More than 30 years ago, after graduating from Simmons College in Connecticut, Esta Soler began her activist career in California. It was a time and place that would set the stage for her work today on the frontlines of America’s endemic problem: violence.
When Soler came out West, she was hired as an administrator for the Coalition for Justice for Battered Women and Children in Gov. Jerry Brown’s first administration. That position gave her an introduction to California’s justice system. Armed with new experience and contacts, she left her job and founded The Family Violence Prevention Fund, (FVPF) a name that today has been changed to Futures Without Violence (Futures) and is located in the Presidio of San Francisco. Her goal: Provide public education and training programs to reduce incidents of abuse.
Her first “office” was a desk in the district attorney’s office and a chair at San Francisco’s General Hospital. But it was her connection with the Brown administration that gave her some clout — and she began making calls. Slowly she was adding names of supporters. Eventually some of them would be well-known names, but Soler was also aiming to reach Everyman.
Her work wasn’t all deskbound phone labor. In addition to making calls, Soler needed to churn out grant requests and build relationships with groups such as those representing physicians, attorneys, and police, as well as corporations such as Blue Shield, Macy’s and Nike. Her message was always the same: There is no excuse for domestic violence.
“I begged people to join my mission to form a large-scale organization to help prevent the abuse of battered women and children,” Soler said.
At one point, the U.S. Congress distributed applications for financial grants being made available to six nonprofits. Soler was reluctant to pursue the grants, convinced that her small organization had no chance. But she submitted an application and was astounded when she learned that FVPF was one of the six chosen.
Her years of network-building were paying off. With her experience in the Brown administration and now possessing some federal funds, Soler began to approach political heavyweights. U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi was an early supporter.
One of Soler’s proudest achievements was the passage (with a $1.5 billion budget) of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which she said “grew out of the work we did.”
“The Violence Against Women Act has long ensured that no woman would ever be forced to suffer in silence in the face of domestic violence and abuse,” Pelosi said at the time. She pointed, too, to the bipartisan support for the act, which has recently been reauthorized.
And still FVPF continued to grow. Soler and her group encouraged training sessions in a variety of industries, schools, and organizations. Offices have opened in Boston and New York, and there is no reason to think that Soler might not have her eyes on more states. “We’re on the road a lot,” Soler grinned.
Over the years, it became clear that there were additional challenges that were affecting perhaps millions of people in the areas of women’s health, women’s issues, the current Brown administration’s Department of Health, jobs programs and — for some reason previously overlooked — education for men.
Soler doesn’t forget the importance of drawing on support from men for her efforts. She recalled a conversation with former President Bill Clinton, who became a supporter due to the abuse inflicted on his mother by his stepfather when the ex-president was a child.
“Men have to be involved,” Soler said. FVPF reached out to male judges, attorneys, and police. The National Athletic High School Athletic Coaches Association, supported by baseball great Joe Torre, created Coaching Boys into Men as a leadership program for athletes. The agenda is to work with sexual harassment and bullying issues.
Suzy Loftus, a current San Francisco Police commissioner and formerly a prosecutor for the San Francisco’s district attorney’s office and former special assistant attorney general to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said, “The good news is that domestic violence against adult women has dropped by 60 percent in the last 20 years, and I firmly believe that Futures Without Violence has been instrumental in that success.”
After working for decades in offices, Soler and her staff began discussing a new workplace. “Someone suggested the Presidio, which is a huge part of San Francisco’s history. It felt right to deal with human rights in such a setting,” Soler said. Futures occupied 100 Montgomery Street in the Presidio, after rehabbing the former barracks.
There remain challenges. We’re all aware of atrocities that still occur in this country and around the world, and Soler is realistic but optimistic. She believes public opinion is changing, with the Boston office concentrating on children and a summit on bullying in the works.
Scheduled for 2014 is the opening of the new Center for Leadership and Action. Calling it “the nation’s leading trainer of judges, police, and health-care professionals on the topic of violence against women,” Futures’ director of communications Marsha Robertson said that the new Center for Leadership and Action “will expand trainings and workshops … in order to improve responses and services to victims and survivors throughout the country.”
In addition, Futures’ Respect Campaign has attracted celebrities such as San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays and actress Nicole Kidman, who taught young people respect for themselves and others.
Soler herself has received an array of awards for making Futures one of the world’s leading violence prevention agencies. Today, financial support comes from corporations, grants, and individual donors. In 2013 Futures continues to expand as it recruits trainers internationally.
With a national board of directors, a view toward international help for abused women and children, and statistics that show Futures’ work is working, Esta Soler has truly proved herself an activist. And she does it with a national staff of only 40 — and three decades of hard work.