In her many years spent at just one organization, Toby Strout worked to improve the lives of more than 60,000 people affected by domestic and sexual violence in and around Bloomington.
Strout, executive director of Middle Way House for 30 years before she retired, died Monday. She was 71.
Strout was raised by a family of activists and was always a champion for equality herself, Anna Strout, Toby Strout’s daughter, said.
Strout was a public school teacher in New York City for several years, where she was very involved in protests and social justice, Anna said. She moved to Bloomington to earn her Ph.D. in instructional systems technology from IU’s School of Education.
Strout first became involved with Middle Way House, a nonprofit organization that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as a board member. She became its executive director in 1987.
“My mother wouldn’t rest until she was certain every person — especially women — had equal rights and a say in their own lives,” Anna said. “I honor her daily through the work I’m now engaged in and committed to.”
One of Anna’s favorite memories of her mother is Strout’s frequent bus trips to protests and marches in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her career at Middle Way House, Strout would often take buses of women, including many living in Middle Way House’s transitional housing as well as Anna and her friends, to the nation’s capital to participate in marches for many social equality issues, including women’s rights. She would sing old labor songs, like “If I Had a Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome,” the whole way there, Anna said.
“She turned me and all of my friends into feminists,” Anna said.
In Strout’s lifetime, she got to see the expansion of Middle Way House’s services to areas in the region beyond Bloomington and the closing of the mortgage on the New Wings facility, a building opened in 2010. The closing of the mortgage was accomplished in part through a fundraiser begun by Jesse Eisenberg last year.
“I have truly never seen somebody with such a specific mission and resolute focus as Toby,” Eisenberg, Anna’s partner, said. “She had a simultaneously fastidious and creative approach to her work.”
Strout helped to choose Debra Morrow as Middle Way House’s next executive director. Morrow started working in her new position this January.
Morrow was initially a client of Middle Way House, living in the organization’s transitional housing. Morrow said her admiration of Strout’s leadership helped motivate her to continue working with Middle Way House.
“Going to work with an organization run by Toby sounded like the best job in the world,” Morrow said. “When you look at her time here, you realize that thousands of people have been helped because of her work. Toby touched so many people in this community.”
Morrow recalled a time when she was living in transitional housing when she ran into Strout after coming home from work for the day. Strout stood next to Morrow and spoke to her like her equal, Morrow said.
“I don’t even remember what we talked about, but that made me feel so good, and I walked away thinking, ‘Maybe I am somebody,’” Morrow said. “When you’ve been through violence and you’re in a situation like that, it is so hard to feel as though you’re anyone’s equal. That meant so much to me.”
When Morrow was working as Middle Way House’s community service coordinator, Strout once showed up to a bingo night Morrow organized for the women living there. Strout sat and played bingo with them the whole night. Morrow said she hoped she could maintain such a personal connection to the people she worked with the way Strout did.
Strout’s work also extended to IU, where Middle Way House worked to educate students about sexual assault and domestic violence.
Many students have used Middle Way House’s services, Anna said, and many have volunteered and interned with the organization as well.
Middle Way House recently began a fund in Strout’s honor, the Toby Strout VOICES Fund. VOICES, which stands for Visualizing Opportunities, Independence, Choices and Empowerment for Survivors, is meant to allow community members to contribute to the furthering of Strout’s mission.
“The work’s never done, that’s what she would always say, and that’s especially true now,” Anna said. “She wanted to make sure we never shirked our responsibility to each other.”
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