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Breaking the Silence
September 18, 2014
Saturday at Sunburst Youth Academy was, as Chief K put it, sort of an experiment. There wasn't a laid out, micromanaged agenda- just a very basic idea - 5 survivors of abuse (including sexual, physical, emotional...) , all willing to share, and 55 young women, needing to hear stories that felt relevant to their lives. The sheer number of us women willing to speak helped on several levels. It helped each of us on the panel, I suspect; certainly it helped me, to say something and know that one of the other 4 women either had the same experience or "got it", and it helped the 55 girls in the audience to see that this isn't some topic where you might be able to find one person who might "actually" understand- this is something affecting a lot of us.
Our stories were all different- what happened, how old we were, who supported us, who failed us. A fortunate common thread is, every single woman basically spoke of being stronger as a result of what were probably the work circumstances and experiences of our lives.
That said, an important thing that stood out to me throughout the panel was not just a blanketed message of wide-eyed "time heals everything" hope. Certainly it was our goal to leave these girls with a feeling of "you're all going to be okay"- but an effective panel on abuse doesn't put up a painting of a rainbow without explaining the rain that will take place in order to see it.
Each woman on the panel carried a different piece of the puzzle for these girls. Several topics were discussed--- forgiveness, understand your self-worth, standing up for yourself and others, being vulnerable, getting help, having a support system, and simply telling your story...
After years of writing about this subject, talking to other survivors and maneuvering my own, always evolving, version of "healing" , there are a lot of ideas I felt passionate about sharing with the girls. This is a complex topic, and our presence for a few hours doesn't take away the things these girls have been through, but it is exactly the right path to be on. And at the end of the day, sometimes that's all we can do- walk on the right path. It was an honor to be a part of this discussion, and I hope this becomes the standard, not only for Sunburst, but for all schools teens call home whether residentially or simply from 8-3. We cannot make progress with things we cannot acknowledge. We know this about every topic other than abuse, but we're learning.
These kids have heard about bullying, about racism, a lot of them have experienced serious gang violence and other atrocities, and yet the most basic topic-- something that should have been ingrained in them since preschool-- No one may touch you in a way that you don't like, is brand new. This is heartbreaking and eye-opening, and a major guide-map of where our society has been failing its children. No child should grow up without knowing their worth, feeling like someone else can victimize them in any way, and thanks to one afternoon at SYA, 55 girls have a little bit of a better idea of what's ok, what they deserve, and how bright their futures are.
I had the opportunity to talk at-length with two girls, one a long-time survivor of sexual abuse, the other a recent victim of physical abuse, and found that what they needed the most was to be heard- to say everything they were thinking and feeling without being interrupted or judged. I watched their faces change, knowing that it was okay to talk about this- that they are not alone- I offered a few suggestions, confiding in the adults in their life, taking themselves out of dangerous situations when possible- but mostly, it was so boldly apparent that it's more about the talking than the actions. This has been a silent epidemic in our culture, and when we get done breaking the silence, we'll break the epidemic as well.