Donna Garske’s Legacy as Center for Domestic Peace’s Executive Director

Here we are honoring Donna Garske for her outstanding leadership in initiating, fostering, and furthering the development and vision of Center for Domestic Peace (C4DP) and the domestic violence movement for over four decades. Her innovative and effective strategies for creating safer domestic relationships and public communities have been replicated and celebrated throughout California, the nation, and beyond.

Donna left her position as Executive Director in June 2024 after serving for 44 years. Her departure comes at a time when she can joyfully exit, knowing the foundational work of the organization has contributed significantly to both the local and international efforts to end violence against women and girls, domestic violence, and gender-based violence.

Donna often states that her inspiration to lead a purpose-driven life started in 5th grade when she organized two classes of girls to confront a group of boys who were bullying and harassing girls during recess. Her early experiences of gender discrimination along with the contradictions she witnessed between her faith-based education, the marginalization of Native children in the school system, and the way people with economic advantage received preferential treatment determined her direction in life.

Driven to understand justice, Donna pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice and community corrections to learn about the intersection of oppressions from the lived experience of people in prison. She joined the emerging movement to reform prisons and the criminal justice system through a framework of community corrections, which acknowledged the power of community to correct social problems generated by discrimination.

Her professional work involved prisoner re-entry programs in Oregon and then in California, including two residential early release living communities for women. It was during her time working with the Bay Area Quest Program in San Francisco that the impact of violence and poverty on women’s lives began to crystalize her area of focus, since most women in prison serving life sentences were poor and had killed their abusers in self-defense.

Around this same time in the mid-1970’s, the Battered Women’s Justice Movement emerged with both La Casa de la Madres in San Francisco, one of the first shelters for battered women in the country, and with Marin Abused Women’s Services (MAWS), the shelter group in Marin County. Donna was hired as the Volunteer Coordinator in 1979 and soon advanced to executive director. It was clear to those who hired Donna that she would grow the organization into a force to be reckoned with. It was also clear that Donna had the commitment and vision to help build a national movement.

To fully understand the significance of Donna’s achievements, one must understand the historical context of the domestic violence issue. When Donna took over the helm of Marin Abused Women’s Services in 1980, the problem of domestic violence was not identified as a social issue. Many people refused to believe that domestic violence existed and characterized MAWS as a fringe group. Consequently, representing MAWS required addressing head-on the social denial, minimization, blame, and collusion that occurs around domestic violence. Whether it was roll-call training with police officers or community education presentations, it was common to be challenged by those who marginalized MAWS’ message. Donna remained steadfast in her commitment to assisting survivors and educating the community about the reality of domestic violence.

For the first 15 years of her tenure, Donna worked on the 24/7 hotline, often personally accompanying women and their children to the shelter in the middle of the night while also fulfilling her executive director duties.

Over the years, Donna has worked “consistently, visibly, and persistently” to move the needle to end domestic violence and challenge and change social conditions that negatively impact people. Whether through coalition building within the women’s community, the public health community, the housing community, or the criminal justice system, Donna has looked for strategic levers to increase engagement with partners and address policy and system gaps. One example of her collaborative efforts is her work with the Commission on the Status of Women in the early 90’s to generate the first report on this issue to the Board of Supervisors that identified over 90 systems gaps impacting domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

Donna is also passionate about the potential of non-profits to impact the causes of the social problem they are addressing at the response level.  While serving on the board of the Marin Council of Agencies (now CVNL), Donna was an outspoken advocate for advancing dialogue and training for non-profits to advocate for policy changes. MCA established an Advocacy Committee and also consulted with the Industrial Areas Foundation to provide training on community organizing. Donna also carried her advocacy voice into the Safety Net Collaborative hosted by Marin Community Foundation. MCF later funded interested participants of the Safety Net Collaborative to attend the Leadership for Equity Opportunity (LEO) three-week training,

Under her leadership, the organization has grown from a fledgling grassroots operation into a professional and highly competent multi-service organization, recognized as a leader in the field of domestic violence services and prevention, which to date has assisted more than 240,000 individuals in their journey to freedom, currently has 47 employees and an operating budget of $5.5 million.  Since the very beginning of Donna’s tenure, she has been a champion in strategic planning. She consistently challenges the organization to find the next “lever” required for C4DP to advance our agenda through data, innovation, and big-picture vision.

Through documenting results and employing best practices from public health strategies and our field, C4DP is proud to announce that, since 2013, domestic violence calls to law enforcement in Marin have decreased 55% (not seen elsewhere in California as per the assessment of the criminologist who studied the data). Additionally, the need for emergency shelter in Marin has decreased 30% over the past four years.

Donna advanced the work of ending gender violence in Marin and beyond

Donna is unsurpassed in her ability to lead organizations and social movements with strategic thinking, vision, and action. Under her leadership, C4DP has pioneered numerous programs in the domestic violence field. Highlights of her significant contributions include:Programmatic Innovation:

  • In 1983, Donna earned an American Planning Association award for establishing the first transitional housing program in the country for domestic violence victims and their children. To initiate this program Donna raised the money to buy a 10-unit apartment building in San Rafael that to this day still operates as the Second Step Transitional Housing Program. On average, 97% of the existing residents obtain permanent housing and are stable for at least one year. Second Step has served as model for many domestic violence programs who have only recently developed transitional housing services.
  • Donna founded the nation’s first 24-hour hotline for violent men: ManKind. Since its founding in 1981, ManKind has assisted over 30,000 men in their journey to find freedom from their violence, and received international attention, including being featured in a BBC documentary and consulting through Sterling University’s Institute on the Study of Male Violence to establish the first abuser intervention program in Europe.
  • For 17 years, this program was integrated into San Quenten’s education curriculum, and achieved a 73% reduction in recidivism rates. Unique to ManKind is the core belief that each man has the potential and the responsibility to advocate to other men to end their violence with the hope that men for non-violence would add to the expanding social movement to end violence against women. To this day, the classes are facilitated by men who have completed the 52-week program reflect what Donna refers to as the “authentic voice” of those with the most experience and understanding to teach.

 Building a Prevention Movement:

  • Donna has been at the forefront of advancing prevention within the field. She was instrumental in building out the framework for MAWS to embrace a new three-tiered prevention approach (primary, secondary, tertiary) as part of its first strategic plan in 1985. Her strategic focus on prevention led to MAWS building a coalition with other providers in the late 80’s to establish legislation to fund primary prevention work. MAWS secured funding from this legislation resulting in the organization being one of two projects in California to begin working with youth in schools. With the assistance of an outsider evaluator, the project was the first in the country to document prevalence rates of young girls impacted by violence under the age of 18 (1 out of 3).
  • In 1992, Donna’s passion convinced a private donor to seed her idea for a new prevention arm of the organization, Transforming Communities (TC), to address and change the underlying social norms that support domestic violence through community mobilization and activism. From 1995-2000 MAWS coordinated a project that focused the TC model on the city of Novato. TC’s project, TC Marin, expanded the prevention work in Novato to encompass all of Marin County. At the same time in 1992, Donna envisioned a learning center for the advancement of new thinking, practices, and strategies to prevent domestic violence, since prevention work had not yet begun in most domestic violence organizations. Because of Donna’s leadership on prevention, MAWS was selected by the CA Department of Health Services to establish Transforming Communities Technical Assistance Training (TC-TAT), a statewide technical assistance and training project to foster community prevention. TC-TAT grew to include work on a national level. Over its 22-year history, TC-TAT provided in-depth training to over 5,000 individuals and organizations, operated twenty 3.5-day Immersion Institutes, and published scores of manuals, training guides, videos, and webinars.

Statewide and National Coalition Building:

  • Donna’s passion for prevention also extended to the work she was doing for the state domestic violence coalition. While vacationing in France in 2002, Donna discovered a funding opportunity and wrote the proposal for California state DV coalition that resulted in the state being awarded one of 14 grants nationwide to build the capacity of state domestic violence coalitions to do statewide prevention. Since then, California has received millions of dollars from the CDC toward this end.
  • In 1994, Donna helped craft the language for the Battered Women’s Protection Act to set aside $10M of the $25M funding for statewide prevention and to direct that money away from a criminal justice response to public health, which allowed the Office on Maternal Child Health to expand their scope to include domestic violence. This shift was an important “win” for our movement as the effort had been underway for years to divest in criminal justice system responses and increase restorative justice approaches, public health being one of those approaches.
  • In 1990, she co-founded the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence, and served on its board for 15 years. She co-led the effort to merge two state coalitions into one new state coalition, which was founded in 2005 under the name of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence
  • Donna has received numerous awards and recognition over the years for her leadership. In 1995, the Gimble Foundation and the Journal of Primary Prevention selected Donna as a National Scholar for her innovative work on preventing abuse, and along with the 9 other selected scholars, she co-authored a volume on primary prevention for Sage Publication. She was also selected to serve on President Clinton’s Violence Against Women Advisory Committee on social norm change which resulted in increased funding for various federal departments to address domestic violence and sexual assault prevention.

Donna’s work addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging:

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are at the core of C4DP’s guiding principles, which Donna helped craft and are foundational to her commitment to social justice work. Drawing from her experience in social movements, Donna helped forge a framework for the organization in the mid-80’s that recognized how the social context of people’s lives is influenced by gender, class, race, sexual identity, and orientation, along with many other factors. Understanding the complex interplay of these factors has been vital to C4DP’s approach in responding to domestic violence. Furthermore, DEIB has been central to the training that C4DP has provided to the community for over 45 years. These DEIB principles are documented in the organization’s Principles of Operation and Core Principles of Social Transformation, which are the bedrock of the organization’s approach to providing services and programs.

Laid out in these principles she helped draft, the first DEIB commitment C4DP made was to the survivors of domestic violence. As a survivor defined and focused organization, C4DP follows the wisdom and insights that survivors have about what they need to achieve safety and freedom. In doing so, C4DP recognizes that each survivor has a unique life experience and that their particular context for defining their needs must be respected.

Under her leadership, the organization centered early on the importance of being culturally responsive and inclusive and in the mid-80s launched the first Spanish-speaking 24/7 hotline for survivors in CA.  Over the years, C4DP has increased its bilingual capacity by hiring Spanish speaking staff so that all programs and services are available in Spanish. C4DP recently completed the build-out of its entire website in Spanish with considerations about gendered language, and the 24/7 hotline is fully integrated providing both English and Spanish language capacity.

Donna’s vision also included what was once considered a radical and controversial idea to include men who had been violent in the solution to end domestic violence. In the early 80’s, she launched one of the nation’s first Men’s Programs to teach men to stop their violent behavior and helped activate the nation’s first men’s 24/7 hotline to deter men from engaging in violence. The Men’s Program (now called ManKind) engaged men once they completed the 52-week program to become agents of change by participating in community advocacy to transform the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors which perpetuate violence with “each one reach one, each one teach more” as the motto for this community-mobilizing approach. To this day, the class facilitators of ManKind are former class participants who once were violent. Donna’s work with ManKind resulted in her consulting to help establish the first abuser intervention program in Europe through Sterling University’s Institute on the Study of Male Violence.

Also of note, Donna was a major driver for ADA compliance of domestic violence shelters in CA to increase differently abled survivors access to services. The California Public Health Department hired Donna in 2006 to lead a training and technical assistance project that included conducting on-site inspections of 94 domestic violence shelters in CA, and to provide technical assistance to each organization to improve their accessibility. Donna led the way within C4DP to raise the money to remodel the shelter to build ADA compliant bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and doorway access. This initiative also included securing the funds to revamp C4DP offices at A Street in San Rafael to include an accessible doorway entry, an elevator, and an ADA compliant communication system for entering the building. An ADA compliance specialist was hired to revamp the organization’s website in 2018, and educational materials were developed in three additional languages, including Braille.

Other examples of Donna’s DEIB leadership include: not requiring degrees for employment in the organization that by nature creates barriers for access to those who have been educationally disadvantaged; working with the board to create a comprehensive DEIB board plan starting in 2019 (which is updated annually) and includes specific actions in support of awareness, knowledge, skills, application, accountability, and ongoing monitoring and review of the plan; working with the C4DP board to increase diversity in board membership that has resulted in the board now being 55-60% of color since 2017; supporting advancement for emerging people of color into management roles through in-depth training and coaching; prioritizing an “engagement specialist” in the budget to deepen C4DPP’s reach within black communities; supporting the inclusion of a survivor-led activist group, Voces de Cambio (Voices for Change), in the organization who have been at the forefront over the past 19 years in designing and implementing culturally specific strategies for engaging immigrant victims of domestic violence; and numerous diverse youth-led initiatives that included the creation in the late 80’s of one of the first youth-designed curriculums and videos on healthy relationships. Donna also established the practice of conducting annual comprehensive data reviews of all services to determine where more effort is needed to reach the marginalized. Over the past 8 years, this review initiated C4DP’s increased outreach and collaboration to be more inclusive of West Marin, Marin City, the LGBTQ+ communities, women over 55, and LatinX and Black young boys and men. On-going staff trainings have also been added to increase staff knowledge about people with different racialized experiences, histories of marginalization, and ways of knowing to increase the ability of individuals to build connection and become allies in cross-cultural interactions.

Donna continues to be a strong advocate for addressing DEIB principles and unconscious bias work in her advocacy with state funders as well as with the local and regional committees she serves, which included her advocating that CVNL change the Heart of Marin application to speak directly to DEIB as part of the application process.

Examples of Donna’s leadership history:

Examples of Donna’s contributions extend far beyond her role at C4DP/MAWS. Donna’s spirited activism, working at the local, state, and national levels, has influenced numerous legislators and policymakers. Donna spent six years representing California in Washington DC on the framework for and passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which passed in 1994, creating wide-sweeping policy changes across the nations. Here is Marin County, C4DP has secured millions of VAWA dollars over the years to build comprehensive legal advocacy services for survivors, create age-appropriate services and prevention campaigns for youth victims ages 11 – 24, fund the development of a comprehensive community network to create a “coordinated community response” to domestic violence that to date has generated over 40 policy changes in Marin, and help C4DP’s Second Step program develop an economic empowerment component. Donna co-wrote California Assembly Bill 226, which was passed by the legislature in 1993 to establish minimum requirements for batterer’s participation in reeducation programs. As a result, consistent standards now exist throughout the state. Recently, she formed a work group of leaders from around the state to study the current effectiveness of the legislation and to assess what legislative updates and fixes are needed.

Donna’s involvement with state and national level work includes the Governor appointment to the Department of Health Services’ Domestic Violence Advisory Committee, and the Office of Criminal Justice Planning’s Violence Against Women Task Force. She was also appointed to President Clinton’s Violence Against Women’s Advisory Council subcommittee on social norm change and prevention.

In 2004, Donna was hired by the Center for Disease Control to provide in-depth on-site training to 14 state domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions around the country on how to expand prevention efforts at the local and state levels. The Department of Justice/Office on Violence Against Women also funded Donna to initiate two pilot national training projects for the field, addressing system advocacy and organizational development strategies for advancing the field’s advocacy and institutional change agenda.

Donna champions the belief in community ownership to address the impact of domestic violence and to generate solutions. To that end, C4DP has participated in numerous successful collaborations with local groups through various programs, including helping create policy and procedural change within the Marin County District Attorney’s Office (D.A.). As a result of working with Donna and the C4DP team, domestic violence cases have been a top priority at the D.A.’s office for decades. Notably, Donna persevered in MAWS’ 12 years collaborative effort with other non-profit providers to convert Hamilton Air Force base into affordable housing with 60 units set-aside for use by the non-profits. This initiative resulted in MAWS expanding its transitional housing with 11 additional housing units to a total of 21 units providing over 25,000 bednights on average per year.

In 2010, Donna organized the formation of the 19-member Bay Area Domestic Violence Shelter Collaboration to achieve a larger regional impact, which she continues to host and facilitate. Committing C4DP as the fiscal agent for the group, she secured over $600K to explore strategies to reduce back-office costs of its members, increase capacity to speak as “one voice” at the regional level toward influencing policy, engage in region-wide problem-solving, and explore a region-wide prevention campaign. The existing relationships and structure that Donna formalized were invaluable when COVID started as the collaboration met weekly to joint problem solve as everyone faced the challenge of operating residential emergency shelters during Sheltering In Place. In 2015, the Collaboration received the Revolutionary Advocate Award from the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence for its innovation in the field.

Donna inspires others to a higher standard:

Donna’s story is one of profound commitment to social justice supported by deeply informed strategic thinking, and her movement building strategies have inspired not only the board, staff, and volunteers, but also those early survivors whose hand she held and stories she retold to funders, collaborators, and law enforcement.

It is common for staff who join C4DP to comment in wonder at how well C4DP is managed, how clear the organization is in its analysis and approach to domestic violence, how consistent it is in staying true to its north star of being survivor-focused and trauma-informed. Staff further comment on the excellent level of training and mentorship they receive to help develop their own leadership skills. Staff who have left to pursue other opportunities often reflect on how, under Donna’s leadership, C4DP’s high standards benefited them in their future careers.

Donna’s recognition in the field continues to generate numerous opportunities to provide paid consulting services (which serve as a source of revenue for C4DP). She has served as a leadership, organizational, and strategy coach to numerous organizations in the field. She was hired by Santa Clara’s Office on Women’s Policy as the lead consultant to the Intimate Partner Violence Blue Ribbon Task Force (IPV) to generate a countywide plan that was later adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2017 and has since resulted in millions of dollars of increased funding for intimate partner prevention in Santa Clara County.

Donna has led scores of workshops and served as a keynote speaker for numerous state conferences around the country. She is known to motivate people in the field with out-of-the box thinking and inspire them to keep planning strategically toward their goal of creating a world of domestic peace.

Donna has also been widely acknowledged for the impact her leadership has made in Marin and beyond. Some highlights include: In 1997, she was inducted into the Marin County Women’s Hall of Fame Social Change category as the youngest honoree in its 10-year history. In 2004, she received the Sunshine National Peace Award. In 2005, Donna was listed in “100 Faces of Marin,” a book profiling the individuals who make Marin County such a unique place to live in. In 2005, she was honored by the Marin Medical Society as an Agent of Change for her role in helping to mobilize the medical community’s response to domestic violence. Donna was selected as Humanitarian of the Year in 2019 for her achievements by the International Association of Sufism. In 2022, she was recognized by Soroptimist International of Novato as a Woman of Vision for her extraordinary vision and leadership abilities.