Time Out Grant Will Help Awardee Give Voice to Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

Photos Courtesy of Irene López ’91

Irene López ’91, a clinical psychologist and award-winning college professor, was nine years old on the day she and her mother, Lydia, fled their Bronx apartment to escape the violent wrath of her father. “I was in my bedroom just kind of hanging out, and my mom burst in through the door and told me that we had to go—right now,” López recalls. 

There was no time to pack, but the frightened child wanted to take just one thing: “I knew that we needed money, so I grabbed a jar of pennies,” she remembers. “And so we went knocking on family members’ doors to take refuge, with my jar of pennies.”

Some relatives turned them away, believing their flight would make things worse. At last they reached López’s aunt Noemi, who was willing to provide refuge. “It was her compassion and generosity that literally saved us that day,” López says. Now López also wants to make things better for women like her mother and the communities in which they live. A Time Out Grant from Vassar will help her to do exactly that.

The Time Out Grant, funded by an anonymous alumna, provides $75,000 to a Vassar alum over age 40 to take a year off from work and pursue a dream project. “It’s difficult for me to put into words how grateful I feel and how grateful I am to the donor to even think about something like this,” says López. “It’s unbelievably generous.” López will take a sabbatical from her job as Associate Professor of Psychology at Kenyon College in Ohio during the upcoming academic year to relocate to Puerto Rico and devote herself full-time to the Lydia Project: Mujeres Bravas con Cámaras (Brave Women with Cameras), an initiative López has designed to give voice to survivors of gender-based violence and, she hopes, to spur lasting social change.

The Lydia Project blends her professional training as a cross-cultural clinical psychologist with her interest in trauma and women’s issues. “Vassar was the reason I became a feminist,” she asserts. “Being in this place where women’s education was so valued, it’s just such a fundamental part of my identity.” 

López selected Puerto Rico because both her parents relocated from there in the 1950s—and because the island has yet to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017. As she notes in her Time Out Grant proposal, “For women, the situation was particularly toxic as rates of domestic violence soared after this disaster, with data from 2014-2017 indicating Puerto Rico had one of the highest rates of femicide in all the U.S., prompting the governor of Puerto Rico in 2021 to declare a state of emergency over gender-based violence.”

The Lydia project has several components: Using a technique of documentary storytelling and empowerment known as photovoice, López will hold workshops at domestic violence shelters throughout Puerto Rico in which she will train survivors to document their experiences via photography; she will then lead them in a critical reflection on the images they produce. López first became familiar with photovoice in 2014 while working with children of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic as a volunteer with Project Istwa, an NGO.

To ensure the women’s safety, they won’t necessarily appear in the photographs themselves—perhaps using symbolic imagery instead. “I want this to be an empowering experience,” she notes. Topics for discussion might include, “What’s the type of help that you really would have wanted? Can you think about specific things that would be helpful for someone in the future? Can we codify that in some way?”

The photos, along with captions written by the women, will eventually be displayed in community exhibition spaces—but self-expression and community awareness are not the only goals, says López. She would like to see the project spur legislation that will lead to lasting change—be it in the form of more housing or childcare for survivors or any other initiative that the women themselves identify as important.

“My dream is that we can have something tangible as a result,” López says.

Lydia López will be accompanying her daughter to Puerto Rico for the project; but she has mixed feelings about it. “She wished I would never remember any of that, that somehow I would have forgotten all that,” says López. “Clearly, I haven’t. But I told her I’m understanding more and more the difficulties that we all faced in that situation. I told her that this project was my gift to her, to thank her for always trying to take care of me even during the worst of times.” 

You can follow the progress of the Lydia Project on Irene López’s blog.

May 24, 2022