By Ariele Vaccaro
Domestic violence is a cycle, said Terry Strodthoff, but a cycle that can be broken.
Strodthoff is the founder and executive director of the Alma Center in Milwaukee. The grassroots organization of 12 years offers community-based programming to help adult males with violent histories become caring fathers, boyfriends, husbands, and community advocates. The group works with about 250 men each year.
Domestic violence is not something you might always hear about happening in your own community, but Strodthoff contends, “When you say it’s prevalent, it’s so prevalent.”
Many of the men that she serves at the Alma Center can hardly picture their lives without violence when they first step into the building. However, after talking about their struggles and utilizing the tools the center offers, men can envision their lives without violence — for the first time, in some cases.
It’s a choice, offers Strodthoff, although it may not seem that way to Alma Center’s clients at first.
“This isn’t the only way it can be,” said Strodthoff.
She noted that a cloud of common misconceptions are keeping men from getting the help they need. Movies tend to portray “batterers” as monsters, domestic abusers who stalk, harass, and harm their victims for no reason other than being an angry, easily irritable person. According to Strodthoff, that image is far from the truth. Rather, many abusers were once abused themselves. Some began struggling with the sights and sounds of trauma as young boys.
“Because we’re human, we respond in ways that affect our development,” said Strodthoff
The psychological and emotional effects of violent experiences follow them into their adulthoods and sometimes surface during relationships.
Majority of the men Alma Center helps reach the organization through the criminal justice system. Many are African-American, but Strodthoff said this does not reflect domestic violence as a whole and that people of all races and genders see similar struggles with the issue.
The center’s programming is based in facilitating a “journey of healing and making better choices.” The Men Ending Violence program aims to help men find the root of partner violence and teach them how they can foster healthy relationships. Restorative Fatherhood allows men to explore their own fathering abilities, to find ways to work with the other parent productively, and how to be responsible, compassionate fathers.
As men with dated criminal histories struggle to find work in Milwaukee, Alma Center directs them to Finding Work program. During the program, men discover ways to become more employable and find work that can sustain their families.
All of these aim to help men change their behavior in the long-term by making conscious choices every single minute.
“That, to me, is not putting a bandaid on it,” said Strodthoff.
One program seems to deviate from the beaten path, however.
Wisdom Walk to Self Mastery is a holistic approach to healing the body and mind. Men elect to participate in this program with the intent to become purposeful members of their communities.
Participants go on a guided spiritual journey while focusing on the five elements of the Dagara medicine wheel — nature, water, earth, mineral, and fire. The wheel is a spiritual symbol belonging to the the West African Dagara tribe.
According to Strodthoff, the program has been well received.
In the past, Alma Center has had other unique program offerings, like art therapy. The group even has an artist on staff.
That day, the center will also make an announcement regarding its recent win of the Celebrating Solutions Award for innovation in domestic violence prevention. The award is one of four given out by the Mary Byron Project.