Points of Pride

A Life of Activism and Advocacy: Supporting Exiles and Survivors of Sexual Violence

Posted on Tue, Nov 26, 2013

By Marianne McCarthy

Indira K. Skoric, PhD

Few people can say they were on the front lines of societal change, especially if it dealt with a cultural taboo.  Yet, humanitarian Indira K. Skoric (HOS ’12) proudly witnessed the alteration of a long-standing sentiment about women subjected to sexual violence during the Yugoslav Wars and a system that tolerated such abuses.  A victim of sexual violence herself, she has consistently advocated for those subjected to systematic rape and torture during the war. It took over a decade, and the work of countless other advocates, but finally women survivors were legally labeled “civilian victims of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Indira was living and studying in Belgrade during the Yugoslav National Movement when she first became involved with feminist groups. In 1991, she helped establish the Belgrade Women in Black, an antimilitarist peace movement protesting the war in Serbia and all forms of hatred, discrimination, and violence.  According to the group’s website, it has organized more than 500 protests throughout the former Yugoslavia since its founding.Belgrade Women in Black

After the war started, Indira joined the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as an information officer.

“I wanted to do something tangible for people who were survivors and victims of the war,” she said.

Many of these victims were the unacknowledged sufferers of sexual violence. Years later, Indira would write in her dissertation that post war reports estimated that 10,000 to 60,000 women had been submitted to sexual violence during the war, although the European Commission settled on a figure 20,000.

While one part of her felt devoted to working with people who were minorities like herself or those who were working on gender issues, another wanted to escape the violence and the intense political climate of ethnical and territorial conflict.

In 1994, Indira found her way out of Yugoslavia after winning a fellowship at the New School for Social Research in New York. She continued her activism with the American Friends Service Committee and a New York branch of Women in Black. But pressure was building from the war in Kosovo, and she received threats to her life. Many of her Women in Black colleagues had been forced into hiding. Eventually, she was granted political asylum and was able to complete her master’s degree in International Relations, writing her thesis on “Understanding War Rapes.” It was a topic she would continue to explore during her time at Fielding.

In the meantime, Indira focused on survivors of sexual violence and refugees of the former Yugoslavia. She consulted on the documentary film, Calling the Ghosts. The Emmy-award winning documentary reveals the torture and humiliation of women in concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Directed by Mandy Jacobson in 1996, it also won the Human Rights Watch Int'l Film Fest and Nestor Almendros Award for best documentary.

Indira also co-founded the Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network (RACOON, Inc.), an organization she would eventually direct until 2011, raising over $1.5 million to assist in community-building programs for an estimated 250,000 Western Balkan refugees and exiles in the New York and tri-state area.

Indira Skoric and staff of Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network (RACOON, Inc.)

“We were mostly political activists,” said Indira, “but early on, we realized that these refugee populations not only needed a conflict resolution program, but they also needed someone to help them navigate complexities in the system and advocate for them.”

Indira describes how things became especially difficult for immigrants after 9/11. “People couldn’t get social security numbers, and so they would end up in the category of aliens, or illegals,” even if they were awaiting a “legal” status.

Her organization began working on issues such as advocating for health care and ensuring her constituents could get the care they needed in their native language. In 2004, RACOON, Inc. received the Union Square Award for grassroots activism that strengthens local communities.

Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network (RACOON, Inc.)“The organization that started as a conflict transformation group, thinking how do we reconcile in exile, ended up providing advocacy and networking,” said Indira. “As part of the leadership, I was pushed in a place that I needed to learn how to navigate, not only practically but also strategically. Fielding provided that place for my own learning and growth, to be able to lead this small organization.”

Intrigued by women, like herself, who used their experiences to “transform their lives and even emancipate themselves from the horror that haunts them,” her Human and Organizational Systems research focused on the life stories of nine women survivors of and advocates against sexual violence. In a way, it was her way to seek greater understanding of her own growth.

Then, in 2007, the Law on the Protection of Civilian Victims of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina was amended to include victims of rape. By essentially garnering women who had been raped during the war status of civilian war victims, they became eligible for disability, health care, and professional rehabilitation. It was a “huge” moment for Indira.

According to her dissertation committee chair, Richard Appelbaum, "Indira's life and work bear witness to Fielding's concern with social justice—with putting theory into practice. Her dissertation was a powerful exploration into the lives of women who were severely traumatized, yet who used their pain and sorrow to devote their energies to helping other women similarly afflicted.”

A recipient of multiple Fielding scholarships, Indira’s research contributes to the literature on “emancipatory learning by revealing how these women created the conditions for their own survival, and adds to the literature of feminist studies.” Indira has organized and presented at numerous international seminars, conferences and United Nations meetings. During her doctoral studies, she was a fellow in Fielding’s Institute for Social Innovation and was named Revson Fellow by Columbia University. Her article “Advocacy and Survivors of Sexual Violence” is set for publication in Canadian Oral History in the spring of 2014.

In addition to being assistant professor at Kingsborough Community College, Indira currently sits on the board of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a research and advocacy group that accomplishes life-changing improvements for vulnerable displaced populations. 

Tags: change agent, social justice, diversity, women's issues, graduate fellows, violence, human rights, scholar activist

Dr. Herukhuti Attends First-Ever White House Roundtable on Bisexuality

Posted on Fri, Nov 01, 2013

By Marianne McCarthy

On September 23, Dr. Herukhuti (Hameed S. Williams, HOD ’06) joined 30 leaders from the bisexual community at the first-ever White House roundtWhite House Roundtable on Bisexualityable discussion on Bisexuality in Washington, DC. The historic meeting was also attended by high-ranking federal governmental officials and representatives from national LGBTQ organizations, who met to discuss HIV/AIDS and other health issues, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, and domestic violence impact on bisexual communities.

As a clinical sociologist/sexologist and editorial board member of the Journal of Bisexuality, Dr. Herukhuti was invited to present information on HIV and its impact on bisexuals. His topic focused on the ways in which the lack of bisexual-specific HIV programs in research, prevention education, treatment, and care may be contributing to disparities among black and Latino men and women.

“Current HIV treatment focuses on black and Latino men who have sex with men and women as though they were gay men, or as though they were white gay men,” said Dr. Herukhuti.  “This may be the reason why we are missing the mark.”

wide view group shot at taskforce(Photo courtesy of Loraine Hutchins.)

Being a Scholar-Practitioner

Admittedly, Herukhuti didn’t accept the White House invitation with the agenda of pointing out these disparities. It was the research that led him there, and Herukhuti attributes that to being a scholar-practitioner—something that was nurtured and supported at Fielding Graduate University.

“Fielding helped me cultivate and develop a sense of practice—learning by doing and allowing an experience to inform one’s theory and allowing theory to inform one’s practice. With my co-presenters, I looked at existing research on disparities, allowed my conclusions to emerge from what I observed in the literature, and used my lived experience working and living in the field as a check. This provided a compelling message we could present to the policy makers in the room,” said Herukhuti.

Practicing Agency Helped Open Doors

Fielding also helped influence Dr. Herukhuti’s career by encouraging him to take ownership of his learning and practice agency. He sought resources in his own community and started attending the Grand Rounds at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University. These weekly presentations provide updates about the most current research related to HIV, sexuality, substance abuse, and socio-medical sciences.  After one of the sessions, a member of the center approached him and invited him to write a grant supplement to a National Institute of Mental Health research project. As a result, Herukhuti became a federally-funded graduate research assistant at the HIV Center where he received training and education in sex research, in particular, HIV social behavioral research.  He also received funding to conduct his own small scale study.

“Fielding's learning model created the structure and opportunity for me to take ownership of my learning, like going to a Grand Round, and ultimately led to my having a complementary relationship with another institution that I would not have had at traditional universities with their rigid borders,” said Herukhuti.

Working to Change Public Policy on Bisexuality

A respected faculty member at Goddard College in Vermont since 2007, Dr. Herukhuti also serves as Chair of the Goddard College Faculty Council, the voice of the faculty on academics at the college.  He is the founder of the Center for the Culture of Sexuality and Spirituality (aka Black Funk) which provides sex education, sexuality education, and relationship coaching.

Dr. Herukhuti is the author of Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality, Volume 1. He is currently co-editing a bisexual anthology with Robyn Ochs, a Boston-based bisexual activist and educator. Due out next year, the anthology will include prose, poetry, creative non-fiction, visual work, and essays by cisgender and transgender bisexual men.

“We expect it to be a resource for bisexual men others to see the diversities, the complexities, the nuances, and the presences of bisexual men,” said Herukhuti. “And there aren’t a whole lot of those resources out there.”

In addition, Dr. Herukhuti said he will continue working with those who were present at the White House roundtable on bisexuality to help support the development of a more inclusive public policy relating to bisexuality.

Tags: change agent, HIV, bisexuality, AIDs, LGBTQ