By: Sophie Carson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
LaVerne Badger and Natalie Hayden remember what it was like to feel trapped in an abusive relationship, fearing for their lives and unsure how to escape.
They were in survival mode.
Now, though, they’ve both survived and gotten out. They don’t consider themselves victims — or even survivors — anymore, but thrivers.
With their podcast about life after abuse, the two Milwaukee women want to help others who have suffered domestic violence achieve the same freedom.
Their conversations offer thousands of listeners crucial reassurance and a chance to envision a better life.
“It’s a sense of hopefulness,” Hayden said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, OK, so I can think beyond this.’”
Hayden and Badger started “EXPOSED The Podcast” about three years ago after meeting at a domestic violence prevention event. They agreed: No one was talking candidly about what life is like once a person gets out of an abusive relationship.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re out of that relationship, now things should be good,’ and that’s just not the case,” Badger said. “There are definitely hurdles that you have to go over, things you have to relearn, confidence that has to be built.”
From the outset, the two wanted to be transparent about the ups and downs of their journeys, the happy moments and the struggles. They know it could make a big difference for a listener to hear: “You’re not alone in feeling this.”
As Badger and Hayden’s weekly conversations reach ears around the country, the two are expanding their prevention efforts locally as well — work that has become even more pressing because domestic violence has surged with the pandemic.
Podcast grew from desire to pass on ‘tools’ hosts have gathered
Badger and Hayden are not counselors, and they make clear that their aim isn’t to work with victims in emergency situations.
But they believe their real, honest chats about their experiences, shared through the podcast medium, fill an important gap in the domestic violence advocacy space.
It’s one of the few places a listener who has faced domestic abuse could hear someone else who has a story like theirs or is struggling with something similar, aside from attending a group therapy session.
And for many, tuning in on a podcast app is a less intimidating prospect than sharing with a group.
With over 10,000 listeners since its inception, the hosts often bring on special guests to discuss a range of topics, from forgiveness to youth dating violence.
Listeners, the hosts say, often report that they appreciate Badger and Hayden’s humor and authenticity and that they’re willing to talk about issues people who haven’t experienced domestic abuse wouldn’t understand.
Both see “EXPOSED” as a chance to pass the tools they’ve used to others.
“You can never have enough in your toolbox,” Hayden said. “Even when you’re out of (the relationship), you still have to defer back to that toolbox.”
Badger and Hayden first met at a meeting for VOICES, an advisory committee for the Sojourner Family Peace Center made up of abuse survivors. Badger was struck by Hayden’s “elegance,” she said, and her thoughtful perspective.
But it wasn’t until a short time later, when Hayden attended an event Badger was hosting, that the two actually had their first conversation.
They immediately hit it off, something special bonding them despite an 11-year age difference.
They were also at different places in their lives: Hayden had just left her abusive relationship and was still staying at the Sojourner shelter. Badger had been married to her new husband for 13 years.
But they were kindred spirits who both felt strongly it was their responsibility to speak up and help others.
“I think we should have a podcast,” she told Badger in that first conversation, even though she barely knew her.
Badger remembers saying no three or four times. It would require her to be publicly vulnerable, and that was nerve-wracking.
But eventually, she agreed and they launched the project soon after that, becoming fast friends as well.
“We just started talking and we never stopped,” Badger said.
Hosts emphasize healthy relationships, support systems
Both women juggle full-time jobs in addition to raising children, hosting their podcast and doing advocacy work. Hayden, 39, works for Job Corps, a vocational training program from the U.S. Department of Labor that connects young people to jobs. Badger, 50, is a budget analyst for the U.S. Forest Service.
Milwaukee natives, the two are well-connected to other local advocacy organizations and like to invite guests who are working in the community onto the show to share their expertise and perspectives.
The audience especially enjoys when men join the show, Badger said. The voices of men often aren’t as loud as they should be in domestic violence prevention circles, the hosts believe.
Men can serve as crucial allies: supporting women they know are facing abuse, talking to other men about the way they treat women and more.
And men are often abused by their partners as well — an issue the hosts believe isn’t discussed enough.
“We’re making it our business to constantly create safe spaces for men as well,” Hayden said.
Their focus on healthy relationships goes beyond the romantic kind. Badger and Hayden recently started a social media campaign called “No More Mean Girls,” urging women to take a pledge to end their own “mean-girl behavior.”
The pledge asks women to hold themselves accountable: think again before making an unnecessarily critical comment or spreading gossip, and make an effort to be supportive of others.
Spreading the word on social media with the hashtag #NoMoreMeanGirls, Badger and Hayden direct those who want to participate to an electronic form linked on the podcast website. They can check “I pledge” on each of a list of four statements.
Badger and Hayden contend that girls learn so-called mean-girl behavior from their mothers and peers at a young age and they want to address the issue early.
So they created a “No More Mean Girls” program for Messmer High School students. Both hosts have Messmer connections that made the school a good fit to pilot the first run of the program this summer: Badger’s kids graduated from the school, and the current principal, Shenora Jordan, is one of Hayden’s old classmates.
The women will host a three-day conference in August for teen girls along with follow-up programs in January and May.
They see the campaign as an important complement to their domestic violence prevention work.
“We’re saying … we want you to identify mean-girl behavior so that you’re not doing it to one another, but also so you’re not doing it to a boyfriend. Checking yourself as to how we’re treating relationships as a whole,” Badger said.
The campaign is one of several initiatives the podcast hosts are involved in.
They have also held training sessions for police on the best ways to handle domestic violence calls, led panel discussions and met with state leaders to advocate for victims. They also work with the Sojourner Family Peace Center, which provided them both shelter when they left their abusive relationships.
The hosts want to take steps to prevent domestic violence — beyond simply raising awareness about the issue.
“I always say, we’re all aware of domestic abuse. But what do we do about it? How do we prevent it? How do we make sure that our youth have the tools to prevent it from happening to them?” Badger said.
The two are also planning their second annual fundraiser walk in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Those who want to participate in the walk, set to take place Oct. 2 at Veterans Park, can check exposedthepodcast.com closer to the event for more details.
Expanding their outreach requires money — and they understand every other advocacy organization is vying for the same pool of funding.
Ideally, the hosts said, domestic violence prevention would have the same powerful backing as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which also takes place in October.
“This is definitely a silent killer of our women and men as well,” Badger said.
Prevention efforts take on new urgency during pandemic
Last year that reality was more apparent than ever, as domestic violence in Milwaukee surged during the COVID-19 lockdown. Many people were isolated at home with abusive partners or family members, and shelters had to limit their occupants.
In 2020, Milwaukee County saw a 79% increase in domestic violence-related deaths from the previous year — a 400% increase from two years ago, according to Sojourner data.
It was difficult for Badger and Hayden to witness.
As podcast hosts who were trying to avoid the coronavirus themselves, there wasn’t much on-the-ground work they could do at first.
But they could keep talking.
“Our hands were tied, but our mouths weren’t,” Badger said. “As long as we could continue to talk, we felt like we were doing our part and still staying safe.”
The pandemic exposed gaps in how local organizations serve victims, but it also presented opportunities for growth, Hayden said.
Sojourner recently launched a 24-hour texting hotline, which will allow people who lack privacy to access help quickly and discreetly.
And Badger and Hayden have been heartened by the increase in virtual discussions and online resources they’ve been able to pass on to their listeners.
Providing resources like those, and empowering their listeners through their podcast discussions, are all part of their vision to help others achieve a stable, happy life after abuse.
“They don’t just want to get out, they want more than that,” Hayden said of those facing domestic violence.
“They want to have a good life and they want to know that they’ll be safe, that they’ll be financially OK, that they will have support along the way,” she said.