’There’s something I can do’: A volunteer reflects on working on a rape crisis hotline in Boston

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center has expanded its hotline services in response to the surge in calls over the last year.

Juliet Zhou
Juliet Zhou. –Provided

Each week, Juliet Zhou dials the number for the answering service at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to tell them when she can take calls. The 29-year-old has volunteered for the nonprofit’s hotline for about a year, setting aside five hours a week to support and listen to survivors of sexual violence over the phone.

With her time volunteering for the hotline coinciding with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, Zhou said it’s been an empowering experience to be able to do something “tangible.”

“Hearing all the news about #MeToo and seeing what’s going on in the world, I knew every week during my time slot… that gives me space to really do things,” she told Boston.com. “So I knew this is something tangible that I’m doing. So that made me feel like with everything going on, there’s something I can do.”

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The organization, dedicated to ending sexual violence and empowering those who have survived it, has seen spikes in requests for services and support from survivors coinciding with high profile cases of sexual assault, abuse, and misconduct. Hundreds of people have also reached out to BARCC to see how they can volunteer.

BARCC currently has more than 200 people volunteering across the organization. And to help respond to the increased number of calls for support services, BARCC launched a web chat hotline service. In announcing the new program, BARCC referenced the week following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, when the organization saw a 366 percent increase in calls to its hotline.

“As more and more survivors seek help, we need additional ways for them to get the support and information they are looking for,” BARCC Executive Director Gina Scaramella said in a statement. “Our web chat hotline will enable us to serve more survivors—including folks who may have limited phone access or no space to talk privately out loud, younger people who may gravitate toward communicating online, or people whose discomfort talking on the phone has prevented them from calling. We want all survivors to be able to connect with BARCC with as much ease as possible, and this is an important step in that direction.”

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Zhou moved to Boston in 2011 from China, where she grew up and received her undergraduate degree, to pursue her doctorate in sociology from Harvard. She received the doctorate in 2017.

When she arrived in Boston, she knew early on that she wanted to get involved with BARCC. As a family sociologist and demographer examining gender equity, she said she’s always been interested in issues of empowerment and power dynamics embedded in society.

“As a scholar of gender inequality [issues surrounding sexual violence] has always been one area that I’ve always deeply cared about,” she said.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Zhou was able to volunteer with BARCC, starting out as an office support volunteer where she helped out with administrative work at the front desk and at the organization’s annual gala. By March 2018, she felt ready to move into a more “direct service role,” she said, and went through 40 hours of training to work for the hotline.

On her first day, she said she was told that she may be surprised by how many times she might hear laughter over the hotline — that she would see human resilience even when hearing of pain and trauma.

At the start, Zhou said she felt easily flustered. And over time, she realized she was treading on eggshells with the people she spoke to on the phone.

“I was so afraid that I was going to say the wrong thing, so I sort of assumed fragility on the other part of other people — which is not empowering,” she said.

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But as time went on, Zhou was surprised by how many phone calls did end with laughter on the other side of the phone.

“It was humbling and surprising,” she said.

Zhou, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, realized the assumption she had been making — that by believing she had to treat the callers like they were fragile, she wasn’t empowering them.

“My mentality went into, ‘OK, let’s solve this or solve for a solution,’” she said. “But as time went by I realized, ‘No, it’s a space where you don’t see the interaction as a problem that needs solutions.’ But really you’re connecting with others on a more human level and you empathize and maybe there aren’t solutions.”

What you can do working on the hotline is just be there and “hold that space with the other person” during the call, Zhou said.

As a sociologist, a lot of my work has to do with ‘solving puzzles’ and ‘coming up and working through research problems,” she said. “This aspect of my professional life has a profound impact on my approach/relations with the world, and the people around me. Being on the hotline helped me to cultivate a different kind of approach. I learned that sometimes there is no perfect, or even workable, solution to a difficult situation, and that’s OK too. The important thing is being there with empathy, listen and believe in survivors, and that’s meaningful already.”

For anyone who is thinking of becoming a volunteer for an organization working to combat sexual violence and support survivors, Zhou said any step — big or small — is meaningful.

“Ending sexual violence takes more than a village,” she said. 

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