For Peg Coleman, it was like nothing she had ever experienced before.
It was March 31, Coleman’s first day in Salt Lake City, and she’d spent it exploring the city on foot. As she walked near Temple Square, Coleman suddenly found herself in a tide of men making their way toward the LDS Church’s Conference Center for the semiannual Priesthood meeting that is part of the faith’s General Conference — though, as a newcomer, Coleman didn’t know that.
What she did know is this: Here she was, a lone woman, surrounded by thousands of men. And she felt perfectly safe, completely at ease.
“It was a startling experience for me,” Coleman said Thursday. “I don’t know any other place in the world where a woman could walk through a crowd of 20,000 men and not feel threatened.”
Coleman, new executive director for the Utah Domestic Violence Council, said the experience captured precisely her vision for what Utah could be — a place where the standard is that every woman — every person — is respected and free from domestic violence.
But Utah has work to do to achieve that standard, she acknowledges. By contrast, that same Saturday featured headline stories about evidence from unsealed search warrants in the case of missing West Valley City mom Susan Powell, Coleman pointed out, and just this week Shantelle Reid was allegedly killed by her boyfriend, hours after neighbors witnessed them fighting in the street.
“The challenge is we have a system where we believe that the criminal justice system alone is going to keep us safe,” Coleman said. “All you have to do is look at the headlines here the past few weeks to know only that’s only part of the answer. The bulk of the work is making [ending domestic violence] everybody’s business.”
Coleman replaces Judy Kasten Bell, who spent 12 years as the council’s executive director.
Coleman said she sought the job because it offered an opportunity to deploy her diverse background shaping public policy and fostering a united approach among organizations focused on ending domestic violence. But Utah’s redrock country also was a strong draw.
“I love red rocks. They are just where I go when I have time for myself,” said Coleman, who has visited Utah several times in the past.
Coleman spent the past eight years as executive director of Haven House in Homer, Alaska, where she ran the domestic violence shelter, provided support to victims of sexual assault, led a batterers’ counseling group and developed a children’s advocacy center. Prior to moving to Alaska, Coleman was associate director of Family Crisis Services, a domestic violence program, in Portland, Maine. She also worked as lead counselor for a substance abuse program at Portland’s Crossroads for Women that addressed underlying traumatic experiences, and served clients with chronic mental illness and substance abuse problems at the Maine Medical Psychiatric Department, also in Portland.
Coleman was the first woman elected to municipal government in Dennis Township, N.J., becoming mayor when she was a 30-year-old soccer mom.
“It was a community that was experiencing a lot of growth from outside influences,” said Coleman. “We had to stand down some very big environmental challenges.”
One take-to-heart lesson from that three-year stint: For her, there were better ways to serve a community more effectively than politics, she said. Coleman’s career since has been woven with social service issues — homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence.
“The common denominator of people who meet those challenges well is they had one place where they were met with respect and treated with compassion,” Coleman said. “They weren’t looked at as a diagnosis.”
Instead, they were recognized as someone’s mom or dad, a wife or husband, a sister or daughter and were helped to maintain a sense of self and connection to community.
That sense of each individual’s humanity is something Coleman hopes to foster in her new assignment. And that first impression of the city, with its streets filled with men, highlights her view that men must be brought into the discussion as a natural ally in stopping violence.
“It’s not women who are going to stop domestic violence, it’s men holding men accountable, men teaching their sons that this is the standard for men,” Coleman said. “My vision is we get to a place where everybody is held in high regard. I think Utah has the potential to lead the nation in being the safest place for families. It seems to be, culturally, what Utah stands for.”