Q & A with Kate Bramson

Kate Bramson – Photo by Shannon McDonnell

You have recently become deputy executive director of Sojourner House. Congratulations! For those who may not be familiar with the work of Sojourner, can you give us an overview?

Sojourner House is a nonprofit organization that supports and empowers victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking as they work to heal and rebuild their lives. Founded in 1976, the agency has expanded from a part-time, volunteer hotline into a provider of comprehensive services. We provide victims and survivors with safe shelter; compassionate, trauma-informed care; and a pathway to permanent stable housing. In recent years, we have also begun buying property to provide more flexible housing options throughout Rhode Island because of our deep understanding that people cannot escape abusive situations without access to safe, affordable housing. In total, Sojourner House has supported more than 60,000 survivors. We offer a variety of ways that volunteers, donors, and interns can also work with us to meet our mission.

Now, please, some details about specific areas of work. Tell us about what Sojourner House offers victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

We understand that access to safe, secure, and affordable housing is a critical first step in a survivor’s journey to safety and independence. Therefore, we operate a variety of shelter, rapid rehousing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing programs to support our clients as they work toward financial independence. In 2016, Sojourner House launched the THEIA Project (Trafficking Housing Empowerment Immigration Advocacy), in collaboration with Project Weber/RENEW, to support survivors of human trafficking. Since then, THEIA has provided safe shelter, transitional housing, and other assistance to more than 190 victims and survivors of human trafficking across Rhode Island and Massachusetts. To this day, it remains the only shelter and transitional housing program specifically for trafficking survivors in Rhode Island, making its prosperity especially vital. All Sojourner House clients have access to emotional counseling, support groups, basic needs such as food and hygiene products, immigration assistance and advocacy, peer recovery support, sexual health advocacy (including free pregnancy tests, emergency contraceptive pills, and more), life-skills training, and other trauma-informed supportive services.

And HIV/AIDS prevention

Domestic and sexual violence are issues intimately tied with a person’s sexual health status. At Sojourner House, we recognize those connections and address them in a non-judgmental manner. Using a risk-reduction model, our advocates provide guidance on matters related to sexual health and sexuality in both individual and group settings. Our aim is to advocate for our clients and give them the necessary tools and information to take ownership of their bodies and sexualities. Through our Sexual Health Advocacy Program, we’re proud to offer free, confidential, and rapid HIV and Hepatitis C testing at our Drop-In Center, residential program, and in the community as requested. Anyone 16 years or older is eligible; a parent or guardian does not need to be present. If the test comes back “reactive” (meaning it found HIV antibodies in an individual’s system), the client will be asked to sign a release form so we may assist them in scheduling a confirmatory test at the Miriam STI Clinic and walk them through that process.

Elder abuse

Intimate partner violence can occur across the lifespan and affect people of all ages, including the elderly. Sojourner House is committed to making our services accessible to all survivors, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, or legal status.

LGBTQ partner abuse

As experts in the field of interpersonal violence, Sojourner House staff members understand that people who are additionally marginalized, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, are more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault, and often have a harder time accessing services due to stigma, discrimination, lack of resources, and societal biases. That is why we have an LGBTQ+ Advocacy program designed specifically to address the needs of queer and gender-nonconforming survivors and to provide trauma-informed affirming advocacy. Through this program, we offer emergency shelter to LGBTQ+ identifying survivors, facilitate a support group for LGBTQ+ clients, provide inclusive, age-appropriate, and medically accurate sex and relationship education to our community, and give referrals to other safe resources. We are proud to remind Rhode Islanders that Sojourner House is credited with starting the state’s first Lesbian Advocacy Program (1995) and the first Gay Advocacy Program (2003) for victims of abuse, and that we opened the first LGBTQ+ specific shelter in the state. To this day, our RISE Shelter (Respect, Inclusion, Safety, Empowerment) is still one of only three emergency housing spaces in our community available specifically for LGBTQ+ individuals.

These services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, correct?

While Sojourner House’s Drop-In Center and offices are only open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, our helpline — (401) 765-3232 — is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making it a resource that’s always available for victims of abuse during times of crisis. Additionally, our shelter and residential programs are always operational.

Tell us more about the drop-in center.

The Sojourner House Drop-in Advocacy and Resource Center, at 1570 Westminster St. in Providence, is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. We offer services in both English and Spanish to victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and human trafficking.

At our Center, clients and community members can:

● Meet with advocates, who can provide emotional support, safety planning, and access to resources.

● Receive information about services.

● Join a support group.

● Schedule an appointment for clinical counseling.

● Meet with our U.S. Department of Justice-accredited immigration staff members for assistance in obtaining immigration relief.

● Attend a housing clinic (Every Thursday, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., no appointments necessary).

● Schedule a training or workshop for an organization.

● Receive free, confidential, rapid HIV testing (No appointments necessary).

● Deliver donations. Please call first: (401) 861-6191.

● Get information on how to help someone who may be experiencing abuse.

 What’s the story behind the name?

Sojourner House was partly named for Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century Black abolitionist and women’s activist who traveled throughout the United States speaking on behalf of women and enslaved people. Her message of strength and freedom inspires our work. We’ve designed our programs so that our clients have many options for assistance, allowing them to build strength and independence as they recover from abuse. Additionally, our organization derives its name from our goal to give survivors a place to “sojourn,” since many are enduring the most challenging period of their lives.

And a bit about the history. We read this on the Sojourner site: “Sojourner House is a nonprofit organization founded in 1976 by Providence residents and Brown University students who were concerned about what was then a silent epidemic: domestic and sexual violence.”

Yes, when those Providence residents and Brown University students, staff, and faculty members founded Sojourner House nearly 50 years ago, domestic violence was rarely discussed publicly. And yet, our founders knew there was great value in bringing this conversation into the public dialogue. When we incorporated in 1976 as a nonprofit agency, we offered just a volunteer-run hotline. In 1979, we opened our first shelter for women, and 3 years later, we launched our “Safe Home Network,” through which private homeowners offered shelter in their homes to victims of domestic violence. We celebrated our 10th anniversary by buying a Safe House for women and children in the City of Woonsocket, and within two years, we had raised more than $350,000 to pay off the mortgage for that property. Now, we’re close to celebrating our 50th anniversary!

Highlights of our trajectory include:

● 2007: We began our Transitional Housing Program.

● 2012: We launched our Immigration Advocacy Program to help survivors obtain visas and submit Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self petitions.

● 2015: We launched our LGBTQ+ and Men’s Services Program to provide housing, clinical services, and more to male-identified survivors and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

● 2017:  We started providing rapid rehousing to victims of abuse.

● 2020: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we experienced a tremendous surge in demand for our services (including an increase of 30% to 40% of calls for help to our hotline), and we quickly adapted to meet our community’s needs.

● 2021: We updated our mission statement to include development of housing options. We also opened a public-facing office in Woonsocket and launched a Maternal Health Program.

● 2022 and the beginning of 2023: We purchased five properties, including our new Drop-In Center on Westminster Street in Providence.

Through all of this growth, we have remained committed to empowering our staff and clients, by fostering growth and resiliency through compassionate services and effective partnerships, with a shared vision of community.

How is Sojourner House funded and how can interested individuals and organizations donate?

Sojourner House relies on a robust development program. We receive federal and state government grants, as well as grants from corporate and private foundations. We also receive philanthropic contributions from our many supporters in this community. We hold two main fundraising events a year — our 2024 Spring Breakfast will be May 31, and our Masquerade Ball will be November 22 — and we welcome any and all supporters to join us in any way they can.

Philanthropic donations are especially crucial to our work because those unrestricted funds allow our team to pay for goods and services that many of our grants cannot support, such as groceries for clients’ families, transportation costs for clients’ medical and legal appointments, and emergency hotel nights when no shelter beds are available. This type of funding allows Sojourner House to provide well-rounded, holistic care to our clients and to pivot where they need us most.

We are especially grateful to those in our community who continually invest in this work and whose support has allowed us to increase the impact and reach we have in our community. If any of your readers would like to make a gift to Sojourner House, they may visit https://secure.qgiv.com/for/sojhour. Or, if they’d like to have a more in-depth discussion about the needs of our programs and how they can help, they may contact Dana Nolan, our Deputy Director of Philanthropy, at dnolan@sojournerri.org. [And they’re also welcome to contact me: kbramson@sojournerri.org.]

We see on the Sojourner site a series of testimonials from former clients. They speak to a record of remarkable success. Would you like to give us a summary of that success?

In 2023, we supported 1,885 clients. This support included providing 43,880 bed nights for 251 survivors in rapid rehousing, 555 clinical counseling sessions, immigration assistance for 312 survivors, and 3,343 referrals to other agencies. That last number emphasizes the fact that we cannot help everyone on our own. When we don’t have a way to help someone with a particular need, we work to connect them with other agencies that offer different services.

Ultimately, Sojourner House helps victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking in as many ways as we can. When those whom we have helped are comfortable doing so, we are proud to share their stories on our website. Their experiences motivate us to continue doing this important work. One of our clients has shared the following with us for our website:

“My children and I came to Sojourner House in 2012. We were on the streets, alone, with no family to support us, no money, or a home to live in. I thought my world had ended. I was broken, full of fear and despair, and unsure of our future. The pain and sadness I felt seeing my children suffer was indescribable. Through Sojourner House, we were able to stay in emergency housing, where we received support and affection, and my children received services to help them cope with their trauma. Little by little, the advocates at Sojourner House taught me how to love myself, value who I was, and most importantly, gave me hope for the future.”

We know that this woman is not alone. We know that many people in our society experience violence and abuse. And we know that the help we provide is crucial. I couldn’t be prouder to have arrived at this moment in my career, where I work at an organization with such a strong history of helping others. I’d like your readers to hear that woman’s words as my final summary of our success:

“My kids and I would not be where we are right now had it not been for Sojourner House. This is an organization that saves lives.”

OK, now let’s have some of Kate Bramson’s background. I met you while we were both staff writers at The Providence Journal. What areas of expertise did you have?

In 25 years as a journalist, I developed areas of expertise on a host of topics, including Rhode Island’s economy, education policy and practice, local and state government in multiple states, and social issues, including the effects of sexual assault, drunken-driving, and domestic violence on our society. I began honing my investigative reporting skills many years ago at an incredible publication — The Chicago Reporter — and early in my career, I worked as an editor, leading newsrooms in Hungary. In 16 years at The Providence Journal, I wrote about nearly every topic imaginable. Although I covered economic development issues in Rhode Island for my last 8 years there, I wrote quite a bit about sexual assault and domestic violence earlier in my career. When I reflect on which stories I’ve written and the impact they’ve had on people’s lives, the story I’m most proud of is an in-depth piece I wrote for The Providence Journal about a teen rape case in northern Rhode Island. “Rape in a small town” won the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence, from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School. The article became a teaching tool in schools across the country.

When you left the paper, you became Director of Policy for the Rhode Island Senate. That was a front-line position in state government, right?

Yes. As the Senate Policy Director, I drew on my extensive network to convene business and nonprofit stakeholders, elected leaders, practitioners, and policy analysts. I supervised 6 policy analysts, and we all worked with Senators and stakeholders and helped draft legislation to address Rhode Island’s most pressing education, health care, economic, and environmental challenges. I am proud to have led the development of a multi-year legislative package called “Building a More Vibrant Rhode Island.”

And what came next?

In Rhode Island’s nonprofit sector, I secured grant funding and advocated for the creation of more affordable housing and health equity initiatives. I then went to Brown University to work with Dr. Megan Ranney, who has long advocated for a public health approach to solving our country’s gun violence epidemic — an issue that resonates with me after my work covering homicides, suicides, and the impact of gun violence on local communities.