Domestic violence made a shocking appearance in Vancouver on Wednesday -- stalking into a crowded ballroom, screaming and singing, relating dreadful tales of battered women and children, their abusers and the people who just look the other way. And laughing.
"I am domestic violence. I am everywhere," announced Wambui Bahati, an actress and author who brought a version of her one-woman show to the annual fundraising banquet of the YWCA Clark County. "Everybody is always trying to pretend they don't know nothing about me, pretend I don't even exist. I can literally get away with murder."
The event packed the main ballroom of the Hilton Vancouver Washington. But the startled silence in that crowded room was unmistakable as Bahati changed costumes and introduced the audience to a parade of desperate characters. Most were victims of domestic violence but a few were batterers and enablers. Like George, a self-described "player" who "only tells them what they need to hear" while isolating his numerous girlfriends from their friends. Like stressed-out factory worker Frank: "Yeah, I hit my wife sometimes. But she knows I love her."
Then Bahati became Frank's wife, Margaret. "Don't you think I think about leaving him, every day?" she protested. "With four children, where would I go? He would find me, and he would just be angrier."
And then she was their fourth-grade daughter, who said she tries "not to talk too much about what happens in our house. We just try to do everything right so Daddy won't get mad."
There were arresting comments, too, from Mrs. Elvira Jones, who told her daughter to keep smiling when faced with a battering husband. "This afternoon is my baby's funeral," she concluded, dressed in mourning clothes. And from Dorothy, whose 30-year-old son grew violent and thieving when she couldn't subsidize him any longer. He punched her in the gut and stole her air conditioner, she said.
"Who do you tell that to?" Dorothy cried. "How do you tell it, that my son is hurting me?"
The point, according to YWCA executive director Sherri Bennett, is that domestic violence doesn't discriminate. It affects people of every age, gender, situation and station. The YWCA's SafeChoice Domestic Violence program fielded just under 15,000 hotline calls and provided 7,393 bed nights at its domestic violence shelter in 2012.
Speaking again as domestic violence, Bahati declared: "I'm everywhere," from public housing to the country club golf course. "I love to see parents, guardians, teachers, some adult authority figure tearing down the self esteem of a young child," she added. "There's another generation coming up that will accept me easily."
Bennett related the story of an 18-month old boy she was once assigned to care for who was a bit of a mess when it came to glue and glitter — but who was superbly skilled at escaping his father's domestic violence by closing himself in a closet.
"Domestic violence is really well hidden," said Bennett. But there were 53 domestic violence deaths in Washington in 2012, according to the Y, and 359 domestic violence deaths in the past decade. More than 3,700 incidents of domestic violence were reported to Vancouver police.
In response, the Y has launched its Silent Witness project, a traveling exhibit of red silhouettes representing people from Southwest Washington who have died violently at the hands of a family member or acquaintance. Several of the figures were in the room, bearing their names and their stories. "Silent witnesses speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves," said Megan Vaughn, president of the Y's board of directors.
Purple light nights
An anonymous matching gift for donations of more than $100, up to $17,500, was announced at the luncheon. But the event was more than just a fundraiser and performance; it also pointed the way to a series of events the Y will host in October, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month:
• A lighting ceremony at 6 p.m. Oct 1. at the YWCA Clark County, 3609 Main St., Vancouver. A practice started a few years ago in the city of Covington to display purple lights (including those Halloweenish "black" lights) on front porches and in windows all month long, as a way of remembering victims and raising awareness of domestic violence. Visit http://purplelightnights.org to learn more.
• A proclamation reading by the Vancouver City Council, 4 p.m. Oct. 7, Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. 6th St., Vancouver.
• "Domestic Violence 101," a special session that illustrates the complexities of domestic violence and how the community can help is set for 4 p.m. Oct. 8 at 3609 Main St., Vancouver.
These events are all free and open to the public. Call 360-696-0167 or visit ywcaclarkcounty.org to learn more.
Bennett said that legislators who visited the YWCA recently were impressed, and bipartisan support resulted in the state Legislature designating $231,000 for capital improvements for paint, carpet and structural improvements to the building on Main Street.
"Most importantly," she added, "the legislative support means that no money will be diverted from programs" to address building needs.
The YWCA operates seven main programs that all seek to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace and justice. "We cannot choose to look the other way," Vaughn said. "We must take action."
Otherwise: "They're never going to stop me. I got a plane to catch," concluded Bahati, still in character as she stalked out the door and off to her next tragic destination. "I am domestic violence."
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; firstname.lastname@example.org; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.