After 12 years as executive director of the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, Elsa Granados still has a calm smile on her face, despite the harsh realities of her job.

“When my perspective about humanity gets skewed, going out into the natural beauty of Santa Barbara really helps me feel better,” said Granados, who recently talked to Noozhawk about her work and what drives her.

Leslie Dinaberg: Tell me about your work at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center.

Elsa Granados: I enjoy it, it’s very fulfilling. … On any given day I can be talking with a policymaker and then someone within our state coalition, talking with a staff member about things, and also just engaged in a conversation with someone who is interested in the topic but knows very little about it. I enjoy the variety. Right now, like many nonprofits, the challenge is about economics, but I feel very optimistic that we’ll be able to weather what has gone on economically.

LD: How do people use your services?

EG: Most of them come through our 24-hour hotline and they get some initial information, support and referrals, and then we invite them to come into our office (433 E. Canon Perdido), if they would like, and sit with a counselor.

LD: Is the need steady or are there things that affect how many people come in?

EG: I think the economic situation has affected the number of calls that we get. I think as people were losing their homes and losing their jobs they maybe feel hopeless and helpless, and so they think back to another time when they had that kind of a feeling and so many times it was when they were assaulted.

LD: So it brings it back?

EG: It’s that feeling of helplessness, and people come back and refresh their healing process and come in for counseling again, as well as new people coming in.

LD: Interesting. Over the last few years there have been high-profile rapes reported in Santa Barbara. When things like that are on people’s minds, does that affect you guys?

EG: It does. When we do things like this where I talk to members of the media or if there’s exposure from a high-profile case, then people in some ways may be restimulated on what happened to them, so they will think about calling. Oftentimes survivors don’t report an assault immediately. For some, it takes many years to reach a point; initially they try to get through things and say “I want to put this out of my mind,” so they try to live their life, but eventually it comes back and affects many parts of their lives.

LD: Does the media talk about sexual assault accurately?

For Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center executive director Elsa Granados, the nonprofit organization's distinctive purple emblem puts a public face on what is often an unspeakable crime.

For Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center executive director Elsa Granados, the nonprofit organization’s distinctive purple emblem puts a public face on what is often an unspeakable crime. (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk photo)

EG: I think individual reporters have more or less awareness about how to talk about the subject, but I would say that as a whole the media present an inaccurate view of sexual violence. With more education, we’re getting to talk about sexual violence as something that happens to people who know each other, as opposed to a stranger jumping out of a bush. So in that sense we’ve made some advances. But what I see oftentimes in high-profile cases, members of the media revert to talking about the myths of sexual assault instead of the accuracy of a crime.

LD: It’s like people almost don’t want to hear it because they don’t want to think it could happen to them.

EG: … Something I hear from a lot of our volunteers is that when they go through our training it changes their lives. It changes their lives and they see things from a different perspective. I guess they are confronted with the reality of sexual violence in our society and I don’t think that it scares them more; I think it empowers them to think about the issue and how to think about it, and to deal with it in their lives in a healthy way.

LD: That’s good. I’ve seen you over the years and you always seem so calm and you don’t seem like it gets you down. Is that true?

EG: I would say I have learned to manage the effects of seeing sexual violence in our community or how it affects our community. When my perspective about humanity gets skewed, I find that going back to natural beauty is what works. So when I’ve had a particularly hard day I go along the beach and I take a walk or go for a hike. For vacation, I go to where there’s natural beauty … Last summer my partner and I went to Alaska; there was a lot of natural beauty there and I got reinvigorated. Then I’m able to shift back to have a more optimistic perspective.

LD: That must be very challenging sometimes.

EG: It is. I think through the cases that we see at the Rape Crisis Center we see through the darker side of humanity.

LD: Is there a lot of burnout in that profession?

EG: Yes. Across our field we have a high level of turnover, particularly in those positions that hear the stories — we experience what we refer to as vicarious trauma. The last numbers I heard were that we have turnover in most of the jobs every seven or eight months, so that’s pretty high. At our center, we have instituted mechanisms so we retain our staff probably two or three years. … We exceed that turnover but every two years, every three years to have a new staff member come in is a challenge.

LD: Do men come to you for help?

EG: Yes. We serve men as survivors and as significant others … The majority of the survivors who come in are women but we do have male survivors. As much as there is a stigma for women to disclose an experience of this sort, it’s even more difficult for men to talk about something like this in their lives.

LD: What about law enforcement?

EG: … Sometimes we get a caller, she wants to report or he wants to report and we either empower them to make the call themselves or we assist them with that. But in any case we are right there side by side with them and we know the process. We talk to them and help them go through the criminal justice system.

… We neither encourage nor discourage someone to report. We give them all their options, we present them with the information and then let them make the decision.

We do that very purposefully because if someone is assaulted they feel a lack of power and control over their lives. Many survivors, regardless of the situation in which they suffered, fear that they would have lost their lives. So we try to instill in them again that sense that they are powerful in their lives, they are in charge of their choices, and we give them the tools to make important choices.

LD: Tell me about other Rape Crisis Center programs.

The Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center believes that by opening a door to the community, it can begin to address the root causes of sexual assault.

The Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center believes that by opening a door to the community, it can begin to address the root causes of sexual assault. (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk photo)

EG: We have three: our crisis-intervention program that includes our 24-hour hotline, and that’s immediate response; our long-term counseling program in which survivors meet with a counselor on a regular basis to explore how sexual violence has affected their life long term; and then we have the educational program, through which we go out and talk to various groups in the community. … We also talk about what we as a community can do to prevent it.

Sometimes I get questions from the media about what can women do to prevent a sexual assault, and all of us as women in this society have learned some basic tools to protect ourselves, to reduce the risk — we carry our keys in our hand, we park under a street lamp, we look in our backseat, we walk in groups — but those are all risk-reduction strategies.

There are two components of prevention. … The perpetrator is first and foremost the person who can prevent the sexual assault and then, after that, society at large, our community as a whole. When we as a community say we’re no longer going to tolerate sexual violence and take a look at what the institutions are in place that keep sexual violence in our community, then it will go away. What we do through our educational programs is get people to explore our own behaviors, our own mindset about what creates an environment that tolerates sexual assault, and how to make sure we get to the place of supporting a survivor of sexual violence.

LD: In terms of institutions, I’m not sure what you mean.

EG: There are mindsets that create an environment where a survivor is reluctant to come forward and talk about their experience, what happened, and to the extent that the issue remains in silence then we are all going to continue to be affected.

… Even though people are well meaning when they say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have moved up there” or “You shouldn’t have done that,” that creates in the survivor a sense of self blame … We want to just not go to self blame for two reasons: one is that serves as one of the biggest obstacles in the healing process for them, and the other is that as long as we continue to blame the survivor for assault, we’re not going to focus on the perpetrator — and that’s where the responsibility lies.

LD: That makes sense. Are there times of the year when you focus more outreach on the colleges?

EG: We are very fortunate that UCSB has a rape-prevention education program and we work in conjunction with that program. We’re here to educate both the university and the community populations. We serve Carpinteria all the way to Santa Ynez, and our phone calls come from all of the different ZIP codes. A lot of people think that they only come from UCSB or SBCC. Yes, we get those calls, but we also get them from Montecito, we get them from Goleta, we get them from Hope Ranch — so it really is an issue that permeates our entire community.

Vital Stats: Elsa Granados

Born: In Los Angeles

Civic Involvement: Board member, Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee and The Fund for Santa Barbara.

Professional Accomplishments: Executive director, Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center. Former social worker, foundation executive, board member of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, affirmative action commissioner and worked for the mayor’s office of children youth and families in San Francisco.

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: “I re-read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; in fact I just finished it. I also like reading things like about astronomy.”

Little-Known Fact: “For my undergraduate work I started out as physics major. … The sciences still pull me and I really love astronomy.”

A Delicious Opportunity to Support a Good Cause

The Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center’s Third Annual Chocolate de Vine takes place Nov. 7 at Island View Nursery in Carpinteria.

This mouth-watering event features a judged competition of chocolate creations by top local chefs as well as wine tasting of some of California’s best wines. The festivities run from 7 to 10 p.m. with a private VIP reception at 6 p.m. to sample distinctive reserve wines and hors d’oeuvres.

Tickets for the main event are $65 advance and $75 door (if available) and a select number of VIP tickets are available for $100. Tickets are available through SBRCC.

Island View Nursery is located at 3376 Foothill Road, across from the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club.

Click here for more information or call 805.963.6832.

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at