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Column: Nothing Changes, but We Are Not Alone

  • Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press



For the Valley News
Tuesday, October 09, 2018

And so it has happened again. Over the past two weeks, we have watched it happen at the highest level. A survivor came forward, shared her story in front of the world, hoping that our country would expect better for its highest court, hoping that her abuser would be held accountable for his actions. Instead, her memory, her sincerity and her motives are questioned.

In the end, her story is discredited, and a man is given the benefit of the doubt. His family, his reputation, and his suffering is deemed more worthy.

At WISE, we see this every day.

We support professor Christine Blasey Ford and all survivors; Ford’s experience is unfortunately not unique. We listen to women as they share their stories with us, ask us to hold those stories that have become too heavy for them to carry on their own. And then we go home, and our mothers share their stories with us. Our family members, our friends, and people we just met share their stories with us. All trying to understand how this could keep happening. All trying to find hope that somehow things will be different.

In the 1980s, a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that 1 in 4 women ages 18-24 reported surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives. It is striking that this rate has remained steady since that study. More recently, statistics published in JAMA Pediatrics show that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be sexually abused or assaulted before they turn 17.

The numbers do not change.

We recently had a discussion at WISE about Ford, and about our own experiences. There were five women at the table. Each one of us was a teenager during a different decade and, remarkably, each of us received the same messages regardless of the era in which we grew up. We all share the same experiences. Whether a girl is sent home from school because her shoulders or midriff is deemed too distracting for boys, or whether a survivor is openly mocked by the president of the United States, the message is the same: The futures of boys and men are more important than the futures of girls and women.

Every year, WISE delivers close to 600 presentations to Upper Valley students, educators and community members and trains about 60 people to be volunteer advocates, court observers and ambassadors. Each program starts by teaching the root causes of gender-based violence in efforts to engage our community in ending it. Our programming varies according to the audience, but it covers the same material.

On the first day, we lay the foundation by setting up a timeline that shares different events throughout history. Taped to the walls are bright pieces of paper that share ancient proverbs from different cultures, quotes and events from the 1400s to the present. We ask participants to spend time reading the timeline and quotes, and then we ask them to reflect on what they’ve read.

Most often, people share that it feels overwhelming, as participants recognize the scope and history of violence against women. We ask that they reflect on not only the bad, but also identify the good, the times when there was a positive outcome. The common theme is that positive outcomes happen when people and communities come together and demand change.

We ourselves vacillate between feeling hopeful and hopeless. And we also recognize that things are changing. Things may not be changing fast enough, but this time is different. We are not silent.

Survivors are refusing to be silent anymore, even when faced with enormous consequences for speaking out. We find support in each other. We find strength in this community of people with shared experience. We are hopeful because we are talking to each other, we are connected and we are elevating our voices. As we acknowledge our shared experiences, we are not alone. We know that it was not our fault what happened.

And as we shed the shame, it becomes harder for people to not be held accountable. We no longer have to live with the shame that creates silence and isolation. With this conversation, we find liberation, clarity and connectedness. We are stronger together. This strength is transformational. And it is in this collective strength when change happens.

By our next training, there will be one more colorful piece of paper added to the timeline, this one highlighting the Kavanaugh hearings. And what happens next is also a part of our timeline. We get to collectively choose how it is written in history.

What is your role in the timeline?

Peggy O’Neil is the executive director of WISE, a Lebanon-based nonprofit organization providing crisis and ongoing support to survivors and educating the community in the prevention of domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking.