Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, staff writer Paul Wood chats with Lisa Little an advocate for community members in dangerous relationships; her passion is finding them hope and safety. She used to work as a court advocate at Courage Connection in Champaign and has been a caregiver in her family. And she once worked at the Esquire.
Where did you come from and what brought you here?
I was born here, at Carle Hospital, and went to Central High School. When it came time to choose a college, dad said I could go anywhere, so I applied to the University of Hawaii. He amended his comment to anywhere in the state of Illinois and that’s how I ended up in Carbondale.
But you also lived in a lot of other states. Military kid?
No, just wanderlust. I was a military wife for a short time, and we lived in Texas and Nevada.
You’ve traveled to Italy, Australia, Vietnam, Greece, Turkey, Belize, Canada and Mexico. How have you managed that?
I went to Greece and Turkey as part of a philosophy class at Southern Illinois University. We spent three weeks traveling both countries and exploring the origins of western thought. The rest of the trips I owe to my best friend. He’s a computer genius from Sydney, Australia, whom I met when I was bartending at the Esquire. He would come in for lunch and we would talk every day. We kept in touch as he took different contracts around the U.S. We both love to travel, and he has been generous and kind enough to let me tag along. Our next trip is either New Zealand or Scotland.
You graduated from the police academy in Ft. Myers, Fla. What were you plans at the time?
My brother is a police officer in Chicago, and my mom was the program manager here at the Champaign County Sheriff’s Department until 1989. Law enforcement kind of runs in the family. I had been working for the Child Protection Team (similar to our Children’s Advocacy Center), and many of the officers I worked with had encouraged me to go to the academy. I found I didn’t like working with the perpetrators. I moved back to Champaign soon after graduating and worked at the jail as a master control operator and then at CASA. A friend suggested I take an overnight shift at what was then A Woman’s Place and, as they say, the rest is history, I had found my niche.
And now you’re looking at grad school. In what field?
Social work. The University of Illinois has a Leadership and Social Change program that would be perfect, as I would like to ultimately design and facilitate education programs for those who work with survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
How can we do better to prevent domestic violence?
Education, from an early age, about respect, personal boundaries, consent and standing up for yourself. We need to believe women when they tell us they are being mistreated — I often hear family and friends of abusers say, “he never did that to me,” and completely disregard the victim’s concerns. Abusers are often quite kind to other people in their lives; it’s only the victim who sees the terrible behavior. We also need to accept that emotional and psychological abuse has an incredibly negative impact on a person’s life and well-being. Survivors will tell you that the bruises heal, but those ugly words live in their minds forever.
Did violent offenders have a personality you can recognize?
Yes and no. Some people are violent in all aspects of their lives, and their behavior is easily recognized as dangerous. Many abusive individuals pass under the radar and actually go out of their way to be gregarious: These are the people who can cause the most damage because no one outside the family believes the victim.
What are some of your tactics on this?
Working in the courts gives legal advocates a unique perspective. We have to interact with victims and perpetrators and see firsthand the manipulations and tactics used by abusers. Listen to the way a person talks about their partner: Are they insulting, condescending or make jokes at the other’s expense? Do they belittle their partner’s opinion, education, religion? Does the partner seem nervous or afraid to speak their mind or be themselves? Red flags may be there if you know what they are and where to look for them.
You’re a cat lover. Did you have them as a child?
Yes, we always had cats. The first one I remember was Fat Black, who I carried home from a neighbor’s home when I was 4. My mom tried to take him back, but the neighbor was adamant that he was now my cat. At that time, most cats were outdoor and not many were fixed, Fat Black probably sired a number of Windsor Park kittens before we got him fixed. Now I have three cats, and they are all indoor babies.
What’s your favorite thing about gardening and houseplants?
The diversity and beauty of flowers, plants and all the critters that come to a garden. I plant perennials and I love watching what comes up each year. Some of my earliest memories are helping my mom plan her gardens. In February, she would get out her catalogues and graft paper and design her garden. The snow would be falling outside our windows, but it was summer at the kitchen table. I always think of my mom when I spend time in my garden.
You were a caregiver for your mother when she had terminal cancer. How has that changed your world view?
It’s cliche, but it made me understand that life is very short and we have to find joy in little things, flowers coming up, sunsets, laughing with family and friends, a good book, a tasty meal, the smell of rain. I was so busy when mom was sick that I was often impatient when she wanted company in the evenings. If I could change one thing about those last few weeks, I would have spent more time just sitting with her instead of cleaning, cooking, working, worrying.
And how do you find time to knit crochet, make jewelry?
I usually crochet in the evening while watching TV or listening to music. A good friend is having a baby soon and that has given me the motivation to pull out my yarn and hooks. Both of my grandmothers taught me to crochet, and until I taught myself to read patterns, my earliest attempts at blankets were all basically triangle shaped because I didn’t know how to make the turn at the end of each row. I haven’t done much jewelry making in the last few years because young cats, beads and wires are just a recipe for disaster.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
Shoes! I have dozens of pairs of heels, boots and sandals. The clients used to call me Miss Stiletto when I worked in the shelter at A Woman’s Place. This is actually quite a strange addiction, because at home or in my car, I am always barefoot.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
I love the beach and watching the ocean. A stop at the sea is always part of any trip I take, and Tahiti is my fantasy destination.
What would you order for your last meal?
Medium-rare steak, lobster tail, grilled asparagus, and vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Greta Thunberg and Randy Rainbow. I’d serve fettuccine with scallops, avocado and lime, a beautiful green salad with whatever I could find at the farmer’s market, roasted Brussel sprouts and a lovely prosecco (tea for Greta), then sit back and enjoy the conversation.
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
Willful ignorance, when people continue to espouse an opinion in direct contradiction of facts. In myself, being impatient, I waste so much time being frustrated at things that are out of my control. I’m working on that.