With a background in business, politics, and publishing, Scott Berkowitz admits he knew “next to nothing” about the issues surrounding sexual violence when he founded RAINN back in 1994. “It seemed like a good idea and like a business challenge, and I figured I’d sit on the board for a year and that would be it,” he recalls. But after a pal urged him to start a national hotline aimed at helping survivors of sexual assault, Berkowitz soon found himself immersed in his new endeavor, and he was determined to make it work. “I met lots of survivors and the vision for what it could be — and what it could do for people — grew substantially from there,” he says.
But at first, his ideas were met with resistance. “There were a ton of barriers in the beginning and a lot of skepticism,” he says. “The whole field hated the idea.” It didn’t help that Berkowitz was young and inexperienced — and a man in a female-dominated environment. He’d also never experienced sexual assault himself. “This kid showed up who’s a guy, which was not terribly common in the field then, and who was not a survivor and was very much not an expert on the issue,” says Berkowitz. “So there was understandable skepticism about the level of commitment and whether we could really pull this off and what it would look like.”
Despite the obvious animosity, he persevered. “We just plugged away and did our thing and, over time, tried to show that we’re here and we’re accomplishing things,” he says.
It wasn’t easy dealing with adversity, but Berkowitz says there was a silver lining — through the static, his team was able to fully tune in to who exactly RAINN was trying to reach. “One of the consequences of the hostility we faced in the beginning was that it helped us figure out that the folks who are already working against rape are not our audience. Our audience is the general public,” he says.
They learned who they wanted to get their message across to — and what they wanted to say. “We talk about the issues in ways that are going to resonate with the public,” says Berkowitz. “We have done a lot of research to understand what they know and what their attitudes are and what their misconceptions are, and we have tried to integrate that through all of our communications.”
Taking a Stand
Thanks in part to Berkowitz’s innovative leadership, RAINN has proven its value. Since its inception, the organization has helped 4 million survivors and their loved ones cope with sexual violence. But detractors remain. “Our approach to talking about the issue is different from most organizations in the field,” says Berkowitz. “We’ve always talked about it as a crime issue because I think that that’s what the public understands it as.”
RAINN also takes a bipartisan stance, which has ruffled some feathers as well. “One of our core values is to build a coalition of support on both sides of the aisle,” Berkowitz says. “That was not controversial a few years ago, but at the moment it is. So we’re hoping that that cycle turns around.”
At the end of the day, Berkowitz has one goal in mind: helping people. “Meeting survivors, hearing their stories — that’s why I stayed on,” he says. “There was one really memorable moment soon after we launched,” he recalls. “I was checking into a hotel and RAINN was on my reservation and the desk clerk said, ‘You helped me.’ That was the first time that it felt real,” he says, “and it hit me that this was something that could do a lot of good for a lot of people.”