Thi Synavone came to the U.S. in 1979 as a Laotian refugee. After living in many states, her family settled in Minnesota in 1988. Synavone said that growing up, domestic and sexual violence was never addressed, and in Lao culture there is no word for domestic abuse. Even now in her adult years, she explained, not a lot of people like to engage in conversations about domestic violence.
“The statistics are high, yet we don’t have conversations around it,” Synavone said.
Synavone has worked at Standpoint (2324 University Ave. W. Suite 103, St. Paul) for six years. When she first started working with Standpoint, she focused on doing outreach within the Laotian community, creating spaces for women to talk openly about experiences of domestic and sexual violence. Synavone centered the gatherings around things like cooking, and would ease into bringing up conversations that would engage her community. Synavone wanted to offer women support by communicating a perspective that championed their safety and comfort.
“The message was, if this is happening to you and you feel unsafe, there are people to talk to about it for you to feel safe,” Synavone said.
She started at Standpoint as an advocate support program manager, then transitioned to the director of organization and staff development. She is now the executive director of Standpoint. Since the late 90s, she has worked to curb domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking. Her work began in rural southwest Minnesota until 2016, when she moved to the Twin Cities. She has a masters from Metropolitan State University in nonprofit and public administration. A large focus of the work she does alongside the domestic and sexual violence advocacy is finding ways to provide access to resources and services for marginalized communities.
The organization offered training and support for Synavone when she was a legal advocate. She expressed that Standpoint was a huge supporter for advocates in keeping them informed about how updated laws impact domestic violence and sexual violence survivors. She communicated that joining Standpoint was a perfect fit for her.
“Standpoint had always been an organization that I had looked up to and an organization that I knew supported advocates in finding justice for domestic violence and sexual violence victims,” Synavone said.
Synavone explained that domestic and sexual violence cases are unique and complex, which is why Standpoint attorneys and advocates are vital as they are able to walk victim survivors through the process of hearings, and the criminal justice system. They explain specific terminology to help inform and empower.
There are many barriers victims have to face, especially those in BIPOC and marginalized communities, Synavone said. These barriers are especially prominent in reporting, in court cases and during trials. She explained that it is important to understand what justice means to each individual person in order to serve them well.
“For some survivors, justice looks like having their perpetrator doing time behind bars,” Synavone said. “For some survivors, justice looks like them healing and regaining their ability to be free from that person, so justice looks different for everybody.”
Raising awareness for domestic and sexual violence was not the work Synavone imagined she’d be a part of in her younger years. Over time her passion grew and she dedicated time and attention on trying to make a difference in the field.
“When I started doing the work, I started seeing the need.”
As a parent, Synavone explained she believes that change starts at home in educating children about how domestic violence and power and control dynamics are learned behaviors. She explained that determining whether someone is going to be tolerant or not of violence starts at home. She actively teaches her kids what healthy relationships look like, and challenges the social and cultural norms of traditional gender roles.
“It’s not to say that this is something that happens overnight or anything, but as a parent I was very intentional on how I modeled that message to my kids,” Synavone said.
Ann McFarland has been involved at Standpoint since 2020, and has been the housing and supervising attorney since fall 2022. Before Standpoint she worked at the Volunteer Lawyers Network, and learned of Standpoint from a partnership between the two. Within the housing program, McFarland handles action line housing questions, provides training for system professionals and advocates who provide emotional and social support for survivors and families, and creates resources surrounding housing needs for victims/survivors.
“Standpoint’s expertise is the intersection of domestic and sexual violence and the justice system,” McFarland said.
Standpoint started in 1984 as “The Family Law Project,” and aimed to raise awareness of legal services for women and children in low income circumstances. They also monitored the Domestic Abuse Act in southern Minnesota. In 1986, it was renamed the “Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project,” and expanded across the state. In 2016, they became Standpoint. The mission is “to promote justice for domestic and sexual violence victims.” Standpoint currently has 15 staff members, and offers assistance with family law, protective orders, housing, immigration and other legal services.
Growing up, McFarland’s mother was a social worker and worked often with domestic violence shelters. McFarland expressed that she was very inspired by her mother’s work, and over time as she learned more about domestic and sexual violence, she felt called to the work.
“I take so much pride in what we do and I am inspired everyday by the victims/survivors that we work with,” McFarland said. “My coworkers are amazing, and I’m inspired by them, too.”
A challenge McFarland experiences within the housing program, and with domestic and sexual violence work as a whole, is a lack of funding. With more funding, she feels that Standpoint would expand, do more in depth work, and provide more training to field professionals. As the need is high, she feels the work is extremely valuable.
Hennepin resident Michelina Lucia began working as an attorney within the Legal Assistance for Victims (LAV) grant in 2023. While studying as a paralegal, Lucia worked at a law firm that focused on severe domestic violence family cases. The experience sparked her interest in working with domestic and sexual violence cases. After graduating from the University of Minnesota law school, she worked for Anoka County for three years, and then moved to Standpoint. The LAV grant is primarily for non intimate partner sexual violence in Ramsey County.
“I knew from the start of my work in law that they [Standpoint] were the go to entity for learning the new or current laws of domestic or sexual violence,” Lucia said. “They just created a really good name for themselves for the cases that they take on and the work that they do.”
Through LAV, survivors can request protective orders. They work with schools and employers to get accommodations, and ensure that systems are following the right steps to protect survivors. Working within LAV and the appellate court brief committee, Lucia often works with children. She expressed that the experience of supporting children and their guardians through the process is very rewarding, and she admires the resilience she witnesses in young survivors. Before becoming an advocate at Standpoint, Lucia wanted to learn more about representing survivors of sexual violence. Working with the attorneys at Standpoint has taught her how to represent survivors well through informed care and representation practices.
Lucia, like Synavone, had not originally imagined herself working in the field, but views the work as necessary due to the amount of cases and survivors in need of support and representation. Her work, especially in working with child survivors, bears a lot of emotional weight. Lucia expressed that it is important that she actively cares for her own mental and emotional health.
“Standpoint is very good at encouraging and modeling healthy habits to make sure that you can continue to work in this field,” Lucia said.
During the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, Standpoint experienced an increase in calls to their action line, which operates from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. The organization did not have to shut down their services during the pandemic as this system allowed them to continue doing their work remotely. The lockdown also inspired the organization to create a text line, as many were forced to live with their abusers. As the number of callers increased, the amount of Standpoint staff increased as well to accommodate the need.
“With the growth of our organization, we’re able to participate more and provide more of our insight, experience and Standpoint’s expertise around domestic violence and sexual violence and bring that voice to our collaborations and partnerships,” Synavone said.
Despite increased awareness of domestic and sexual violence, Synavone said that the numbers of victims/survivors has not decreased. She expressed that funding of resources is a large issue, and that for the most part in Minnesota domestic violence shelters are full every day.
“We [Standpoint employees] say, ‘This is a job that we want to work ourselves out of,’” Synavone said. “I’ve been doing this work since 1997, and I don’t see us being able to work ourselves out of a job. It is an issue that continues to happen and there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Synavone encourages people to call local domestic and sexual violence organizations to find out how they can get involved. Most organizations need volunteers, she said, and there are many ways to get involved, including donations of time, funds, and advocacy. Tickets are available for Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Day Block Center (1103 Washington Ave, Minneapolis) as Standpoint is hosting its annual “Stand with Standpoint” fundraising event which celebrates the work of their advocates, attorneys and professionals. The event features live entertainment, a silent auction and “Journey of Hope” awards ceremony.