Viva la Inspiration! Seattle’s Marilyn Smith Wins Big in Vegas

Posted by: Staff Writer on Aug. 7, 2012

For most people, Vegas' code is simple: You win, some, and you (mostly) lose some. More than 25 years ago, Marilyn Smith took one of the biggest gambles of her life: She quit her job to start a non-profit to serve Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Defying the odds at the DeafNation World Expo 2012 in Las Vegas, the Seattle founder and former Executive Director of ADWAS accepted the DeafNation Inspiration Award.

It was a rainbow-hued glass plaque that honored the blood, sweat, and tears she poured into Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS).

At DeafNation’s kickoff event, thousands of Deaf attendees watched as “SuperDeafy,” a costumed superhero, flew across air on wires. The next night, more superheroes were showcased: Eight Inspiration Award winners whose achievements have touched millions of lives worldwide.

Actress Marlee Matlin and Actor John Maucere were emcees.

“We were treated like royalty. I got to spend a lot of time with the other awardees, all of them very inspiring people deserving of their award. We all exchanged email addresses with promises to stay in touch.  I do seriously want to spend quality time with each of them someday,” said Smith. 

The winners included Switched at Birth’s breakout star (Sean Berdy from USA), the first Deaf person to ever be elected to the European Parliament (Dr. Adam Kosa from Hungary), a luxury hotellier (Roberto Wirth from Italy), as well as the lead dancer of “The Thousand-handed Goddess of Mercy” (Tai Lihua from China).

While making new friends, Smith said she “got a year’s worth of hugs” from old friends.

Regrettably absent from the ceremony was Smith’s friend Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz, Gallaudet University's 10th president. As a winner of the Inspiration Award for Higher Education, Hurwitz is still recuperating from surgery.

During his nearly 4 decades at NTID and RID, he rose to the highest position ever held by any Deaf person: Vice President and Dean of RIT and President of NTID.

“It would've been wonderful to see both Marilyn and Alan get the award the same night,” said Gallaudet First Lady Vicki Hurwitz, who is his wife. “Alan and I were honored to witness her getting the honorary degree at Gallaudet University 8 years ago.”

Vicki Hurwitz and Marilyn Smith share a close friendship which is steeped in years of advocacy, empowerment, and leadership. The two met as board members of the Deaf Women United (DWU), and after attending Smith’s week-long training, she was inspired to co-found the Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims (ASADV) in Rochester, NY. 

“I was completely mesmerized by Marilyn's presentation at the 1993 DWU conference when I first met her,” said Vicki Hurwitz. “She still is the type of woman leader that young women should emulate.” 

Rebel with a Cause                                                                    

Build the vision, and the funds will come. The short story of how Smith formed ADWAS could read like this: Naysaying the naysayers.

Rewind 25+ years, and you have a timeline of visionary persistence as ADWAS became a safe harbor for domestic violence and sexual abuse victims. Shocking those who said it couldn’t be done, in 2003 Smith received the “Leadership for a Changing World” $100,000 award which would be partially allocated to create Seattle’s transitional housing for Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of abuse.

The journey wasn’t easy, of course, and each victory came with a battle in itself.

“The Deaf Community and Government agencies were ready (for ADWAS); it was hearing based service agencies that were not ready except for a few" Smith told deafREVIEW during an interview at her home. “Part of it was because they didn't want to share public funding".

Later, it became clear that sharing means gaining: The ADWAS agency has become a model for similar programs in 25 other states, and is funded by a U.S. Justice Department grant, although each agency is on their own.  

The Inspiration Award is the latest addition to Smith’s recognitions. When she retired from a 25-year ADWAS run, she received three awards last year alone: The Woman of Valor Award from Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Bank of America Local Hero Award 2010-11, and the Ginny NiCarthy Award (King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

It was an apt salute from NiCarthy, the Rape Relief Shelter founder whom Smith credits for helping get ADWAS off the ground. In 1986, NiCarthy – who had by then written Getting Free, which is considered “the Bible of Domestic violence texts” – consulted Smith, who then formed her ASL-based advocacy support groups.  

Along the way, NiCarthy also learned about how abuse can be compounded in the small, close-knit ecosystem that is the Deaf Community. She described the paradox as “everyone knowing, but no one telling” which often characterizes abuse within the Deaf and Deaf-Blind Community.

“Marilyn hired me to train the Deaf community and interpreters about abuse and as informal byproduct I was trained about Deaf Communities,” said NiCarthy. "I recall being surprised in the early days of ADWAS, by how many volunteers eagerly signed on to be advocates, advisors, or support staff.” 

Smith endured a two-fold injustice in 1970: As a rape survivor in college, she encountered apathy from law enforcement. Authorities, unable to understand sign language, would not treat the case as a crime, and the case was closed with no arrest.

The final straw hit in 1981, after the brutal death of a local Deaf woman whose husband was acquitted. The wheels were set into motion, and Smith rolled up her sleeves to establish ADWAS in her basement of the Ravenna home she still lives in today.

“Marilyn Smith swept in,” wrote NiCarthy in the May 2010 issue of Seattle Voter. “Taking the Deaf Rights Movement by one hand, the Women’s Anti-violence Movement by the other, she clasped them together for action.”

Off her rocker: Anything but retirement

In Spring 2011, Smith passed the torched to Tiffany Williams, ADWAS’ new executive director. But don’t count on a “rocker chair retirement” for Smith, whose schedule hums with git er’ dones.

As Gallaudet’s graduation speaker this year, she cited Bertrand Russell, who in his 90s was protesting the Vietnam War: “He wasn't sitting at home in a rocker; he was out getting things done and getting arrested.”

She reads voraciously – at least six books weekly. Currently, she is a Distinguished Alumnus Fellow at Gallaudet, teaching a class as a visiting teacher in the Department of Counseling. Part of the curriculum discusses the “opportunity to really explore and reframe our language” – namely, the “isms.”

Last May, she and longtime partner Karen Bosley founded a consultancy group called The Leading Edge. In addition to mentoring non-profit directors on the finer points of fund development, strategic planning, capacity building, and program development, they host workshops on topics such as the unique needs of Deaf victims/survivors in the Deaf community.

She will also be consulting for-profit businesses. There are still many battles to be fought on both sides, she cautions.


“Marilyn has inspired so many people to better their lives in big and small ways. She has truly inspired me to overcome adversity and use the experience to grow from within,” said Robert Roth, who in the 1987 volunteered to become ADWAS’ first male advocate. “She is unafraid to take a risk, and yet at the same time, she is a rock.”

We at deafREVIEW could hardly agree more. Thank you, Marilyn, for sparking the Seattle revolution that was felt ‘round the world.


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