After eight years as the Executive Director of the Family Safety Center (FSC), Olliette Murry-Drobot is providing invaluable assistance as a search for new leadership is underway. Currently in a consulting role, she is instrumental in helping the transition team understand the why as well as the how of procedures and policies. She’s available to answer the day-to-day questions that arise and is glad to be on tap as an ongoing resource. “My goal, as I transition out, is to make sure we keep our donors, our staff and our partners,” she says.
Her commitment to making Memphis a better place won’t end, however. Olliette is passionate about creating safer, stronger neighborhoods and plans to take on the role of consultant on several community initiatives. “I like to look at problems as opportunities,” she says. Her positive and optimistic outlook on life makes her an asset to the FSC and her next projects — and a delightful FACE of Memphis.
Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?
I was born in West Memphis, Arkansas. I moved to Memphis with my mother and younger sister when I was 5. I went to high school at Whitehaven, and got my undergraduate degree in anthropology from Rhodes College. I earned a Master of Arts degree in Applied Anthropology from the University of Memphis and a Master of Business Administration from Belhaven University.
Describe your early career.
My first full-time gig was with MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association). They created a position for me: Community Development Specialist. The neighborhood around MIFA at the time was a kind of “no man’s land.” I went into the neighborhood and engaged with people to understand the issues. It was a new approach for MIFA to engage directly with those who needed their services right in their own backyard.
After talking with women in the neighborhood, I found out that many had seasonal work but would often go months with no steady income. They would create their own small jobs, selling “hot plates” for lunch or dinner, taking on sewing or having garage sales. I thought, What if we provided support to make these jobs permanent?
Working with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, I helped create The Opportunity Banc to offer financial assistance and training to those micro-enterprises.
I was with MIFA for three years. When I left, I was Director of Community Development and The Opportunity Banc.
What is the mission of the FSC and how did you facilitate it?
The Family Safety Center started in 2009, originally as a part of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. It spun off on its own in 2010. The mission is to coordinate services for victims of domestic violence, give them a safe place to heal, and enable them to thrive and embrace life.
My role was to pull the resources together to make the vision happen. Much of my work focused on hiring the right staff members, supporting the board of directors, getting donors excited about the Family Safety Center and getting the work of the center into the public eye.
You’ve said before that your background gave you a passion to help victims of domestic violence. Can you tell us more?
My drive for social justice comes from my personal background. My father was abusive to my mother. She ran away from him for the last time when I was 5, and we hid in Memphis. He was killed when I was 7, and I watched my mother struggle financially and emotionally. But she was always very forthcoming about her life, and she talked about the good as well as the bad with my father. She would say that everything bad is a lesson learned. For her, education was the key. She was a very active parent at our school, even though she was a 24-year-old widow with a full-time job and two kids.
I survived because I had so many folks in my corner rooting for me. At the end of the day, it really does take a village — a system of support. I love the quote from Desmond Tutu, “Hope is seeing the light in the darkness.”
Looking back at your time with the Family Safety Center, what are some of the things you are most proud of?
Overall, my goal was to talk directly to the people we are trying to serve, and listen to find out what they really need. By doing that, I got to be a part of starting really great initiatives. Two that I’m proud of are reaching out to the LGBTQ community and the transgender community, and successfully implementing an assessment program for law enforcement to use to help domestic violence victims.
Through a number of conversations and focus groups, we realized that many LGBTQ victims didn’t realize that we would provide support to them too. We created a position for an LGBTQ liaison to build relationships within the community, and provide training and education.
During my tenure, we hired two transgender staff members to develop programming and build relationships with that community. Transgender women of color have a very high incidence of domestic violence. And again, they were not sure how they were going to be treated if they came to us, so they just didn’t seek our help. It is a big deal for a mainstream organization to embrace this community.
Another initiative I’m proud of is the Lethality Program. When law enforcement shows up at a domestic violence scene, they do a quick 11-question assessment to determine if the victim is at risk of serious bodily injury or death. Depending on the response, an officer can connect the victim to a trained advocate from the Family Safety Center.
Now, this sounds like a simple idea, but think about the number of officers that you need to train to do the assessment and understand the protocol. It took quite a bit of convincing for the Memphis Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department because completing an assessment takes additional time for an officer to stay at the scene before they can get back into rotation. That was a major challenge to implementing the program.
Thankfully, Family Service Center has a good relationship with the Sheriff’s Department and MPD. We started with the Sheriff’s Department in October 2017 and were fully rolled out with MPD by August 2018. I’ve heard from officers that it has been a godsend.
Domestic violence is such a painful and sensitive topic. What is one thing you wish more people understood about it?
I wish more people understood what a victim goes through psychologically and emotionally. People can clearly see the bruises, bandages and scars on the outside. What most people don’t understand is that before an abuser ever lays a hand on a victim, he’s been working on her emotionally and mentally — breaking down her confidence, planting the seeds, so that when the physical abuse begins, she will believe she deserves it. If someone is continually telling you, “You are fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly,” you start to build an internal recording that you play to yourself, even when your abuser is not saying the words. To change that recording and replace it with something positive is the hardest part. Bones will mend and bruises will heal, but damage to the mind takes so much more effort to overcome.
As you transition out of Family Safety Center, what’s next for you?
For the first time, I don’t have a three- to five-year plan! The Family Safety Center was all-consuming; domestic violence is a very heavy issue. It pretty much became my life. Last year, I had a health scare that made me realize I needed a healthier balance and that I could not continue with such a high level of stress. Transitioning out is a leap of faith for me. I’ve decided to do some consulting work on projects that make a difference in the community. One will be announced soon! I’ll be working on an initiative to attract African American retirees to Memphis and strengthen middle-class African American neighborhoods.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you?
Sit still and listen. Listen to your gut; listen to what the universe is telling you.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Books, humor and passion
Thank you for the honest and inspiring interview, Olliette. And thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the beautiful photos.