Martha Herm

Executive Director, The Center for Prevention of Abuse
Photography by Kira Kwon

An advocate for victims of domestic violence, working diligently to institutionalize long-term change

I grew up on a farm near Morton, and after a ten-year “stroll” around the country and the world after college, I continue to live on the property settled by my great-grandfather. I have three younger brothers, but none live in the area. My dad was Dick Herm, a well-known livestock agent and farm reporter, and my mother, Dorothy, was a home economics instructor at Bradley University and member of ICC’s first Board of Trustees. I’m very proud to say that she helped build the junior college.

Until the roads nearby became blacktopped and everyone wanted to escape to the country, the farm was very isolated when I was a child. This isolation was heightened by my early educational experience. I went to a one-room schoolhouse with no running water, an old coal furnace the teacher had to tend, and two hanging light bulbs. However, there were some advantages. As long as I got my assignments completed, I could listen to the lessons of the older classmates. I was able to absorb eight years of studies during these four years at Union School.

Understandably, heading into Morton schools in fifth grade was a big adventure. Not only were there lots of kids to play with, there were band and chorus, dancing lessons, school plays, roller skating and movies. I joined 4-H. It was a new, exciting world from being “stuck” on the farm. Today, however, I treasure my quiet farm retreat.

I graduated from the University of Illinois in biology education and returned there later in life to study public administration. I completed that master’s degree in 1988, a year before I came to The Center for Prevention of Abuse.

Please list and reflect upon your major accomplishments of 2013.
The Center celebrated a fun milestone—the 25th anniversary of the Duck Race. It is the major fundraiser for the agency, but more importantly, the media coverage helps us reach people who might not be aware of our services and might need our help. The Duck Race, too, reminds the community not to duck our issues, because abuse and violence by some affects everyone in some way. Therefore, all of us should work together to stop it.

Another major accomplishment of The Center was to expand the elder abuse program to become Adult Protective Services. That means that in addition to investigating abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of people ages 60 and over, we now investigate these situations for adults with disabilities ages 18 to 59. In both groups, the alleged victim must be living in a community setting, not in a licensed facility. This change has been good in that more services are available for the disabled population.

For me personally, I was dumbfounded when Congressman Aaron Schock called to tell me he had nominated me for an award, and that I had won. It was the Outstanding Victim Advocacy Award given by the Victims’ Rights Caucus of the House of Representatives. My family went with me to Washington to accept the award. Secretary Ray LaHood and his wife, Kathy, attended the ceremony along with my presenter, Rep. Schock. They all have been such good supporters of The Center, so it was a true honor to have our hometown celebrities there. I will be forever indebted to Rep. Schock for this amazing honor.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I read early on in my career that Lee Iacocca, former chair of Chrysler, said he never took work home on the weekends. He said he might work long hours during the week, but weekends were sacred. I stay true to that as much as possible. By the time you get ready for work, get to work, perform at work and then go home, the day is pretty well shot anyway. Therefore, saving my time and energy for my personal life on the weekends is part of my balancing act.

In more recent years, I’ve extended that philosophy to workdays, in that I rarely take work home. Putting a physical barrier between my two worlds gives me the break and stress relief that I need. I do work at work and save my home space for my personal life.

What is your leadership philosophy?
In many ways, my leadership style is to see myself as first among equals. I have built a strong team of program and administrative leaders to help me. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t be everywhere. I don’t have the expertise that they do. I truly need this team of leaders to help be the visionaries, managers and ambassadors for the agency. Our team has developed an environment of honesty, fun, mutual respect and goodwill. We’ve all got each other’s backs, and that is a true gift. For me, I know I’m not alone. Because being at the top is lonely and scary at times, but it is also very interesting, exhilarating and rewarding. It’s great to have others to share the negatives and the positives of leadership.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
There is never enough time or money to do it right. Plus, especially in social service, there is never going to be an end to the mission. Things certainly have improved and great strides have been made, but until everyone on earth treats each person with respect, our efforts will be needed to stop interpersonal violence, abuse and exploitation and to provide safety and support to those that suffer at the hands of another.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
In one of my classes during my master’s work, the professor said, “Real change happens slowly. There is a role for the more ‘militant’ vanguards of change, but to institutionalize or socialize a change in attitude or behavior or policy or protocol takes a long time.”

Luckily, I am a pretty patient person, so this piece of advice was comforting and fit my style of leadership. I want to win the war, not every battle. One, I can never win every battle, and two, I don’t have enough time, energy and resources to fight every battle. Winning general advances over the long term has been my guiding principle. But I am thankful to those who are on the frontlines of social change. Their role is crucial.

An example of this strategy is the change in attitude and policy toward drunk driving, which started with the militant vanguard of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They preached the need for change at every opportunity, along with providing the data and research to back up their stance. Slowly, laws started to change, attitudes of law enforcement and the courts began to change, advertisers of alcohol promoted designated drivers, etc. Now, driving drunk is generally considered a social taboo. It still happens, of course, but the dramatic decrease came to be because of the vast public education by MADD and the follow-up change in policy by the criminal justice system. It created tough consequences for drunk drivers, and that has made the difference.

In my opinion, the taboo against domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse is growing by following this positive trend. When I came to The Center 24 years ago, everyone blamed the victim for the violence and abuse. Law enforcement and prosecution, generally, had a hands-off approach. Today, through our public education and advocacy with community and state leaders, proper blame is placed on abusers, and tougher and tougher consequences are in place. Victims are supported in many ways by not only The Center, but also by churches, businesses, families and friends. Today, TV shows like Law and Order help mold appropriate attitudes toward batterers and rapists as well as victims. It’s a different story than was told 24 years ago.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
I think a shrinking economy depresses the speed and opportunity for women to rise to leadership positions. Everyone is hanging on to the jobs they have, and many jobs are gone now, so young working women may be stuck in low-paying, low-level positions for a long time. That also means fewer resources to help balance career needs with family needs like child care, transportation, housekeeping assistance, etc. iBi