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Roberta Hacker is Saving Lives

Meet the Philadelphia advocate working to help women, help themselves.

Roberta Hacker is Saving Lives
Photo: Jayne Toohey

Like most lesbians, Roberta Hacker loves women. She loves them so much she has devoted her life to saving theirs.

For the past 25 years, as Executive Director and CEO of Women in Transition (WIT) in Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest agency for abused women, Hacker has been actively involved in making women safe. Her personal mission, which she has directed the agency to follow, is to turn victims into survivors and turn survivors into empowered, self-actualized women.

Hacker’s vision has been formalized into programs “designed to stop women from talking about what’s being done to them and to talking about what they are doing for themselves. We want women to embrace the idea that they deserve and can have safe and equal relationships, that each woman can take back her life” from who (a partner) or what (addiction) has victimized her.

The Life Line Support Groups, Hacker developed have become a model for other agencies. As President of the Board of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, she has taken her vision national, networking with other agencies to expand services for the most vulnerable women at a time when social services are being cut back and even eradicated. Instituting a 24-hour bilingual hotline to provide constant access for abused women was another part of her vision.

Hacker has seen many victims in her years as a social worker—sadly not all of them have lived to become survivors. In 1997 she co-founded the Philadelphia Women’s Death Review Team. As the first multi-agency, multi-disciplinary group to examine the records of women who had died violent deaths, PWDR was one more step in charting what happens to marginalized women, including lesbians, who fall through society’s cracks.

“The purpose of Death Review was to investigate how these women had died in an effort to prevent other women’s deaths from violence in the future,” Hacker explains.
As an out lesbian, Hacker has worked hard over four decades to focus on the often-ignored concerns of lesbians and bisexual women; those efforts have often been the most painful for her.

“I got involved in non-profit work because when I first started out in this field I was working with the first community mental health service in the U.S. to help people who were becoming de-institutionalized to adjust to living in the community. What I saw so plainly was how cruelly, even savagely, women were treated. And if they were lesbians, forget it—they were abused in the hospital and then in community settings, boarding homes, the streets.”

One of the first cases Hacker brought to her supervisor was that of a woman who had been committed to a state hospital in her late teens—no one knew why. Hacker describes the woman’s entrance back into society as harrowing: “She was hideously abused by the man who was running the boarding home where she lived. He was taking money from men in the neighborhood to have sex with her. She was so lost and hurt that she never complained, but I did.”

 


Photo: Andrew Davidson

 

Although only in her 20s, witnessing the suffering and abuse these women experienced set Hacker on a path from which she has never deviated. “I just had to continue being their advocate. That’s what formed the whole basis of my career. All I knew about violence against women and lesbians just came to life right before me. I had to help.”

One advocacy role led to another. Soon Hacker was heading Voyage House, another groundbreaking social service agency for runaway and homeless youth, many of whom were LGBT kids who had been abandoned by their families. The agency subsequently formed LGBT specific programs, including a drop-in center for LGBT youth called the Attic. Her programs became a national model and she served on the board of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services. 

“I identified so much with them because of my own alienation from society as a lesbian, and I had to stand up for these kids,” Hacker asserted. The experience was frustrating because she often felt it was the parents—one or both of whom were abusive—who needed to be dealt with by the system, not the kids themselves. Hacker felt responsible for “providing a safe harbor for these kids who had to live relatively closeted lives. Other kids were so mean to them. Having me as an out role model was really important.”

Not everyone knew she was a lesbian, however. “A staff member had an illicit affair with one of the kids and impregnated her. When I fired him, he threatened to go to my board. I had to go to my board and out myself. I knew then that I had to be out to everyone to do the work that needed to be done.” 

Being an out lesbian in a still-homophobic social work milieu has been a real responsibility. Hacker has committed herself to helping other lesbians deal with the impact of discrimination, sexism and homophobia in their lives, which is often incredibly damaging. Under Hacker’s direction, WIT formed a network to deal with same-sex domestic violence, which she deems “very hidden, still.”

“It has been a long-term struggle to work with the LGBT community about violence in intimate partner relationships,” says Hacker. “Gay men are more willing to come forward than lesbians. The isolation lesbians feel often makes them protective of their abusive partners and they can’t get help.”

The impact of discrimination also leads women to self-medicating and substance abuse. Forming groups specifically for lesbians dealing with substance abuse was essential. “Our issues are just not the same as the issues of heterosexual women,” she says. “Lesbians have different issues to face.”

Hacker’s work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a prestigious Cartier Award and Woman of Distinction Award. But what she wants most is to have the women she serves recognized.

As an advocate for women whose voices aren’t heard, whose pain isn’t seen, Hacker says, “My commitment is to women’s community, visibility, survival. It’s what my life’s work has been about advocating to save the lives of women.”

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