40 Change Makers: Helen Rosenthal

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal served District 6 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for eight years. During that time she served on a variety of committees devoted to gender equity and partnered with organizations to support women and people of all genders. Her work with AVP included efforts to improve the treatment of LGBTQ people in domestic violence (DV) shelters. 

We spoke with her about her time on the City Council, LGBT inclusion in DV shelters, and the necessity of organizations like AVP in today’s world. 

How did you first come into contact with AVP and our work?

As chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity, I met with a number of groups that support women and people of all genders.  AVP stood out as being exceptionally insightful and thoughtful. At our first meeting, the AVP policy staff patiently walked me through better options for sex workers – options that did not involve the criminal justice system. I will always be grateful to the AVP staff who opened my eyes.  Using these new insights, I became a better advocate for AVP as a member of the NYC Council’s Budget Negotiating Team, helping to secure additional city funding for their work.

What stands out about AVP’s work to you? 

I was super impressed by AVP’s legislative and policy staff  who testified at several of my committee hearings about proposed legislation  that AVP supported. After that, I got Catherine Shugrue Dos Santos’ cell phone number and texted her at all hours of the day to confirm that the details of the updated draft legislation were accurate.  She always responded immediately and described  the institutional and systemic bias against the LGBT population and transgender people in particular. Her experience working in domestic violence shelters gave me the confidence to trust her insights. She explained that the vast majority [of staff at shelters] are not trained to know how to connect with transgender people, and therefore either say and behave in ways that are damaging or simply say, “There’s no room at the inn.”  And so between the lack of expertise, and training,  as well as the funding structure… the odds are stacked against people who really need the support from intimate partner violence. And Cat gave example after example about how this happens.

She was so clear in her answers to my questions, that we were able to pass a bill that requires all domestic violence shelters to be trained about the needs of transgender people and LGBTQ people in general. And it was her testimony that made the legislation better and got it over the top to pass. 

This is why… we need groups like AVP to continue to educate legislators and funders about why the system falls short – and how to fix it.

What have you taken with you from your work with AVP?

Another thing that I love about AVP and Community Voices Heard, another organization that is very successful at this, is they have community members deliver the message. And when someone from the community who is not being paid to deal with the lunacy of the New York City Council comes to a hearing and testifies based on their own experience it’s super powerful for me. And AVP had community members testify several times at my hearings. And that always, really told me that AVP was a ground-up organization, not a top-down one. And they were really listening to their community members and wanting to let the public know, through the process of the City Council Hearing, that their members’ experiences were valuable and could help change the conversation. And therefore, they used the letterhead of AVP when they gave their testimony. I thought that was terrific. Not every organization can do that. Many cannot. Because they don’t really have the trust of the people they serve.

Why do you think organizations like AVP and anti-hate and anti-violence organizations are necessary in our world today?

I mean, I’m stating the obvious, but I’ve never seen America and a world so mean. I’ve never experienced that before. Maybe I was ignorant, but I think between COVID and Trump having a platform, that anger and discomfort have become a place where a lot of people go for whatever reason. Groups like AVP have become even more important as they provide genuine loving care for survivors.

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