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Getting it Out On Paper Begins the Healing Process: An Interview with Brookview House CEO Deborah Hughes
I first met Deborah Hughes, the CEO of Brookview House, at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend. I learned she was taking GrubStreet classes, and was thrilled when she told me how much she loved the experience. A few months later, we found ourselves in the same class: Calvin Hennick’s “Six Weeks, Six Essays.” One night, we stayed talking in the hallway after everyone else had left the building, and Deborah mentioned that on some level it was awkward for her to be writing about other women’s stories. Brookview House supports women and mothers out of homelessness and high-risk domestic environments, and Deborah had been working on essays about her work with the organization. As soon as she said it, we both knew that we had to bring a GrubStreet workshop to the Brookview House. A year and a half later, we’re on adult workshop number three, and just this month we piloted a teen workshop at the House. I got together with Deborah to talk about Brookview's history, the project's impact on the community so far, and, of course, writing.
EB: Let’s start with the basics! What is Brookview House?
DH: Brookview House is a safe place to live for homeless moms and children, a place where moms and children can build skills and have opportunities to practice the skills they learn, because we have programs and classes on site. The skills our moms develop are both tangible—education, training, work—and softer. They learn self-confidence and build self-esteem. We have clinicians on site and their specialty is behavioral health—changing and addressing behaviors with an eye toward better mental health.
Changing behaviors is more difficult for the moms because they are survivors of domestic violence that has been untreated for so long.
For the kids, change is easy—they are resilient, flexible, and they adapt quickly.
I was moved by my recent visit to the House. You get a sense of home as soon as you walk through the doors. How long have you been working there?
Almost twenty-seven years! The thing that attracted me to Brookview House in the first place was the actual building. It was being built in my neighborhood and I watched it going up and wondered what it was going to be. I met the moms and kids who were moving in, and I never left. I had a background in fundraising and program development, so it was appropriate that the women who started it kept me around.
Who started it?
Three women. They were three good white women who had an idea. They saw family homelessness was increasing and wanted to do something about it. One obvious solution is housing, so they raised the money and built the house, but then they didn’t know what to do next. They had no money and no plans. Luckily, I was working as a consultant growing other agencies, so I could work for them for little money.
You are such a warrior for homeless women; they are incredibly lucky that you wandered in. What do you think drew you to this work?
I think I’m a warrior because I was raised by a mother who helped everyone. People came to stay with us when they moved from the South to the North until they got settled. As kids, we could bring home friends who had run away from home. My mother would make connections back to the parents to get the kids back to their homes. If there was a fire in someone’s home in the neighborhood, they knew they could stay with us.
It was who she was. She was a healer; she was empathic. She often knew what was going on with you before you did. People were just attracted to her all the time.
Five kids in the family.
I want to learn more about your family, but I’ll get in trouble with my editor if I don’t ask you about your writing.
I’ve been a writer most of my life, starting in middle school. I was always writing these little things and my English teachers would take me on as a project to keep me focused in class. At GrubStreet, I’m in everything nonfiction: op-eds, six weeks, six essays.
What are you writing about?
I’ve finally gotten to the point: I like to write about big issues, about family homelessness and about the intersections of homelessness with race, class, gender. I’m telling the story of my life’s work at Brookview House.
What’s one common misconception about homelessness?
That people are homeless through choice or through their own deficits, when homelessness is systemic and structural. It’s a women’s issue—84% of homeless families are led by women, and 90-95% of these women have been abused or have suffered trauma.
The difficult part of it is that the women themselves often don’t acknowledge that they’ve been abused or traumatized. They see their lives as just how life is. If you fight me, I fight back. This isn’t abuse, we’re fighting. Or, I’ve heard, there’s no blood, so there’s no abuse.
They have no idea what trauma does to a person. Our Clinicians facilitate Women’s safety workshops, helping women build confidence through focusing on their inner strengths—what we term “tapping the powers from within.” The process is powerful. Sometimes, women will sit in class and just cry for weeks before they open up.
I imagine that the writing workshop is helpful to this process.
Yes, getting all that “stuff” out and on paper begins the healing process. Most times, the women who come to us haven’t shared what’s happened with anyone. They believe they are all alone and that no one else has had a similar experience. To share one’s story and to find out that others have gone through it is transformative. It becomes the beginning of their healing process.
The goal is to get them to understand that it’s just a story and the story can always be changed. What happened doesn’t define you. You can re-write your story.
What’s been most surprising about the writing workshops?
How the women take to it so readily. It wasn’t like pulling teeth. They were open. They trusted us to take care of them, so they went in ready to do the work.
That sense of trust is one of the things that’s true at GrubStreet and at Brookview House, I think.
For me, what was interesting was finding out that people like Julie D.—a longtime supporter of Brookview—was also a grubbie. I was like, wow, all this is a connection; there’s a reason I’m here. In the first class I took at GrubStreet, I loved that grubbies weren’t defined by academic degrees or background but by the fact that they were writing it down and endeavoring to write it well.
We’re both really human centers.
Are there any other places like Brookview House in the country?
We were one of the first to have a two-generation approach, with a focus on school age kids. People still don’t do a lot of focusing on school age kids but the model is picking up steam. Families are complex. If you really want to address all the issues, you have to address every individual in the family as well as the family dynamic.
On a final note: books. Do you have any books to recommend on homelessness?
Yes! Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. I loved it because it puts a human face on the issue.
I’m reading that now. It’s brilliant. And what books do you recommend for the women in your program?
We like to recommend books written by women who have been through similar circumstances. Most are unpublished accounts or self-published. Priscilla Flint’s I Look Back and Wonder How I Got Over is a great one.
Are there any well-known books in that category?
Not that I can think of.
We need to encourage one of your women to write a book.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse by expanding offerings to better educate and equip writers in the digital age, launching new, innovative programming for advanced students, and significantly expanding scholarship opportunities to ensure access. Eve curated GrubStreet’s NEA-funded Publish it Forward lecture series and our innovative Launch Lab, led GrubStreet’s Diversity Task force, laying the foundation for GrubStreet’s next chapter, and was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston. Eve’s work has been recognized by Boston Magazine, who named her one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women in 2010, and by BostInno Magazine who gave her their 2014 Arts and Entertainment Award for driving innovation in Boston. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on publishing, the future of publishing, and on what it takes to build a literary arts center at numerous conferences, including AWP, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change, GrubStreet’s own The Muse and the Marketplace, Whidbey Island Writers Conference, The Sanibel Island Writers Conference, and Writers at Work. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg
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