencies would not allow us to meet during work time), I met women of color from throughout our state. I remember driving my car full of other women of color to Catlin Fullwood’s house in Los Angeles for the weekend, where she gave us an anti - oppression workshop. For the first time she put into words and gave a framework for what I was experiencing. In addition to Catlin and Debbie, it is there that I also met Deeana Jang, Eleanor Soto, and many more women of color from throughout California.

Without these women, and the safe space to talk, understand and make our voices heard, I would not have made it this far. For the first time, I felt that maybe I belonged in this movement.

I quit the shelter job and got a part time job to support myself while I devoted most of my time around a kitchen table with other Asian women, dreaming up Asian Women’s Shelter. And in 1988 Asian Women’s Shelter became a reality, we opened our doors and the next day a Cambodian women and her three children came in, ever since then we have had a steady stream of residents, and have to turn away so many more because of lack of space. At AWS, 90% of residents are non-English speaking immigrants and refugees from over 40 different cultures and languages.

And in founding Asian Women’s Shelter, I finally found a home too. A place where I could finally belong to this movement to end gender-based violence. A place where I can live the intersection of who I am and who survivors in our community are. A place where together we can begin to mend the brokenness and become whole.

Based on your own intersecting identities and the experiences that come with that, what do you see as some of: 1) the greatest accomplishments of the movement so far and 2) the challenges that we still face?

Accomplishments

Now one could tell the history of the Asian Women’s Shelter and other programs like ours, and their place within the Movement by saying something like in the 1970’s and 1980’s women created domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and advocated for laws against domestic violence and sexual assault. In the 1990’s into the 2000’s, specialized communities of color programs began to appear. But that’s not the way I remember it and it is not the story that I want to tell.

Yes, our Movement has these great accomplishments, yet I want to offer my version of our movement history and stories:

I want to tell the story that services and rights for people of color, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people are not people with special needs but basic needs, just as with the needs of every survivor of abuse and violence.

I want to tell the history that women of color, LGBTQ folks, and people of every diversity have been there from the start. A diversity of women founded this movement, but the movement has not adequately recognized nor met the diverse needs of women. Although they worked hard, side by side through the creation of shelters, laws, rape crisis centers; the work of women of color, indigenous women and LGBTQ people have too often been marginalized, and their communities left unserved and underserved. Imagine if we had fully brought the perspectives and ideas of those marginalized people to the center of the work, we would have a different movement now.

Challenges

In 1851 Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman[1]” speech that so clearly mapped out the intersection of race, class and gender to the abolitionists and suffragists. She regularly spoke out about women’s rights, anti-slavery and prison reform. If abolitionists and suffragists had quit fighting among themselves and just followed Sojourner’s truth, we all would have got the vote sooner and been farther along than we are today. Instead we keep repeating this tired old false dichotomy of race and gender.

Fast forward to the early days of the growing DV movement 25-30 years ago. Beth Ritchie, recounts the story of sitting with a group of our founding mothers in some hallway of a conference, as the women were discussing how to get domestic violence to be understood as a serious crime, and strategizing about police training and laws. Beth raised critical concerns about joining forces with the criminal legal system. Again, women activists really did not listen and pushed forward to our current era of enhanced penalties, mandatory arrest policies, and the unintended consequences of over-reliance on the criminal legal system.

Fast forward again to today, when we are still going to court to support and advocate by and for non - English speaking immigrant woman, African American women, Transgender survivors who are charged with domestic violence, when they are the victims/survivors. We have worked with an alarming number of women and transgender people referred to us from jail, where they were charged with felony domestic violence charges, mayhem and more, when they were actually the victims. Sometimes they were fighting back to escape rape or death threats, sometimes they threw something at the wall, sometimes they did nothing but look confused, angry, or crazy. None of these people were able to speak to anyone who really listened to understand them. Not in their own languages, not even at the crime scene, not when they were read or were not read Miranda rights, not by the public defender, the DA or in jail.

Who understands the intersections better than those who live and navigate them daily? If we are serious about ending domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, then we are serious about taking the experiences and perspectives of those most on the margins, and bringing them into the very center of our movement.

[1] http://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/sojourner-truth.htm

3. What message or advice do you want to send to young people who are in or want to be a part of this movement?

My wish and message to young people is to practice love, peace, and liberation inside you, those around you, and throughout your work in the movement. Intergenerational leadership is the lifeline and thread through which we can move our movement for peace, love, and liberation. That means us “trailblazers” share power and make room for emerging and growing leadership. And young people, honor and learn from your elders, take those gifts and keep growing, learning, giving, and thriving as you lead yourself, with others, in your communities, and in the movements. To me, intergenerational leadership is new beginnings starting with endings, and endings cycle into new beginnings.

Peace and liberation are lifelong practices. To sustain ourselves in this work we need to care for ourselves and one another in this movement. That means being tough enough to hear the harshest truths, and vulnerable enough to let those truths inside. It means fierce determination and generous compassion. Let’s practice peace within ourselves and among others, build community, and challenge ourselves to look and think in new ways and depths. I am honored to share this with all of you, and excited for our continued journey.

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Beckie's story echoes a truth we have heard time and again: we cannot truly ever end domestic and gender-based violence if we do not center the voices of marginalized peoples. It is not enough to just know this; it's time to act on this principle too. Like Beckie mentions in her advice to young people, in order to truly advance our movement and grow as advocates, we must set aside our egos, actively create space for new voices, and be open to listening and changing. To bring youth voices front and center, Break the Cycle, follows the lead of Let’s Be Real, our national movement by and for young people. Thank you, Beckie, for sharing your story and insight with our TRAILBLAZERS readers this DVAM. 

Stay tuned for our next TRAILBLAZERS feature!