By Rebecca Gibson
Working towards my MSW at Tulane University’s School of Social Work, I was placed at Women With A Vision for my internship and began in January 2012. Within hours, I became involved in Women With A Vision’s Louisiana Women’s Advocacy Alliance and started corresponding with those of our clients who have a solicitation of a Crime Against Nature charge; individuals who are required to register as sex offenders due to their charge. Hearing their stories and meeting with some of the ladies in Baton Rouge in late February, I joined in WWAV’s fight in advocating to change the legislation that prevents these women from making a better life for themselves and their families. On March 29, 2012 we won; U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled the Crimes Against Nature by solicitation statute unconstitutional.
Although the struggle still continues to have Judge Feldman’s ruling apply to the 400+ individuals still on the sex offender registry, a win is a win. It was amazing to witness the joy on everyone’s faces the day after the ruling was announced, to hear the cheers of happiness and disbelief as we ate celebratory cake, and to see the tears of unfathomable relief and gratitude. To say I was inspired would be an understatement; the day was a momentous one, and I was honored to be a part of it. The Win itself was an amazing breakthrough, for the women directly affected, for the women and allies of WWAV leading the fight, and for my future career as a social worker; a career I now plan to tailor towards social change and advocacy. I was (and still am) fascinated by the strength and resilience of these women, individuals who have experienced so many trials and tribulations, so many road blocks, and yet still the first thing they asked me was how I was doing.
Following The Win, I received over 30 hand-written letters from women who are currently incarcerated due to factors related to their SCAN charge. These letters detailed stories of displacement, loss, disappointment, heartbreak, and danger. Women who are my age, women the same age as a my grandmother, all reaching out to first and foremost thank everyone at WWAV and to then ask what they can do to help us—even from their position in jail. My responses were of gratitude and praise, acknowledging their struggle as the basis of our strength and the motivation for our fight. Their names were added to our growing list of individuals, those of whom we represent in an effort to have their names removed from the sex offender registry.
On Thursday May 24, all of us at WWAV gathered for a night of awareness raising: to share the celebration of our win and the stories of these women. Community Book Center and the Renaissance Project hosted Deon Haywood’s presentation, The Prosecution of Women In Louisiana: Achieving A Policy Victory Ending Louisiana’s Crimes Against Nature Law. The night was a success, and we all left in high spirits, heads swimming with plans for WWAV’s future and our own plans for the Memorial Day weekend.
Less than 12 hours later, I received this text message from Ms. Deon:
“I wanted to let y’all know that our office was torched late last night.”
Even now, writing this post, remembering waking up and reading the text message while only half-awake, I am disconnected from the true meaning. It wasn’t until I saw the pictures and watched the videos posted on our website that I felt a sense of loss. Watching Ms. Zina’s video was the final piece that I needed. The pain in her voice as she told her story of strength and resilience illustrates the great impact WWAV has on the community of New Orleans as a whole.
It was with this great sense of loss, paired with such great strength, that I have been able to believe in a future for this organization even greater than its past. Even in the face of such blatant and directed hate, these women maintain their vision of social justice. To say they are inspiring would be an understatement.
Together we have found a way to keep our work going—day by day, hour by hour. This WWAV After the Fire blog is one small way for me and Shaun to keep all of you updated on our successes and trials as we work to heal and rebuild.