Former Fellow Sheerine Alemzadeh Helps Survivors of Gender-Based Violence Harness Their Leadership Skills

During her fellowship with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Sheerine provided legal assistance to survivors of work-place violence in low-wage jobs, representing child care, factory and restaurant workers in claims for sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and retaliation. “One of the things that really stood out was the incredible difficulty that survivors in even the most egregious situations had in availing themselves of legal services,” Sheerine recalls. “People talk a lot about systemic barriers, such as a lack of access to attorneys, but what struck me as a root cause was the many cultural barriers to coming forward as a survivor.”

Sheerine received calls from survivors who would recount traumatic events but decline to provide their names and never call back. Survivors would decide not to pursue strong legal claims because they did not want their family or community to learn what had happened. Sheerine began to see this stigma as the biggest barrier to accessing support. “So that’s where I started to focus my attention, on trying to dismantle the culture of shame and addressing it directly,” she says.

With that goal in mind, Sheerine, while finishing up her clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Karla Altmayer, then a staff attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, cofounded HTA, in 2016.

“The organization’s mission begins with changing the cultural narrative of survivorship so that people who experience gender-based violence connect with the leadership skills, resourcefulness and creativity they exercised to survive and see themselves as experts on gender-based violence,” Sheerine says. “The second aim is to build collective power, to create a shared experience in which survivors heal together and organize activist campaigns grounded in their lived experiences.”

At the heart of HTA’s approach is an eight-week, three-part program for survivors of gender-based violence called Healing Generations. Participants learn about the program through community outreach from HTA, as well as through a nominations process where survivor service agencies recommend clients with an interest and readiness in using their experiences to ignite change in their communities. Led by the nonprofit’s four full-time staff members and volunteers from allied organizations, the program begins with a look at the underlying causes of gender-based violence. As Sheerine notes, the discussions expand the perspectives of survivors, who often consider their experiences interpersonal issues rather than structural ones tied to social, racial and economic inequities.

“The first component of the program is often very healing, as well as a good way to build relationships,” Sheerine says. “One of the goals is to bring together survivors from different cultures, races, ethnicities and abilities to show how widespread the issue is, because people frequently think it’s either personal to them or unique to their community.”

Part two focuses on developing concrete skills that will enable participants to become leaders within the community of violence survivors, such as how to safely intervene when gender discrimination occurs, how to receive a disclosure of violence from someone who may be reticent to share and how to initiate conversations about gender-based violence in the community.

The final third of the program introduces survivors to the core tenets of community organizing. The course looks at real-life examples, including Sex Ed Works, a campaign launched by graduates from the first cohort of Healing Generations, in 2018.

Sex Ed Works fights for access to comprehensive sexual health education for Chicago students. “The 16 participants in the first class were mostly Latinx immigrant women, and most were mothers,” Sheerine recalls. “After graduating, they wanted to focus on the lack of access for students to information about gender-based violence. They felt that if they had learned about it in school, they might have been able to prevent their experiences from happening or connect more quickly to support.”

The women built a strong coalition, which includes support from the ACLU of Illinois, Beyond Legal Aid (founded by Skadden Fellow Lam Ho (‘08)), the Chicago Women’s Health Center, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the Chicago Teachers Union and other community-based organizations. “The issue involves racial and economic justice, as Chicago has a policy mandating sexual health education but about 70% of schools are out of compliance, and most of those are in low-income communities of color,” Sheerine says. “The women leading this campaign see the noncompliance as causing their children to lack access to vital information that could prevent this cycle of violence from repeating.”

Many of the 16 graduates of the 2020 program also joined the effort. Together they have held workshops for families and schools, met with Chicago Board of Education (CBE) members to discuss their goals and concerns and provided testimony at CBE budget hearings. As a result of their efforts, the school district has begun offering workshops for parents to better understand and support young people in learning the curriculum and reinforcing critical concepts around sex ed at home. Team members have met with reporters, held press conferences and been quoted in publications such as The Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Reader.

The nonprofit’s ties to Skadden have been strong throughout. The Skadden Foundation was among the organization’s first funders, providing a Flom Incubator Grant in 2016, and former Skadden Fellow Emily Werth (’11), a staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, joined its board in 2019 and was elected president in 2020.

HTA hopes to grow its network of survivor-leaders as its capacity grows. The organization provides program participants with child care, monetary and transportation support, interpretation services and, when needed, crisis counseling, while also holding healing workshops and retreats. “We provide very intensive ongoing support,” Sheerine says. “We have to be sure we can provide everything that survivors need to thrive and to lead.”