51 percent of Anchorage women have experienced violence from either an intimate partner or through sexual assault. That chilling number — and several more — are displayed prominently on the website for Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, an Anchorage domestic violence shelter more commonly known as AWAIC.
It’s an uncomfortable reality, one which AWAIC’s publicly facing mission has addressed since 1977. Many domestic abuse shelters are tucked away in undisclosed locations, but AWAIC is thoughtfully and defiantly not hiding. The current shelter, opened in 1983, is a statement, part of the city fabric, just blocks from downtown. Though staff adheres to strict security and privacy measures, the shelter feels warm and recognizable, providing a safe space without the barbed wire or fencing.
“Violence is not something people want to talk about,” said Suzi Pearson, AWAIC’s executive director. “[The founders] wanted this to be a publicly known location because they wanted this community to talk about domestic violence and to take ownership for the fact that we needed a shelter.”
As director, Pearson leads 48 staff members who help protect and support women in crisis. Her message of prevention, though, can only be realized at a citywide level. Violence, she says, is “part of our lives. Let’s find a way to change that.”
“We want to be a voice”
AWAIC, the state’s largest emergency shelter, has grown significantly in momentum and mission. Today, the nonprofit provides broad support services ranging from crisis hotlines to legal advocacy to culturally considerate housing alternatives.
Women are welcomed regardless of circumstances and provided a bed for 30 days, though extensions are permitted. During that month, AWAIC staff members help alleviate any crises in the women’s life — substance abuse, family pressure, employment, homelessness — and build a personalized safety and housing plan so women can safely take their next step.
The need is supreme. AWAIC’s 52-bed facility ran at or over capacity more than half of last year (as it has for nine of the last 10 fiscal years), while providing housing for 436 women and 245 children. A planned expansion will add 12 more beds; good news, but not enough.
“We don’t always want to be this shelter that has emergency beds,” Pearson said, addressing prevention versus treatment. “We want to be a voice that says violence is not okay in our community.”
KRUA to career
Now in her 21st year with AWAIC, Pearson is clearly passionate about her work. She started part time at the front desk shortly after graduating from UAA and knew, from the day she met the executive director, she’d serve in same role someday.
UAA was a ‘someday’ concept as well. “As I transitioned into leadership roles, I knew I wanted to get another degree but I just thought that’s not going to be possible,” she explained. She credits Augie Hiebert for the support to realize that goal.
Pearson first met Hiebert — an Alaska media pioneer, known for launching the state’s first radio and television stations — while serving as program manager at KRUA. Hiebert focused his retirement years on supporting young Anchorage media dreamers, including the student squad at KRUA trying to take their campus AM project to citywide FM dials. Years after KRUA went live on-air, Pearson and Hiebert stayed in touch.
One day, at their semi-regular lunch catch-ups, conversation shifted to Pearson’s future plans. She tepidly admitted yes, she’d like to get a graduate degree, but couldn’t pay yet. Hiebert wanted to help cover the costs. “He did that for a lot of different folks in different ways,” Pearson noted.
With support from Hiebert, Pearson enrolled in UAA’s Master of Public Administration program, taking a few classes per semester while working full time. The advanced degree, paired with her years of dedication, made her an ideal fit for executive director in 2009.
“Everyone can do something”
Today, Pearson serves as the face of a meaningful mission. Promoting AWAIC to community stakeholders and collaborating on abuse prevention, she says, is “really a significant, powerful part of my job, and the part I like most.” (Pearson is also secretary for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and governance chair of Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault).
Though the big picture is always in mind, she wants to talk to you as well. As a journalism major, she knows anyone can share the story and report the facts.
“Not everybody has to do everything, but everyone can do something,” she said. “Whenever you see something happening, you can make a choice.” Stop and call the police. Find someone to help address the situation. Talk about violence proactively in your daily life. “There are things our community can do to stop domestic violence and become personally involved in the issue.”
According to Pearson, at least nine percent of Anchorage women experienced domestic violence within the past 12 months. That’s thousands of neighbors who need resources and support. These stark statistics keep Pearson motivated. “I always felt that I had an important part to play,” she said.
Often, when she tells someone where she works, they assume it’s a harsh duty-bound slog. Pearson strongly disagrees. Yes, many women arrive with challenging stories of terrible abuse, but Pearson has seen the other side. “They have incredible successes and they achieve so much and work so hard,” she said of participants at AWAIC. “I have a staff that supports them 100 percent and does everything to make them successful.
“The people I work with are incredible, fabulous, brilliant, supportive … They do amazing work; it’s empowering and inspiring to watch what they do.”
“For me, it’s a great place to be.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement