Sara Beth Myers ’09 has been busy. Her organization, Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality, or AWAKE, has existed officially only since November 2013 but already passed a bill with bipartisan support through the Tennessee state legislature.
The call that the Missouri-born Myers felt to start AWAKE grew out of her work on domestic violence cases as an assistant district attorney. Myers joined the Nashville District Attorney’s office in August 2012 after almost three years in private practice. She discovered that “there wasn’t a progressive issues-based organization in Tennessee that advocates specifically for women’s and children’s issues,” she said. “There are a lot of great organizations that already exist; they just don’t do exactly what we do.”
Myers started AWAKE to fill that gap by fostering public policy to “improve the wellness, safety, opportunity and equality for women and children in Tennessee.” After building a base in Nashville, she and AWAKE members she has recruited plan to establish a statewide presence.
Myers recently joined the Tennessee Attorney General’s office as an assistant AG. But she acknowledges that her experience at the DA’s office “really helped inform how legislative change needs to occur.” As one glaring example, Myers discovered a major omission that made much less effective a Tennessee law passed in 2012 requiring mandatory minimum sentences for repeat domestic violence offenders. Because the law didn’t include the words “consecutive” and “day for day,” offenders convicted of domestic violence in Tennessee were eligible to earn two-for-one time in jail for good behavior. That effectively circumvented the law’s intention of keeping them behind bars longer to protect victims. Myers and the AWAKE team helped draft legislation to close this loophole. The bill passed and became law on July 1, 2014.
Myers calls domestic violence “one of the biggest problems our state is facing” and cites some disturbing statistics to support her claim. “Tennessee ranks 10th in the number of women killed by men, something that should be a huge red flag for all of us,” she said, “and over 50 percent of violent crimes involving victims in the state are domestic violence-related. So that really is why we chose to focus on changing the sentencing law as our first legislative initiative. We’re hoping to save some lives—and hopefully to put some families back together.”
But Myers sees this as just the beginning. “I don’t want AWAKE to be pigeonholed as a domestic violence organization,” she said. During 2014, the organization has done intensive research on how legislation could improve operations of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services. Myers also hopes her team can expand its focus to issues such as pay equity. As their funding expands, Myers sees AWAKE doing more lobbying and backing candidates willing to advocate for women and children. “We will support any candidate who supports our issues,” she said. “They don’t have to be female.”
Edited from the original story by Steve Haruch, published in the Nashville Scene, March 13, 2014. Used by permission.