Domestic violence survivor is founder of nonprofit that helps women, children, and other victims of abuse
October 12, 2023
Tanya Brownrigg ’21 (Social Work) tears up when she considers what it means to have broken the cycle of violence in her family.
Her father abused her mother, to say nothing of the overall violence plaguing her hometown of Oakland, where she grew up. As an adult, Brownrigg fled an abusive partner.
But her children?
“They have no memory of a domestic violence relationship, an unhealthy relationship. I’ve since remarried, the love of my life, never dealt with any type of mental or physical abuse,” Brownrigg said. “That’s a part of my story that I’m so proud of.”
In the latest chapter of that story, Brownrigg is helping others break the cycle she escaped. She is the founder and executive director of Victims Empowerment Support Team, or VEST, a Solano County-based nonprofit that aids and supports survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Brownrigg said her time at Sacramento State gave her the confidence she needed to get VEST up and running.
“When I present about healthy relationships, I’m giving people valuable information that can help them break the cycle of domestic violence,” she said. “That’s what my instructors did for me. They would tell me not to worry about making mistakes. You get up there and you deliver what you’re supposed to deliver.”
“I wanted to break that cycle. I come from three generations of domestic violence.” -- Tanya Brownrigg
The road from, in her words, “domestic violence thriver” to college graduate to nonprofit founder was anything but straightforward. Brownrigg became pregnant at 19 and moved to Indiana, where she suffered physical and emotional abuse from her partner.
Ten years later, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Brownrigg had to borrow money so she and her two children could afford to fly home to Oakland to care for her mom, but also to flee the abusive relationship.
“I wanted to break that cycle,” she said. “I come from three generations of domestic violence.”
After returning home, she worked in the health care training industry for approximately 10 years, often in leadership roles. Because of her experience, however, social work was always in the back of her mind, and in 2016 she enrolled at Solano Community College to study human services.
Two years later, she transferred to Sac State, becoming the first person in her maternal family to attend a four-year university. A familiar face soon joined her on campus.
“I would always tell my daughter, ‘When you go back to school, I'm totally going back to school with you,’ ” Brownrigg said.
With strong academics, Jaida Finch was accepted at multiple schools and initially planned to move away from California. But she decided to stay close to her mom and enroll at Sac State. Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to go remote, Finch and Brownrigg would meet for coffee between classes.
Brownrigg, now 48, remarried, and mother of four children, was worried she wouldn’t fit at a campus of mostly younger students fresh out of high school or community college. Her instructors, however, were caring and helped put her at ease, she said. Fellow students sharing small group assignments became a support structure, which helped build her confidence.
“I'm thinking I was going to be surrounded by a lot of young people who were ready for college, and I was extremely nervous. I had speaking anxiety, because I didn't have the confidence I needed to feel like I would be successful,” she said. “The unknown was terrifying. I shared some of these concerns with my different instructors, and what they did with that is they pushed me, and they challenged me.”
While at Sac State, Brownrigg interned with the Solano Family Justice Center, where she realized that services and programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault were severely lacking. The pandemic only made things worse, sending domestic violence rates soaring more than 200%, Brownrigg said.
“Victims were now stuck in the home with their abusers. They couldn't go to work and no longer had outlets for relief,” she said. “They were stuck at home with the mental, financial, and physical abuse, and we didn't have safe places for survivors such as support groups.”
Motivated to fill those gaps in service, Brownrigg launched VEST in October 2021, just months after earning her bachelor’s degree in Social Work. From a small support group offered via Zoom, the organization has since grown to serve more than 500 survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in just two years.
Among other services, VEST offers support groups, education, and workshops aimed at helping survivors feel empowered to take control of their lives and future. The organization employs seven full- and part-time staff members, plus three volunteers. It is financed through grants and donations.
Brownrigg estimates she spends around 50-60 hours per week working, earning a salary that rounds out to about minimum wage. Most of her time and energy goes to fundraising and grants, but in her mind, it’s a small sacrifice for what she considers her purpose.
“If I follow the mission, the money will follow,” she said, referring to both her own personal finances as well as the funding to keep VEST running and grow its programming. “So, I'm dedicating to the mission.”
That dedication has been instilled in the next generation as well: Finch is following in her mother’s footsteps as a Sac State Social Work major – she graduated in May 2023 – and is a VEST volunteer.
It took multiple generations and thousands of miles, but Brownrigg broke the cycle of violence plaguing her family. Thanks to her work with VEST, hundreds of others can now say the same.
“It’s the most fulfilling thing in the world,” she said. “My daughter is 22. I left (Indianapolis) when she was a year-and-a-half, and it's still very emotional for me, because this is my why.
“I'm helping survivors and saving lives, and it feels so good.”
If you or someone you know has been the victim of domestic violence, call the confidential campus advocate 916-278-5850 for information, referrals and support; or call WEAVE’s 24-hour hotline at 916-920-2952 for afterhours support. For more information, visit csus.edu/title-ix/sexual-violence.html.