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Joan Prittie: A Voice for the Voiceless

Joan Prittie: A Voice for the Voiceless

Joan Prittie, originally from Louisville Kentucky, has been in Athens, Ga since 1990 giving a voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless and a compassionate vision of what is needed to her community. Joan has been a heroic champion for anyone abused and especially for women and children in need of a place to turn when escaping the horrific consequences that come from being in abusive relationships.

After attending college at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Joan came to Athens, GA for law school. As it would so happen this would eventually lead her in 1999 to becoming the director of Project Safe, a shelter for abused women and their children.

Under Joan’s leadership, Project Safe, which in the 1970’s “started as a network of safe homes”, has expanded its operations in several different ways including starting a non-profit Thrift Store & purchasing an entire apartment building, where they can house ten different families at a time. This is in addition to the money they raise to place dislocated families into homes rent and bill free for up to a year in residential residences all over the area. 

55% of the funds raised to sustain Project Safe come from outside of Athens mainly by way of grants, which Joan Prittie helps to write, and corporate donations. The other 45% of their budget is raised through their Thrift Store, individual and church contributions, as well as, extremely successful fundraising events such as the wildly popular “Dancing with the Athens Stars”.

After listening to Joan speak with great passion about her job, which she considers to be more of a calling, you quickly realize how she is the person capable of creating a community fundraising event that involves people from all types of different professions, who donate more than 8 months of their lives to learning how to dance with a professional dancer so that they can then dance in front of thousands of people from the local community cheering them on as they raise, on average, way over $100,000/year for Project Safe. 

After graduating law school, Joan worked for a program called the Prisoner Legal Counseling Project, which represented indigent inmates in the state prison system. After losing their one and only source of funding, the project had to shut down thereby giving Joan the knowledge that any sustainable non-profit needs to “diversify their funding”.

 Joan says that “you learn through necessity” and that she “had to learn to write grant proposals and ask people for money to keep an organization going.”  

Since 2008, Joan has been teaching two classes, “Grant Proposal & Fundraising, at the graduate level over at UGA.” She tells her students every semester, “I didn’t go to school for this. I haven’t read an academic text book about these things. I really teach from the painful experience of learning by doing. I’m going to give you all the things I wish I could have gotten the short cuts for early on. It would have made life easier.”

This once again confirms that Joan is the kind of person who will go out of her way to make life smoother for the next person coming down the same path by cheerfully and carefully imparting her hard-earned wisdoms that she gains as she trudges through the many obstacles she faces while doing her job.

Joan says that “out of the Women Rights Movement and other conscious raising groups of the 1970’s came what was initially called the Battered Women’s Movement. Now we call it the Violence Against Women or Domestic Violence Movement.” The first shelter for battered women was formed in England in 1968 while the United States opened their first shelters for abused women in the 1970’s.

Project Safe, which didn’t become a nonprofit corporation until 1991, “just kept evolving”, Ms. Prittie said. During the 1970’s, Project Safe was run by the “totally underground Volunteer working without any kind of public support or much recognition at all.”  Joan went onto say that “In the 80’s, you had some kind of congealing, some coalescing. The affiliation with Community Connection. The beginnings of some paid part time people. The establishment of the hotline which was initially rerouted to people’s landlines at home.” Joan said, “The 90’s was the legal formation.” Project Safe received the “IRS status for 501C3 tax exemption and the first shelter building was leased.”

Joan Prittie said, “The 18 years that I have been there have really been about expansion and growth. We have expanded in terms of the services that we offer. From the beginning, which was just a crisis intervention hotline and short-term shelter, we’ve expanded to prevention and education and to longer term housing programs & to advocacy. We have expanded the capacity to serve more people. Expanding the type of services that we offer. Expanding the number of people that we can work with. We have an outreach office (inside The Family Protection Center) over on Lexington Road, where we have staff, who meet with people face to face, who maybe don’t want or need shelter but they need other kinds of services.”

Joan went on to say, “We do a huge number of educational programs. Several hundred a year. In schools at all grade levels but also professional in-service training, civic clubs, church groups, you name it.”

“The other way we have expanded is territory. We have a four-county area that we consider our primary area: Clarke, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Madison. Our staff has grown a great deal. We have 27 on staff. About half of them are part time.”

When asked if she was the person who initiates all these expansions at Project Safe, Joan replied, “I feel a very much a part of a large team. I often am the driver of ‘how do we find the resources to make this happen?’. ‘How do we move this to something we can deliver?’ but we have so many smart, giving people at this organization, whether they’re our staff, or our board members or our Volunteers.”  

In addition to the strong leadership Joan has shown while overseeing so much expansion at Project Safe, she also shows how much of a confident visionary she really is when she says that Project Safe “should be taking risks. We should be trying things that others aren’t trying.”

A great example of this happened with the establishment of the now statewide “text line for dating violence”, which Joan started soon after The CDC put out statistics 6 years ago showing that “Georgia ranked number 1 in the United States for teen dating violence.” The ranking was based on several factors but mainly on “the lack of resources or the lack of policies to address dating violence among minors”, Joan said. 

Her staff started having conversations about this and Joan Prittie said, “We didn’t feel like we heard from teens or young people. It isn’t that the problem isn’t occurring, so, why aren’t we hearing about this problem from kids? So, we landed on this idea that kids don’t call on the phone. They text. So, we said, let’s try texting and now we have hundreds of text conversations a year. That was something not being done in Georgia in our line of work.”

Joan shows she is truly a heroic champion when she said, “We believe that everyone deserves to be safe in their homes and in their relationships. You start with that. We are working to end domestic violence to make that happen. You want to feel secure enough to where you can try something and say, ‘well that didn’t work’ or try something and keep trying it long enough to watch it grow.”

Joan said, “We are certainly more focused on the survivor. On the person who is experiencing abuse. The origins of our whole movement were from people who were experiencing abuse, talking about it and searching for ways to reach back and help someone else. This movement evolved from and still from the perspective of services for the victim or survivor. In continuing to do that, we’ve added a focus on prevention. Really working to reach younger people to get them to think about what’s healthy or not in terms of a relationship. Starting to plant those seeds so people don’t find themselves five years later in an abusive relationship.”

Joan added that as, “Humans beings, we’re so adaptable. We adapt to changing conditions so much and the thing about abuse is it’s not all the time, every day and it’s not the same thing, all the time so it’s very easy when you’re in it to chalk it up to an isolated event vs seeing the larger pattern over a longer period of time.”

You can feel the Momma Bear come out in Joan Prittie when she was asked if she thought victims would be more likely to avoid future relationships that make them into a victim again. In the name of the voiceless, abused victims, who she speaks so eloquently for, she firmly replied by saying, “People who have been abused or assaulted are often at greater risk at that happening again.”

She went on to say, “From my background as a lawyer, who represented people who committed crimes, no matter what your criminal enterprise is, people select their victims on their perceived likelihood of success. If you rob people you might look for someone easily distracted. When people have been assaulted or abused, often they are perceived as easier targets to people whose intent is to want to control the people that they are with.”

Joan believes that you can, however, warn people about potential abusers. “You can certainly provide education about red flags and warning signs which is a lot of what people miss and by the time they recognize something as controlling or abusive, they’re really in the control of the abuser and its dangerous or frightening to get out.”

Joan said, “You can also address other aspects like financial issues that make people stay in abusive relationships. You can work on confidence and self-esteem and people’s sense of worthiness and that they are deserving of love that doesn’t come with the price tag of abuse. That they are deserving of being cherished and treated well.”

Joan stated that “Domestic violence plays out differently in different relationships and there’s not just one kind. There’s lot of different kinds. You need to look at what are the causes of abusive behavior and what are effective ways to deal with that.” She added that “You have cultural norms in a lot of places still playing a role in why we still have abusive behavior.”

You may be surprised to know that after seeing the horrendous consequences of abuse for almost 30 years, whether as a defense lawyer or as an advocate for Victim’s Rights, Joan, optimistically, still thinks we can, indeed, stop abuse.

Why the optimism?

Joan says, “We can go back to 753 BC and find in writing a man’s absolute right to beat his wife. That doctrine was passed down in both law and religion throughout western civilization and it crossed over the Atlantic Ocean and it’s what we’ve got here and it didn’t really start to be challenged until the 1870’s. So, you have from 753 BC to the 1870’s sayings it’s an absolute right (to beat your wife). We’ve got from the 1870’s to the 1970’s, the birth of women’s rights movement, of saying it’s not an absolute right. It should not be a right but we really don’t want to talk about it and we really don’t know what to do about it. It’s private.”

Joan went on to say, “We only have 40 years of saying ‘It’s not right and we’re going to do something about it’.  A blink of an eye in terms of history of trying to deal with this and in 40 years we have come a huge distance in recognizing it, in talking about it, in criminalizing it, in establishing services and programs for people who have experienced it, in providing education. So that’s what we’ve gotten done in 40 years. So, what are we going to do in 40 more years? What are we going to do in 400 years?!”

Joan Prittie continued by saying, “I find it very hopeful and I feel like we can absolutely figure out the ways to not only help and serve folks who have experienced abuse, not only try to prevent folks from learning the behavior in the first place, but also to change the behavior of those who have experienced it. I think we can do all 3 of those things if we commit to trying to figure it out. Now, that’s the ‘if’ part. Are there enough smart people who want to put their brain cells to that purpose? And I think that maybe there are. I find it incredibly hopeful because I just feel like we’ve hardly started.”

When asked about the #metoo movement, Joan said, “We’re certainly having a moment in popular culture where people are coming forward and sharing different kinds of experiences. I think it’s useful. I think people are hopefully paying some attention and people are being held accountable for behaviors that lots of people have gotten away with for a long time.”

Asked if she was surprised by the amount of abuse we are currently seeing reported, Joan stated, “I think every woman knows what that’s like to some degree or another. So, no, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing so much abuse. It’s the connection to power. So much of abuse, not every form of domestic violence, but so much of domestic violence is based on power. It’s all about power and control. People who want power and control.”

Joan said, “The more we empower women and girls then the more women and girls begin to demand what’s right. Begin to speak up and insist on being treated like human beings. Being treated like equals. The more that happens then the more we have to recalibrate how our society works and how we relate to one another in all spheres.”

Joan continued by saying, “You can’t deal with anything if you’re not talking about it. The power of the birth of the domestic violence movement was naming the abuse and saying ‘yes, this is happening’ and naming it. We can’t address the things we’re not willing to name. With movements like #metoo, with anything, we have to say what it is first and then take the steps to try to figure it out.”

For people having trouble in their relationships, Joan offers this bit of hope to saving the relationship, “Theoretically, if you worked on the skills: communication & conflict management and then you work on the underlying issue that is causing the conflict then you would have the tools needed.” 

Joan says that those, who work for Project Safe, “are advocates, and we are listeners and supporters. And we’re trying to create conditions where people can think about what it is that they want. If they want to reconcile or be in a relationship, we’re there to try to give them tools to do it safely and to make sure that if it turns out not to work that they know how to reach us again. We aren’t trying to tell people like ‘do this, don’t do that.’ We ask ‘have you thought about this?’ ‘Have you thought about that?’ ‘What would that look like, if you did that?’ It’s that sort of processing with someone and just trying to be with them and then connect them to other resources that they might need according to whatever it is that they want to do.”

Joan said that, “Abuse is more of a process than an act. It’s an unfolding of these behaviors so trying to undo it is also a process and not a single act. Most people, if they’re in an abusive relationship, a victim is going to leave between 7-10 times.” Joan says this is part of the process in recognizing that the abuse is a pattern.

Joan believes Project Safe gets a lot of public support because they “really do emphasize the big picture. Of what are we doing with the money that we are raising. What are we doing with the improvements and the expansions. What are the impacts on people’s lives.”

When asked what gave her the confidence to be a voice for the voiceless, abused women & children, she replied by saying that her “parents instilled that you have a responsibility, that you have a voice that you need to use, that you need to stand for something. I think they gave me those messages in different ways as a kid.”

After working on a project “doing clemency petitions for battered women who were in prison, for killing or harming their abusive partners, but who had not had an opportunity to raise those issues during their trials or guilty pleas”, Joan reached out to women’s shelters all over the state and discovered first hand their unfulfilled needs.

When asked how she got into her current line of work in 1999, Joan replied, “We think that we need to go out and do things that we are passionate about but if we’re open and we go out and do things where we’re needed, where’s there’s a match between what we can do and what somebody else needs, we will discover a passion for that thing that evolves out of the act of doing and that’s what happened to me. There was this match of ‘I can do this and do something about people affected by this’.”

Referring to the past jobs that led her to becoming the Director of Project Safe, Joan said, “that’s an unusual background to have interacted with both perpetrators and victims all as human beings.” This very comment shows how Joan sees through the surface and straight to the heart of the matter that no matter who she is dealing with, regardless of victim or perpetrator, she sees them all as human beings. 

When asked what keeps her going all these decades with increased passion and vigor for the challenges she deals with, Joan replied, “I am a religious person. I think this is a way that God is nudging me to contribute here on earth. So, I very much feel this pull to do it. Then there’s this hopefulness from the historical perspective that this is a very hopeful thing to work on and that it can be so impactful to change the course of not just somebody’s life but the generations that come beyond it is just incredibly satisfying stuff. Then there’s just the daily benefits. When you do this kind of work, you’re generally working with people who are just very caring, very kind. You get to work with good people, who are sharing the best of themselves. With all these folks in the community, I get to interact with them in their best nature, their giving nature, their generous nature.”

When asked what she wants to see happen now, Joan replied, “We’ve got to figure out better the causes of abuse and at the same time do more work on the prevention side of it.  Stopping it at its source.”

“We’ve just got to keep on pressing forward. We’ve got to help people understand that women’s full equality isn’t harmful to men. We can gain so much more if women and girls are able to just have their talent and their ambition unleashed worldwide, to be able to contribute as much as men have been able to in the past.”

When asked if there’s something she wants people to know, Joan Prittie replied that she wants “people to know that they know somebody who has been abused. They might not be aware that they know someone but they do. It’s just that widespread and I want people who are or who have been abused to know that there is help. There’s help all over that people can be connected to. This is a solvable problem given enough time and commitment to solve it.”

Joan agrees that stopping abuse and caring for victims needs to be a community effort. She said that, “People need to feel like they’ve got a role to play and to believe that they have a role to play for us to gain this ground. Sometimes that connection is as small as a contribution, sometimes it’s as big as a sustained volunteer over many years.”

Joan says we should, “Teach boys & girls basic respect, basic humanity, and not instilling a sense of entitlement in terms of being better than others but instilling a sense of equality and a little bit of humility.”

In regards to the victims that they counsel at Project Safe, Joan said, “If you tell people what to do, you’re not creating the type of relationship where they can come to you for help.” Coming from Joan Prittie, the Director of Project Safe, who has for almost 20 years, been telling everyone, who will listen, exactly what they need to do in order to help the victims of abuse, this quote might seem like it’s not coming from the same person but if you look closely at this statement you will see the strength, compassion & vision that has truly made Joan Prittie a Voice for the Voiceless,  a compassionate Visionary & a true heroic Champion for all those, who have ever been abused.

Joan Prittie IS Good People!

Project Safe:

HOTLINE: 706-543-3331

photo credit: David Manning

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Representative Deborah Gonzalez: The People's Voice

Representative Deborah Gonzalez: The People's Voice

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The Rest of the Story