Dee Koester, Executive Director and Founder of WomenSpirit Coalition (WSC) was working at the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s office over a decade ago, when an idea kept entering her thoughts, distracting her, and keeping her awake at night.
As a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with ancestry in the Quileute and Makah Tribes, and a survivor of domestic violence, Dee knew first-hand the need to eliminate violence against Native women. As a staff in the legal world, Dee also knew of the barriers to justice for Native women, and the complexities of prosecuting domestic violence perpetrators through the maze of tribal, city, county, state, and federal jurisdictions.
“There were months of restless nights,” recalls Dee. “I dreamt of forming a successful non-profit business to eliminate violence against Native women. I could see the need for a coalition of Tribal advocates, a large number of unified voices. There is power in numbers.”
Dee remembers envisioning a multitude of coalition members and allies, poised and ready to respond immediately to the epidemic of violence in Indian County. The vision was complex. The work to form the coalition would be arduous and lengthy. Planning ensued for four years (since 2002) and in 2006, Dee applied for federal funding to the Department of Justice, Office of Violence (OVW). Funding was granted, and WomenSpirit Coalition was realized.
This Coalition was different than Tribal Coalitions that were already operating. Tribal Coalitions were under the authority of their respective tribal governments. WomenSpirit, on the other hand, would be an autonomous, stand-alone business.
Public Policy (local, state and federal) development became a priority. As the Coalition became established, they worked with tribal advocates and federal partners to update their federal practices to specifically allow tribal domestic violence programs, those founded, staffed and supported by Tribal women and like-minded membership, to be eligible for increased OVW, VOCA and FPSVA funds. Between 2002 and 2005, WSC built its infrastructure and expanded its support network. It established and relied on the input and direction of an Advisory Committee made up of 20 para-professionals, attorneys, and tribal advocates.
In 2005, WSC received its first federal funding from Office of Victims of Crime (OVC). With this small infrastructure grant, WSC applied for 501c3 status and held its first domestic violence conference at Squaxin Island, Kamilche, WA.
Once funded (primarily through Office on Violence Against Women and in 2009 via Tribal Indian Governments — as a technical assistance provider to tribal governments and tribal programs) WSC has built a stellar reputation. “We are known for being supportive and empathetic to the myriad of challenges and barriers Native women face when seeking justice. We work to help them get needed services for themselves, and restore a sense of balance and health to their lives, children, families, and communities,” explains Dee.
In 2013, with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA), WSC and the 16 other Tribal coalitions were supported by Congress to receive annual Formula Funding. This was a major step in parity in funding. “Whatever funding non-Indian organizations get, Indian organizations should get,” says Dee. “This parity along with parallel development opportunities remain a top priority for the Coalition and Tribes in Washington State.”
2015 marks the 13th year of operation for the WSC. The organization held its 8th Domestic Violence Conference/Sexual Assault Summit and 5th Envision Awards Luncheon on September 16 and 17 at the Little Creek Casino Resort.
The Summit was a success, bringing together many entities with the same focus: to eliminate violence against Native women. With the Summit concluded, Dee says she will continue to do what she usually does, guided by the vision and mission of WSC, “We will continue to provide technical assistance to the 29 tribes in WA State to develop responsive domestic violence and sexual assault Tribal programs. We will be steadfast in our work to eliminate violence against Native women.”