News & analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation
Mind and Body

Meet Tonya Harris, the new director of the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Harris said she hopes to build upon the work of the coalition, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019

Photo by Richard Asinof

Tonya Harris, the new executive director of the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/3/18
A conversation with Tonya Harris, the new executive director at the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, revealed a willingness to engage in conversation and openness to welcome everyone to the table.
What kinds of new datasets can be developed that integrate domestic violence and sexual assault with gun violence, working in collaboration with emergency room physician Dr. Megan Ranney? What kinds of conversations can be developed between the Coalition and the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Intervention and Prevention, focusing on the connection between substance use disorders and domestic violence and sexual violence? How will the newly elected members of Congress change the dynamic around domestic violence and mass shootings?
The issue of domestic violence continues to plague the National Football League, including the most recent video that captured a player shoving and kicking a woman. What are the opportunities to engage in healthy discussions around sexuality with college athletes to create a better understanding of what is appropriate masculine behavior?

WARWICK – On Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, the new executive director of the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Tonya Harris, will be formally introduced to the community at a breakfast, “Moving the Mission Forward: Breakfast To Welcome Tonya Harris,” at the Crowne Plaza, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Harris, who is succeeding long-time executive director Deb Debare at the helm of the Coalition, said she is committed to opening up the conversation and making sure that everyone who needs to be at the table can participate in the conversation.

“The first step for me in solving any problem is not identifying the answer to the problem before you know what it is,” Harris said, in a recent one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI at the Coalition’s offices in Warwick. “And so, the first step is to have a conversation to make sure that every person who needs to be at the table for the conversation is there. You need to hear from all sides, you need to hear from everyone.”

Harris continued: “Those are the things that I want to put in place over the next several months,” working with her team, the directors of the agencies that belong to the Coalition, and with legislators and community advocates.

Harris, who was born and raised in South Providence, said that she had been working in both the police department and also with community organizations for the best part of the past 30 years.

“I have great admiration for Deb Debare,” Harris said, praising the outgoing executive director. “I think that the long history and the success of what she has accomplished over the past several decades, bringing people together, working for survivors.”

Part of what attracted her to the job, Harris said, was its successful history and its impact that it has had in Rhode Island. “I have always been service oriented,” Harris said. “ I have always enjoyed serving others, and being part of a community that is empowering and enhancing, and helping to raise up the voices of others.”

Harris said she is still feeling her way around her new job. “I’m in my fourth week,” she said. “I am extremely excited. The staff that we have here, the staff is phenomenal. We literally have between our staff and our member agencies decades and decades of experience of people who have dedicated lifetimes to working in the domestic violence movement. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

Inclusive, open and respectful
As a woman of color, Harris spoke about the need to be inclusive of different voices and, at the same time, to encourage open and respectful dialogue.

“I am a big supporter of open and respectful dialogue,” she said. “I think it is the first step in facilitating change and facilitating healthy conversation and moving things forward. Here at the Coalition, we have great opportunities to begin to engage in dialogue on a local level, with those who are already doing the work, with survivors, with victims, and with our legislators as well, so that they can facilitate change as well.”

Among the priorities for the 2019 session of the R.I. General Assembly will be to address the needs of children who have been witnesses to domestic violence, and to work for passage of a higher minimum wage.

“Financial reasons are sometimes the reasons why victims don’t leave the abusers,” Harris said. “In Rhode Island, you have people working full time and still not being able to provide for their family. Knowing that direct link and how it affects victims, when I hear those things, it is alarming. There should never be any reason why, any barriers, why a person is unable to leave their abuser – but certainly not because [that person] can’t afford to move.”


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

© | subscribe | contact us | report problem | About | Advertise

powered by creative circle media solutions

Join the conversation

Want to get ConvergenceRI
in your inbox every Monday?

Type of subscription (choose one):

We will contact you with subscription details.

Thank you for subscribing!

We will contact you shortly with subscription details.