Written by Shari Rice, 2003
Circumstances and passion blend together in a unique
combination of the ordinary and the exhilarating to motivate and inspire a life
of activism in Donna Garske. For over twenty-seven years, her clear goal
has been the betterment of life for women and girls -- battered women and girls
specifically -- and in this devoted role of advocate, she has worked with women
in the criminal justice system and for the last twenty-two years served as the
award-winning Executive Director of Marin Abused Women’s Services (MAWS).
Marin is lucky to have her.
From the flat chill midlands of North Dakota and Minnesota, Donna moved
west, eventually bringing to the graceful shores and rolling hills of Marin
County the background of family and culture which formed her. And which
also fomented her rebellion from tradition and filled her with ardor and
determination, a drive that continues today as she strives to affect changes in
Born and raised in the Midwest, in a conventional male-led
and male-centered family, Donna’s firsthand observation and growing-up
experience would subtly prepare her for a career which has focused primarily on
taking violence out of the lives of women.
As a young girl, Donna felt the limiting effects of the
old-fashioned cultural attitudes surrounding her. But early on she wanted
more than what was expected of a girl of her time and place. And wanting
more for herself as a woman -- more than the limits of her family’s Midwestern
expectations -- she ultimately found herself wanting more for other women.
Through her unflagging support and advocacy over the years, she has been able to
merge this intense desire to change her life and to improve women’s lives
harmoniously into a career she never expected.
Sandwiched between four boys, Donna grew up as the only girl
in her family, a girl gifted with the keen observation powers to survey the
world around her. In particular, she keyed in on the daily successes of
her father and brothers: it seemed they could accomplish whatever they
attempted. While, on the side, she quietly watched them and internally
assessed their accomplishments, a small flame of realization began to kindle
inside her, the realization that in each person (even in a girl) lay the
potential to change someone else’s expectations.
Despite the traditions around her, she knew that just because
she was a female was not a good enough reason to be excluded from an active
career and thus the world. It was also not a reason to merely follow.
And not a reason to let someone else make decisions for her. And just
because she was female it was not a barrier to achieve whatever goal in life she
And so when teachers, as a matter of course, informed her
parents that Donna’s future job choices would probably be limited to teacher
or secretary, she resolved to break out of that preconceived trap.
Resolute on escaping the gender role ghetto, she began to blaze her own original
Starting with a couple of non-traditional jobs,
non-traditional, that is, for a girl, Donna entered the working world early.
At eleven and twelve she delivered newspapers. In high school she pumped
gas at the local gas station. Ridiculed by those around her for working at
a “guy’s job,” she even encountered a few male customers who insisted on
pumping the gas themselves. She learned from her position in these jobs to
go beyond someone else’s perception. She had already stepped out of the
She was further bolstered in her desire for change when she
heard a story from a friend: a story of a man who left home to strike out on his
own instead of following a predestined path. He told her friend that if he’d
done only what others expected of him, he would blame his family for his life.
Instead, he took control himself. Donna related to that story on a deep
level, intuiting that her community and family circumstance were not the
environment that would foster the success she wanted.
Thus determined, like the man in the story, to find her own
way, she translated what she’d observed and what she’d discovered into
survival skills, skills that would prove useful in the external world, skills
that would relate directly to what she does today in her position as the
Executive Director of a large organization.
But it wasn’t only her family background that motivated her
to help change society. Early on, she was struck by a sense of injustice
in the Catholic school she attended. Though she won’t deny that she
gained some valuable strengths from her education there, she also became
uncomfortably aware of the distinct contradictions between the touted Catholic
ideology -- “love one another,” etc. -- and the stark reality of how the
people around her really treated each other. A group of Native American
students who were brought to her school one day illuminated this glaring
hypocrisy when she saw the contrast between the school’s preaching and
teaching versus the way the Native American students were patronized, and thus
regarded as less than equals.
And so after high school, she moved west.
Specifically, a future in California, she says, remembering
one day, in a fifth grade geography class when she found California on the map.
“I’m going there one day,” she told her friends and,
quietly, plans began to germinate.
First, though, she started at the university in Fargo, North
Dakota. Since she’d finished high school early, halfway through her
senior year, after completing one semester in college, she went back to high
school for her graduation. But the west was calling her.
At first her parents said no. Too young, they said.
Too many things could happen to a young girl alone, they said. In a time
when girls didn’t leave home, didn’t go to college, didn’t set out for the
west coast in the middle of an icy Midwestern winter, why leave now? they said
as they watched her pack.
Though they were frustrated by her decision to leave home,
when it finally came time for her to leave, they threw themselves wholeheartedly
behind her decision. In retrospect, Donna’s mother says, it was the best
thing her daughter ever did for her life.
And so with the magnetism of the west drawing her away from
the middle of the country, Donna packed her used van with suitcases and
furnishings, her two dogs Sadie and Friend, and hauling a stuffed U-haul behind
her, she set off with a friend across the country to Oregon. It would be
her first step toward California.
Donna’s career at the University of Oregon began in the
early seventies, a turbulent, thrilling decade for a college student.
Small cafes overflowed with students, sipping strong coffee, cigarette smoke
swirling around their heads, as they inflamed each other with ideas, argued and
questioned authority, sought answers. Hoped for a better world. Made
plans how to change it.
Donna remembers that her own transformation began then, with
her own seat in a loud smoky cafe, as one of those students smack in the midst
of an inspiring time, pondering the process, generating plans for a better
It wasn’t all a smooth ride, though. After the death
of her father, Donna’s mother was left to raise two children still living at
home. Though it put a strain on the family budget, her mother insisted
that her only daughter, finish college. Never having had the advantage of
upper education herself, she took steps to make certain that Donna would.
For the opportunity to grow and make a change in her life and
develop a career Donna credits her mother; for the new direction in her life she
credits the feminization she received on campus.
At the University of Oregon, the Women’s Studies program
was a progressive one which helped her put things in perspective, helped her
understand her own views and look critically at the world. The
circumstances of the times, along with the innovative Women’s Studies
department made her a feminist and changed her, she says, from a “rebel
without a clue” to an “activist with a cause.”
Coming of age in those times, she was part of the first wave
of women fortunate enough to take advantage of the contributions of others who
earlier had organized and re-birthed the women’s movement. These women
opened up the world to her and taught her a set of matter-of-fact principles
that became her operating instructions. Then as now, she says, what she
learned and carries with her daily, is that every woman’s voice counts, that
there is no such thing as a dumb question, that every woman can be a leader and
that leadership can be shared.
For Donna, feminism continues to provide a framework for her
life, creating a context of understanding and a guide to help her make choices,
choices that range from political to spiritual and include social, economic or
whatever other choices she needs to make in her life.
Out of those probing coffee shop moments then, those times of
internal and external exploration
and a desire to make a difference came a logical outgrowth: Donna’s decision
to explore and participate in public service.
Helping others, helping herself, helping women.
Since, for so long, she had been driven to understand herself
and the world, she chose Psychology as her college major.
But when she shared her decision with her father, he rolled his eyes and
said, “What are you going to do with that the rest of your life?” And
so she decided on Community Service and Public Affairs as a major, with a focus
on the criminal justice system.
She finished college in two and a half years. In that
time she also worked at the Women’s Transitional Living Center, a re-entry
program in Eugene. Piling more onto her schedule, she also needed to
complete two internships, a program requirement. The first one, Job Sponsors, Inc., was in Eugene. At
Job Sponsors, Donna helped inmates after their release from Oregon State prison,
working with them on vocational skills, helping them to find jobs. She
also met with “lifers” in the prison itself, helping them with a second
program that allowed prisoners to make toys on the inside and sell them on the
“There were four security checkpoints,” she says of the
prison, “and it was a little nerve-wracking, especially when I heard the lock
click shut once I was inside.”
For her second internship, the director of Job Sponsors
proposed Donna for a position at Quest, a re-entry program new to San Francisco
which sponsored a women’s transitional living center housed in a Pacific
After her California interview, Donna went back to Oregon,
finished school, packed up her belongings, sold her house and moved again, this
time to California where she began her work at Quest.
Quest was a new program, federally funded and founded to
assist women in the criminal justice system. The program allowed qualified
women a twelve-to-eighteen-month early release. At the Center they were
then taught vocational skills, practical and applicable skills they could use to
help them integrate back into the community. Additionally, they were
taught skills to help them deal with relationships which focused on issues
having to do with family and children.
Donna’s success during her internship helped her land a
paying job to continue at Quest. But then the times began to change; years
of conservative public policy in the criminal justice field took over, the
mentality of “lock ‘em up and punish ‘em.” Punishment
instead of reform. After an enthusiastic beginning, funding was cut for
the program and the feeder program from the federal prisons closed down.
For a while Donna worked with the inmates in the San Francisco jail system, but
then the Center was finally closed permanently. Suddenly Donna was out of
work. But she’d inadvertently planned ahead.
Shortly before the program ended, she’d made a connection
with Las Casa de Las Madres, a shelter in San Francisco which started to use the
Quest space for their overflow. Las Casa provided counseling, family-based
services and referrals, and also offered a unique situation to battered women
and their children: an emergency residential shelter. The first shelter in
the western United States for women experiencing violence, this place for women
to feel safe was a totally new concept in the seventies. In fact, the term
“battered women” was a startling phrase in a totally new language that was
being used to discuss what was, sadly, not a new experience for women.
Las Casa’s mission was to offer the opportunity for
empowerment to women and children. They strived to give women and children
a chance to know their own strengths so that they could take risks and therefore
better control their own lives. In
this way, Las Casa hoped to restore dignity to women, to generate hope, to evoke
courage and to help maximize the potential in all their clients.
While Donna was working with women in the criminal justice
system, she noticed that the majority of events that led them to prison were due
to their relationships with men. But once removed from these negative
relationships, the women in the new community began to rely on each other
instead of the past relationships which had sent them to prison. They
began to support each other, and in doing so helped to bolster themselves as
What struck Donna about these situations was that rather than
rely on the criminal justice system to change them, it was the women’s own
great personal courage which helped them to change. After leaving the men
who had pulled them into the negative situations, they began to focus on their
own careers, their children, their health, their living situations and, most
importantly, themselves and their rights.
Particularly at La Casa, Donna saw and was impressed when
these women took action themselves by leaving the batterer. And they left
without knowing what the future would hold. In the seventies this was a
brave and unique step for battered women whose plight up to then had been given
little attention or empathy.
For Donna, facilitating these opportunities soon turned into
a new-found career. Though she’d started by working with both men and
women in the prison system, she quickly discovered that prisons weren’t “her
cup of tea.” But working with the women’s programs made her aware of
her natural affinity for women’s issues and from then on she concentrated all
her efforts on liberating women from the cycle of violence.
Donna had found her passion. And in her passion to help women, she became part of a larger
movement, a national network of others who worked for the cause in a grassroots
way. Women meeting women. Women talking and offering a support
system to other women. Networking by spreading and sharing information.
Developing ideas and offering assistance to those who worked in programs to
combat violence against women.
In 1978, to further her education and goals in this arena,
Donna completed her Masters degree at Golden Gate University, San Francisco, in
Public Administration with a focus on Criminal Justice. Her career would
soon be in full force. While on a forced recuperation from knee surgery, Donna
heard about a training session being given for volunteers at Marin Abused
Women’s Services, a newly funded program in the County for battered women.
She took the training.
“I got connected,” she says about MAWS, “and never went
MAWS, newly founded then in 1977 in response to the
escalating domestic violence in Marin County, was a natural match with her drive
to help battered women and children. Established by members of the Marin
Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the MAWS system, Donna
explains, is a simple one yet at the same time an utterly profound one.
The tenets are:
1) That no woman should live in isolation from her experience
of being violated.
2) That women have the right to be free of violence,
intimidation and abuse.
3) That MAWS would play a major role in being a catalyst for
With these principles outlining her similar vision, Donna
immediately signed up for training and thus her career with MAWS began.
Beginning as a volunteer in 1979, she quickly earned a paid job as Volunteer
Coordinator and in a matter of months, was appointed in 1980 as the new
At the core of the MAWS program is shelter. Shelter is
number one. Shelter is necessary for women who enter the program.
And where do the women come from? They come to MAWS
through women’s support groups, through advocacy or legal referrals or through
the all-important port-of-entry into the organization: the hotline.
Along with offering emergency shelter and comfort to battered
women, MAWS also works as an agent of change in the community, a force to help
change the mindset of male superiority engendered in our society. This
mindset, this superior way of thinking, is what gives men the belief that they
have the right to inflict violence. They are superior. They can do
what they want.
And so twenty years ago, MAWS set up a Men’s Program, the
first in the country, one which provides a hotline and one which teaches male
batterers new behaviors, support and advocacy to help stop their violence.
The men who complete the program are dedicated to the principles of non-violence
and are grateful, not only for changing their behavior but grateful for the
freedom they feel when their own violent behavior finally ends.
How does someone who works in this field, especially a woman,
have compassion for the men who beat their loved ones -- the shelter residents
that MAWS harbors and tries to protect?
“By refusing to give one’s life energy to something you
hate. And by having a compassion for an individual and an understanding
for a behavior,” Donna says, “that someone is not born with but which one
learns either through their immediate surroundings or from our society in
“No one started out with an outlook of superiority,” she
says, and at MAWS, not only do they offer an intervention solution in the
community but also a strategic alliance to let other men know that this behavior
is not okay and that it can be changed. In her years at MAWS Donna has led
the way in the movement with innovative responses to men’s violence against
women. This includes one of the first transitional housing programs for
battered women, for which she earned an award from the American Planning
Association in 1983. She also established an education program for
batterers which has been replicated on an international scale.
Over a three-year period, Donna helped to develop Europe’s
first batterers’ program. She also worked with the Network of East-West
Women (NEWW), providing them with technical assistance for their program which
supports domestic violence programs in Eastern/Central Europe and the former
It has been a time filled with satisfying and exhilarating
experiences. Since Donna’s nearly thirty-year involvement in this
emerging world for women, she has seen a huge change. It has been exciting
for her to see the changes made, to observe the unfolding consciousness, to see
the finger pointing at this global problem. At the Beijing Conference in
the nineties, for example, the main focus of the entire conference was the
eradication of violence against women and girls.
And Donna has been a key player in it all. Her work has
created widespread benefits for women’s causes and has helped to shape and
influence the unwavering impression that domestic violence is NOT okay.
Her advocacy efforts have even influenced legislation, specifically the Federal
Violence Against Women Act as well as AB-226, a California law she co-authored
which establishes minimum requirements for batterers’ programs. She also
co-founded California Alliance Against Domestic Violence, the statewide
In 1992 she guided MAWS in creating ”Transforming
Communities: Creating Safety and Justice for Women and Girls” as a learning
center for preventing violence against women and girls, a center which has been
recognized as a model approach by the National Academy of Sciences.
What makes a person like Donna? A person so dedicated
and one who cares so deeply?
Donna says that you must begin by finding that place in
yourself, that place which relates to your own passionate issue.
Find all the different ways to understand it, all the different ways to
have a conversation about it.
To young girls she would say, “Follow your passion.”
Donna’s own passion and expertise led her to be selected as
a 1995 National Gimbel Foundation Child and Family Scholar. In this role,
she explored new approaches to preventing family violence. Her resulting
article, “Transforming the Culture: Creating Safety, Equality and Justice for
Women and Girls,” was published in Preventing Violence in America in 1996, and
provided a framework of prevention for the domestic violence field.
At MAWS Donna founded a technical assistance and resource
center, which is now a national project moving across the nation.
For over seven years this program of prevention has been dedicated to the
crisis end of the continuum, and today even the CDC (Center for Disease Control)
is looking at domestic violence as a social disease.
That year her article was published, she was also appointed
to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Prevention
Professionals and Advocates.
Because of Donna’s efforts and those of others like her,
thousands of lives have been saved. Today, over two thousand shelters
exist nationwide and countless more internationally. Many state and national
laws have been passed on behalf of battered women and their children.
These laws uphold the unequivocal right to live free of violence in society.
But social change, as an organic process, necessarily continues.
“Everything grows,” Donna says, “because it receives attention and
Therefore, the work in this arena must not slow down.
It must not end. Violence against women continues still, and girls today
experience abuse at an even younger age than ever before.
Violence against women cannot be considered one single issue.
It is more than that. It is the way people act, how they react, simple yet
complex daily interactions. Add in the media. Add in the Internet.
All are contributors to the upsurge in sexism and violence today that extends
beyond the movie screen, beyond explicit song lyrics or what we can be found on
In our patriarchal structure, where men are still so
powerful, it’s not surprising to find that ninety-five percent of domestic
violence is committed against women by men. Since men’s violence is
believed by MAWS not to be innate, but to be a learned behavior, then it is also
believed that it can be changed.
Change also the status of women today by raising their status
-- an obvious and one of the best ways to free women’s lives from violence.
And how to accomplish that change in women’s status?
Education, of course, is always a step toward change. By educating the
public against gender role conditioning, the awareness that begets change will
begin. Before negative societal situations can be changed, people must be
aware of them and how they impact individuals’ lives.
Visualize living in a box.
This exercise, called “Living in a Box,” is one that
Donna facilitates for young boys and girls: She tells the young people to
actually visualize living in a box and by doing so, they will no doubt recognize
“the box” that girls live in today in our society.
They must be thin.
They must be pretty.
They must be attentive.
But where do these images lead?
“To the collapse of their souls and a loss of confidence in
themselves,” Donna says.
According to Donna, almost eighty-five percent of all teenage
girls in the United States are currently dieting, if not on their plates, then
in their minds. They don’t
necessarily need to deprive themselves of food to be “dieting,” but only to
hold the awareness that they should deprive themselves of food in order to
succeed in our society.
Despite their “dieting,” almost one hundred percent of
these girls still believe they’re not perfect. Perfect, that is,
according to society’s unrealistic standards. To go against these
ridiculous, fashion-magazine “ideals,” girls need self-confidence -- the
only way to stand up for themselves against present and future violence.
Today one out of three girls suffers from abuse and by the
time they are eighteen, one out of four girls will suffer from sexual abuse.
By standing up for themselves, by not putting up with the endangerment of their
minds and bodies, the hope is that abuse will eventually dwindle.
To move these changes along, both boy and girl teens alike
must gain the skills to think critically about the whole gender experience:
who’s who and why. Teens need to find their own means of true
expression, even if it goes against traditional expectations. This is not
a license to engage in destructive behavior, but a constructive freedom to stand
up for their beliefs. To go the distance for those beliefs. To take
a risk. And to be a leader.
“Leadership,” Donna says, “is being out there.
Sometimes it can mean being isolated.”
And since this role goes against a woman’s natural tendency
to be relational, girls and women both don’t easily leap to the role of
leader. But a girl or a woman needs to find her own version of leadership,
not society’s version. Donna has found her own version by a looking as
objectively as possible at herself, at her own “dragons,” and then dealing
graciously with the difference between her and those she works with. By
seeing the world in a more holistic way and by leaving herself open for
discovery, Donna Garske has become a compassionate leader. To all
women, Donna says, “Live outside the patriarchal mindset. By being a
happy woman, you will free your internal soul.”
Donna Garske, advocate and spokesperson for women, is a
product of many different converging social and individualized experiences.
Today she stands out as a leader who heads one of our society’s most important
causes. And she urges others to participate, too, to take on the role of
activist and to use that activism as a tool to carry through life, a tool which
can help others, especially those who are victims.
Donna says that to be an activist one must visualize change
and, as Donna says, encourage others to “Believe in change.” Be
optimistic. Not unrealistic but hopeful and driven.
What does the future hold for Donna Garske?
To continue her work. To engage her passion. She
wants her work to go on and hopes that the next generation will be there to
“pick up the cause.” But her most fervent goal of all is that there be
no cause -- the cause of freeing women from violence. When this happens, MAWS
will be out of business because its work will finally be done.
Yours Toward Safety & Justice For All,
Donna Garske, Executive Director
Marin Abused Women's Services
734 A Street
San Rafael, CA 94901
(ph )415/457-2464 x 27