Nastasha Powers ’19 has a passion for the work she does on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. She can relate to their painful reality having survived abuse herself as a young adult. At 33, this Chicago native with roots in Bloomington-Normal, is a single mother with two young sons and a gifted student working toward a master’s degree in criminal justice sciences (CJS) at Illinois State University. Out of necessity, most days she is a person on the move from start to finish.
On schedule to complete her graduate studies in 2022, she also has a certification in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Her mentor, CJS Professor Dr. Dawn Beichner, described Powers as “one of the best students and one of the most active student leaders we have had in the history of our program.”
“I think my professors saw something in me that I didn’t see myself, and they keep pushing me forward now,” Powers said. “I also think they saw my open and honest approach
Among the many awards backing up that claim are the Criminal Justice Sciences Department 2019 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award, given in recognition of Powers’ work on social justice; and the Outstanding Graduate Student Award in 2021. Being engaged in the struggle for a more just world started early for Powers. As a young girl, she and her four sisters participated at Not in Our Town rallies and Martin Luther King Jr. events around Bloomington-Normal where they sang songs and recited poetry.
While completing an internship as an undergraduate, Powers caught the attention of the employer—YWCA of McLean County in Bloomington—and was offered a full-time job based on her dedication and work ethic. She’s been on staff there since 2019, and the fit is a good one
“I had a grateful moment just today,” she said reflecting last spring on her career so far. “I am very proud to be working for an organization that strives to eliminate racism and empower women.”
Powers, who describes her work as “purpose-filled and very rewarding,” said she’s also trying her best to empower women, especially victims of sexual violence. In the following Q&A, she talks about her journey as a student and early career professional, and she discusses the path that led to a career that is her life’s work and passion.
What do you do in your job with the YWCA of McLean County in Bloomington?
I work at the YWCA as a sexual assault advocate in the Stepping Stones sexual assault program, a local group centered on helping survivor-victims of sexual assault.
You have had a remarkable career as a student, which is ongoing as you pursue a graduate degree. Your hard work has been recognized and awarded. What do
those academic accolades mean to you?
The awards actually give me a sense of humility since I view this as work that needs to be done. In my mind that’s how I see it. There’s nothing astonishing about what I do. Again, this is just work that needs to be done. I’m the youngest of 10 children, so I learned that a lot of work that you may not necessarily want to do just needs to be done.
How did you become involved in such challenging work?
Starting out, I was going to be a nurse. Specifically, I wanted to be a SANE nurse, which stands for sexual assault nurse examiner. I started at Heartland (Community College) and transferred to ISU. But, it was fate that I didn’t get into Mennonite College of Nursing because I ended up taking a class taught by (Dr.) Shelly Clevenger (former Illinois State CJS professor) as a prerequisite. It was her criminological theory class, and the class influenced me because she introduced students to her work and that caught my attention. I liked knowing that criminal justice wasn’t just about criminals, but it serves victims, too. My interest also stems from being a survivor myself.
What’s the greatest challenge you face in your job advocating for sexual assault victims?
The biggest obstacle is knowing that even if we do get a “win” in court it is not always a win for the survivor. When someone is the victim of violence, there is no level of justice that will be able to reverse the pain emotionally and psychologically that has been inflicted upon them. Justice may have been served, but survivors still deal with the pain long after the term of the offender’s sentence.
How do racism and gender discrimination affect the way survivors are treated in the U.S. justice system?
Regarding discrimination, out of every 1,000 survivors, it is likely that around 975 offenders will never have to face a judge. When it comes to women of color, those numbers are far fewer. Black women are seen by some as hypersexual individuals, and therefore, many times their assaults are seen as them wanting it, which is a misconception. Before coming to my career as an advocate, there were many conversations with my peers of color about why they hadn’t thought to report their assaults. Two reasons stay with me to this day: First, they never thought it was that big of a deal to report, and second, they didn’t want to get police involved because of previous experiences with law enforcement.
You’ve been involved in the emergence of two important programs—the Legal Tools Initiative and the Racial Justice Team—during your time at Stepping Stones. Can you
describe the two programs?
The Legal Tools Initiative, known as Connecting Students with Legal Tools against Sexual Violence, is designed to reach students at universities and provide them with education and legal tools related to sexual violence. We provide them with information regarding civil procedures if they are unable to or uncomfortable with going the criminal justice route.
The Racial Justice Team meets every month for an internal racial justice discussion on a specific topic. It allows an open discussion that is sometimes uncomfortable to be had with all levels of employees. It exposes the racial injustice that people of color face in society. We have the discussion and try to find solutions for tackling these problems better as individuals and as an organization.
What is the Stepping Stones task force, and what are its goals?
We’ve collaborated with local pro bono attorneys and come into the University to let students know what’s available if they’ve been assaulted. We are there to let them know what’s wrong and what sexual assault is and what sexual harassment is. Sometimes victims don’t know that what has happened to them is illegal. We are there to inform victims of their options, which could be civil or criminal. We want victims to be able to grab the wheel and take control. We are educating. We are out in the community.
How do the partnerships with the medical community work?
We’ve teamed up with a couple of SANE nurses at St. Joseph Hospital, and we’re working with OB-GYN offices to help them be more informed since those practitioners care for victims sometimes. Basically, we train frontline people on how to be trauma-informed and how to spot patients who might be triggered by a visit to the doctor’s office. We make sure they know where to send them for help. We’re not telling victims what to do, just making sure they know what is available to them.
What are some of your future career goals?
I want to be a voice for those who need it. Some survivors have the strength to speak for themselves, so for them I just want to be there to hold the mic for them. I plan to continue to advocate and be a voice for survivors. You have to educate in order to prevent future victims, so in the end, I want to prevent anyone from having to be a survivor.