Q&A: Katherine TePas of Alaska’s Choose Respect Campaign
This is the first in a series of articles for National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, highlighting statewide efforts to combat family and sexual violence.
The biggest state in the union, Alaska has a domestic violence rate to match its size: a recent survey found that 58.6 percent of Alaska women had experienced domestic or sexual abuse in their lifetimes, more than twice the national rate.
Katherine TePas is the head of Choose Respect, a governor’s initiative that spearheads efforts to stop domestic violence, strengthen families and protect children. TePas’s job has included everything from talking to constituents, creating an anti-violence curriculum for young teens, advising the governor on policy, and sending out thrice-yearly resource packets to a growing number of civilian leaders in Alaska’s many far-flung rural towns. For the past several years, Choose Respect also has inspired over 150 Alaska communities to call attention to the issue of domestic violence at marches and rallies held the last Thursday in March.
TePas spoke to NCFY about promoting respect, educating community members and working with the criminal justice system.
NCFY: What is the main issue that Choose Respect was created to address in Alaska?
TePas: We’re trying to change the social norms. Trying to bring back the norm of respect, and valuing human life and dignity. I say “bring back” because when I work with our native populations, every single one of their traditional beliefs includes respect.
It takes time to accomplish this, so keeping people involved over the long haul is so important. We’re trying to create a sense of urgency for everyone in the state around domestic violence: “We need you, you can do something about this.”
And actual service delivery is one of our biggest challenges. We have to increase offender accountability, increase self-reporting and bystander intervention.
NCFY: How do your resource boxes and the March events achieve these goals?
TePas: We have a lot of resources in our larger hub communities, but if we’re just engaging in our urban centers, we’re not engaging all Alaskans.
Inspired by Community Cafes, a popular model for guided conversations that strengthen families, we developed a toolkit to help communities have a dialogue around domestic violence and protective factors. The resource boxes include that toolkit, as well as books, brochures, signs and information for “positive parenting.”
The March event is just a way to bring all these ideas together in public. We chose the last Thursday so it can lead into April, which is sexual abuse awareness month and child abuse awareness month. And the state legislature is in session by then, so it gives legislators a chance to participate in Juneau.
NCFY: What do you hear from constituents who contact the Choose Respect office?
TePas: Many of the concerns they express have to do with the criminal justice system. In Alaska we have numerous remote communities with zero law enforcement present, for example. Troopers are stationed in one hub community and may serve more than 50 surrounding communities, and they often have to fly or take a snow machine to respond—plus deal with the weather. So from these conversations, we’ve increased our number of Village Public Safety Officers. We went from having 47 officers in the state to now having almost 100.
Several of our recent crime bills included language based on conversations with constituents as well, things like changing “prostitution” to “sex trafficking” and putting more emphasis on victims’ rights. We can’t yet have a domestic violence advocate in every community, but Choose Respect is a way for local voices to be heard, get help and make a difference.