By Mar Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)
Activists play a crucial role in the fight against sexual violence as they engage in prevention efforts, speak out against oppression, and foster supportive communities for survivors. This spring, MCASA member TurnAround, Inc. and FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture have forged a new partnership to help activists collaborate. This new project, called Gather Together, uses art and other media to design public campaigns to prevent sexual violence, raise awareness, and support the healing process. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we present five profiles of activists who are collaborating to lead the Gather Together collective. These advocates, artists, organizers, and educators give their perspectives on the work they do as survivors working to create a world free from sexual and domestic violence.
What is your experience as an advocate? My experience as an advocate has mostly been in the arena of women’s empowerment via sister circles, workshops, and training programs since 2000 with Sacred Woman, Sacred Sisters, Red Moon Lodge, and Modernday Mama’s. In 2015, I launched a nonprofit organization called One Love, One Heart and it is dedicated to Victims of Sexual Assault with a Mission to Support Victims, Empower Survivors, and Prevent Future Traumas. The first campaign for One Love, One Heart is called She Be Warrior, which provides Transformative Workshop Experiences to Awaken and Expand Warrior Goddesses. I am also a singer/songwriter and perform at and curate shows for empowerment.
Of the campaigns and projects that you've worked on in the past, what has been your favorite? Honestly, my show I Lived, Dammit! at the Creative Alliance was my most memorable project in the recent past. The show was a night of entertainment dedicated to the audacious human spirit. All the artists involved somehow demonstrated in their art and lives what I called Amazing Heart and Resiliency. I will say though that I am super excited about my next campaign She Be Warrior and our first event on April 3, which will be an Introduction to Capoeira Angola Music and Movement workshop and panel discussion featuring women martial artists and the focus will be on The Importance of Martial Arts for the Modern Woman.
What sustains you and your work in this field? What sustains me? Every day for the rest of my life I will see a scar down the center of my chest where my life was saved after surviving a violent sexual assault. I am sustained by my deepest desire to stop this from happening again to another person. I look at my children who are 3 and 8 and know that if I want a different world for them I have to be a part of the solution.
What are your hopes for Gather Together? My hope for Gather Together is that we will become a powerhouse group for innovative and effective approaches to reduce incidents of sexual violence and become an incubator for training leaders for the movement to unravel rape culture.
Advocates are real-life superheroes. What would you say your superpower is? Strong heart motivation. I can help you believe that you can do it, that winning is possible, and that love is real. My attacker stabbed me in my heart and I lived!!! I think that’s why I have an S (Scar) on my chest!
What is your experience as an advocate? For over the past ten years, I've been working with queer folks, youth, and communities of color to build healing spaces. This work has taken on a number of different faces - but at its heart, my advocacy is premised that the most powerful work happens when it is developed and guided by the community.
Of the campaigns and projects that you've worked on in the past, what has been your favorite? My favorite project will always be the Summer Leadership Program, a six week social justice youth leadership program out of The City School in Boston. The program is a multi-generational collaboration, led by both youth and adults. During the time I directed the program, we launched a community organizing component where youth organized to create change around the issues that mattered most to them. It was such a tremendous loving community where we affirmed each other's power and turned that knowledge into real change. I am forever guided by the lessons I gained from my time there.
What sustains you and your work in this field? To quote Luther, "the power of love". We have an infinite capacity for tenderness and kindness. I have the great luxury of witnessing this through my work as a program director, poet, and social worker. I could not do this work without my tribe of friends, family, and granny who love me deeply and so well - their love is a powerful legacy I seek to share every day.
What are your hopes for Gather Together? That we will create healing spaces for survivors who need support.
Advocates are real-life superheroes. What would you say your superpower is? My ability to weave song lyrics into any conversation. [Editor’s note: MCASA’s Women of Color Network was thrilled to welcome Saida as a speaker at our 2015 MCASA-WOCN conference last November, and we are excited to have the opportunity to profile her here as well!]
What is your experience as an advocate? I am a storyteller who partners up with non-profits such as the House of Ruth to bring awareness about the topic of Domestic Violence. I am also part of Baltimore County's Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team (DVFRT) who review DV fatality cases to find ways to improve the system.
Of the campaigns and projects that you've worked on in the past, what has been your favorite? My favorite project is The Monument Quilt project. I like this project because it provides an alternative for survivors to express their trauma in a supported environment. It can be very difficult for a survivor of sexual assault or DV to verbalize their trauma. The Monument Quilt creates an opportunity for the survivor tell their story by creating their own quilt square in the way they chose to tell their story.
What sustains you and your work in this field? My belief in God helps to sustain me. My favorite scriptures are Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, which talks about love.
What are your hopes for Gather Together? As a member of Gather Together I hope we can create a shift in the way society thinks and handles survivors.
Advocates are real-life superheroes. What would you say your superpower is? My superpower would be the power of determination. We will and must keep pressing forward.
What is your experience as an advocate? I have advocated behind several different initiatives to include environmental legislation and working toward beginning a youth jobs program; however, nothing compares to my work with FORCE. Being an advocate for survivors of such traumatic events is truly an experience I will credit for the rest of my life, taking it with me into my career as a social worker.
Of the campaigns and projects that you've worked on in the past, what has been your favorite? Working on the Affirmative Consent legislation has been a well enjoyed challenge. The legislation calls for an affirmative ‘yes’ as a means of consent on college campuses in Maryland. I’ve worked hard both in Annapolis as well as on my campus meeting with people and discussing what the bill means, how it relates to relationships and general campus life as well as why it is so important to have this explicit policy in statewide campus’ code of conduct.
What sustains you and your work in this field? The belief that Rape Culture as an institution will be dismantled and survivors of sexual abuse and trauma will find relief and ultimately justice for the crimes committed against them is definitely one means of sustainment that I use to keep going in my work. Another is the group of survivors who are there to remind each other that they are not and could not be alone in their journey after the incidents that occurred to force them into this category.
What are your hopes for Gather Together? My hopes for Gather Together are simple. I want the group to work toward an end of Rape Culture. I want us to provide support for each other as we change the conversation around sexual violence to create a new space where the concept of being raped or abused or assaulted is not the crime, but the crime is in committing these acts upon innocent, honest people.
Advocates are real-life superheroes. What would you say your superpower is? My superpower would have to be solid persistence. I work and labor on these issues until I know I have done the most that I can in that time to wake up the next day and do more work to combat these issues.
What is your experience as an advocate? When I began my undergraduate studies, working in sexual and domestic violence advocacy was not something I imagined for myself. Yet when I joined my campus Sexual Assault Resource Unit, I discovered my power to change the circumstances that had led to my own abuse. Over the next four years, I devoted much of my time to educating students about healthy relationships and providing survivors in my community the resources they needed to heal. As SARU co-director, I launched a new group website and blog, hosted speakers from around the country, and worked closely with administrators to develop a new sexual misconduct policy that includes affirmative consent. I also work as a responder on our 24/7 resource hotline and help facilitate a meet-up group for queer and trans survivors. In addition to my advocacy on campus, I work as an outreach intern for The Monument Quilt, where I help to plan events and bring the quilt to different communities.
Of the campaigns and projects that you've worked on in the past, what has been your favorite? I enjoyed being part of the acting and brainstorming process for Force's two videos on affirmative consent (which will be released in the near future!). As a peer educator I talk a lot about the concept of consent, but sometimes it can be hard for people to visualize what that looks like with so many unhealthy depictions of sex in the media. Creating these short videos was a chance to model communicative, mutual, and participatory sexual encounters between partners.
What sustains you and your work in this field? Appreciating my own resilience and the resilience of those around me. When I feel worn down I take a moment to acknowledge all the work I'm doing and the ways in which we're surviving. I'm also a huge proponent of adult coloring books.
What are your hopes for Gather Together? I’m excited about Gather Together as a way of building power through a network of survivors. By bringing each of our unique voices together, I think we have the potential to imagine new ways of addressing rape culture, informed by our own experiences.
Advocates are real-life superheroes. What would you say your superpower is? An aura of calm.