By Hannah McCollum
On Friday, YWCA Spokane held its largest fundraising event of the year: the Women of Achievement 2019 Awards Luncheon. Ten local women were honored for their accomplishments and leadership in our community, and for embodying YWCA Spokane’s mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.” Information on each of the 2019 award nominees is available on YWCA Spokane’s website.
The focus of this year’s luncheon was ending domestic violence. The prevalence of domestic violence locally has gained attention since the release of the short documentary “End the Violence” on Sept. 30. As a city employee, just this week I have received a few email releases from the mayor and city hall announcing “Spokane Strong Month” and “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”
For the opening statements at the YWCA luncheon, several community leaders stood on stage and shared their personal commitment, or the commitment of their business or organization, to being part of the solution to reduce domestic violence in Spokane. Among them was Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, my boss.
A Woman’s Table
I sat at a table with other female fire personnel: administration employees like myself, a social worker, three young firefighters and a fire captain. The stage did not belong to our male fire chief or the male police chief on this occasion, but it did occur to me how good it was to have our leader invite us to a women’s event and make a public statement in support of victims of domestic violence. I wonder if that will happen again in any future job I have.
After the awards were handed out, we heard from the keynote speaker, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. Aquilina presided over the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal case against Larry Nassar in 2018. What makes Aquilina’s courtroom unusual is that she makes it her practice to allow everyone who wants to a chance to speak.
At Nassar’s trial, even though he was being tried for only seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and had already pleaded guilty (Nassar has been sentenced separately for other charges of criminal sexual conduct and federal child pornography), Aquilina allowed 156 of Nassar’s victims to speak. The victim impact statements lasted a week. Judge Aquilina then passed the sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison.
A Place of Healing
During her keynote speech, Aquilina didn’t spend much time talking about her most high-profile case. Instead, she talked about how she handles every trial she presides over. She believes the courtroom should be a place of healing, or at least where healing can begin. She encourages everyone to speak who wants to, including family members and anyone connected to a case, whether they are on the victim’s or the defendant’s side. If a victim is not able to speak because they left the courtroom crying or did not come to the trial, she graciously allows them the time they need to calm down or allows them to send a letter or representative to give their statement. Emotional outbursts are present in her courtroom, but for Aquilina they are a vital part of the judicial process and not a distraction from it.
She also listed, at length, the red flags to keep an eye out for as we interact with the people we care about. In short, if something seems strange, don’t brush it off: ask questions. There might be an abuser in this person’s life. Aquilina mentioned everything from a coworker taking off their Fitbit before walking to get lunch with you, to the more well-known red flags such as unexplained injuries.
I was impressed with Judge Aquilina’s words and manner. I am glad she also teaches at a law school where she hopefully impacts many students.
A Local Hero
After the speeches, the most exciting part of my day happened. Astronaut Anne McClain came over to our table to have her picture taken with the firefighters. In the Spokane Fire Department, seeing a female firefighter is more common than spotting a unicorn, but there still aren’t many of them. Sitting at my desk watching fire engines come and go, I have a lot of admiration for these women. They are heroes to me.
Today I witnessed my heroes bursting with excitement as they posed for a photo with their hero. McClain joked about wanting to trade jobs with them. She moved on from us and took a selfie with a high school girl. The girl was grinning ear to ear as she passed by with her mother’s arm around her shoulders; I heard her mother say, laughing, “are you going to cry?”