Trailblazing a Path from Police Officer to Executive Director

Headshot of Tonya Harris
“Knowing that the university was able to accommodate a flexible path beyond the typical four years was very helpful for me and my lifestyle. It helped me tremendously in achieving what I knew I wanted: a degree. I was the first in my family to receive a college degree so it meant a lot to my parents and family." - Tonya Harris '02

Tonya Harris, RWU Class of 2002

Major:  Criminal Justice

Tonya Harris ’02 has fought domestic violence from multiple angles over the course of her long career. She served as a police officer for 20 years, working as a first responder for domestic violence incidents, and now is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV.) 

This work allows Harris to make a difference in her community, a passion that has driven every turn of her career. 

“Throughout my career I have always been involved in community public awareness matters and issues that affect our state and communities of color in particular. I knew that I wanted to continue on with community work,” said Harris. 

Harris spends her days working to eliminate domestic violence in Rhode Island. Along with RICADV member agencies, staff, and a task force of domestic violence survivors, Harris recently helped pass legislation to close a loophole that existed in restraining orders. 

Until October of 2019, a domestic violence survivor was unable to have a child on their restraining order unless the child was related to the abuser biologically or by marriage. RICADV worked to support the Protect All Children Act, a bill that expanded the coverage to any children of the survivor. 

“Governor Raimondo signed that bill flanked by our staff, our member agencies, and the survivors. We were very excited about that,” said Harris. 

To reach this place, Harris followed a path that met her individual needs. While working a full-time job and raising four children, Harris took classes at RWU at a pace that fit with her lifestyle.

“Everyone has different life experiences. What works for one doesn’t work for the other. I was fortunate that I was able to have the experience at Roger Williams where the typical four-year degree coming out of high school was not what happened for me, but it certainly helped mold my path into where I am today as the leader of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence,” said Harris. 

As the first in her family to receive a college degree, Harris deeply values education and the doors it opens. She promotes this value not only in her children, who have all either graduated from college or are currently working toward their degrees, but for others in her community as well. 

“I tell all the young people I have contact with about the importance of education. I tell them to find something that is flexible and fits their lifestyle, which is how it worked for me at Roger Williams, and then to keep going. It doesn’t make a difference how long it takes, or how many classes you can take at a time. Find something you are passionate about and persevere.”