photo of Ellen Pence
Dr. Ellen Pence

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Dr. Ellen Pence. It's difficult to adequately describe the impact Ellen had on our lives and our work here at BWJP, and indeed on the whole movement to end violence against women. Ellen’s legacy is one of critical analysis, compassionate listening, delightful humor, and commitment to justice. 

Below a few of Ellen’s close colleagues and friends describe her influence in their lives. May we always aspire to her depth of passion and dedication to this work.


Ellen's Work in Systems Change

So much of what all of us do is learned not in school, but in the field, and the individual who serves as your mentor in the field makes all the difference. As a recent law school graduate, I thought most social justice was accomplished through the courts. Ellen’s mentorship taught me the crucial role of community organizing in achieving social justice. This was something of a sea change. During my job interview with D.A.I.P. (the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, MN), I told Ellen I was really interested in policy and the Big Picture, she replied, “Great! I have a job for you that is all about the minutiae.” In the first couple weeks of my job, I let Ellen know I had a lot of exciting ideas to share. She responded, “Great! But for the next couple years, I want you just to listen.” 

Instead of helping me hone my ability to persuade, Ellen pushed me to meet people where they were at. For example, while processing recent meetings with a law enforcement officer or an assistant city attorney, she would ask me, “What did you learn about that person and what drives what they do?” We talked about the importance of developing relationships and identifying shared goals: on-the-ground skills that my law school had overlooked.

Ellen possessed and preached a unique combination of humility, confidence and humor that inspired trust and openness in the individuals with whom she partnered and those whom she trained. Within that space of trust, openness and humor, many difficult but transformational conversations occurred – conversations that led to enhanced social justice for survivors of battering. To be in that space with Ellen, to witness firsthand the combination of qualities that otherwise elude description or didactic instruction, was a great gift and honor. 

-Kristine Lizdas


Ellen's Work in Family Court

Ellen came to think about the family court system relatively late in her career – beginning with a safety audit in 2008. By then, the problems confronted by battered women in the family court system had been extensively catalogued. People were uniformly outraged by outcomes that not only failed to protect battered women and children, but actually put them in harm’s way. It wasn’t in Ellen’s nature to stop at simply enumerating the problems. She pushed us to dig deeper, to get to the core of things. That meant examining problems from every angle – by listening to and learning from people with diametrically opposed (and sometimes even openly hostile) viewpoints – and pushing back on some of their most deeply held assumptions and beliefs. As unlikely as it would seem, we all came to new insights and understandings – without tearing each other to shreds – and actually emerged with a new level of mutual respect, if not perfect agreement.

Ellen taught us to examine the ways people in the family court system think about their work, how they are organized to do what they do, and how that connects with what battered women and children really need. She insisted that we centralize the experience of battered women and their children and learn how the problems they face are produced and perpetuated within an institutional structure – all without judging workers as individuals, but rather as actors within a highly regulated system. Armed with that knowledge, Ellen pushed us to develop tools that restructure institutional practices to produce better outcomes for battered women and their children.

Ellen was notorious for cutting through the crap. While we could never get away with half of the things she did and said, Ellen is still a very big part of everything we do.

-Gabrielle Davis and Loretta Frederick


Ellen's Work with Men Who Batter 

In the short video clip below, Ellen explains the origins of the Duluth D.A.I.P. Power and Control Wheel, and in doing so, exemplifies the qualities of her work that made her activism so important. First, when Ellen describes how the Wheel grew from women’s oral testimony, she demonstrates how deeply her own work was informed by the actual, lived experiences of survivors of battering. 

Next, Ellen thoughtfully articulates a distinction that became clear to her when she facilitated batterer intervention groups. Listening to the men in the groups talk about their use of violence in their relationships, Ellen understood that: "It’s two different things: to want to dominate someone and to feel entitled to be in control.” In her work with men who use violence, Ellen identified this subtle difference: it wasn’t that the men consciously desired power and control – they simply felt entitled to it. This changed the way Ellen, and those who worked with her, engaged with men and understood their lives. 

-Graham Barnes