Grantee Partners

Community is Wealth: A Deep Dive on Survivor Wealth, Financial Abuse and the Movement to End Gender-Based Violence with FreeFrom Founder Sonya Passi

Wealth and justice don’t usually go hand in hand. When it comes to addressing gender-based violence, financial security is often the last thing that comes to mind. FreeFrom, grantee partner under The New York Women’s Foundation’s (The Foundation) Fund for the Me Too Movement and Allies (The Fund), is an organization working to shift this narrative and build wealth for women, gender nonconforming individuals and families who are survivors.

Sonya Passi, founder of FreeFrom, started her journey as a domestic violence activist at the age of 16. From hosting awareness weeks at her high school to organizing a group on her college campus to educate students on the impacts of intimate partner violence, she continued her journey by attending law school to better understand and address structural issues facing the movement. Her realization of financial abuse being a missing piece from the conversation around intimate partner violence became one of the driving factors in her founding of FreeFrom. “Very often, survivors are faced with the question of leaving with no job, no cash, no savings and no credit,” Passi explained. “Well how are you supposed to do this? Financial abuse is the first piece of this to integrate into our solutions.”    

While research indicates that financial abuse happens in 99% of domestic violence cases, it is rarely addressed in policy or larger conversations around prevention and support for survivors. For women who have little income, no substantial savings or no credit, the overwhelming costs of getting to safety are a major barrier in successfully leaving an abusive situation. Recognizing the national crisis that financial abuse poses to women, gender nonconforming individuals and families, FreeFrom has carved a unique and vital lane in the movement to end gender-based violence. “The whole theory of change behind FreeFrom’s work is, if a survivor can afford to get out and stay out and rebuild, then they can create safe homes,” Passi said. “And only if they are in safe homes can their children and the next generation heal and break that cycle of generational intimate partner violence.”

Arriving at a space where wealth—survivor wealth—can be prioritized in the social justice community is one that Passi is committed to through her work at FreeFrom. She acknowledges that wealth is often seen as a ‘dirty word’ in social justice spaces, a belief that she finds fails to capture the full scale of the gender-based violence epidemic and ultimately does a disservice to leaders of the movement. With such little funding for women’s issues, the limited resources many organizations are forced to work with cannot sustain those working within the movement—and that poses major challenges to the support that can be offered to survivors.

In a movement where many of its leaders are often survivors themselves, Passi says shifting from operating from a space of scarcity to believing the privilege and opportunity to strive for wealth is possible for all is a necessary step. “We’re trying to solve a national epidemic on a dime. That’s what’s underlying all of this,” Passi explained. “So many folks in the movement are overworked and underpaid and working with limited resources to solve such a huge problem.”

FreeFrom’s strategy of integrating financial capacity building services into the domestic violence movement not only supports a survivor’s journey to recovery and safety, but it also applies to the support those within the movement need to strengthen their work with communities. In a nonprofit field that is centered on providing services to communities at large, it is easy to overlook the needs of those leading the work. Experiences with clients in FreeFrom’s training programs further solidified Passi’s belief that the need for a living wage for those working in the movement is something that must be collectively be pushed for.

Passi has put her own beliefs into action, seen through a general practice at FreeFrom where no one is paid less than $60,000 annually (salary only, not including benefits). Her rationale for this is simple: the quality of work needed demands a greater investment in the people doing the work. “We should take care of the people doing the work. If they don’t feel taken care of, if they don’t feel financially secure then they are not in a position to support their clients in building financial security.”

When it comes to investing in the fight to end gender-based violence, Passi observes practices that too often silo funding for the movement. Grasping a full understanding of this far-reaching epidemic is required to provide wealth, financial security and safety for survivors, she says. “Investing in survivors is prevention work. You’re preventing further abuse, you’re preventing abuse for future generations, but it starts with survivors,” she explains. “This is not about being a gender equity funder, this is about a national problem that needs to be addressed. If you are an education funder, you’re impacted by gender-based violence. If you’re an early childhood development funder you’re impacted by domestic violence. If your issue is homelessness, you’re dealing with domestic violence.” Ultimately, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed for funders to truly reach survivors. “Whatever you’re doing as a funder, you’re dealing with this problem so you should be investing in the solutions,” she says.

The Fund—and The Foundation’s approach as a whole to funding initiatives to end gender-based violence—has been a refreshing experience for Passi. She identifies The Foundation as one of the few funders who take an intersectional approach to ending gender-based violence. The Foundation launched The Fund in partnership with ‘me. too.’ Movement founder and leader Tarana Burke as a vehicle to ensure that the momentum of the #MeToo Movement is sustained beyond news cycles and hashtags. Its creation builds on The Foundation’s long history of responding to the needs of women leaders who are building transformational movements and investing in community-led solutions that confront gender violence. Ultimately, The Fund works to support organizations around the country striving to prevent sexual violence and harassment and promote the healing of survivors and victims.

Healing is a process that Passi recognizes is a privilege and is expensive. This idea took centerstage at FreeFrom’s inaugural Survivor Wealth Summit, held in Los Angeles in July of 2019. “You cannot talk about healing for survivors without talking about financial recovery for survivors. The two go hand in hand,” she explained. The summit began by inviting participants to think about decolonizing wealth and redefining wealth for them. The results revealed a a fitting theme for collective action: community is wealth. “So much of what is missing from the gender-based violence movement is community and the ability to break down the isolation of gender-based violence,” Passi said. “That’s so much of what the #MeToo movement is about—building that community and collective healing.”

With sustained, collective efforts, the future of survivor wealth looks promising to Passi. She identifies four elements key to pushing the movement forward: capacity building, innovation through technology, community building and system change. Capacity building efforts would include building a sustainable movement that can address and prioritize survivor wealth and invest in people, Passi explains. She also sees technology as a critical tool in reaching survivors who do not have access to the resources needed for their recovery and healing.

FreeFrom continues to stand on their principles of community building through piloting new community support groups. Passi describes the program as community-driven, with a dual purpose of supporting collective healing and financial recovery for survivors. In the realm of system change, Passi outlines the many steps that can be taken to create a paradigm shift in ending financial abuse. From including stakeholders at banks and credit card companies to political changes, the opportunity to reinvent and implement systems that support survivors in getting to safety and ultimately thriving is within reach. “We need policy advocacy and we need paid leave for survivors, so they don’t risk losing their jobs if they need to take two days to flee,” Passi explained. With varying definitions of domestic violence in states across the county, Passi says ensuring financial abuse is included in that definition is an essential policy strategy FreeFrom is working on. “We need to widen the definition of domestic violence to include financial abuse so that we’re adequately defining the problem and then we can start to adequately think of solutions to the problem.”

Advancing towards a world where wealth and justice can be seen as complimenting and necessary functions of each other is just the tip of the ice burg of the work Passi and FreeFrom are accomplishing. The all-encompassing movement for survivor wealth must also be grounded in providing women and gender nonconforming communities the privilege and opportunity to strive for wealth, Passi says. “We need a full ecosystem that is focused on survivor wealth so that ten years from now when you think about intimate partner violence or domestic violence, you don’t automatically think of shelters—you automatically think of financial recovery. And that’s when you know that you’ve built the muscle to support survivor wealth.”

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