When the Committee to Aid Abused Women set out to find a new executive director last year, it was a sensitive task.
The new director would replace popular longtime director Joni Kaiser, who was also a founder of the organization. When Kaiser was forced out by the CAAW board of directors (“End of an era,” RN&R, May 12, 2011), it left a lot of hard feelings. Since then a number of Kaiser’s supporters—many of them financial contributors—have kept their distance from CAAW or shifted their donations to Safe Embrace, a different shelter program.
In November, the CAAW board hired Denise Yoxsimer, one of the most sought-after women executives in the valley, who brought a golden resume with her. She has been a KTVN news producer, president and CEO of the Nevada Women’s Fund, a fundraiser for KNPB and for Washoe Medical Center.
“The best comparison I can make is when UNLV bagged Rollie Massimino after they fired Tarkanian,” said one financial figure and supporter of CAAW. “No one thought they would get someone in Tarkanian’s league.” Of course, Massimino’s tenure at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas ended badly, but CAAW is hoping for better luck with Yoxsimer. RN&R sources say morale at CAAW is good under her.
Last week Yoxsimer made what she said was her first public appearance since taking on the new job in November. She spoke to the Nevada Women’s Lobby monthly northern luncheon. The group included people who were guarded toward her, including a couple of close friends of Kaiser.
Addressing some of the area’s top flight women’s activists, Yoxsimer acknowledged the nature of the group.
“I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here,” she said. “I know that you’ve all been very active and involved in CAAW for some time, and I am just starting to learn the organization. … I have the great privilege of following Joni Kaiser as the executive director … as the second executive director of the organization.”
She talked about Nevada’s well known negative quality of life and its impact on women and families.
“Nevada continues to be number one in the states relative to women being killed by a male partner—and that’s number one for the last four out of five years, so we have some serious work to continue to do in that regard.”
After running down the kinds of work CAAW does and how it operates, Yoxsimer took questions. There were plenty of them.
Can you update us on efforts in Congress to kill the Violence Against Women Act? Yoxsimer: “Senator Heller became the 60th vote” to renew the act.
Does CAAW have an endowment? No, “but it’s definitely a conversation I’d like us to start having.”
Does CAAW have arrangements with dentists and cosmetic surgeons to help battery victims? “Not that I’m aware of, and that’s a wonderful idea.”
Does CAAW follow up with its clients to find out how they negotiate the judicial system? The CAAW staff reports that there are “ebbs and flows” in how well judges understand the issues but those staffers also feel that judges make “a real commitment” by taking training in abuse issues.
What does CAAW do when its shelter fills up? “We are continuing to work collaboratively with other domestic violence agencies … We also have funding that allows us to put some women and families in very dire circumstances in motels for a certain period of time. … But as you can imagine, none of [other options] last very long. … For the situations that are extremely dangerous, [a] Greyhound bus ticket” is provided.
What has been happening to CAAW’s financial contributions? “We have seen contributions from individuals and private foundations have declined over the last couple of years. The need continues to grow. … We have spent some time doing some strategic thinking about our staffing and doing some consolidation of programs … to help create a smoother, congenial service for our clients.”
Does CAAW serve men? Yes.
Does CAAW do outreach to Latinos? Yes, both in community education and in support groups tailored to Latinos.
What should we be talking to our state legislators about? “How we can do a better job [of] prevention.”
Are there CAAW education programs for small children in the schools? Not yet. So far it’s mostly at the high school level. But younger instruction is “a goal and a vision that I have.”
The audience was receptive to Yoxsimer and seemed particularly responsive when she talked about how vulnerable abuse victims are as they try to break away from their dangerous situations: “If it takes nine visits, if it takes 12 visits, we are here.”
One person in the audience told her, “Thank you for taking that position. … It’s very appreciated, by all.”
Afterward, Marlene Lockard—former state agency chief and governor’s chief of staff—said she believes Yoxsimer can heal the ruptures that followed Kaiser’s departure, based on her handling of previous organizations with which she has served.
“Anytime you deal with an organization with a lot of independent views and you’re able to pull those together in consensus and move and organization forward—I think Denise is just what CAAW needs at this particular time, too. … She is so professional.”
After the luncheon speech one of Kaiser’s friends pointed out that where Kaiser had a degree in social work, Yoxsimer has a degree in communications. The point was a little unclear, but the CAAW board of directors has been criticized for poorcommunications skills.
The same person also said, “I just dropped off [the CAAW list of donors]. There’s some people on that board that I don’t want to be anywhere near. … You know, it’s just tough, and it still hurts. … Does Denise come across to me like she has an awareness and understanding? No. But, she can grow.”
In response to questions, Yoxsimer said she knows nothing of the dispute between Kaiser and the CAAW board, but has appreciated those who brought their concerns to her.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations from some long-time supporters who had some concern about the direction the organization was headed. I’ve appreciated having the opportunity to kind of talk through what I’m aware of these issues.”
She said she and Kaiser—who now lives in Pennsylvania—have had contact and discussed abuse issues.
Yoxsimer said when she headed a statewide women’s scholarship program, “I had the privilege and opportunity of meeting so many of the donors who support both organizations. I feel that’s given me a bit of an opportunity to kind of get my foot in the door and have some conversations about looking forward. And I think it’s just one of these issues that will take time, and it’s about building trust. And I know the bottom line is that supporters of the Committee to Aid Abused Women support women and families in the community and want to continue to do that. I really, truly believe over time that support of our mission will … outweigh any other hard feelings that have occurred.”