THE BLOG
05/10/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Currency of Change

"If the Taliban come back into power, I'll be the first person they kill." This was Shukria Khaliqi's response to my question as we discussed her work providing shelter and services to victims of domestic violence in Kabul, Afghanistan. During the course of her three-day visit to my organization in Washington, D.C. last April, Shukria spoke extensively about her work and learned from me and my staff as well. But it was this seemingly casual statement that brought me to a powerful realization.

At the time, I was celebrating the five-year anniversary of DASH, the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), a nonprofit organization I founded in 2006 to provide urgently needed safe housing and resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence here in the District. In its first five years, DASH helped thousands of survivors in the District become safe from violence and created a model for safe housing that has become a national best practice for housing victims of trauma. All of us at DASH worked exceptionally hard to create solutions to the problem of victims of domestic violence being forced to choose between living with abuse and living on the streets.

When I first started DASH, I was often told I was "brave" to take on the task of starting a new, nonprofit housing organization. And I would often reply, "Brave -- or crazy, maybe. I think they're two sides of the same coin." I just knew that DASH was the culmination of my commitment to over 20 years of work to create change.

In our first five years, we accomplished a great deal working to ensure that, in Washington, DC at least, all survivors of abuse, regardless of their need or circumstances, had access to safe housing. The organization had stabilized financially, the programs were running smoothly, and we'd begun to influence the way the problem was being addressed throughout the city. We'd successfully survived the start-up phase of the organization to become a stable, vibrant force for safe housing for survivors. But, as DASH's Founder and Executive Director, I felt like we'd reached a plateau and somehow, I was left wanting.

Starting DASH had been a crystallizing moment for me when my skills and vision matched the growing need and available means. But that day, talking to Shukria, it began to dawn on me that her courage far exceeded my own and the challenges that she faces in her country make the ones I'd faced in starting DASH pale by comparison. And I suddenly wanted to understand -- to really appreciate -- that.

So I decided to make the trip to Kabul to see it for myself.

Like Shukria, my commitment to helping survivors escape abuse is not just about expedience. Indeed, the DASH model has always been about more than just providing a safe place to run for victims escaping abuse. It is about creating a culture where safe housing is a right shared by everyone, which means ensuring that victims of trauma are given the safety and agency to rebuild their lives on their own terms, and working to build a community -- an alliance -- to safeguard that right.

The challenges that we both face in our work are not dissimilar, just on different points of the continuum. It occurred to me that if I could comprehend her end of the spectrum, I might understand and be grateful for what we have here in the U.S. and more specifically, at DASH. But more than that, I realized that it could reinvigorate me; that if I could see and experience what others who are much braver than I am have to go through to accomplish the same objective, it might put things into perspective and reconnect me with my passion for the work.

What's funny is, now I'm being told that I must be crazy for making this trip. And once again, I wonder whether it's just the other side of the commitment coin. I know that I admire Shukria for her courage to help survivors and hope to learn from her in her environment. I suspect that we are not that different, and that maybe brave and crazy are what's needed to sustain our commitment to create change. Running a stable, vibrant organization is a start toward that change but not the end, and certainly not an end in itself. Because until we, Shukria and I and others like us, can create a culture where safe housing is a right shared by everyone, we're not done, stable organization or no. But we might be a little crazy -- or brave -- to think that it's possible.

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