Each April, across the United States, communities come together to raise awareness about sexual violence and its impact on the health and humanity of their members.
In Chittenden County, Vermont we have a longstanding tradition of providing events that highlight the strength and resilience of survivors, the importance of education and conversations that name, interrupt, and prevent sexual violence, and that create spaces for survivors’ voices to be heard and honored.
Sexual Violence Awareness Month (SVAM) events are planned and carried out with the assistance of a collaborative team of providers in Chittenden County.
Two years ago I was walking with a friend who I have always looked up to. She is a badass queer woman of color who has worked supporting survivors in anti-violence organizations, through direct service, and also through women’s centers. I told her that I admired her and her work and that I could never do what she does… because I am a survivor of sexual violence.
What do you mean? She asked.
I told her about my struggles, about my dissociations, and about my fear that I would forever be held back by my traumatic past. I told her that my personal history and continued hardships made me fear that I would always benefit from the anti-violence movement, but would never be able to meaningfully contribute to it.
After a pause she said, “I am a survivor, too.”
We kept walking and we kept talking. She shared with me the dynamics of her trauma and how and by whom she had been hurt. While no two trauma histories are the same, the metrics of our trauma were very similar. I started to see me and this woman through a lens of shared experience and solidarity:
If she could be who she was in the world in this simultaneously empowering and real way maybe I could, too. Months later, serendipitously and with much gratitude, I was offered an interim position at the University of Vermont Women’s Center where I got to lead a team to organize the Dismantling Rape Culture Conference. Through the conference, my survivor identity transformed into a vehicle for community and social change. It began to connect me with people rather than isolate me from them. After the conference, I was given the opportunity to work with the SafeSpace Anti-Violence Program as the Coordinator for Direct Services. Now I am grateful to serve as the program Director. What a journey it has been and continues to be.
My friend extended the truth of her experience and survivor identity to me as an affirmation of the gifts that have grown around, because of, and in spite of each of our sexual traumas; she extended the truth of her experience and survivor identity to me as an invitation for me to this movement. Her awesomeness, intelligence, importance, and giftedness were so undeniable to me that I could no longer deny those qualities as present and growing in myself.
I would like to take this moment to acknowledge the meaningful insight and giftedness of each of us who are connected through Take Back the Night. I would like to invite us to create a world where we have respect for ourselves as survivors and value the contributions only we can make in the anti-violence movement and in the movement for love and liberation.
Another thing about my friend, she was happy. Not to say she was happy all the time, but she had fought for self-hood and had a love, family, and partnership that embraced personal sovereignty and that were leagues away, though informed by, her past experiences with abuse. I thought then, at a level I often do not wish to acknowledge or admit, that I was too damaged by my abusive past to ever be able to have or cultivate a fully respectful and liberating partnership, much less a supportive family.
While some days still I have to reckon with and fend away those thoughts, most days I reflect with immense gratitude at the life I have created over time and with much community support and love. My world is now one where I am uplifted and where my personal agency is respected and nourished. M partner does not own me and never claims to own me; she says she learns to love me through witnessing the ways I love myself. She loves me through freedom, encourages me to grow, succeed, and take up space, and we communicate compassionately and endlessly to reach understanding over imbalance and control.
It is important that we know how much we as survivors are deserving of joy and positive relationships. As I invite each of you to the anti-violence movement, it is integral to recognize that joy and positive relationships are a vital part of that revolution. Recognizing that I deserve to be treated like a queen was a radical notion for me. I now feel that I do deserve to be treated like a queen, especially by myself.
It is from this place of self-love, continuous growth, and radical care that I live my life and approach our work. Every day that I get to work with our team on behalf of the SafeSpace Anti-Violence program is an affirmation of the vibrancy and value of the survivor community. Survivors are some of my favorite people. Survivors have lifted me up, been with me when I was down, and helped me take our movement into systems and into the streets.
Kahil Gibran says that “work is the heart made visible” and that is certainly true for my experience working with the SafeSpace Anti-Violence Program. Our mission is to end physical and emotional violence in the lives of LBTQ and HIV-impacted people, though we will serve and work with any person who has experienced violence. I would love to tell you a bit more about what we do so that people know we exist, that we care, and that we are here to stand in solidarity and offer resources and supports.
Through our work, I get to coordinate direct services. As someone who at one point had to leave am an abusive relationship, my considerations included but were not limited to: how to I get out of my lease and afford moving into another place, who will take care of my cat, and how will I navigate all of this change and heartache while still holding pieces of my life together. SafeSpace makes it possible for us to assess and mitigate barriers that prevent folks from fleeing violence. We can offer short-term housing advocacy, economic supports, legal counsel, referrals and a continuous community of people to listen and bear witness to all parts of the journey.
We get to facilitate spaces for learning and growth. Education Coordinator, Skylar Wolfe, and I endeavor to promote paradigm shifts for a more intersectional anti-violence movement and a less harmful world. Our work in the past year has included workshops with the Vermont State Police, Burlington Electric Department, the Department of Corrections, and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Our team chooses to work with the criminal legal system because they are integrated into the way we respond to violence. We do not believe that policing and incarceration is the way to end gender-based violence. Skylar has been with us for less than a month and is already thinking of how we can curate our education sessions so that LGBTQ people don’t just fit into mainstream cultures, but so that the cultures themselves can shift and expand. With a simultaneously radical and tender consciousness, Skylar gives me hope for the future of our movement and our world.
One of my favorite SafeSpace stories comes from SafeSpace Coordinator, Julia Berberan. For her interview to work with SafeSpace, Julia presented on LGBTQ survivors of violence who are undocumented migrant farmworkers. She chose her topic because she felt the narratives and experiences of undocumented folks, migrant workers, and Spanish speakers were being left out of the anti-violence conversation in Vermont. Later that year, then Executive Director, Kim Fountain, wrote an underserved populations grant to partner with Migrant Justice, H.O.P.E Works, WomenSafe, and Voices Against Violence to center services, education, and outreach on LGBTQ migrant farmworkers. Now, Julia is employed full-time to fulfill a vision she brought to the Center years ago. This story is a testament to how Julia is a true visionary for our movement who centers the voices of those most impacted; it is an honor and a privilege to work with her every day.
Our team continuously comes together to affirm and show care to the experiences of survivors. Our work reminds me to love myself when I forget and gives me a place to channel my energy when I am in need of hope. When I tell someone we care about through SafeSpace that they deserve certain things, things like joy, respect, the right to be and feel however they are with support and safety, when I tell them that healing is possible, but it’s ok if healing is not their goal, that things are the way they are but they may not always ne that way—I have to take a minute and reflect…
If I am telling other people they deserve these things and that they are possible, then they must be possible for me, too. My personal resistance on my toughest days is met with collective vision and that is where some of my greatest hope comes from.
So I ask that we move into the march with some shared affirmations. Feel free to repeat what resonates with you and leave the rest. We are going call and repeat affirmations from our You Deserve Campaign where our team came together and dreamed of four qualities we all deserve in fulfilling relationships. It can be hard to tell ourselves these things sometimes. This is where the individual becomes the communal. I ask you to share these affirmations in the first-person, but to remember there is a whole movement, a whole community of compassionate badasses, around to affirm and support you. I will first share the chant alone and then we will all repeat it together.
Sound good? Thank you! Ok, here we go:
I deserve love and compassion.
I deserve connection and community.
I deserve independence and freedom.
I deserve respected boundaries.
I am grateful for each and every one of you. Thank you for showing up, for being who you are, and for reminding me and all of us that we are not alone.