When Ben Wills ’14 was making his post-Vassar plans, he decided he wanted to spend a year doing some service-related work before applying to graduate school. Wills’ search led him to Juneau, Alaska, where he ran an intervention program for men who had assaulted their wives or girlfriends. He was hired last summer as a counselor at AWARE Inc. (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies), a shelter for women who are fleeing abusive partners.
“It was a bit unusual for a women’s crisis center to be running a program for batterers,” Wills says, “but Juneau is a small town, and the only such program had shut down at another agency, so AWARE took it over.”
Wills was the only male employee at AWARE, but administrators there believed it was important for a man to co-facilitate the group. “We wanted to ensure that the men in the program didn’t view it as a bunch of man-hating women telling them what to do,” he says.
Wills and his co-facilitator ran four 90-minute sessions a week, including one at a state prison outside Juneau. Many of the participants were mandated by a judge to complete the course as part of their sentences for domestic violence-related offenses. Others were required to do so by their parole or probation officers, but a few enrolled on their own. “About 90 percent of our clients were there by court order,” Wills says, “but a few had been separated from their partners after a violent incident, and that was enough for them to want to take a look at themselves and their behavior.”
Wills says he witnessed some success stories while he was there but saw quite a few failures as well. “The last week I was there, a man who had completed the program several years ago came back because he had aggressively assaulted his girlfriend and was back in jail,” he says. “You know that’s going to happen sometimes, but it’s hard not to take it personally when you hear guys you’d been working with in the program are continuing to use violence.”
Wills, who lives in Portland, OR, found the job at AWARE through a Catholic organization called Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. It was funded through the national AmeriCorps program. Because the organization was small, Wills performed various administrative duties in addition to his role as a facilitator for the batterers intervention program.
Being in a predominantly female work environment was an enjoyable experience, Wills says. “I learned a lot about myself as a man working at the shelter with 30 women,” he says. “One day I came in and the director’s baby was playing on the floor. You don’t see that kind of thing in most workplaces. It was a healthy environment.”
He credits his time at Vassar with inspiring him to work at an agency that is making a difference in people’s lives, especially women’s lives. “Vassar was where I became a feminist and became committed to social justice,” he says. “Had I gone to college somewhere else, I probably would not have been interested in anti-domestic violence work or working with men in group dialog to explore our socialization as men.”
Wills majored in cognitive science at Vassar but says he is still deciding whether to pursue an advanced degree in the field or go to law school. But he says he’s determined to look for ways to help women in crisis. “While I was in Juneau, I was a member of a sexual assault response team that accompanied the women at the hospital and stayed with them when police asked them questions. I plan to continue to do something like that, whatever I do next.”