Michelle M. Garcia MPP'05 has used her positions within government and nonprofits to combat gender-based violence for more than 25 years.
 Michelle Garcia receiving her award from Dean Katherine Baicker
Michelle Garcia receiving the Career Achievement Award from Dean Katherine Baicker

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first signed into law by President Bill Clinton in September 1994, was enacted by the federal government to address four main arenas of crime against women, authorizing Congress to provide a trickledown framework of resources for states and local communities to utilize when addressing issues of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking and dating violence. 

At the time VAWA was enacted, Michelle Garcia MPP ’05 was already participating in the arena of gender-based violence work across local, state and national levels, predominately in the field of sexual violence at rape crisis centers and state and national sexual assault coalitions. As the effects of the legislation started to become apparent over the course of the next several years, Garcia began considering going to graduate school to pursue her masters in public policy, with an immediate goal of working for the federal government, either in the Department of Justice or the Department of Health and Human Services, the two government agencies that Garcia believed had the most influence around gender-based violence issues.  

“I recognized that how things played out — particularly on the local and state levels — was so heavily influenced by federal policies and practices,” Garcia said. “I wanted to really work more upstream at that federal level to have an impact on what ultimately trickled down to the state and the local level. A lot of what we saw were unintended consequences of federal policies or federal actions.”

One such “unintended consequence” Garcia says she felt particularly motivated by was how disproportionately the VAWA focused on issues of domestic violence, often to the detriment of developing services within the other three arenas of crime meant to be addressed by the law — sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking.

“In every state in the country, the majority of the resources were focused on domestic violence,” Garcia recalls. “And that in itself wasn't necessarily problematic, but what it meant was those other areas were not getting adequate resources for the level of issues individuals were actually facing. It was actually creating competition for resources at a state and local level between the providers who were working in these different areas. The majority of the resources in the agency were going to domestic violence, and yet when we looked at the numbers of who's impacted it, there was not a huge difference.” 

In the early 1990s, recognition of domestic violence as an issue warranting address was becoming more widespread. The movement to eradicate it was well established and, as a result, more equipped to utilize newly available resources. 

When deciding where she wanted to go to earn her masters in public policy, Garcia chose Harris because she knew she needed to bolster her quantitative analysis skills. 

“One of the things Harris is most known for is its really strong quantitative program,” Garcia said. “That was my softest skillset and probably the main reason that I chose Harris.”

Two years later, armed with those quantitative skills and a renewed passion for her field, Garcia landed at the US Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). Here, Garcia saw the effectiveness of a more intersectional approach to issues of sexual violence through the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW).

Michelle Garcia
Michelle Garcia speaking at the Alumni Awards Dinner

“When we look at the four designated crimes within the (OVW) statutes, it is so rare when you talk with victims and survivors that they've only experienced one of those, Garcia said. “They've often experienced multiple incidents of violence — it’s domestic violence and their abuser's also stalking them. They've also been sexually assaulted. The person who's been sexually assaulted is routinely being contacted by the person who assaulted them. There's this artificial distinction in some ways that these are all completely separate and never intersect — [the OVW] can broaden our thinking and has been a leader in really doing that.”

She stayed with the Office for Victims of Crime for one year before pivoting back to the non-profit sector, the realm wherein she’d been working prior to her time at Harris and the USDOJ. For the next ten years, Garcia worked across national, state and local levels with the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a nonprofit which provided training and technical assistance to jurisdictions to enhance their ability to recognize and effectively respond to stalking. . 

“After working with the federal government, I thought I was never going to work for government again,” Garcia said. “I stayed with the Justice Department a little less than a year and went back into the non-profit sector, and was there for almost 10 years. It's really where I feel like had the most experience, where I'm comfortable, where I feel I can have an impact. When I was doing work with the Stalking Resource Center, I was going around the country into communities and providing training to law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and victim service providers around how they can enhance their responses,” she explained. “So you definitely see those impacts in places.”

The biggest difference between working for the government versus within the nonprofit sector, Garcia says, is the “potential for impact.”

It wasn’t until Garcia was interviewing for her current role, director of the District of Columbia Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, that she realized she could foster that same impact — just on a larger scale — through a government agency.

Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants Logo
Garcia now serves as the director of the District of Columbia OVSJG

“While talking with my now boss, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice [in D.C.], I started to recognize the potential to affect positive change in the lives of every single person in the District of Columbia — that's 700,000 people. And so the scope is just one of the things that's absolutely different from doing non-profit work. Even when I was doing national work, it was still one community at a time, a jurisdiction at a time, but now, to be able to look at the ability to impact —ideally positively — the lives of every single fellow resident of the place that I call home…the potential for that was really appealing and a large part of why I actually did take the job. I’m surprised in how much I love working for government. I actually feel like it was the culmination of my career and educational path. My experience having worked in the non-profit sectors on so many different levels, and then the education that I got at the Harris School have really come together in a way that I don't think I could have imagined at the time that I was at the Harris School. But every single day I draw on both my personal experience and I draw on my training from Harris in the work that I do.”

A Look Back at the 2019 Harris Alumni Awards

Michelle Garcia was the recipient of the Career Achievement Award at the 2019 Harris Alumni Awards, which took place during Harris Connect Weekend. Learn more about this year’s and previous award winners and make a nomination! Alumni Award nominations are accepted year-round.