We at AJLI recognize that our Sustainers are one of our most precious and powerful assets. We know that the rich lives they have led and the years of dedicated service they have provided to their communities set an example for Provisionals and Actives everywhere who are currently in the heyday of their Junior League experience.
What better way to foster enthusiasm for the transformational change that lies ahead as we fashion The Junior League into a movement for the 21st century, than to give you, the 160,000 members of The Junior League, “insider access” to the many storied women who have walked before you? We thought we’d introduce these role models by way of a new series of profiles entitled “Sustainable Assets.”
The subject of this profile is Jan Langbein, executive director of Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas and a Sustainer in the Junior League of Dallas, who in the last two decades has become one of the most widely heard voices on domestic violence and an ardent advocate for the rights of abused women.
An Unlikely Passion
The story of how Junior League of Dallas Sustainer Jan Langbein became the executive director of the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas – and one of the country’s most vocal advocates for abused women – shows that sometimes your path chooses you rather than the other way around.
“If you’d asked me 22 years ago if I would be interested in this issue, I would’ve said absolutely not,” said Jan Langbein, a Sustainer in the Junior League of Dallas, of the problem of domestic violence.
“Back then I didn’t think men beat their wives or had sex with children,” she said. “This used to be something that was only whispered about at kitchen tables and behind closed doors.”
In fact it was her placement as a Junior League volunteer at the Genesis Women’s Shelter, the refuge for women and children she now runs (but had never heard of at the time) that ultimately changed the course of her life, eventually leading her to high-profile posts including senior policy advisor at the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, board member and public policy committee member on the Texas Council on Family Violence, and a spot on the Dallas mayor’s task force on domestic violence.
“Back then I was a ‘minor Leaguer,’” said the 2007 Mary Harriman Community Service Award winner. “I attended the minimum number of meetings, and sat in the back row where I worked on my grocery list and listened to the speakers blather on.”
Then one day in 1989, when she was on her way to her volunteer shift at the shelter, Langbein stopped in at her regular salon to get an acrylic nail repaired. As she sat down at the manicurist’s table, a magazine fell into her lap and opened to a story on battered women. The statistics were arresting: one in four women experiences domestic abuse in their lifetime; an incident of verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is happening every 12 seconds; 25 percent of women will encounter sexual violence at some point in their lives.
Soon her work at the shelter led to her being named project chair and liaison to the Board. In the fall of 1990 at a meeting to discuss the Board’s search for a new executive director, she recalls that all of a sudden out of her mouth shot the statement “That’s me!” She explains, “I don’t know why they even considered me, but 20 years later, here I am.”
“I thought [that victims of domestic violence] would look different, that their kids would not look like mine. I had no idea what was in store for me. What I learned was, once you see it, you know it – as a woman, as a human being.”
Indeed, personal knowledge of the problem would be something Langbein would acquire in the most unlikely of places. In 1999, fellow League member Mary Richardson was strangled to death by her husband when he nearly decapitated her with an electrical extension cord in front of her three children. Just two weeks prior to Richardson’s death, she and Langbein had spoken about how they might help a fellow League member they’d been observing who appeared to have a new bruise on her face.
“This was what I did for a living and I missed it,” said Langbein of the Richardson tragedy. “I never asked her if she was okay, I never heard it in her voice. Could I have been paying more attention?”
Looking back she said, “We were robbed as a community and as a League because of this issue. I don’t want to ever miss it again. We must be ready to step up. We can’t overlook how we are treated emotionally or physically.”
It’s this unwavering drive that has compelled her to make significant and lasting contributions to the shelter and its clients, and, as a result, to the surrounding community. She has incorporated outreach, education, and counseling into the shelter’s offerings, and expanded services to include positive parenting classes, psychotherapy, professional case work, and a school for children in a high-security compound at an undisclosed location. The shelter’s 14 staff therapists provide some ten thousand clinical counseling hours to some one thousand women and children annually, and the complex now houses some 650 women and children a year. And when she’s not working the phones from her office, she’s on the speaking circuit, lecturing corporations, social and civil groups, college students and young professionals, volunteers, religious organizations, and law enforcement officials. She has also provided expert testimony in state criminal court and in federal immigration court.
It was 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law, culminating an effort by the United States Congress to remedy the legacy of laws and social norms that served to justify violence against women. Congress has subsequently re-authorized it in 2000 and 2005, and in 2011, VAWA is headed for its third re-authorization.
Conceived by the Department of Justice specifically to implement VAWA and subsequent legislation, the Office on Violence Against Women administers financial and technical assistance to communities around the country to facilitate programs, policies, and practices aimed at ending domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In the years since its passage, VAWA has been credited with shifting the paradigm for how the issue of violence against women is addressed.
A decade and a half later, though Langbein finds fault with a legal system that is increasingly exploitable by abusive ex-husbands who have the funds to wrestle child custody from ex-wives who possess neither the money nor the marketable job skills needed for a court battle, she says what she’s most relieved to see is that people are talking about the issue more openly, that there are stronger criminal laws in place, that funding is better.
“The stronger we get in criminal court, we find that the battle is moving to family court where abusers are using their children as pawns, and moms and kids have limited access to legal representation.”
The number of Leagues that have taken a stand on the issue across the country – Kansas City, Seattle, Plano, to name a few — has given her hope.
“But,” she says in the words of a truly persevering, if accidental, civic leader, “it’s never enough.”
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