Friday, January 7, 2011

Jacqueline Robarge

In December 2009, I received an e-mail from Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside (PI), which provides services and outreach to women struggling with the overlapping challenges of poverty, incarceration, violence, and life on the street. A PI client had just managed to secure permanent housing, employment, and custody of her young daughter, and the staff needed help moving her into her new place. So I rounded up my friend (and previous Unsung Baltimorean) Todd and we spent a couple of hours carrying furniture.

Several things about that experience will remain indelibly etched in my consciousness. The first was the passionate commitment of the PI staff, who will go to any lengths, make practically any sacrifice, to serve the most marginalized members of our society. The other was an overwhelming sense of the enormity of the effort this one woman had to put forth to move from a place of fear, desperation, and oppression to a place of greater safety, stability, and determination.

We can have the best programs, the most methodologically sound interventions, but they are doomed to failure without the commitment, determination, and faith of the people they are designed to assist. We throw around the term "turning one's life around," as if it were as easy as flipping a light switch, when in reality it's tantamount to reversing the orbit of a planet - and as miraculous.

All the odds were stacked against the woman whose furniture we carried that day, yet she had beaten them. She stood up to the darkness of the world and the darkness within herself, and in this way discovered a light to walk toward.

Jacqui Robarge is one of the keepers of that light.


"I saw gay people and said, 'if I live through high school, I'm going to California.'"

"I start by asking people what they want for themselves," says Power Inside director Jacqueline Robarge about working with women in need. "If you ask them what's important to them, it's family, safety, connection, warmth, and love. Then, when you ask them what is the barrier to getting there, they name things like drug use and emotional and physical pain."

Robarge is 43 but looks younger, with close-cropped hair and a ready smile. She simultaneously radiates inexhaustible energy and quiet stillness. Her watchful brown eyes give the impression of laughter lurking just beneath the surface...along with some long-held sadness.

"I grew up around a lot of violence and mental illness in my family," she says. "This was in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. I had a near-fatal suicide attempt in the 9th grade. I didn't fit in in school. I was voted most friendly, but I was awkward."

Her gaze moves around the room as she reaches back into memory. "Four acres: that was my salvation growing backyard. I had trees, grass, places to hide. I had a German shepherd who was my best friend."

Following her attempted suicide, Robarge was sent to stay with her uncle in California for a time. That's where she was introduced to the movements for LGBTQ- and women's equality. "I saw gay people and said, 'if I live through high school, I'm going to California,'" she recalls with a small smile. "That was my reward for surviving."

Robarge survived and kept the promise she made to herself. At age 19 she used the earnings from her McDonald's job to buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco, where she remained for 15 years.

"San Francisco is like the Mecca of activism," she says. "In San Francisco you could be perpetually finding yourself: constantly coming out of the closet, constantly being an edgy activist." She soon found a place in the social equity movement, working on women's rights and white privilege issues.

Robarge also got involved in street outreach and needle exchange programs, through which she was introduced to the concept of harm reduction, which has guided her career ever since.

"Harm exists, and we don't just prevent harm just by telling people to stop it."

The term "harm reduction" encompasses a broad range of strategies designed to lower the negative consequences associated with drug use and other harmful behaviors. Proponents tend to view these behaviors through the lens of public health, as opposed to criminal justice. The approach relies heavily on techniques whose efficacy has been proven or suggested through scientific research. Examples include needle exchange programs, medically assisted drug treatment, and the distribution of condoms to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.

For Robarge, harm reduction comprises both philosophy and practice.

"The philosophy is that harm exists, and we don't just prevent harm just by telling people to 'stop it.' It's the opposite of 'just say no;' it's saying, 'okay, now what?" It invites people to think about whether they want a better quality of life.

"The practice involves doable steps toward incremental change, which is really affirming. A lot of [people and organizations] are practicing harm reduction right now and don't even know it." She cites as an example "faith based organizations who will feed anyone who gets in line."

The principles of harm reduction are an integral part of Power Inside, which Robarge founded 10 years ago with the support of an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellowship.

"Power Inside started as a group inside the Baltimore City Detention Center. We were asked to do a 'self esteem' group, as if all those women's problems had to do with self esteem! For women to be in this dangerous, chaotic place and to sit in a circle and tell their stories - that was really powerful. And the [female detainees] made it happen. Pretty soon the women said, 'we need a place to meet you when we get out."

Today, PI and its small staff provide group counseling, prisoner re-entry and aftercare, street outreach, and other services to women in crisis situations. Last year the organization served over 350 women experiencing poverty, incarceration, addiction, and/or abuse.

"Power Inside is really cost effective," says Robarge. "If we can get a woman off the street, the only resources that have been used are a couple hundred cups of coffee [versus] the cost of incarceration."

Saving taxpayer costs in an already burdened criminal justice system is one justification for PI's work. Its grounding in evidence-based practices and research is another.

In 2005, PI Commisioned the first-ever needs assessment of women confined in the Baltimore City Jail. The resulting report, Release from Jail: Moments of Crisis or Window of Opportunity for Female Detainees in Baltimore City? was published by the Journal of Urban Health in 2006. PI followed that study in 2010 with a similar report that examined the needs of men incarcerated at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

"Because people said I can't I want to find all the science, all the research," Robarge says firmly. "I want to find the evidence that unconditional love works."

"You cannot stop us from being with one another. You cannot stop us from putting chairs in a circle."

Robarge has received numerous accolades for her work, including a Petra Foundation Fellowship in 2009. She has also been invited to participate on numerous panels, commissions, and task forces that include agencies like the state Division of Correction and the Baltimore City Police Department. She notes with some satisfaction that these public sector institutions have shifted their approach to drug treatment and homelessness prevention over the years.

"When I came [to Baltimore] in 2001, harm reduction was reviled. I was a in a meeting of officials who shall remain nameless, and an administrator said 'we can't even use the term harm reduction here; we don't even say it.'"

Still, Robarge expresses frustration with the public sector's historic approach to problems associated with deep poverty.

"George [W.] Bush gutted HIV prevention and reduction work. Now there's a generation of providers who think that testing and health fairs are all we need...why would any government, any person, any institution want to stop me from feeding a homeless person? You cannot stop us from being with one another. You cannot stop us from putting chairs in a circle."

The very real physical dangers faced by women on the street lend a sense of urgency to Robarge's direct service and policy advocacy work.

"In my time of being here there's been three separate strings of serial killers of women trading sex on the street. Women are dying!" She looks down and sighs. "If I had my way, everyone would be off the street tomorrow. I've seen so many women die."

She remains shaken by the murder two years ago of a former client who became a PI staff person. "She got out of jail and called us, then called us back and said she had another ride. I told her to wait...but she was murdered a couple of weeks after that. She was a survivor. She organized a [support] group in prison."

More than any other experience, that tragedy brought home for Robarge the "dissonance" she sees between society's pervasive image of sex workers and the reality of the women she works with and has come to know as individuals. For Robarge, that disconnection points to a wider problem of sexism in America.

"I see objectification of women all the time: the stereotype of the 'drug addled prostitute.' When you kill a sex worker on the street, that's an act of misogyny. There's something sick about the act itself, but it also represents a thread in our culture."

Such trauma exacts a toll not only on women in crisis, but also on the women who serve them.

"It's very difficult to embrace [sex workers] who are mothers, who aren't taking care of their kids, who have untreated mental illness, who are abusing drugs," says Robarge. "So I train people in the way I was trained by the battered women's network. These workers would do anything: putting women on the couch, starting underground networks - really heroic stuff. I want the [PI] staff to have the same sort of training that I had, that sustains them in their work. Talking, sharing stories, is important."

"We have so much power to heal people!"

Asked about her own source of strength, Robarge points to her faith. She acknowledges that this is a suprising response for her in light of her tumultuous relationship with organized religion.

"I was raised Catholic; it was a very scary and oppressive experience for me." She cites her struggles as a young person with "church doctrines of absolute good and evil, original sin. When humans get involved in judging people, using mortal or original sin to cast people away, it's very hurtful."

Despite these challenges, faith has always been central to her activism. "In high school I thought, 'God just wants me to be a good person.' So I began volunteering for the Salvation Army, ringing the bell."

She also volunteered at a nursing home where she cared for elderly people, many of whom were undernourished. That experience taught her "the power of human presence and witness. Holding the hand of an old person - their soft, thin skin - I could feel the change in them. They would pat my hand."

She smiles and shakes her head slightly. "We have so much power to heal people!"

In San Francisco she was exposed to faith-based activists like Starhawk and Catholic liberation theologians. Robarge was drawn in particular to the writings of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, who preached a life of service grounded in radical faith. From such encounters Robarge learned that activism and revolution were not incompatible with spirituality.

"I keep going back to that vow that I've committed my life to service," she says quietly. "I think how lucky I am that I know what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life."

The strength Robarge draws from her spirituality extends beyond her work at PI. She recently reconnected with her father, from whom she was estranged for most of her life. Now sober for 30 years, he is committed to restoring his relationship with his daughter.

While serving vulnerable women in Baltimore can be arduous at times, Robarge finds much to appreciate in her adopted city.

"I love walking around the lake at Druid Hill Park. It's beautiful at sunset. I love the people here. I love the history of resistance here. I love the woman I saw in the food stamps line who was not taking 'no' for an answer. People are doing amazing things here.

"I love when I walk down the street and whole families are sitting outside. I love family traditions; I didn't have that as a child. I'm nostalgic for a time I've never seen."

A phone in the office begins to ring. There is work to be done, clients who need assistance.

"It's my choice to be here," Robarge says with a grin. "I'm bringing myself into the present. I'm trying to be a grownup."

No comments:

Post a Comment