The Bloomington Community Foundation proudly announces Susan Neis, Executive Director of Cornerstone, as the recipient of the 2014 Bloomington Legacy Award. Susan Neis is retiring at the end of the year, after working with Cornerstone for 30 years. Cornerstone works to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking. The Bloomington Community Foundation asked her questions about her past with Cornerstone, the present issues in the Bloomington community and what to expect from Susan Neis in the future. Also included, is the nomination letter from Maryanne London.

Susan-Neis-Chamber

Susan Neis Interview

Why was Cornerstone able to develop into the great facility it is today in Bloomington? Do the people and leaders of Bloomington deserve any credit? Clearly the organization serves more than the Bloomington Community.

Cornerstone’s founders specifically created the agency to serve victims of domestic violence living in the suburban communities of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina and Richfield.  The public perception was that domestic violence happened primarily in the inner, low-income neighborhoods. This myth created a significant barriers for victims The founders knew that there were victims in their communities that had no where to go for help and they chose to do something about the problem.  Along the way the City of Bloomington stepped up time and time again.  The Bloomington Police Department was the first law enforcement agency to partner with us to insure that victims knew that [they] had a safe place to go and helped them get to us, and that there were consequences for perpetrators.  Our goal of creating a transitional housing program specifically for battered women and their children may have never have happened if not for the supportive partnership with the Bloomington Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Working with the Bloomington Public Health Department to provide preventative health services for our families is another way the City has been instrumental in Cornerstone’s success…and the list goes.

If you could ask that one community challenge be addressed or given more attention, which one would it be and why?

If we truly want to reduce domestic violence we must recognize that children living in an abusive family are primary victims and are at risk of not only repeating the generational cycle but according to the recent research are at risk of life long physical and emotional harm.  One only has to read the results of the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE’s) study to know that prevention and early intervention with children is the most important thing we can do to reduce violence in our society.

Can you briefly remind us of the events that led you to becoming the Executive Director of Cornerstone?

Like many grassroots non-profits the early years are the most difficult, Cornerstone was facing enormous challenges. What they had was an amazing Board of Directors that was willing to do whatever it took to not only survive but to thrive.  When those extraordinary people asked if I was willing to stay and work with them to overcome those challenges. I could not refuse; one of the best decisions of my life.

In the last ten years you have brought the lack of affordable housing to the forefront of the discussion of domestic violence. Why do you see affordable housing as a powerful solution and what do you think our communities and leaders should do in the next ten years?

Despite the progress we’ve made the acute lack of affordable housing is still a major problem. How can we expect a family to move beyond the abuse if they don’t have a place to live?  The lack of affordable housing is the primary reason why emergency shelters are full 90 to 100 percent of the time. Emergency shelter is not a substitute for a home.  It is a place of safety but there must be an opportunity to secure permanent housing when it is safe for them to leave.  What I believe community leaders can do is to convince real estate developers to build mixed use housing that includes housing that is affordable for families with limited income. At the State and Federal level, increasing the minimum wage so families can afford decent housing and restoring the Section 8 program to an adequate level would go a long way to ending the destructive cycle of violence. There have been so many significant milestones like the recognition by the Surgeon General that domestic violence is a public health issue or the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.  There has been a lot of progress but there is still much work that can be done. I know that Cornerstone will be at the forefront of the work in our community, our state and in a national effort to end domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking

What made Cornerstone address domestic violence in a faith based environment and do you think it has been successful?

We have a large faith community in suburban Hennepin County. For many victims their clergy person is one of the first people they go to for support and guidance. The faith community is often the conduit to an agency like Cornerstone. People of faith want to help in any way they can and we are grateful that so many of them choose to volunteer their time and talent to help us help the victims and their families.

 Your personal story of abuse and how far you have come is a strong testimony for others.  How did you deal with being reminded of that painful time over and over again?

I had been out of my abusive relationship for many years when I came to Cornerstone thanks to the support of my family so it wasn’t difficult to focus on how to help the many clients we serve see that they can move beyond the abuse and violence they experienced. Every victim has their own journey out of an abusive relationship.  My personal journey gives me the empathy to understand and to support them.

 You are an extremely joyful person. I have seen you at events and you are always smiling and laughing. How important is it to be joyful in your line of work and where do you think your joy came from?

If I was not able to find joy in my life I could not have done this work for almost 30 years.  I was so lucky to have grown up in a loving family so I have treasured memories of that time in my life. Today there are so many sources of joy in my life, my family, the people I am privileged to work with every day, and in seeing families overcome the pain of being abused. When I get a phone call or a letter from a former client telling me about their accomplishments and how well their children are doing, it’s just a wonderful feeling.

Is this the end of Susan Neis or can we expect to see you doing something else like a book tour or speaking engagements or politics?

I am sure I will find many things to do; things I haven’t had time for but now I will. I am overwhelmed by all of the recognition I received since announcing my retirement. I rather enjoyed flying under the radar for all these years but I am truly grateful for the kindness I have received from so may people I’ve met over the years.

Nomination Letter

It is my honor to nominate Susan Neis, Executive Director of Cornerstone, as the recipient of the 2014 Bloomington Legacy Award.

I have worked with Susan as a volunteer and member of the board of Cornerstone for the past ten years.
The more I learn about the organization, the more impressed I am with Susan’s achievements.

Susan began with Cornerstone when a group of civic-minded women realized that the battering of women was not limited to the central cities. From a small four-person agency in 1987, Cornerstone has grown to be one of the largest and most comprehensive victim-serving agencies in Minnesota.

Cornerstone has pioneered innovative programs including the first transitional housing program specifically for battered women and their children; the first comprehensive program for children and youth exposed to violence; and the first school-based violence program in MN.

Day One became a statewide program of Cornerstone in 2005. Under its leadership, Day One became one of the most comprehensive systems in the nation streamlining the process for those seeking safety and services in one phone call. Under Cornerstone’s leadership, Day One has boosted its network of providers from 28 domestic violence shelters to over 65 domestic violence, sexual violence, anti-trafficking, and children’s advocacy and general crimes agencies.

While serving primarily Bloomington, Richfield, Eden Prairie, Edina and St. Louis Park for the past 29 years, Cornerstone was recently asked to expand its programs to the Northwest corridor. This request came from Hennepin County, the office of Justice Programs, the Otto Bremer Foundation and the cities of Maple Grove, Crystal, Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center and Robbinsdale.

Cornerstone does not operate in a vacuum. It partners with local law enforcement, the judicial system, our school districts and our faith communities. Many representatives from these areas serve on our Board of Directors and committees.

Susan has served as a visible and vital member of our community. She has been a frequent guest and speaker at Chamber, City and Rotary events, as well as local churches, women’s clubs, service groups, corporations and schools.

An article in the Sunday Star Tribune, July 6, 2014, stated that 7 million-14 million children will witness family violence this year. 75%-93% of juvenile offenders will endure at least one traumatic experience. And 60% of U.S children will be affected by violence, crime, abuse or trauma.

Thank goodness for Susan Neis.

Her life’s work has supported the Cornerstone Mission Statement: “Our mission is to prevent domestic abuse. We provide children and adults a continuum of service that builds sustainable self-reliance and revives the human spirit. We educate, advocate, and lead the way to social change.”

Even more telling, is the Philosophy Statement: “We are committed to a society in which violence in families and relationships no longer exists. Domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence and trafficking are crimes as well as a violation of human rights. The use of violence is a choice and can be prevented. All community members have a responsibility to confront the roots of violence and domestic oppression.”

Again, please consider honoring Susan. She is retiring from Cornerstone at the end of 2014.

Respectfully submitted,
MaryAnne London

Maryanne London