Leader of Utah group targeting sexual assault says it isn’t a women’s issue

Ask Turner Bitton why he cares so much about helping sexual-assault survivors and he struggles to answer — how could someone not?

"I don't need a mom, I don't need a sister, I don't need to know a single woman or man my entire life who's been a survivor to care about this issue," he said. "We need to teach young men and boys that they are leaders on this issue and that we can completely end sexual violence by individual action."

Bitton, 26, plans to do just that as the new executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA).

He replaced Alana Kindness, who held the post for nine years, in November.

Kindness said her primary focus has always been sexual-violence prevention and response, though she was also responsible for overseeing development and the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit. In her new job at the coalition, she provides technical assistance to sexual-violence prevention programs around Utah that recently received funding.

Though prevention also is of utmost importance to Bitton, his goals are wider — increasing coalition membership, reaching out more to the public and ramping up involvement in the Legislature.

He's been involved in a number of "random causes" since graduating from high school — from gay rights to reproductive rights to managing congressional campaigns — and Kindness said this varied experience is one of the reasons he's a great fit for the job.

"We needed someone who can focus on broadening our resources and partnerships" with outside organizations throughout the state, she said. "I am still very confident that he brings to our agency what we need to get us to the next level, so we'll have more of a representation of all the folks in the state impacted by sexual violence."

An outsider perspective • Bitton grew up on a cattle farm in western Weber County, his love of politics and legislation fostered by his father, a now-retired patrol sergeant and K9 Unit Commander with the county sheriff's office.

That environment influenced Bitton's brother to go into law enforcement. But Bitton paved a different route with that passion and knowledge.

After graduating from high school in 2009, Bitton attended Weber State University for a short while before dropping out and channeling his efforts into causes important to him.

"I've bounced around and ended up getting all over and it's been great and wonderful and kind of a journey," said Bitton, who has since started taking online classes at Arizona State University. "I've learned a lot of different things from a lot of different people."

He's worked for the Weber County Democratic Party and served as campaign manager for several congressional campaigns — one being Donna McAleer's, who focused on military sexual assault. He ran for Ogden City Council and was vice president for Pioneer Management Inc.

He's also served on the boards of various organizations, including Planned Parenthood and the Utah Cultural Alliance.

Most recently, he was membership coordinator for Equality Utah, a position he held for less than two years.

Troy Williams, Equality Utah's executive director, said Bitton's "encyclopedic knowledge" of Utah politics as well as his ability to raise funds and build organization membership made him an asset.

Building membership "is a herculean task," Williams said. "It requires an attention to detail and willingness to engage with data and numbers ... that I don't have the skill set for."

Bitton loved working for Equality Utah and said he initially wasn't interested in the UCASA job. But then Janaee Stone, UCASA's board secretary, persuaded him to apply.

"We needed someone who had a strong character and certain skills that he possessed" such as social media, grant-writing and understanding "how to work with people in a different capacity," Stone said.

Kindness first became executive director in 2007 and Stone said she worked well with survivors. Kindness previously was the Salt Lake City Police Department's victim advocacy program coordinator.

Bitton, Stone said, has the business skills needed by an organization director; he can learn how to be a victim advocate.

Not a women's issue • The problem of sexual violence didn't hit home for Bitton until 2010, when a woman he dated in high school confided in him that she was sexually assaulted.

"Prior to that, sexual assault wasn't real to me," he said. "It was something in the distance that didn't happen in my world. It was a very external phenomenon."

That's something he hopes to change while leading UCASA: sexual violence is a societal problem, he said, that impacts everyone.

"There's a perception that our work is a women's issue and engaging men: I feel, as a son and a brother, that I have a unique opportunity to address the issue," he said. "As men ... we don't have to have a wife or a mom or a sister to be invested in this work. We can just care, and that's the message I want people in their 80s to hear, people my age to hear and young boys to hear."

To help spread that message and provide support to survivors, Bitton hopes to increase staff members throughout the state so the organization can better help providers raise funds and engage with their communities.

He also wants to focus on sexual-violence prevention, going into middle and high schools to teach kids about concepts such as consent.

He says that UCASA will be more assertive than ever — a mantra Kindness says is being repeated because some believe the organization hasn't done enough to help providers serve survivors.

"What we needed was a full turnaround," Stone said.

Bitton "looks at things in a different way than [Kindness] did and he'll grow UCASA in a different way."

For example, Stone said Kindness — who was getting "overwhelmed" by the job — would tie employee salaries to grants that might not be available the following year. Bitton is against that, Stone added.

Kindness told The Salt Lake Tribune she has been trying to step down from the position for two years. Administration was never her goal, she said.

She believes Bitton will build up the organization's marketing, which she acknowledges is difficult for her.

"Unless someone calls me," she said, "I'm more interested in doing the work."

He also has experience generating organization membership and new funding streams, she said, fostered at Equality Utah.

"He will connect us with folks from the community and around the state that maybe haven't been engaged with the issue in the same way," Kindness said. "We need to broaden our stakeholder base and help engage folks from all areas of the community, on all financial levels. ... I'm hoping he'll expand our ability to kind of continue to raise the profile of sexual violence as a priority issue."

But to do all this, every entity involved — from police to advocates to prosecutors to the public — must be brought into the discussion.

UCASA needs to be "a cross-partisan, multicultural and multireligious organization," Bitton said. "This work needs to not be viewed as a women's issue. This is a societal issue."

This post originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. If you would like to see the original article you may click here.


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