Janet Kerr has spent almost 30 years as a psychotherapist, nonprofit administrator and volunteer working in particularly challenging and stressful area – the prevention of domestic and sexual violence.
Beginning as a volunteer for Tessa (then known as the Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence) in 1987, she served as the executive director of the organization from 1997-2001. Moving back into private practice in 2001, she provided training and technical assistance to law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, advocacy agencies and other professionals about issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault.
In 2006, Kerr created a mental health clinic in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan, focusing on trauma victims, especially those dealing with gender-based violence. Working under the aegis of Doctors Without Borders, she stayed there for 10 months. It was a searing experience, as Naomi Zeveloff reported in the Independent that year.
“I can’t ever imagine saying again, I don’t have enough stuff, or I need more money, or I need more things,” Kerr told Zeveloff. “I lived like a queen in Darfur compared to the way people in the refugee camps are living. There, if you are lucky enough to have a bed or something that is raised off the ground, you don’t sleep on it because it is too dangerous. There is too much gunfire at night. And when you sleep on the ground, there are worms that come up and burrow through your skin.”
“I knew I was lucky to have been born a white person in the United States,” Kerr continued, “but I had no idea what that meant until I lived in Darfur for nine months.”
In 2012 Kerr returned to TESSA as interim executive director. The ongoing challenges that the organization had not changed – just increased. And although public awareness of DVSA has increased since the late 90s, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such incidents have decreased.
“The contradiction between a limited budget and the growing need for our services is one TESSA must continually address,” Kerr said. “Without a sound, robust volunteer program, an effective solution to this issue would be impossible.”
[pullquote] I can never find words to adequately express what a privilege it was to work there, and the respect I have for the women I worked with.[/pullquote]“When there’s a high-profile case (such as the Ray Rice incident), we experience an increase in both calls for service and shelter, and from people who want to volunteer,” she said. “And I’m really grateful to whoever invented the video camera. So many of these incidents are not witnessed, and the offenders are so very charming and manipulative – so good at structuring reality. They count on people’s willingness to look away.”
Kerr left her position Oct. 21, turning over the reins to her second in command.
“I only signed on as interim director,” she said. “I’m looking forward to going back to my private consulting, working with people who are directly involved in combating DVSA.”
What keeps her going?
“That time in Darfur,” she said. “It was life-changing. I can never find words to adequately express what a privilege it was to work there, and the respect I have for the women I worked with.”