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‘Breaking the Silence’: Media-Sponsored Event Discusses Sexual Assault in Kotzebue

Four people in a panel discussion

Kotzebue-area residents had a rare opportunity last Thursday, June 6, to talk with state government officials and public health workers about one of Alaska’s biggest problems: sexual assault.


“You’ve spent your entire life just…. Pretending, and hiding, and protecting, and it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.”

That is Kotzebue artist and writer Tia Wakolee, speaking directly about the event’s theme: “Breaking the Silence: Stopping Sexual Assault in Alaska.” She addresses a crowd of about 75 people who are gathered in the Kotzebue Area Recreation Center, just a few blocks from where Ashley Johnson-Barr was abducted in September.

Wakolee broke her own silence last year when she released her memoir, “Starting a Fire, Bringing Light to Dark,” where she recounts her own history with abuse.

“Just being prepared for when people start talking… because at the release of ‘Starting a Fire,’ that was my biggest concern: that I’m being so honest and so raw in my book that it’s going to trigger people.”

Counselors sat in the audience, ready for those who might want to talk.

“Breaking the Silence” was organized by news outlets ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News. In addition to Wakolee, the paneled event included House District 40 Representative John Lincoln and Governor Dunleavy policy advisor John Moller. Local reporter Shady Grove Oliver from the Arctic Sounder moderated and reported back from the event.

“We had a series of panelists, and they came from many different walks of life… We all basically sat down together at a table, and I asked each of the panelists some questions, and then, we had time for some audience Q&A at the end, to kind of keep that discussion going at a community level.”

And there were times when that difference of experience was stark. Though the conversation was meant to be about sexual assault, much of that conversation turned to rural law enforcement, although no law enforcement representatives were members of the panel.

“We had Commissioner Amanda Price attend the panel, and she was not officially on the panel, but when questions came up about law enforcement, she did actually step up and answer a couple of questions.”

Grove says the panel received multiple questions about the lack of law enforcement in rural communities and the uncertainty of the Village Police Safety Officer (VPSO) program.

But both Commissioner Price and policy advisor John Moller didn’t think law enforcement alone is the problem:

PRICE: “Law enforcement is not the cause of the violence that we are experiencing. The only people that are responsible for the violence in our communities are the offenders.”

MOLLER: “Until we stand up as Alaskans and say enough is enough, no level of troopers is going to change that.”

But Representative Lincoln disagreed:

“It’s disturbing to me to hear you say that the funding is irrelevant to solving this problem and that local law enforcement doesn’t matter. It matters to women and kids and people who want to feel safe in the village who are being hurt and mistreated and there’s nobody there for them to go to. If you, or any of us, our families were in that similar situation, there’s no way we’d feel safe there. We deserve some public safety. The entire state budget has been funded by rural resources coming out of the North Slope for 40 years.”

Lincoln points out that the North Slope isn’t alone; he says there are about 75 villages around the state without public safety officers of any sort.

Moderator Shady Grove Oliver said that when it came to law enforcement, people wanted to know specific plans and solutions. They wanted to know about treatment programs, how the state was working to reduce recidivism, and had lots of questions about the uncertain future of the Village Police Safety Officer program.

Commissioner Price spoke about some developing programs, including the Alaska Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Intervention Project.

“What it does is take a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault and provide services immediately post-response, post-incident. But then it also evaluates what that survivor might need to get themselves back on their feet.”

Those resources could be anything from rent money to childcare or even further education to financially free a survivor from an abuser.

Price also says the federal government has opened up funding through the Council of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault that she hopes can go to support child advocacy centers in Alaska. They anticipate those funds to be available by January 1, 2020.

And while there may have been lots of questions from the audience, panelist Shylena Lie thinks that some voices were missing:

“I think a lot of the rural communities didn’t have the opportunity to come in.”

Lie is the Family Crisis Center Program Manager with the Maniilaq Association, a regional non-profit that serves Kotzebue and 11 outlying communities in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Jackie Hill, Maniilaq Director of Tribal Assistance Programs, also presented on the panel. Lie says Maniilaq wasn’t a partner for the event or involved in organizing it, but they agreed to participate.

“Of course it’s important to talk about it; we need to learn how to hold our abusers accountable for their actions… It’s hard to get the community involved in such a huge, you know, a sensitive topic.”

Lie describes the Family Crisis Center as a gender-neutral service that assists survivors of sexual assault. They provide advocacy and support. Right now, Lie says they are especially focusing on outreach, particularly programs that help youth understand domestic violence.

Lie wants to see more community involvement but also hopes the panel made people more aware of the services available to them and steps already being taken. She also says that the community has been doing this background work for a long time; they just aren’t public about it in the media.

And finding a solution to violence won’t look the same everywhere.

“If you really want to know what’s stopping or what they feel is preventing them from talking about it, you’d have to go to each individual community. You have to get to know the people and know how their community functions.”

At this time, ProPublica has not responded to KNOM’s request on whether they are holding similar discussions in other communities. The event is part of their engagement reporting effort, which, according to their website, is meant to give communities an opportunity to share information with ProPublica.

Image at top: Panel members at the June 6, 2019, discussion on sexual assault in Kotzebue: State Rep. John Lincoln; John Moller, policy adviser to Gov. Michael Dunleavy; Lucy Nelson, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough; and Tia Wakolee. Photo courtesy of Nadia Sussman / ProPublica; used with permission.

Editor’s Note: ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News seek the participation of Alaskans as they gather data on those who have “experienced sexual violence, witnessed it, or dealt with the aftermath in a health or law enforcement capacity.” More information and specifics on their joint project are available here. A representative for ProPublica notes that “requests for confidentiality will be honored by reporters.”