A girl named Promise inspired her grandmother to create an organization aimed at preventing domestic and sexual violence. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Most people have unremarkable names. The girl who wore a pink lace dress to celebrate her 10th birthday is the exception. Hers is powerful and perfect. It was picked before she was born and has come to capture what she represents for her family and others who hope she escapes what they couldn’t.

Her name is Promise.

When I first met her, she jetted through a Dave & Buster’s in Maryland in that dress and white tennis shoes. She was lost in games and only slightly aware that her grandmother was speaking to me about how four generations of their family had endured domestic abuse and how she wanted to keep the girl who was playing Skee-ball from ever experiencing that.

At the time, the girl’s grandmother, L.Y. Marlow, was focused on bringing attention to the organization she had started in her granddaughter’s name, called Saving Promise. Her hope was that by sharing her family’s story, people would recognize the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence in the country.

Now, more than a year later, she no longer believes awareness is enough.

She is calling on people to do something about it through a national campaign launched by Saving Promise this month called “Don’t just give a damn.”

“What we’re saying to people is, ‘We know you care. We know you’re talking about it. But don’t just give a damn; take action,’ ” Marlow said.

Right now, she said, women and men across the country are outraged that Brett M. Kavanaugh made it onto the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual assault, but she questions what will come of that anger in six months. What, she wonders, has come of earlier outrages involving sexual and domestic violence?

“What are we doing about it?” Marlow said. “For me, walking down the street, pumping fists for a day is not enough. It is not.”

She is right. More than marching and Twitter-venting is needed.


Promise is now 11 and participated in the call-to-action campaign by telling her family’s story in a video. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

Important conversations about domestic and sexual abuse have grown from the Kavanaugh hearing and the #MeToo movement. Countless people have shared stories about being physically violated by people they trusted. I shared my own.

But if we look back 10 years from now and realize that all we did was talk and shout and create catchy protest signs — and that nothing more came out of this moment — we will have missed a massive opportunity.

Awareness is vital. But results are needed, especially when the stakes are so high.

In a video that accompanies the organization’s call-to-action campaign, in her small voice, Promise describes the women in her family. The now-11-year-old starts with her great-great-grandmother and works her way down to her “mommy.”

“They are all beautiful, but they all had bad things happen to them,” she says.

She doesn’t detail those “bad things,” but if she did, she might tell you how Marlow’s mother was once beaten so badly that her lungs were damaged and she was left with a scar from the top of her chest down to her navel.

She might tell you how Marlow, whom she calls Bumblebee, was eight months pregnant when she was kicked in the stomach and spit on.

She might tell you how her own mother was strangled to the point of almost blacking out when she heard Promise, then a 6-month-old, crying on the bed next to her.

After Marlow saw the bruises on her daughter’s neck and learned what happened in front of her granddaughter, she decided to quit her job at IBM and start Saving Promise.

In other words, she didn’t “just give a damn”; she did something.

Saving Promise has developed a partnership with Harvard University aimed at fostering research toward finding a way to prevent domestic and sexual violence, which have been linked to chronic health issues.

The two organizations have plans to soon launch several public projects. Marlow said she is excited about these efforts. She is also grateful for the people who have reached out over the years asking how they can help. But what she has not seen — and what she believes is critical to saving her granddaughter and other children like her — is a mass movement toward action.

The campaign doesn’t ask much. It requests that people donate a dollar. It also asks that they submit a photo of themselves holding a sheet of paper explaining what they are doing to help the cause. Marlow said that could be anything from volunteering for one hour at a domestic violence shelter to taking a colleague to coffee to let her know you’re there if she ever needs to talk.

“Movements mean move something to a different place,” Marlow said. “You know how we move something to a different place? It doesn’t happen in our boardrooms and courtrooms. It happens around our water coolers.”

It happens over coffee at Starbucks. That’s where Marlow was sitting, having a conversation, when the idea for the campaign was born.

“I didn’t hire a PR firm to come up with a catchy slogan,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m fed up.’ ”

Marlow speaks passionately about the issue because she knows the stakes. She sees them daily in a long-legged girl who can walk into a room and make immediate friends and yet has also been bullied in school.

When I first met Promise, she didn’t know much about her family’s history. Her mother and grandmother had shielded her from that. One action they have taken is to talk to her about the family’s past. Marlow even had her write down how each woman had affected her life.

Those words served as the basis for the video that Promise now narrates for a campaign with a title she is not allowed to say but with a purpose she understands well.

A few months ago, the sixth-grader who lives in Maryland with her grandmother noticed Marlow staying home more often than usual and worried about what that meant. She could have done nothing. Many people her age, and older, would have.

Instead, she turned to her grandmother and asked, “Bumblebee, is there anything I can do to help you with Saving Promise?”