As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Melody Gross has long been an advocate for other people who have gone through what she’s experienced, especially Black women.
In spring 2020, Gross took the logical next step and launched her company, Courageous SHIFT, which takes a three-pronged approach to fighting back against domestic violence. Through the organization, Gross offers consulting services for employers to recognize when domestic violence is happening and support those experiencing it, and in the Courageous SHIFT Circle, she offers a space for the survivors themselves to help navigate their exit from an abusive situation.
Finally, in fall 2020, she partnered with local grassroots organization Sanctuary in the City to launch the Eva Lee Parker Fund, which helps Black women with immediate emergency funding needs as they flee abusive situations.
We caught up with Gross as she reached six months running the Eva Lee Parker Fund and a year running Courageous SHIFT to discuss how helping others has helped her.
Queen City Nerve: Why launch Courageous SHIFT with this three-pronged approach?
Melody Gross: The reason I started Courageous SHIFT was because I felt like you can’t just solve one problem using one way. There are so many other ways to address a particular situation, and if my goal is to end domestic violence, so I had to take different approaches.
One is direct: working with survivors. The other one is working with the people who work with them, and also who love them, things like that, so that’s the consulting side. And then the fund is immediate needs. We can talk about long-term stuff and that’s great and that’s awesome but we also need to focus on the immediate needs of, women in particular, but everyone who’s experiencing domestic violence.
What does the workplace consulting aspect look like?
Melody Gross: On the consulting side, I offer staff training around recognizing the signs of domestic violence, the resources available for companies as well as survivors, how to navigate that, situations of workplace violence, as well as how to support survivors too, and what that looks like.
Oftentimes when you have a situation of someone experiencing domestic violence, the workplace may not have policies in place to address that. Even if you’re a smaller company, you can still have a policy in place. It may not be as full and robust as a Fortune 500 company, but there’s still things that you can do, there’s still resources that you can use.
So the training, we talk about warning signs, what to say and what not to say is super important. We talk about workplace security; are there measures that you can take to ensure the safety of all staff? And then also talking about why it’s important to have these policies and programs in place because of the financial impact that it has on the companies.
Domestic violence costs companies billions of dollars a year, $8.3 billion per year, and that’s because of health-care costs, security costs, hiring someone if you fire someone who is experiencing domestic violence — it costs more to retrain someone and rehire someone. So by addressing it and having policies and steps in place you reduce that financial risk as well as a company.
That also manifests as abusers trying to call a survivors’ coworkers in an attempt to manipulate them as well, right?
Melody Gross: That is definitely a big thing, with abusers who will absolutely reach out to companies and the places where people work. That happened to me; he actually came to my job and told them that I was arrested and things like that.
When you have a policy in place and you welcome the conversations around domestic violence in the workplace, you then have an employee who says, “This is what I’m experiencing,” and so then you can say, “OK this is how we support.” and that can absolutely mean [telling the abuser], “You are not allowed on this premises. You are not allowed to call. We don’t care what you have to say.” And if they continually, repeatedly do that, then you can have law enforcement involved. I’m not a huge fan of having law enforcement involved, but it is a step that we do sometimes have to take, because it’s a safety measure.
If your staff is trained in domestic violence, they’ll recognize that this is a person who is an abuser, and they are using abusive tactics to destroy the reputation of the person that they’ve been victimizing. So what can I do about that? I can not answer their calls. I can let them know that these calls are unwarranted and if you keep calling, I’m going to get law enforcement involved. That may or may not scare them off but it’s still something that protects the staff and the person that is experiencing it, and the company as a whole.
You launched the support group amid the pandemic. How has that been working out?
Melody Gross: During COVID, the effect has been twofold. At some points there’s been an increase in calls needing support, and there’s also been a decrease too, because people are too scared to actually ask for help. I worked with Sanctuary in the City, which is a local nonprofit out here, a grassroots organization, and I said, “Well I want to try to do some programming around helping with survivors.”
We decided on the Circle, which is an opportunity for any Black woman or femme who’s experiencing any form of domestic violence — I want to make that clear, any form of domestic violence beyond just the physical — to come in and really just hold space for them, because you’re still just beginning to navigate the life as people experiencing abuse.
That shows up in many different ways. So the Courageous Survivor Circle is an opportunity to gather together, to hold space, to process emotions and feelings, things like that which we can’t often do with someone who does not understand where we came from or what we’ve experienced.
Even pre-pandemic, you had spoken a lot about how cultural norms make it hard for people to report, whether it’s due to the stigmatic aspect in society or that someone has been taught that what happens in the home stays there. How does Courageous SHIFT play a role in pushing back against that?
Melody Gross: That’s the thing, we have to build spaces where people feel comfortable with seeking help. To be clear, I don’t just mean for the people who are experiencing it, I also mean for the people who are perpetrating it.
We can absolutely help survivors and victims and get them to safety and get them the emotional support, but we also need to have programs and systems in place so that people can say, I am out of control and I feel like I am going to harm someone. I need help.
So when we remove the stigma around domestic violence and around abuse and we understand the different forms that it comes in — because it’s not just physical, it’s emotional, it’s financial, it’s spiritual, it’s reproductive health, there’s reproductive abuse, as well — when we have programs and systems in place to help everyone involved, then we can see some changes. Then we can see some shifts.
How did your own experience inspire the launch of the fund?
Melody Gross: Two things happened: The Eva Lee Parker Fund is named after my paternal grandmother, who was also a survivor of domestic violence, and when I think of that experience of her being a young wife with four children in the ’60s and ’70s trying to navigate abuse by the sole breadwinner, there was no way out. While she was relatively educated in terms of she had a high school degree, who is going to help and take on and support a Black woman with four children? It was just not going to happen. I know in my spirit that one of the reasons she did not leave was because of financial abuse; he controlled the money that came into the home.
My experience with that was a little different. The person that I was with, they didn’t contribute evenly, they didn’t keep a job all the time, there was financial abuse in terms of not paying bills, not keeping employment.
And then something that people don’t think about is, luckily I worked a salary job, because if I worked an hourly job, the stress of dealing with the abuse and sometimes having to call out sick, because there were absolutely times that I had to call out sick, and not because I was physically sick but because I was emotionally drained. That’s another form of emotional abuse: stopping the victim from earning a living.
The other thing was, there was an instance where he broke into my home and broke my window. Yes, I can go to my landlord and say, “Hey, he was abusing me and he broke the window, and they’re going to say, “Oh ok, so that will be $270,” and I work part time and am a single parent, and I just did not have the funds for that.
I made a way thankfully, but that isn’t the case often; you don’t necessarily have the funds to pay for things. I’ve gotten a lot of requests for locks on doors being changed or broken windows or broken doors or other things.
While you may have renters insurance, that’s not necessarily covered, and you need to fix it immediately.
So things like that are why I created the fund, because in an emergency, immediate needs come up.
How else does your lived experience help you to help others?
Melody Gross: A lot of it has to do with the emotional aspect after you leave. I talk a lot about life after abuse, because you can be safe afterwards, you can be physically safe, but emotional aspects come up. Even now sometimes, I’m years out, however, if I do something in the news, if I have an interview like this, especially if it’s a visual, on-TV thing, I’m cautious for the next week or two after that. I’m looking behind me and making sure that I’m not taking the same route.
There’s so much stuff that comes up afterwards that we don’t think about. Navigating relationships after abuse, and not just intimate relationships, but relationships with other people. I’ve lost friendships because there’s a lot of victim blaming, and that happens.
And so for me, I really hone in on the life after abuse and the emotional wellness around it, because that is such a huge factor. We have to address what happened to us, so I absolutely encourage people to go to therapy. You are retraining your brain to feel like something that someone told you was absolutely wrong, and that takes a lot of work. That takes a lot of self-thought, it takes a lot of patience for yourself to say, “I know I experienced this, and this person was wrong.” The person that I dealt with absolutely told me that no one would love me, my parents didn’t love me, things like that.
You have to constantly reframe those things in your mind. If you’re trying to do that alone, it’s harder, but if you’re doing it with someone, which is why I became a life coach, because I felt like that extra support is very much needed.
Are you still helped by the support group despite being years out yourself?
Melody Gross: Absolutely. The more I’m able to help others, the more I’m able to help myself. There’s still things that come up, but I have the tools now to support myself emotionally, mentally, spiritually, even physically. The saying goes, “As I heal myself, I heal others,” and I keep that in mind, so the more I’m able to help other women heal the more I’m able to heal myself.
This work has brought you face to face with a reality of what must feel like an overwhelming need in the community. What’s that like for you?
Melody Gross: On one side it’s been super rewarding to be able to offer immediate support to someone who honestly is in danger. That’s been great. What has not been great, or is challenging or heart-wrenching sometimes, is not being able to give the full amount that they need, because we want to make sure that we’re able to disperse enough funds for everyone. So that’s the challenge.
Here’s the thing: We are based in Charlotte and I’ve only ever done press for this in Charlotte, and yet I am getting requests from across the country. I’ve gotten requests in Maryland, in Mississippi, in Georgia, and just so many random places and I’m just like, “How is this even possible?” I love that it’s getting out there, but it also makes me sad that there are so many women, Black women in particular, who are in need. They need to get out of these situations, and they need that support.
It’s been two-fold. It’s been this moment of, I’m glad I can provide these funds, but also, we need more. More, more, more. Until we can put systems in place so that Black women or anyone in particular is not experiencing domestic violence and intimate-partner violence, there will be a need. And I don’t want to be needed, to be clear, I don’t want to be needed. I want this to end.
How do you grapple with the never-ending nature of this work?
Melody Gross: For me, I definitely take it one step at a time. If I can help one person get to safety or even acknowledge that they’re experiencing abuse, one person, I’m fine with that. That is a wave effect; I’m helping them and if they have children, then those children are helped. Their friends are helped, because their friends know how to deal with them and talk to them and help.
So for me it’s like, OK, I can’t save the world but I can save the world but I can save those who come to me.
You can donate to the Eva Lee Parker Fund through the Courageous SHIFT website.
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