Allison L. Dearing began her career as an attorney in the Birmingham office of Legal Services Alabama, where she represented domestic violence survivors in divorce, custody, child support, and protection order cases. She’s worked with local colleges and universities to prevent and address domestic violence and sexual assault on campuses. And as Director of the Jefferson County Coordinated Community Response, she encouraged more collaboration and coordination of services between first responders to help domestic violence victims.
Still, Allison felt she could do more and that Birmingham could, too. Today she is the Executive Director of One Place Alabama Family Justice Center, a collaboration between the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, the Birmingham Police Department, YWCA Central Alabama, and the Crisis Center. The mission of One Place is to provide coordinated services to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault all under one roof, and Allison is leading the way. We’re honored to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Allison L. Dearing.
What inspired you to transition from a career in law to what you do now?
My clients at legal services were my teachers about domestic and sexual violence. Most of what I know, I learned from them, from seeing them struggle against the system, struggle against their offenders, but seeing them also being overcomers. What I saw was I can go to court with you, I can help you obtain a protection from abuse order, I can help you obtain a divorce, but that’s one piece of overcoming all of these other obstacles. These systems, as they existed, were making it difficult for victims to find hope and healing, and justice. I had heard from victims and survivors across our community about how difficult it was to navigate going from place to place to place when you’re in crisis, and you’re afraid, and you’ve never been involved in the legal system before. Once we learned that other states in the country had figured out a way to create a team-based response, we said people in Birmingham, Alabama deserve this same level of care and support.
What’s something you feel most people don’t understand about domestic violence and sexual assault survivors?
I wish people knew that oftentimes, victims do leave. Even though the control can be really intimidating and the potential for them to be harmed with more violence rises for them exponentially when they do leave, many do make the attempt to escape. They do follow all of these well-meaning instructions that they hear from people. But when the systems aren’t in place to support them, and the structures don’t exist to help keep them safe, it’s an uphill battle.
When a victim seeks services and they feel like they’re not believed, when they feel like systems let them down, when cases are backlogged — all of these things mount up against them and can feel as traumatizing as the violence they suffered under the hands of the offender.
What do you want the community to know about One Place?
I want to make sure our community understands that this resource exists, that it’s safe, and it’s welcoming. People are free to make choices about who they speak to when they’re here. It may be that they just want to ask questions and not engage law enforcement. Maybe they only want to seek a forensic exam. People can do that without having to file a police report and going through the criminal justice process. Others come in the door wanting to meet with law enforcement and have a prosecutor take their case. All of that is welcome. Any piece of that is okay. We encourage people to be empowered with information and we promise to walk alongside that person through the journey.
Your job must be very emotionally draining. What do you and your staff do to stave off burnout?
I have experienced burnout in my career, and I hadn’t been prepared for it. It wasn’t something anybody had talked to me about in law school. I don’t have a social work or counseling background, so that wasn’t built into my professional development and learning. So, it snuck up on me the first time it happened.
Given what we see and hear and experience and the way we care about the people we serve, we can’t just go home and flip a switch and it’s totally gone. So, when we created One Place, one of the things that we named as a priority was self-care and wellness. We have a wellness coordinator. We have mindfulness training and yoga and opportunities for people to take time off and get counseling and mental health support. We encourage that, and we talk about it openly, because we know that if we’re not healthy, it’s hard to offer that level of support to other people.
What do you do for self-care?
I have always enjoyed music — playing piano and other instruments and singing. That is something that has helped me to escape some of the difficult and challenging things that we see. I must have time for quiet and meditation. I drink two good cups of coffee every morning. Getting outside, reading, and taking vacation. No one should leave a vacation day on the table.
There must be times when you step away and rejuvenate your spirit. That makes it possible to wake up on a Monday morning and say that I’m doing a job that I love, and that people deserve to have that kind of support here in Birmingham.
How else do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
I have two boys – ages 14 and 16 – and they are such an enjoyable part of my life. I’ve loved getting to be a mom and all that you learn about your kids and what you learn about yourself as you grow into parenting. My family is a big part of my life when I’m not pouring into the family that we have at One Place.
What was your last best meal at a BHM restaurant?
Fish tacos from the Cantina taco truck.
Where did you go on your last vacation?
Kiawah Island in Charleston, SC. It’s just a lovely escape.
What’s on your bedside table?
My iPhone (it’s my alarm and my sound machine, which I need to be able to sleep), my ChapStick, whatever earrings I was wearing the day before, and a stack of books.
What’s the best advice you have to give or the best advice you’ve been given?
Be yourself. That’s the best advice I’ve been given and the best advice that I could offer. And still, for whatever reason, sometimes that is hard to do. Being authentic is an everyday goal for me. I don’t want to be walking around performing or trying to be someone else.
Name three things you can’t live without.
Books, strong coffee, and dark chocolate.
Thank you, Allison!