4-2Across from the Lebanon’s Colburn Park, nestled in the neighborhoods just where things begin to still and the road seems to take on an air of privacy, there is a small sign addressed “WISE” in front of a gray building with lavender trim and a ramp winding up the side. This is the Women’s Information Service (WISE), and this is where Lebanon fights domestic and sexual violence.

What began as a grassroots organization offering support and employment training to new mothers quickly transformed into one of the most determined organizations to end violence against women, children, and men after a shocking number of women reported accounts of domestic and sexual violence. WISE founders joined the New Hampshire Coalition and Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to install a 24-hour crisis hotline, one of the many services WISE provides and for which the organization is most known.

WISE Executive Director Peggy O’Neil

WISE Executive Director Peggy O’Neil

“Most women can relate to an incident of violence or harassment that has happened to them. It is one of the main things women have in common even if we don’t have anything else in common with each other,” says WISE Executive Director Peggy O’Neil. According to a report released by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January, one in five women are sexually assaulted in college.

Most rapes that occur – roughly 60 percent, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network – are not reported. In addition to disbelief, self-blaming, and the possible backlash that keeps victims from reporting assaults, researchers at the National Research Council have found trouble putting the numbers together for how often these crimes are committed because of the variations in the definition of rape.

“We get caught up in the language that we use. Sexual violence is any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone’s will and encompasses a range of offenses, including unwanted touch or communication where one person is inappropriately using their power over you,” says O’Neil. “The term ‘violence’ is really speaking to the whole spectrum of acts and language that women often endure – whether it is inappropriate comments, unwanted touch, getting groped on the subway, and being sexually assaulted.”

Jess Newkirk, WISE Program Advocate, reminding everyone that WISE listens and believes.

Jess Newkirk, WISE Program Advocate, reminding everyone that WISE listens and believes.

In response to a widespread spotlight on sexual violence and campus rape, WISE is among a global movement to stop violence against women, including the White House Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Violence, the federal Campus SaVE Act of 2013, and the celebrity-endorsed social media campaigns #yesallwomen and #BringBackOurGirls.

“We believe and have always believed that violence against women is a community issue. And the community has been a big part, a partner. As an organization, we can effect so much change when we can engage more people in discussion and then positive action to change it,” says O’Neil. “Just the sheer number of survivor stories that have been shared with advocates at WISE over the years, we have an organizational knowledge and wisdom. We just want to share that knowledge.”

WISE has been in service for more than 40 years, supporting 700 to 1,100 people a year.

“Overall, we have looked at the increased media attention, social media attention, and the debates as conversation which is powerful. What can help in preventing domestic and sexual violence is healthy relationships and respectful communication between people, and when it comes to sexual violence, to learn the language and tools of consent,” O’Neil says.

WISE has developed a Prevention Education Program that offers comprehensive, healthy relationship classes to the middle and high schools in the Upper Valley, usually through the school’s health program. The multi-session programs for students in grades eight through 10 can include anywhere from three to five classes. In addition, WISE provides professional training to local law enforcement and medical staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth Medical School. WISE also works with other social service organizations.

“Lebanon is a very supportive community. It is very accessible. We wanted to have a permanent, physical presence in this area so that people could come here and they could participate,” O’Neil says. “With our physical, visible presence in Lebanon, we can start to break down some of the stigma and the silence that is often associated with sexual violence. With this location, we want to invite people here to have those conversations.”

WISE is located at 38 Bank Street in Lebanon. Learn more at http://www.wiseuv.org/.

by Gabriel Varela