November 02, 2018
Just over one year ago, the #MeToo movement went viral worldwide as a response to the high-profile sexual assault cases involving celebrities like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. The movement ignited a national conversation — and new levels of honesty about sexual violence, which recent data show affects 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men.

Social workers like Indira Henard, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), have been on the front lines of many of these conversations, learning to make adjustments and respond with compassion to the increasing number of survivors sharing their sexual violence experiences.

Henard, who earned her Master’s in Social Work from Catholic University’s National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) in 2016, shared some of her insights on #MeToo during a homecoming lecture for NCSSS alumni in October. Her address, entitled, “The Unheard Echoes of the #MeToo Era and the Implications for Social Workers,” was the inaugural event to commemorate the school’s 100th anniversary year.

“We are standing on 100 years of social work education and for me, that means something,” said Henard, who is the recipient of this year’s NCSSS alumni achievement award.

Henard began her talk by explaining the idea of trauma and how it can negatively affect a person’s life for years to come.

“The brain stores and recalls memories and common responses to trauma are involuntary,” she said. “When the nervous system is not restored after a traumatic event, it can take a number of years to really have [full functioning] come back. Seventy five percent of survivors have traumatic symptoms that lie dormant for a year.”

Part of the common misunderstanding related to sexual violence, Henard said, is a lack of basic understanding about what the term actually means.

“Before we can really begin to have a conversation about sexual violence, part of the issue we’ve seen in the media is people not really having the language or ability to talk about sexual violence,” said Henard. “There’s also an intergenerational affect where the experiences some women had 10, 20, or 30 years ago look a bit different now.”

She defined sexual violence as any unwanted sexual physical or verbal contact, whether that means harassment in the workplace or even rape. In the past year, Henard said she and other social workers have heard a record number of clients sharing stories of sexual violence they have experienced.

“It has been a watershed moment for sexual violence and a real reckoning,” she said. “When you, as a survivor, hear another sexual violence survivor willing to tell their story, bearing witness to that can give you the courage to tell your own story.”

The increase of disclosures has placed added pressure on social workers, according to Henard, requiring social workers to be more diligent about “active listening, honoring their clients’ truth, letting them know they are not alone, and telling them it’s not their fault.”

To be successful in this new era, Henard said social workers must practice accountability when it comes to negative actions or words.

“As social workers, we challenge injustice because that’s what we’re trained to do,” Henard said. “I’m a big believer in, ‘Yes, I’m going to call you out [for negative actions], but then I want to call you in to have a conversation about what it means to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Henard advises social workers to schedule a time for regular check-ins with their colleagues who may be feeling overwhelmed by the emotional labor of helping assault survivors, or being survivors themselves.

“In order to be effective social workers, we have to do our work on ourselves, whatever that may look like,” she said.  

Other implications of the #MeToo movement Henard has seen for social workers have to do with privacy concerns, as more clients are pursuing legal cases against those who have hurt them. Henard said DCRCC has had to draft new policies determining which information can or cannot be shared in legal cases.

Henard also spoke about the risks of social media, pointing out that a social worker always represents his or her agency and must behave accordingly.

Following her talk, Henard invited alumni present at the event to break into small groups to draft suggestions for how they would like to see the school grow and develop as it begins its next 100 years.

Henard’s lecture was introduced by Anne Degirolano, president of the NCSSS alumni board, who previously worked at DCRCC. Degirolano described Henard as a person with “a lot of wisdom, a lot of compassion, a lot of energy, and a good sense of humor.”

“She has taught me to listen and she has taught me to speak out as well,” Degirolano said.

Henard’s talk was followed by a presentation about the 100th anniversary of NCSSS by Laura Daughtery, baccalaureate program chair.