Social activist and domestic violence survivor Beverly T. Gooden hopes her Bolt Bag will make it easier for victims to leave abusive situations.
- Posted on Jul 10, 2017
Beverly T. Gooden is a nationally recognized social activist and advocate for domestic violence survivors. A survivor herself, Gooden has been a guest on Dr. Phil, CNN, NBC Nightly News and more, educating the masses on domestic violence and how to better support survivors.
But just a few years ago, no one knew Gooden’s survival story. In fact, she only felt empowered to share her story for the first time on Twitter in September 2014. Footage had just been released of then-Baltimore Ravens football star Ray Rice in an elevator, punching his then-fiancée Janay in the face, knocking her unconscious, and dragging her out of the elevator. The response in the media and on Twitter to the footage and to Janay marrying Rice soon after the assault was disheartening for Gooden.
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“On Twitter, the conversation was why would [Janay] stay with him,” Gooden tells Guideposts.org. “Almost no one was asking, ‘Why would he hit her?’” The framing of the conversation put the burden on Janay Rice to not be a victim of domestic violence instead of on Ray Rice to not be an abuser. The victim-blaming stirred Gooden to action. “I remembered an article I read years ago that spoke about how 70% of women experience violence once they leave [an abusive relationship]. I searched for that article and tweeted it with the hashtag #WhyIStayed.”
Within hours, #WhyIStayed went viral on Twitter with thousands of abuse survivors sharing their complicated stories about why they didn’t leave abusive relationships. Gooden shared her reasons, as well. From needing their husband’s health insurance to treat a chronic illness to needing their abusive spouse in order to legally remain in the country, the reasons the hashtag participants provided showed the world it’s not so simple just to get up and leave.
“I didn't have anything of my own,” Gooden says of why she stayed. “When the violence started, it was almost like I couldn't figure out how to leave.” She says she shared a joint bank account with her husband, had no credit and no transportation of her own and was totally financially dependent on him. After talking to a counselor at a domestic violence shelter on the phone, she created a safety plan, making copies of her driver’s license and bank account information and keeping clothes, deodorant, toothpaste, and other toiletries in a bag she put together by saving a few dollars out of the money her husband would give her for groceries or gas. She stored her purchases over a 2-month period in closets and in a small storage unit she was renting.
Finally, in 2010, she escaped, staying at a domestic violence shelter for a week and relying on the kindness of a landlord who let her pay once she got her first check from a new job two weeks later.
Though she was grateful to escape her situation without further harm, Gooden’s story isn’t every survivor’s story.
“You leave and then what?” she asked the critics of domestic violence survivors. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men are survivors of intimate partner violence, and the majority of survivors are young women ages 18-24. Without resources, family support and protection, leaving an abusive relationship can be very challenging, physically and psychologically.
“The victim shouldn’t have to defend their actions; they’re the victim,” Gooden says. “They had a crime committed against them, not the other way around.” The hashtag she created started a social movement, giving these survivors a feeling of safety in numbers to push back against the narrative that they were in anyway responsible for the abuse they suffered. TIME magazine named #WhyIStayed one of the top 10 Twitter hashtags that started a conversation in 2014 and HLN named it one of 8 hashtags that changed the world.
But Gooden wasn’t done making a difference just yet. In October 2014, her non-profit foundation for survivors, the Ella Mae Foundation, started producing a product called the Bolt Bag. She hopes this bag, full of clothes, toiletries and necessities a survivor would need should they have to leave an abusive situation quickly, can make leaving an abuser a little bit more feasible.
“The hardest part [of leaving] was making this bag,” Gooden says, fearing being caught with an escape bag, having to acknowledge that she was in a situation she needed to escape and acknowledging all the little things like clothes and toiletries that a survivor wouldn’t think to pack when they’re trying to get to safety. “If I could make this bag [for other survivors], you can remove this one worry, one obstacle.”
At first, Gooden was using her own money to the put the bags together, and saving her toiletries from hotel stays. Then, a year later, Investigation Discovery and Glamour magazine honored her as their 2015 Inspire a Difference: Everyday Hero with a $5,000 grant and 500 pre-made Bolt Bags to support her cause. Her bags went viral and Gooden and her mother have now made and shipped out nearly 1,000 bags to survivors across the country.
“I want people to know that…no matter who you are, you can get a Bolt Bag,” Gooden says. “I don't ask for identifying information. You can give me a fake name and a PO Box, I'll send it to you, or a friend's address. You can be a woman, a man, trans, an immigrant--it doesn't matter. I'll send you a Bolt Bag, no questions asked.”