This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.
Alumna Becky Lee (’00) traces it all back to a lecture in the Women in Prison class she took during her junior year. The lecture that day was given by a U-M law professor whose practice included women imprisoned for murdering their abusive partners. The professor was describing a woman she’d defended, who had been repeatedly stabbed by her husband and then dragged screaming down the street by her hair. Many parts of the story horrified and upset Lee, but the part of the woman’s experience Lee couldn’t shake was that no one had stepped forward to help her.
Determined to do something to help, Lee started volunteering at the local women’s shelter when she was an undergraduate. She distributed information about community resources outside of the Ann Arbor courthouse, and she trained judges and police to work with survivors in a supportive way. She found a dearth of legal resources available for battered women to deal with custody, immigration, and protection orders, so she went to law school to help meet that need. Lee felt like she was making a difference, but she wanted to make more of an impact.
Frustrated, Lee became a contestant on the reality show Survivor in 2006.
“I was recruited to audition for the show on MySpace,” Lee says. “The show was popular, and I knew it would be a great platform for talking about domestic violence.”
As a contestant on the show, Lee balanced atop a pole her teammates carried through waist-high water. She stayed put inside a barrel as it bumped clumsily over logs, and she discussed domestic violence at every opportunity.
“I talked about domestic violence issues on the show from day one. Raising awareness was my objective, and it showed the other contestants who I was and gave them a reason to trust me. And after my season had ended, I got to use the follow-up media spots to talk about my work as a lawyer with domestic violence survivors. Sadly, one of the biggest issues surrounding domestic violence is that, unless someone has been murdered or suffers some kind of headline-grabbing tragedy, no one talks about it,” explains Lee. “So the chance to use the show’s national platform to talk about it was a big draw.”
Lee’s third-place finish garnered $85,000, which she used to start Becky’s Fund, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fight domestic violence proactively. She persuaded her season’s winner, Yul Kwon, to donate $25,000 of his prize money to the organization, and he joined the Becky’s Fund Board of Directors, too.
Becky’s Fund approaches the problem of domestic violence through a range of strategies and programs such as Men of Code, a mentoring program directed toward high school athletes, and Peace at Home, a program that partners with mental health professionals and the military. There’s also financial literacy support, which provides domestic violence survivors the practical budgeting and planning skills they need to create a safety plan to leave — and stay away from — their abusers. In this way, Becky’s Fund takes steps to prevent domestic violence rather than just react to it.
“One advantage to starting Becky’s Fund was getting to ask different questions. It wasn’t, why doesn’t she just leave, but why does he get away with abusing and how can we prevent that? What are kids being taught — or not being taught? What are they not being told? And coming up with different programs to get at the answers.”
Lee has not been personally affected by domestic violence, and she’s often asked why she’s so passionate about preventing it. “Everyone wants to be in love,” she explains. “It’s fundamental to being human. Domestic violence targets people when they are at their most vulnerable. It limits the person you can become, and, for already vulnerable groups, it’s very difficult to overcome.
“People often say, oh, I should have known,” Lee continues. “Because there are warning signs, and that person you sit next to at work, who you hang out with — they’re often just waiting for someone to ask, is everything okay? What’s going on?
“I want to help shape a world where people do ask these questions,” she concludes, “and then I want to help make a world where no one ever needs to.”