This May, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP) welcomed new executive director, Adam Robinson, who came to Iowa from the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Chicago, Illinois. In August, we chatted with Adam about the significance of his new role, its responsibilities, and his vision for the future of the local university community.
What drew you to psychology and counseling? Why are you passionate about this work?
While I was taking classes at Hamline University (B.A., Psychology), I fell in love with psychology and philosophy, and decided to pursue those. Really, I have always had this awareness that there's an impact we all make on the world, and I wanted to have a positive impact. The more that I learned about psychology and its related disciplines, the more I kept fueling that desire, and looking for new ways to grow and evolve personally, in a way that I could give back to others.
What experiences have your previous positions afforded you that will guide your work here at RVAP?
Temple University (M.Ed., Counseling Psychology), was a school that initially attracted me for its academic programs. When I went there to interview - being from a small, rural, mostly white, mostly middle-class community as a child - to be in Philadelphia, which is incredibly diverse, was a place where I felt way out of my comfort zone. It was a space where, for once, I could really have my privilege put right in front of my face, learn to unpack it, and learn to understand it. In that way, I could more closely connect with people, not with my own assumptions, but with where they were at, and learn about the diversity of others, and their cultures, races, sexualities, religions, ages, etc. This work has given me a chance to do that.
Additionally, when I started working in Chicago with sexual assault and trauma survivors, I initially thought I would just take that experience with me as I moved into private practice. Instead, I discovered a real passion for being able to walk alongside someone in their healing process. For a person who has had their power and control taken from them at least in one moment, oftentimes more, and survived - to be open, available, and connected with them, understanding their trauma, and being with them while they heal, is just such a gift. It's the reason that I decided to stay within the public sector and offer my services to those within communities in need in the Midwest.
Was there anything especially appealing about RVAP or the Iowa City community for you?
Yes. One, the mission being the same, almost verbatim, as my previous agency. Two, the structure of RVAP. It’s the oldest rape crisis center in the state, having started as a cot and a landline on the third floor of WRAC in 1973, and it’s actually embedded within the University. The opportunity to be doing this work directly on a college campus, where the violence is really impactful, and provide the immediate support to survivors, or individuals affected by this violence, is just not that common, and quite amazing. Since RVAP is also responsible for the full service of eight counties in southeastern Iowa, and statewide through the Iowa Sexual Abuse Hotline, there is also a unique opportunity to drive change in not only a University setting, but throughout the region and state.
What is your strategy for filling the shoes left by the previous directors of RVAP?
First of all, my plan is to honor the shoes that were left, because there were some amazing leaders before me. And in this organization, any benefits that come from hard work stem directly from your relationships with others. So for me, it is really about figuring out where the staff is at, where the community is at, where each county we serve is at, and evaluating what each respective group’s needs are, and how we can meet the needs effectively.
As a result, we’ve begun a process of staff restructuring, that hopefully helps maximize our work potential, maximize our impact in the community, but also helps sustains each of us individually, and our agency, collectively. For RVAP, we have a responsibility to be here for as long as members of the community need us to be here. Until we hit that goal of ending sexual violence, we need to do everything in our power to continue to remain in existence.
What are you hoping to accomplish this year?
We really want to create opportunities for those in the community to get involved and support this work, because success for us, takes everybody. It takes change in culture, change in mindsets, reducing bystander behavior, increasing advocate behavior, changing perceptions, awareness, and empowerment. That is bigger than one person, its bigger than one office, its bigger than one agency, so again, relationships are central – how to continue to build relationships, and maintain relationships in a way that allows us to leverage as many strengths as possible, while reducing as many blind spots as possible too, to make sure we’re providing access to as many needing individuals as we can.
Talk about the importance of collaboration in your work.
RVAP has a long history of collaboration across the university, so I want to maintain and grow in those relationships. I’ve been fortunate, already, to be very involved with the Anti-Violence Coalition. That is just really inspiring, the way that those systems work together and impact change. Just as well, the passion and brilliance of student government, and other student populations too, that are so hungry to change the world that we’re all in. There’s a vibrance, and stubborn belief that we can change the world, and that we need to!
There’s something really familiar and invigorating about just being on a college campus that I appreciate, having grown up near the University of Wisconsin's campus, and that energy here helped to fill my cup since I’ve come to Iowa City. I think that as we continue to work to end this violence, to work to make sure that every survivor has support, or at least access to support, if they want it, means we must continue to build relationships, continue to build bridges, and its going to take time to do that.
How different is it, do you think, to see a male figure in this role, which has so often been occupied by women?
That’s a tremendous question. I don’t know how I’m seen. Working professionally as a therapist, I’ve always seen myself, in regards to gender, as a minority in every agency I've worked at. I think too often, sexual violence is a topic that is misperceived as a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue. It impacts way too many women, that’s absolutely true. But if we see it solely as a women’s issue, then others don’t get involved as much as they need to, as much as they have the responsibility to. Maintaining such a narrow view of this issue makes it more challenging for victim-survivors who do not identify as female to disclose their trauma and seek support. If we’re going to continue to make any progress, then we have to reach out to and engage men, along with all genders, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here at RVAP to participate in this important work.
And as we question some of those societal attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that surround sexual violence, we question our own, and invite others to question, our assumptions and beliefs. One of the things I’ve really benefitted from in my career is just having the gift of people to challenge me, and I’m blessed again, with some rockstars now, that challenge my own perspectives every day. And it’s just a tremendous gift that they’re willing to do that. It helps me be a better professional, and bigger than that, it helps me be a better person. And my hope is that my being here can offer space, not only to receive that, but also to inspire and offer space for that inquiry in the other direction too.
Adam Robinson oversees the advocacy, education, and prevention efforts of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program for eight counties in Iowa, including Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Lee, Washington, Van Buren, and Johnson County. To learn more about RVAP, its mission, volunteer opportunities, or with questions, you can reach a staff member at their Linn Street office by calling (319) 335-6001.