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Monika Johnson-Hostler: advocating for the abused

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The polar vortex is freezing Raleigh, and Monika Johnson-Hostler, in heels and a tailored suit, is in her office with a cold.

Not that she would let a runny nose keep her away from her work as executive director at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA). Her colleagues say they could see her in the White House one day if that is where she sets her sights. But for now, Johnson-Hostler, 39, is committed to ending sexual violence in North Carolina.

"When I say that I want to end sexual violence, I don't say it because it's our mission. I believe that it's possible and I believe there are several ways to get there," she says.

Johnson-Hostler became executive director of NCCASA, a statewide membership organization, in 2001.

She fights to end sexual violence by collaborating with other organizations and agencies and by working to make information, resources and referrals accessible to everyone. She strives to influence state policy by holding trainings with rape crisis centers and first responders. The coalition also advocates for crisis centers, promotes awareness of support services, educates lawmakers and coordinates Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) statewide.

A self-described policy wonk, Johnson-Hostler co-authored several portions of the federal Violence Against Women Act, including a specific provision for a sexual assault services program. Under her guidance, North Carolina passed the sexual battery law in 2003. We were among the first states in the nation to pass a protective order for sexual assault and stalking.

"Monika is on my short list of people when I need another pair of eyes on an issue," says Christi Hurt, director of the Women's Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. "I trust her judgment implicitly. She can read all sides of a situation. Her leadership style is really collaborative."

NCCASA is tackling two major projects. The child sexual abuse prevention project, funded by a grant from the Ms. Foundation for Women, tracks children starting at birth to show how schools, foster homes and juvenile detention centers have failed abused kids. The project supports abuse survivors and evaluates how the state prevents sex offenders from repeating their crimes.

NCCASA is also working on a statewide project to curb human trafficking and is concluding a four-year evaluation of that work being done in North Carolina. Johnson-Hostler says she is reviewing "a stack of bills" that would free young women and boys from their traffickers. The coalition also coordinates legal aid for survivors.

"Coming to work knowing there is not going to be a monumental change, even after 20 years of doing this, that's hard," Johnson -Hostler says. "Not knowing somebody slept safer because we changed a policy where they're not in foster care being sexually abused ... I know that intuitively but it's not the kind of change I know for sure, because so many of the folks I work with are revictimized."

Johnson-Hostler acknowledges that the political will isn't necessarily there either.

"Raising money for an issue that is still not very near and dear to people's hearts in this country is hard," she says. "You would think people would be more invested in this work. They just aren't, which makes the emotional hard even harder."

Margaret Henderson is the former director of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center and Johnson-Hostler's longtime mentor.

"Monika says what needs to be said," Henderson says. "She puts it right out there. When you surface some critical issue in a meeting so it's no longer hidden, people can't play games around it anymore, and she gives people a language to talk about it. She's never demonizing anybody, never ridiculing, it's just, here's the truth, let's deal with it."

Johnson-Hostler has a young daughter, Gabby, and her husband is a teacher in Wake County Public Schools. Recently, Johnson-Hostler was elected to the Wake County school board, where she hopes to talk to educators and parents about the issues "in a way that everybody feels connected to them."

Though she doesn't know where she'll be in 10 years, Johnson-Hostler says she will still be working to prevent sexual violence in some capacity.

"People who do this work do it from a place of passion and they do it for the rest of their life, no matter where they are," she says. "This work is a calling."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Her work is her calling."

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