SPAN helps families escape and overcome abuse and violence through its variety of educational programs and housing options. (photos courtesy SPAN)

Boulder County’s Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence helps victims and offenders through safe spaces and education

By Tom Brock

Anne Tapp has witnessed nearly three decades of change in the domestic violence landscape of seemingly sublime Boulder County. She started her career at Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) 28 years ago, when it was known as Boulder County Safehouse. An old, tiny home and a bit of borrowed space in a nearby church housed victims seeking refuge—the office for the entire operation and space for domestic-violence programs. Boulder Magazine publisher Tom Brock talked with Tapp about the early years of the organization, how the country’s current social climate affects violence here at home and what she considers the future of fighting domestic violence.

Tom Brock: What were some of the major issues you dealt with early in your career?

Anne Tapp: We had just started our transitional housing program and it was an eight-unit apartment complex. It was owned by Boulder Housing Partners, and we ran the direct service piece. It was one of the first transitional housing programs for domestic violence survivors in the state. We learned a lot about what the post-crisis, post-shelter needs were as families rebuilt after crisis. Since that time, we have expanded to look at permanent housing for survivors, and that housing piece is such an enormous barrier for people moving out of crisis.

T: The name change, from Boulder County Safehouse to Safehouse Progressive Alliance for…

A: Nonviolence. It’s a mouthful.

T: SPAN is easier. Why the change?

A: Yes, we’re pushing SPAN. We changed the name in about 2004, and it was driven by the recognition that the safehouse is just a component of what we do, and that by that time we’d really expanded programs to include earlier intervention. So, how do we provide support before someone feels like the only thing they can do is flee in the middle of the night and come to a shelter? And then, what are the needs after shelter? How do you help people rebuild their lives after shelter? We wanted to get the focus off of just safehouse and get the community thinking about what does nonviolence look like, and how do we do that partnership or alliance with other community efforts? Also, the city of Broomfield became its own county. We have served Broomfield since we opened our doors in 1979, so we wanted to make clear that the Boulder County Safehouse wasn’t just attached to Boulder County.

Like many nonprofits, SPAN relies on volunteers and community support to keep its programming strong for those who need it most. (photos courtesy SPAN)

T: The new name focuses on “nonviolence.” What is your audience for that message?

A: We intentionally moved away from language that becomes too limiting and elicits too many stereotypes. Our audience is anyone who’s impacted by intimate partner violence, relationship violence and even community violence. There’s such a relationship between the violence or abuse that someone might be experiencing in their relationship or in their home and what they’re at risk of in the community. We want to make sure that we’re a resource to anyone who’s experiencing any level of abuse or living in fear of the potential of abuse.

T: Social media’s been around long enough that you can see its impact. There also seems to be a lot of contention, even misogyny, in public discourse. Do you think that contributes to increased domestic violence?

A: I do. It’s not necessarily that our culture is more violent now. I think it has been violent for a long time, but the consequences of being cruel in social media are pretty nominal, so you know, 15 years ago if you were a bully on the playground or a bully in the office, people knew about it, and even if they didn’t know the right thing to do, they knew about it. Now with social media, you can be an anonymous bully. You can be cruel and hurtful and face no consequences. I think it has really emboldened a level of cruelty that finds its way back into personal relationships, families and workplaces. I think the national kind of divisiveness has fed into a mindset of ‘the other,’ and any time we ‘other’ somebody and any time we dehumanize somebody, it’s so much easier to be cruel to them, to be hurtful to them, and to dismiss their pain or our accountability for injuring them.

T: You actually see a link between increased cruelty and actual acts of violence?

A: Definitely. Of course, it’s more anecdotal than research-based, but I can tell you that immediately after the last election and the rise of the alt-right and much more
visible white supremacist rallies—and this is probably the first time in my experience, having done this work for now almost 30 years—we’re serving more and more survivors whose abusers were part of white supremacist networks. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, and certainly we have seen a significant decline in Latina survivors and immigrant survivors reaching out for help due to fear of ICE intervention.

T: We both know that Boulder County is not immune to social ills. How many people do you help every year?

A: Often, the community’s shocked to learn the rate of domestic violence in Boulder County. There’s an average of 1,800 domestic violence–related calls to law enforcement each year, and we know only about one in 10 victims actually calls, so that’s 18,000 reportable incidents of domestic violence annually. That’s almost 50 a day. Any other crime happening at the rate of 50 a day would be considered an epidemic. We’d all come together and demand change; we’d try to figure out creative solutions. But because domestic violence is so hidden, and often victims are reluctant to share what’s happening in their lives, the epidemic remains hidden. We serve more than 2,000 adults, teens and children each year. Then we respond to another nearly 9,000 crisis calls annually, so there’s a lot of domestic violence that is happening in our community.

T: Let’s explore SPAN’s outreach into the community. You have the safe facility that serves 2,000 each year. What about those other 9,000 that you may deal with?

A: In the majority of cases, survivors actually don’t come through emergency shelters. They may have gotten other types of support, and so most of the people that we see in our programs come from outreach and advocacy programs. So, they’re working with our Lawyers for Victims program to get a protection order, or they’re meeting with a counselor at one of the numerous locations where we host support groups throughout the community, or they’re contacting and meeting with one of our housing advocates in the community. It’s not always because they need shelter. It can be because they’ve just separated from their abuser and the abuser’s left the house and now they don’t have the money to pay the next month’s rent. It’s just the crisis of trying to extricate yourself from an abusive partner and rebuild your life, and to stay two steps above the bottom rung of crisis, which can be incredibly challenging to do in this community.

T: I assume you serve not just women but men, children and others?

A: Yes. We built a new shelter in 2008, and when we opened that shelter, we opened it as an all-genders shelter. The vast majority of victims we work with are women whose abusers are their male partners, but we are increasingly serving trans survivors of intimate partner violence, and men who may be victims of their male or female partners.

T: What is the condition of someone when they come through your doors?

A: It can vary, of course, but let’s back up a little. Imagine what you would have to endure before getting to the point of saying, “I’m leaving my home. I’m leaving everything behind and taking my kids,” or worse yet, “I can’t take my kids because my abusive partner won’t let me.” The level of trauma and violence that’s happened before someone gets to the point where they feel like, “I’ve got to do this,” is really profound, and I believe, as a community, sometimes we don’t think about that. We think, “Well, if I was abused I’d just leave,” but just leaving means oftentimes leaving everything that you know and everything that’s familiar, to go to a place where you have no idea what to expect or what’s going to happen next. By the time someone comes to our shelter doors, they’re very traumatized, they’re living in terror.

T: So, you primarily deal with people who are in crisis. What programs do you have to prevent someone from getting to that point, or to educate the community about symptoms of domestic violence?

A: Our education program starts very young. We have school-based programs that are intended to reach young people who may be experiencing distress or conflict in the home and don’t know who to say that to, or how to get help. Reaching young people is critical, both in terms of being a resource before they’re so traumatized that it begins to show itself in their behaviors, and at the same time to also provide alternatives to bullying behavior. When the mean kid gets attention, it reinforces the life lessons they are exposed to both in the home and in the community and increasingly through social media. Much of the education work that we do with young people is encouraging exploration of how do I get my needs met without being mean, and how to be in relationships with people without losing my temper.

T: What happens next when someone arrives who is traumatized and seeks your help?

A: The shelter team works with the family around some basic needs, helping people get comfortable in the shelter, getting familiar with the staff, trying to de-escalate what can be an overwhelming experience. The staff is immediately working on safety planning, especially if the abuser’s out and about, or the kids are in school and the abuser knows where they go, or other ways the victim may still be at risk in the community. And then we ease into kind of longer-term planning. What makes sense for this survivor? Is the relationship over? Are they thinking about returning? If they are, how can they do that in a safe way? What are their resources so they are clear about their options? We have a housing team that’s also located in the shelter, so as soon as the survivor’s caught their breath, they’ll start working with the housing team to look at post-shelter housing resources. We’ve been fortunate in the last few years to bring in both some federal and state dollars to expand our housing program, so we’ve been able to help a significant number of people move from emergency shelter into safe, affordable community housing.

T: What’s gotten better, what’s gotten maybe worse in your 28 years with SPAN?

A: A lot of things have gotten better. Our understanding of the impact of violence on individuals and children has improved. We talk much more about trauma-informed services. There’s a recognition of the depth of trauma from being exposed to violence, whether it’s physical or emotional. And honestly, many survivors will say the worst of the violence was the emotional and psychological because it’s unseen. They can point to a black eye or bruise on their arm, but they can’t point to just how devastated they are.

T: A big issue for nonprofits is always funding (and Anne rolls her eyes!).

A: Yes.

T: How are you funded? Where does the money for SPAN come from?

A: From everywhere. Couch cushions, whatever change you find there, to donations that people give us for special events, to contracts that we have with local and state governments. It’s a mix, and there’s a constant juggling because the stable funding is what threatens nonprofits—the lack of stable funding. Currently about half of our funding is from government sources, and most of that’s local, largely because the voters in the city of Boulder and Boulder County have been very generous and recognize that supporting human service nonprofits in our community is good for everybody. We’ve been willing to tax ourselves at different levels to that end, and hopefully that will continue into the future. Private foundations are up and down, depending on what the market is doing. We’ve seen a decline in foundation giving over the years. Ultimately, we largely rely on the community.

Volunteers harness community events to educate the public about the services and volunteer opportunities with SPAN. (photos courtesy SPAN)

T: Other than donating money, what can the community do to help?

A: Volunteer. Our direct-service volunteer training is held three times a year, and it’s a significant commitment—a 33-hour training, and we ask for a year commitment of about four hours a week. For many people that’s a big commitment, so there are other volunteer opportunities as well. We’re about to launch a community event volunteer track connecting people who want to learn more about the organization with volunteers who can talk about SPAN and hand out brochures. That type of engagement is so important. I don’t know if it’s easier to talk about domestic violence today than it was when I started 28 years ago. There’s still so much shame and embarrassment for a survivor to share their story, and so much awkwardness for friends and family who want to help, but who don’t know what to say, and so they don’t say anything. And still, all of these years later, we’re focusing on victims and survivors, not people who are creating the problem in the first place.

I think that’s really the next generation of our work. How do we educate and support—mostly boys and men, but also girls and women—to not use violence as the default for their own internal fear? How do we support those kinds of social networks where men are talking to their buddies about, “You really shouldn’t be doing that” or “I don’t like how you’re treating her.” We’ve got to go there.

T: What would you like to leave as a legacy when you end your time at SPAN?

A: I hope what we have done as an organization is to broaden the idea of what domestic violence is and who’s at risk. I’m proud of the organization’s work to be more inclusive, so having an all-gender shelter, really focusing on the needs of marginalized survivors and what an undocumented, Spanish-speaking survivor needs. I think as we continue to grow we’ll do a better job of being a resource for a broader group of people.

My hope too is that we continue to chip away at the stigma of talking about interpersonal violence. You know, humans are a flawed species at best, and we take our internal anxiety and fear and anger out on the people closest to us. Hopefully, over time, we’ll learn how to do that in a different way. The reality of the risk of violence in our intimate relationships is always going be there, and my hope is that we as a community find a way to talk about that. It will help destigmatize survivors from coming forward. The big lift is to destigmatize people who are using violence or are abusive and encourage them to come forward. Most abusers, unless they’re on the kind of far spectrum of social pathology, don’t like the fact that they’ve destroyed someone they’ve loved. One of the things that I’ve always been proud of with SPAN is that the people who are attracted to work and volunteer here are some of the most creative, passionate, dedicated people you could possibly find in the community. That’s the DNA of this organization—their willingness to continue to push the envelope and continue to find better and different ways to be a resource.