Can't wait to see Gina Scaramella's next act

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I've interviewed a lot of organizational leaders over the years. It's easy to tell when they're fielding questions with talking points and when they're sharing expertise. Over our many background discussions and on-air interviews, Gina Scaramella, executive director of Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) who announced her retirement from the organization last week, spent much more time with me sharing expertise than spinning.

Whether discussing the nuances of sexual assault against women, men, and transgender people, the triggering effect of media coverage of sexual assault on survivors, or the importance of Title IX to mitigating campus sexual assault, Scaramella can explain complicated systemic issues that contribute to sexual assault in easily understandable ways.

Once, when I asked her about a new test strip that, when dunked into a cocktail, would reveal whether or not the drink had been spiked with a date rape drug, Scaramella responded by asking me what I thought of the idea of sex ed curricula in schools and training for workplaces and community-based organizations that teach people to recognize predatory behavior and safely intervene? After all, she said, by the time someone has progressed to the point where they are dropping Rohypnol into drinks, that person has transgressed multiple boundaries. Why had no family members, friends, or colleagues intervened even though they had surely witnessed inappropriate behavior before? Didn't we, as a society, have an obligation to disrupt the paradigm that says if potential victims do not arm themselves with rape drug test kits, whistles, and underwear that locks, then they are responsible for whatever happened to them?

Over the course of her two-plus decades at BARCC—the last 17 of which she served as executive director—Scaramella's focus has been on making systems work better for survivors. A retrospective of her career published on recounts the way Scaramella reverse engineered hospital intakes of people being treated for sexual assault in order to make the experience less traumatizing for survivors. Hired in 1995 at BARCC as a medical and legal advocacy coordinator, Scaramella quickly heard from survivors that forensic exams performed in hospital emergency departments were often just as traumatizing as a sexual assault.

She brought her medical advocacy volunteers to area hospitals where they interviewed frontline staff, nurses, and doctors to "learn exactly what happened to survivors from the moment they arrived at the emergency department to when they left." Scaramella and her team came up with a bunch of ideas for improving the process, which included ensuring that skilled forensic nurses were made available to survivors in need of treatment and connecting survivors with wrap-around counseling services. BARCC's medical advocacy program now serves approximately 500 survivors annually and has been replicated by rape crisis centers around the country.

She has done the same with other innovative programs including a forum for HR executives interested in moving away from legalistic policies around sexual misconduct in favor of in-depth training and coaching for employees at all levels on how to build positive workplace cultures and effectively intervene in difficult work-based situations.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, Scaramella understands the importance of ensuring that BARCC is accessible to people from multiple communities and has long advocated for diverse programming. By 2000, with the explosion of publicity around clergy sex abuse, it was clear that male survivors needed programs tailored to their unique needs. This was a controversial idea for BARCC, which served women who had, in nearly all instances, been abused by men. Could the agency welcome male survivors into its space?

The executive director at the time believed that BARCC had an obligation to meet this emerging need, but many of those who worked at the nonprofit disagreed with her. One staffer, acting with the righteousness of the young and the oblivious (and who shall remain nameless, because she retains a senior level position at BARCC today), organized staff to sign a letter of no confidence in the executive director. Scaramella wisely resisted succumbing to the mob—which resulted in the executive director's firing. When the fever of feminist separatism passed, Scaramella led efforts to create programs for male survivors.

This is the brand of leadership that eventually put her in the executive director's seat. Today, BARCC offers services in English and Spanish, and in addition to programming for male survivors, also provides meaningful support to survivors facing housing and financial instability, trans and gender diverse survivors, incarcerated people, immigrants, BIPOC survivors, and those living with disabilities. She has also turned BARCC into a communications juggernaut with a voice powerful enough to get Wynn Resorts to change the name of its Boston-based casino because, as Scaramella said at the time, residents of Massachusetts "should not get stuck with a monument to a man forced out of his job due to multiple allegations of sexual assault."

Although I have every confidence that Scaramella has left the organization strongly positioned to continue its life-changing and life-saving work, this is a huge loss not just for BARCC, but for all of us. It's comforting to know that, after more than two and a half decades on the front lines of the fight to eradicate sexual violence, Scaramella plans to stay in the field as a writer, educator, and consultant to advance policies and innovative programming that make our communities safer places in which we can live, work, and play.