Every month we'll highlight a reader in the Great Lakes Bay region and learn more about them, their work, and their reading life. We'll also promote books and share a conversation related to a seasonal theme.
This month we're fortunate to learn about Shawn Schutt, the prevention education coordinator at The Underground Railroad in Saginaw. Shawn is passionate about education and helping people emerge from domestic violence situations.
Shawn at a local coffee shop working on the first episode of the “Touchy Subjects” podcast, which is a collaboration with other local domestic violence agencies.
How long have you worked at the Underground Railroad?
I have worked for the Underground Railroad for just over five years. When I started I worked as the Prevention Educator and was eventually promoted into my current role as the Prevention Education Coordinator.
Can you tell us more about your role as prevention education coordinator?
My role really includes a lot of different aspects. I work in our community to help prevent domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking. I go into middle and high schools teaching about consent and healthy relationships, working with bars to help them recognize signs of potential harassment and how to create a culture in their bar where those behaviors aren’t accepted, working with businesses to help them implement or update sexual harassment policies and training staff, working with politicians to make sure they understand certain impact of bills they are seeing might have on victims of domestic or sexual violence, training healthcare professionals on how to recognize warning signs of abuse and what they can do to help those people, and pretty much whatever else is needed in terms of creating a culture in our community where gender based violence isn’t acceptable.
What is the most rewarding thing about working at URR?
I would say my interactions with the people in our community. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have heard from people that because of my training they now have a name for what they experienced, or didn’t even know what they were experiencing was abuse. I have heard from people gratitude for making them feel included when so often they don’t. How I have helped them a little to decide to seek help or services for their experiences. Prevention work can often be really tough because the whole purpose is to change a community gradually and gradual change is hard to see in the short term so knowing there are actually people I have helped gives me the drive to keep going.
Is there something that people don't typically realize that the URR does?
Usually what I hear from people is they think we are just a shelter for women who have been abused. I don’t think, generally, people realize we offer so much more. For one, we are a shelter for anyone of any gender identity, not just women. We have safe exchange and visitation for people who need or want somewhere safe to exchange kids for the weekend or weeklong visit with their other parent or have been required by a court to be supervised while with their kid. We have court services to help victims. We have a 24-hour helpline. We help victims find housing options. We have therapy and counseling services for anyone who identifies as a victim, not just those staying in shelter. And, we have my job, that is working on trying to prevent these things from happening in the first place. We are often seen as simply being a shelter, when really offer our community so much more.
How can we support victims of domestic violence?
The three things I often tell people they can do to support victims and survivors is they need to genuinely listen to them, believe them, and we need everyone to realize preventing domestic violence is on all of us. If victims have no one to listen to them or they think no one will believe them, they are far less likely to seek help. Victims will often talk to their friends first. If their friends don’t listen or respond by saying things like “oh just leave them”, they have made it so that victim might not report the violence or might not seek out Underground Railroad for help. What I mean by it being all on us to prevent domestic violence, we are all part of our community. When we have belief systems in our community that allow groups of people to be marginalized, we allow for the people we have marginalized to be at a greater risk for violence. Until we start treating everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or nationality as our equals, we will continue to see domestic violence in our community.
What book(s) would you recommend for victims and/or people who want to know more about how to help victims?
I think the book I recommend most often is Breaking Out of the Man Box by Tony Porter. “Breaking Out of the Man Box” is a fantastic book that helps deconstruct how we view masculinity in our society, how some of the stereotypes we have for what we expect men to be harmful to everyone, and what we as men can do to help end domestic and sexual violence. There are two main reasons I recommend this book, particularly to men. One is it isn’t good enough for us men to say we support victims and we are a “good” man. Not assaulting or harming someone is the baseline, that is expected. If we want to be “good” men, we have to look at our behaviors and belief systems and make a conscious effort to listen and work alongside women to end gender based violence.
The second reason is more personal. Being a man, I have been taught what that means my whole life and not all of that has been helpful or beneficial. Sure, being strong is great. Sure it’s okay to want to be a protector of those we care about. But when those things are taught as we have to be strong no matter what, we can’t show emotion because that means we’re weak, if you can’t protect or provide for those you love you are a failure, it can be very harmful to men’s mental health. Redefining masculinity to be inclusive of all men and how they express themselves doesn’t, as I have heard people say, make men weaker. There is a certain amount of strength needed to expressing yourself how you want to, regardless of how others may view you, and more men need to learn that.
Has reading played a role in your life? If so, how?
I would say the biggest role reading has played in my life is allowing for me to learn about different people and learn to empathize with others. I will only ever be an expert in my story. I will never be able to hear or learn every other person’s stories or their life experiences, but I can read stories that resemble their stories. When stories are told, and that main character has lived experiences different from my own, looks different from me, or thinks differently than I do, I learn to place myself in their shoes and see the world, just for a while, from their perspective. Sure that world might be fictional but that fictional world is always going to be a reflection of the world we live in. Take the X-Men comics for example. Sure we don’t live in a world where mutants exist, but the stories of their struggles to be accepted for who they are in a society that views them as different and treats them poorly because of it I am sure resonates with a lot people. I don’t have the experiences of being treated differently because of how I look and I may never truly understand how that feels but, by reading stories that explore those things, I can build empathy and understanding for those who resonate with those struggles.
What activities do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work I enjoy playing board games with my friends, playing video games, watching sports, traveling to new places, and watching movies.
Back to books, what's your favorite genre or book?
Not so much probably what you are looking for but I love superhero comics. If I had to pick one graphic novel I liked the most, it would be The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. “The Killing Joke” gives one of my favorite lines in any book, which is “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day”. This quote is essentially the whole point of this novel, at least to the Joker. He wants to prove that everyone is just one bad day away from being just like he is. This story gives an understanding of how someone who is well meaning can end up in a situation where they become like the Joker. But what the reader, and not the Joker, realizes is that Batman also has experienced that “one bad day” and instead of being like the Joker, becomes the hero he is. We all have bad days, but it is what we do from those bad days that help define who we are.
Side note: In his role at the Underground Railroad, Shawn partnered with local colleagues from Shelterhouse and the Bay Area Women’s Center to create a podcast. Here's what he says about that. The podcast is something myself and two colleagues started in January of 2020. We had no idea that a pandemic was coming our way at the time but we started it as a way for the three agencies to collaborate together and be a different way for us to get information out. The podcast is titled “Touchy Subjects” and we started it to be a way to have more discussions about preventing domestic and sexual violence but it has evolved into discussions on preventing violence as a whole.
The podcast can found here: bit.ly/touchysubspod or on any podcast streaming app.
To learn more about The Underground Railroad, visit the website.