I have had the immense pleasure and honor over the past year to work with the fabulous members of the Survivor Speakers’ Bureau (SSB) here at BARCC. This is a group of 17 dedicated, enthusiastic, and fantastic speakers. As can be expected, their experiences with sexual violence are as varied as they are. What is similar between them is how passionate they are at sharing their stories about sexual violence and healing with others.
There is never a concern about filling requests for survivor speakers because of their willingness to speak again and again in any type of community. While individual preferences differ, the survivor speakers as a group have spoken in many different settings and communities. They have been featured at colleges’ and high schools’ and communities’ annual Take Back the Night events and domestic violence awareness vigils. They shared their story at large public events such as Slutwalk in 2011 and also at the March to End Gender Inequality in 2012. One of our survivor speakers recently shared her story to a room of more than 400 BARCC supporters, donors, volunteers, and staff during our annual Gala. They have spoken in individual classroom settings from middle school to college.
Recently I asked them about their experiences both speaking about the violence they experienced and being a part of the SSB. While each person had a bit of a different focus, there were three main themes that kept reappearing:
- Speakers felt that by sharing their stories with communities that they were helping to spread awareness and offer validation to members of the audience
- Speakers attributed telling their story in a public setting as a part of their own personal growth and healing.
- Speakers were grateful to be a part of the bureau and to be connected with a supportive group of other survivors who were also publically sharing their story.
Many of the speakers talked about how interacting with audience members was rewarding or helpful. One shared that “after speaking, people from the audience tell me I’ve helped to put things into perspective for them…or that they feel better for knowing that they’re not the only one experienced something like that”. Sexual violence is a very difficult topic to talk about and it is one ignored in many societal settings. Therefore, many survivors don’t know anyone else who has had similar experiences or reactions. Hearing a survivor speaker can be very reaffirming and validating for other survivors, regardless of whether they directly say so or not.
Another speaker commented on how originally the question period was difficult because of the types of questions that were asked. Then she realized that many audience members were not deliberately being offensive or rude. She realized that her story, like many others, went against what most believe both sexual violence and survivors look like. Therefore the audience was trying to grapple with these two different images and with this new perspective she thought about how she could answer each question so that it was helpful in pushing forward accurate information about sexual violence and survivors.
Speakers also identified that talking about their assault openly was personally gratifying and healing for them. One commented that she started speaking not because she was expecting to help anyone but because she thought it would help herself. After the first event, she understood the benefits it could have for both herself and others. While it is important to recognize that speaking can be helpful for some survivors, one speaker very accurately stated that “I’ve chosen to have being a speaker be part of my path, but that doesn’t make me any stronger or better or worse than any other survivor. It’s important to me to recognize that EVERY survivor is strong, and I’m amazed by each and every one." It is true that while speaking may be important to some survivors, it is not a mandatory aspect to everyone’s path to healing.
The last thing that many speakers mentioned was the benefits of being a part of the SSB. Speakers cited how they were grateful for the opportunity to connect with others survivors both during speaking engagements and during regular meetings to debrief what happened. They commented on how being a part of the group allowed them to get insight on how to talk to partners about the assault and how to explain what happened to children when that time came. They were able to share both good and bad aspects to public speaking and constructively work together to figure out how to solve similar problems in the future.
A major part of my role as the Coordinator of Community Awareness and Outreach, is to coordinate with the different people and organizations who want to bring a BARCC speaker or training to an audience. One of the many benefits this brings is that I receive all of the positive feedback from organizers after the events. I am then able to pass this along to those who were present—including the survivor speakers—and now to all of you! The organizations who have hosted a survivor speaker have only had wonderful experiences and lots of praise and awe for what the speakers share with them and their community. Below are some clips of what people have told me:
The speaker was kind, informative, engaging, and open, and I was happy that she left plenty of time and space for kids to ask questions.
Her story was so amazing and inspiring.
The Wellesley community benefited from hearing about the effects of sexual violence and how one can overcome it. We definitely want to invite BARCC back in the future because we found this to be a valuable experience.
Both [name] and [name] were truly fantastic speakers and were highly engaged with our audience. Their openness with such a difficult topic made the students comfortable and the learning opportunity meaningful.
I touched base with a few students afterwards and they all enjoyed it. Many of them commended her and remarked that it takes a great deal of courage to share her story.
If you are interested in having a survivor speaker come and share their story with your group or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Survivor speakers are a wonderful way to start the conversation about sexual violence and to give information about how sexual violence happens, the impact it can have, and the resiliency that many survivors have. Typically the event lasts for approximately an hour. We send 1-2 survivor speakers, pending availability, to share their stories and then answer any questions that the audience may have. It can truly be an invaluable learning experience for people of any age and in any community.