People channel their emotions in many different ways. But very few people have the ability to take a negative emotion and turn it into something constructive and positive. When Marilyn Jean Smith became a victim of sexual violence, she found herself filled with anger. Not only did she endure a horrific experience, but she came to find that there was a lack of support systems for the countless other Deaf women who had endured similar experiences. She channeled this anger in 1986 to form the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) in Seattle, Washington and has spent the last 25 years of her life working to create a world where violence is not tolerated, and where “the issues of domestic and sexual violence finally stops being taboo topics in Deaf America.”

The ADWAS model has since been replicated in dozens of cities in America, and according to Marilyn, “we must demand and actively fight for an equal place at the table as first class citizens.” ADWAS has been able to grow and thrive over 25 years because it has never veered from its mission. And under Marilyn’s leadership, she refused to subscribe to the belief that nonprofits must pay low salaries that border on the poverty level. But more than salary or benefits, she has emphasized the need to show respect and appreciation for her employees, volunteers, and clients. Her leadership has allowed her to attract top talent to carry on her work after her retirement from ADWAS in 2011.

Since her retirement, she has been selected as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow for Spring and Summer 2012 at Gallaudet University, where she also sits on the Board of Associates. She has won numerous awards, including The Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Gallaudet, and a special award from President Clinton. She is also the Principle at The Leading Edge, LLC, which focuses on helping non-profit organizations with leadership and board development, strategic planning, fund development, and grant writing. “I am a strong proponent for doing for the greater good and find community service deeply rewarding on many levels.”

Marilyn credits her parents and her upbringing for instilling the value of hard work in her, and for inspiring her to raise the bar. “There needs to be opportunities for CEOs, Executive Directors and board members to learn how to effectively run nonprofits and see their agencies as extensions of the Deaf community.” She explains that more nonprofits would see the type of success that has been replicated with ADWAS if they would “employ a business model with a heart. Healthy agencies mean healthier communities.” But ultimately Marilyn has her sights set higher than community level activism, and she continues to make her mark on a larger scale. “In a perfect world,” envisions Marilyn, “Deaf people will be seen as the cultural minority they truly are– with important gifts to share with this world.”

Marilyn Jean Smith is the winner of the DeafNation Inspiration Award for Advocacy in 2012.

By Anthony Mowl

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