Two Words That Can Change a Life
“You Matter.” Those two words changed Elaine Mayumi Whitefeather’s life when she thought she hit rock bottom.
Elaine’s first memories of surviving childhood abuse, racial violence and sexual assault traced her back to when she was only three years old. Her perpetrators included her own father, people from a religious institution and strangers. She grew up during the height of racism when being of mixed races (Black, Native American, and Japanese) meant not being treated as an equal in America. Elaine noted that she was 10% white, but no one addressed this fact and treated her as a third-class citizen. She was told that God didn’t listen to her prayers, so she learned to rely solely on herself every time she faced any abuse or discrimination.
Elaine recalled a day when she was molested, raped and severely injured by multiple men. When she eventually stumbled home with two broken feet, her mom told her to not let her father see her in such a disgraceful state. “I learned to put makeup on that day,” she said. “I never learned to put on makeup to look pretty. I wore makeup to cover up my bruises.” There was no one to comfort Elaine or to simple tell her that what was happening was wrong.
When Elaine was 20-years-old, she had 33 arrests and a couple of failed suicide attempts. “I was afraid of living,” said Elaine. “Death meant the end of it all. No more fear. Death was peace to me.” However appealing the idea may have been, suicide was not an option for her on the day she decided to drown herself in a river.
Elaine said she felt someone touch her shoulders as she was walking into the riverbed. She turned around and saw a white man with tears in his eyes. He told her the two words that planted a seed in her heart. “You matter.” It was then that she realized that she had to value herself in order to save herself.
The man she met that day happened to be a visiting professor. He called a professor from her university and told him that there was a girl with a broken heart and a wounded spirit that they need to support. He built a bridge for her to get out of the darkness. It was from there that her healing journey began.
Decades later, Elaine Mayumi Whitefeather has worked tirelessly in human service work, dedicating a majority of her time in the field of domestic violence. Elaine received a standing ovation after her speech at the Communities Empowered for Systems Change, A Peer-Led Institute presented by the Culturally Responsive Domestic Violence Network.
CPAF took part in this two-day gathering in Berkeley, CA made possible by the Blue Shield of California Foundation. CPAF and other agencies exchanged their experiences and ideas in working with marginalized communities. The foundation launched the Culturally Responsive Domestic Violence Network in 2012 to support underserved communities that are often overlooked.
Stories like Elaine’s resonated with a majority of those in the audience, as we were reminded that roughly 80% of the attendees were domestic violence survivors themselves. “Social justice always starts by those who were affected,” Elaine said. “Domestic violence isn’t something you get over. Your power is in your pain. Your pain will lead you to your greatest purpose if you follow it all the way through.”
Elaine’s life exemplifies how a person can transform his/her negative experiences into opportunities of empowerment. We at CPAF came out of the meeting re-energized and re-focused. We are here to continue our work to encourage and build bridges in support of our API families. Our goal is to have more survivors like Elaine share their stories and help end domestic violence in their communities.