By Cordelia Anderson
Those concerned about victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence fought hard to make this an issue worthy of professional attention, training, and action. The efforts were successful, and we now are a recognized professional field and, in fact, a service industry. Victims’ concerns and needs have always been central to this work, and attention has continually been paid to doing everything possible to stop revictimization in the community and systems’ response. We’ve made great strides. However, we cannot afford to forget that the voices, power, and knowledge of survivors were foundational to starting this movement.
As we became a recognized field, services grew and we became more credentialed as professionals, and it seemed to become more challenging to keep a welcoming and open space for victims/survivors as leaders in the movement. In the fight for credibility, the many professionals who were themselves survivors often felt they had to choose between speaking up as a voice of experience or as a professional. Some professionals who learned a lot about the issues from voices of experience increasingly expressed concern about the potential of re-traumatizing victims/survivors by having them too visible, actively involved, or even in opening the possibility for disclosure without adequate support services readily available. There is currently a debate and important discussions to be had about the potential benefits or risks. Yet we need a much wider net of people engaged in prevention, and Voices of Experience (VOE) are central to that.
For instance, one woman whose child was sexually abused and further exploited through pornography by a trusted friend, asked me where there was room for people like her who want to make a difference. She wasn’t looking for therapy; she was looking to be part of the solution. After Penn State, I spoke with a producer of a radio show there who was pulling together experts, including an adult male survivor and Penn State student. He talked about what it was like to be present and a part of the Penn State scene when the man who perpetrated against him was not powerful and famous. He was at a point now as an adult where he knew he could speak up and be part of a social justice action.
Years back, I was interviewed by Lynn Sanford for her book “Strong at Broken Places.” She was so attentive to hiding the identities of the often visible professionals in the field who were survivors that I couldn’t always tell which parts of the story were mine when I read the book. I had been a bit nervous about being in the book and then felt a missed opportunity at not being identified. Early on I talked about my own victimization; over time I lost that part. The relevancy of that part of my voice is making a comeback.
At a Kenwood Therapy Center meeting of a wide variety of professionals, Dr. Walter Bera asked participants about what had motivated us to get involved in this work. As you might expect, some talked about our own life experience, others talked about being transformed by the stories and life experiences of loved ones or people they worked with as new professionals in their fields. The power of the personal, the power of being transformed by our own or others’ life experiences was palpable.
Think of the difference when women could say without shame or embarrassment – if they chose to – “I survived breast cancer.” Or their loved ones could march with them and say, “I know and love someone who survived breast cancer. Look at all of us – we care and we demand more investment in a cure.” In the mid 80’s, along with my sexual abuse prevention work, my work and life was steeped in HIV/AIDS awareness and literally living with people living with AIDS. Those who chose to speak up, and all who knew and loved someone living with HIV/AIDS who chose to speak up, made a big difference. Breaking Free is a vibrant example of what it means when survivors are recognized for their value and their leadership. In fact, they and other programs like GEMS, have demonstrated that a key strategy in countering the prostitution of women and children is supporting/creating space for survivors as leaders in the social change. These are only a few of the examples where it really matters to say, “I am someone/I know someone. We are here. We are visible, and we demand a change.” Continuing to develop and train a high quality of professionals is a critical part of change, but so is leadership development and mobilization of Voices of Experience.
All of this is what is fueling my work with MNCASA to join with others and do what we can to activate Voices of Experience as a powerful force in the mobilization of our broader community for prevention. Ultimately, we now see the benefits to the movement from their involvement and leadership. Given the stats, we all know someone who is a victim or who has perpetrated sexual abuse, exploitation, or violence. This is personal, and it is political, and we haven’t done enough to build up the people power of voices of experience.
MNCASA is in the midst of updating the Demand the Change for Children website: www.demandthechange.org, so keep checking in for more information. We are also hosting a gathering for VOE, the evening of February 15. If you are interested in being involved or want to recommend others, please contact us at 651.209.9993 x204 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We can demand a change for children. We can inspire a collective change of heart, and voices of experience may be our not-so-secret power.