Barriers to Involvement

Given the successful programs described above and their benefits for both victims and communities, why is victim activism not more widespread? One reason cited by Skogan and Maxfield is that those crime victims who see conditions in their communities improving are more likely to try to do something about crime, whereas people living in more traumatized neighborhoods may feel relatively more "incapacitated" by fear for their safety.36 Research has suggested that, although victimization may lead to community involvement, the very social conditions that contribute to victimization can also discourage activism. A disproportionate number of crime victims already feel disempowered by racism, poverty, sexism, and a lack of political power. Victimization makes them feel even more helpless and estranged from society. For many, the combined effects of living on the margins of society, being victimized and living in constant fear of crime can make social activism seem irrelevant and futile.

Society's tendency to blame victims further inhibits their ability to become effective public players. The common misperception that victims are responsible for their victimization (especially victims of domestic violence or sexual assault) can inhibit them from becoming advocates, damage their credibility as victim activists and cause them to pull back. In this way, some crime victims miss out on the recovery benefits of involvement, and society loses their potential contribu- tions for social reform. This tendency to blame victims suggests that the friends or relatives of crime victims who fight on their behalf may be less subject to personal criticism and social backlash than those victims who act on behalf of themselves.

Moreover, people who are subjected to on-going violence or abuse- victims of sexual assault, domestic violence,37 stalking or gang vio- lence and those who live in neighborhoods characterized by chronic violence-face multiple barriers to activism. For example, the feelings of low self-esteem and degradation resulting from the "coercive con- trol" that characterizes partner violence, as well as the symptoms of what Judith Herman calls "complex post traumatic stress disorder,"38 can inhibit the capacity of women (and no doubt others suffering persistent victimization) for living, much less taking public action.39 In some cases, individuals may not even imagine the possibility of activism because they do not identify or label themselves as victims, or they may be silenced out of shame and embarrassment. This is often the case where community violence is the norm, when society explicitly or tacitly condones men's power and control over women,40 or if the violence occurring within families (against women, children or the elderly) is denied. Of course, real fear of being found or of violent retribution keeps other victims (women who have fled violent relationships, gang members) from going public who might otherwise want to.

In view of such substantial barriers, the effective activism of some victims is especially noteworthy. For example, Barbara Hart in Pennsylvania, Vickii Coffey in Chicago and Sarah Buel in Quincy, Massachusetts are formerly battered women whose names are synonymous with the leadership to end violence against women. Many others across the country-perhaps less publicly and without necessarily identifying themselves as battered women-work in shelters and provide peer counseling for other battered women. In recent years, adult victims of child sexual assault have become a vocal and effective force in raising awareness about the prevalence and trauma of incest. In many communities beset by violence, poverty and racism, committed residents-many of whom have lost friends and family to violence-have stayed to fight for education, job training and opportunities, especially for young people.

Building primarily on their own initiative, commitment and resources, crime victims have demonstrated the viability of activism and its value for themselves and society. The role of "victim as activist," however, has not yet become a recognized role in society, its benefits for victims' recovery have not been sufficiently examined, and most victims lack the opportunity or support they need to become involved. By creating structures for community involvement, forging links with existing victim programs and conducting further research, the public sector and victim assistance organizations could mobilize many more crime victims to help others and to participate in grass roots initiatives for victims' rights and crime prevention, thereby enhancing their recovery and helping to improve society.

The self-determination that contributes to victims' healing needs to be supported but not co-opted. By placing a higher priority on victim activism, government and assistance organizations can ensure that community involvement efforts remain community-based, rooted in the soil of individual victims' dedication and experience.

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