Western student and CASAS advocate Justine Dombrowski sat down with a Western Front reporter to answer questions about herself and what advocacy means to her.
Consultation and Sexual Assault Support (CASAS) offers confidential support and advocacy for those who have experienced violence. CASAS advocates support survivors’ needs, whether that means connecting them to other resources, just listening or helping them report or purse protections orders. They offer academic support, and can coordinate between professors, the financial aid office, University Residences and other groups at Western to support survivors.
Dombrowski is a senior from Los Alamos, New Mexico. She is pursuing a major in economics as well as a Fairhaven self-designed major in critical education and advocacy in a culture of violence. She has completed nearly 300 hours of advocacy work. In her free time she likes to backpack, hike, run and play with her dog Rowan. She is currently training for a marathon.
Consultation and Sexual Assault Services (CASAS) is located in Old Main 585. You can reach CASAS at 360-650-3700 and find information on their website.
Q: What inspired you to become a CASAS advocate?
A: “I want to be the person that I wish I had.”
Dombrowski said she struggled with feeling like there was a lot of information on campus about support for survivors, but it could be difficult to know what to do with that information when you need it.
Q: Does advocacy fit in with your program of study?
A: “Yes — it is my program of study. I did advocacy for several years before designing my Fairhaven major.”
Dombrowski said she wants education and advocacy to work together. She said she designed her program of study in Fairhaven with those two things in mind.
Q: What are some of your roles/responsibilities as an advocate?
A: “Being someone who will listen.”
Dombrowski said CASAS takes a multi-prong approach to advocacy. The first step is asking someone if they are safe and figuring out how to keep that person safe. The second step is emotional support: listening to and validating survivors. And third, sharing information with survivors and letting them know that there are resources that can help them. Dombrowski said she does presentations on prevention and resources for survivors in classes on campus and workplaces around Bellingham, as well.
Q: Has the experience of being an advocate shaped your perspective of the issue of sexual assault?
A: “Definitely. It’s showed me the diversity of ways power can be used to exploit people, and how the effects of violence are different for every person.”
Dombrowski said advocacy has made her more aware of the limitations of resources. There are holes in services, especially for transgender and undocumented people, as well as men. She said the common narrative of sexual assault is that it happens between heterosexual couples and to white women. Being an advocate, she has become aware of the large and diverse demographic of people who are affected by sexual violence.
Q: Is the position ever stressful or emotionally trying?
A: “It’s the most difficult part of advocacy for me. I’m a very emotional person so it’s hard to set those boundaries. I usually see people during the worst time in their lives, and I don’t always get to have closure which is very difficult.”
The work is challenging, but the best things in life are challenging, Dombrowski said. She said having a team of advocates and senior support from CASAS coordinators like Michelle Langstraat and Jon Dukes is important to her. Dombrowski said while she puts a lot of hours into advocacy in the office, she also puts a lot of time into processing everything once she gets home.
Q: What is your favorite part of being a CASAS advocate?
A: “Helping people see that they can take time off, they can find their healing time, they can find these resources. I’m not solving anyone’s trauma but I am helping them recognize a pathway forward to healing.”
Dombrowski said the most important part of healing is making sure survivors feel like they have control of their lives again, as situations of sexual violence can make people feel like they have lost control. Dombrowski said advocates support survivors in many ways, such as talking with their professors about assignment extensions or missed classes, or talking with financial aid if a survivor needs to drop a class.
Q: What changes, personally, do you wish to see in the future in terms of CASAS/sexual assault and prevention resources on campus?
A: “I want the Peer Advocacy Program to gain a bigger standing on campus so that people not only know our name but also know what we do.”
Dombrowski said since the Peer Advocacy Program hasn’t been around very long, gaining a bigger standing on campus is important. She said she would also like to see CASAS get a 24-hour, on-call service. She hopes the program can diversify and expand to include more multilingual advocates who can help serve a more diverse group of students.
Q: What do you feel like CASAS/Western is doing particularly well?
A: “We have a resource where students can talk to students. Survivors can talk to a person who understands the student experience. When it’s a student survivor talking to a student advocate, there’s less of power difference in between people.”
Dombrowski said that having different groups focus on different aspects of the issue, such as CASAS and WEAVE (Western’s Empowerment and Violence Education program), is very effective as they all work together under the larger umbrella that is Prevention and Wellness Services.
Q: Is there anything else you wish to share about yourself or your experience with advocacy?
A: “That advocacy is something anybody can do in their everyday life. Supporting people is, you know, just listening. All it takes is just saying, ‘Are you okay? How are you doing?’”
Dombrowski said she is focusing on “meeting people where they’re at,” meaning wherever a person is in their specific healing process; anger, grief, action, etc. Dombrowski wants to acknowledge that and allow people time to process their mental state before trying to move them onto the next steps of healing. She said trying to do this in all aspects of her life has been fulfilling and has fundamentally altered the way she sees the world.