Educating Toward a Safer Tomorrow
Elizabeth Osowiecki, education director at The Safe Center Long Island, uses her past experience with sexual assault to help teach about prevention.
By Erin Hickey
Elizabeth Osowiecki, a 24-year-old native of Franklin Square, New York, is a self-described activist “in the field of sexual violence and consent” and an education coordinator at The Safe Center Long Island – an organization that serves victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“My definition of activism would just be someone who uses their voice to make a positive change and someone who cares deeply about an issue and takes action,” Osowiecki said.
Caring immensely about an issue, speaking out and taking action is exactly what Osowiecki has dedicated her life to.
According to Executive Director Cindy Scott, “The mission of The Safe Center is to protect, assist and empower victims of family violence and sexual assault while challenging and changing social systems that tolerate and perpetuate abuse. By educating the public and professionals on this issue while supporting and protecting victims, we hope to make every home in Nassau County a safe home.”
Originally two separate agencies – the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence – The Safe Center, a Long Island nonprofit located in Bethpage, was formed in 2014 in a merger of these two agencies.
“We serve survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking,” Osowiecki said. “In 2017, The Safe Center assisted more than 5,000 survivors and families impacted by Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Trafficking and Child Abuse. We serve survivors of any age, gender, ethnicity, status or ability.”
For victims, The Safe Center offers a 24-hour hotline through which trained counselors are available at any hour. The Safe Center also provides free individual and group counseling sessions to all survivors of sexual assault. In addition, there are free and confidential services for children who have been affected by sexual abuse, domestic violence or domestic violence, adult victims of domestic violence, and victims of human trafficking.
If legal services are necessary, The Safe Center also helps families and individuals who are victims of rape or sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence or elder abuse to find services within Nassau County courts.
Osowiecki began her work at The Safe Center as a volunteer hospital advocate. Hospital advocates work with victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence at Nassau County Hospitals. To become a hospital advocate, volunteers go through a 30-hour training process and are on call for 12-hour periods at least twice a month.
For Osowiecki, volunteering for The Safe Center was personal.
“I actually had an advocate by my side when I went through an experience [of sexual assault],” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be able to give back in that way. I had been doing that type of work at my college campus prior to graduating … a lot of activism and advocacy for survivors.”
At SUNY Purchase, where she received her bachelor’s in journalism, Osowiecki was a student mentor in violence prevention.
“I had heard about agencies similar to The Safe Center where I went to college so I applied as a volunteer after I graduated and returned home,” Osowiecki said. “The transition from being a volunteer to being hired full-time was amazing. I felt like I spoke my dream into existence by being vocal and active about my passion and building connections at The Safe Center during my time as a volunteer.”
Now Osowiecki advocates for survivors through education. As the education coordinator for The Safe Center, she gives training to the community and local schools on healthy relationships and consent.
In a typical day, Osowiecki will go to schools in Nassau County and give on average four presentations at each school. These presentations vary based on the type of school she is at, yet the goal is always the same: to educate people on the issues she holds so close to her heart.
“We try our best in the high schools to empower students to make healthy decisions regarding relationships and sexual encounters,” Osowiecki said. “We empower them to have the confidence to set boundaries and respect boundaries [by teaching them about their rights and showing her passion].”
“The education department is basically the prevention arm of The Safe Center, so we’re out in the communities,” said Keith Scott, the director of education at The Safe Center, and Osowiecki’s supervisor. “So any day we could be presenting to a high school as to what healthy boundaries are and what a healthy relationship looks like. At colleges, we present about consent, what affirmative consent is; how you can’t consent to sexual activity if you’re intoxicated or high. We also present on domestic violence to several agencies, whether it’s a church, a school, a business, hospital, medical center, [or] police academy.”
Osowiecki acknowledges that it can sometimes be difficult to get young people especially to connect with this topic. “We definitely realize that [high schoolers are] a difficult audience to engage in this kind of stuff,” Osowiecki said. “We use a lot of multimedia, videos that usually do involve some humor into the conversation. We use PowerPoints that use a lot of videos, graphics and [we have] some activities that we do too … such as creating scenarios and visual charts to work with.”
Upon returning from giving presentations at schools, Osowiecki and her team come back and debrief and move on to the second part of her job: utilizing social media to keep community members updated on what’s happening at The Safe Center and in relevant news around the world.
Scott explained that social media is something Osowiecki does well. “She’s the perfect person considering that when she’s at home she may research these issues or be connected to these issues on her own personal social media platforms.”
Since the #MeToo movement took off, Osowiecki has noticed an increase in the amount of talk regarding sexual assault and other issues on which she educates people on daily at The Safe Center.
“We have noticed that since the #MeToo movement, there has been an uptick of disclosure and people feeling comfortable talking about these kind of issues because of the huge media attention that it all of a sudden got,” Osowiecki said. “But we notice there’s still many people all the time –no matter what’s happening – disclosing, calling our hotline …”
“We receive many disclosures while out in the field training. The best thing we can do is provide our hotline number and hope that the person chooses to take the next step,” Osowiecki said. “Many times people will call our confidential hotline just for support..”
Osowiecki claimed that the #MeToo movement has allowed for more opportunities for education.
“It doesn’t change our work too drastically except for the fact that some people are more interested in having trainings,” Osowiecki said. “Some trainings are focused directly on the #MeToo movement and disclosures.”
The Safe Center’s website states that “The heart of abuse prevention and response is education and training.” There are 8 educators on Osowiecki’s team: six full-time, and two part-time. “We have all received extensive training on trauma, sexual violence, intimate partner abuse, child abuse and human trafficking,” Osowiecki said. This team works to train the community in anything from teaching how to identify, prevent and respond to sexual abuse at home to teaching about domestic violence in the workplace.
Scott used to work for a substance abuse agency. It was there that he realized that, “Substance abuse and all the other issues around [it] are a ripple effect from trauma,” he said. “So here at the Safe Center, we’re educating on the root causes of these traumas.”
During her training and presentations, Osowiecki has had to learn to be aware of different people’s backgrounds.
“The hardest part [of my job] would be meeting everyone where they are and understanding that I may be speaking with victims, and on the other hand I may be speaking to perpetrators or people who know perpetrators. Meeting everyone where they’re at to make sure the message gets across is definitely one of the hardest things,” she said.
Regardless of where people may be at in their lives, Osowiecki meets everyone with the same passion and enthusiasm for education.
“Liz is the ideal educator,” Scott said. “Liz is extremely passionate about the work she does. Her passion shines through in her professionalism, in the ways she delivers a presentation, the way she understands the topics we work with. Her passion, her dedication and her work ethic, is beyond reproach, it is amazing.”
For Osowiecki, having her passion and her message touch someone’s life makes her job worth it.
“The most rewarding part is just hearing a thank you at the end of the day,” Osowiecki said. “People expressing that we’ve given them hope, that’s the most rewarding part. There have been instances where [survivors] will disclose that I’ve inspired them to keep going. Th[ose are] really some of the best moments.”