By Becca Howard, Prevention Innovations Research Center Project Manager
This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) in beautiful Anaheim, California. NSAC is the largest conference of its kind, with nearly 2,000 attendees and more than 100 workshops over the course of three days, all focused on the best strategies to prevent and respond to sexual violence in our communities. This year’s theme was Bold Moves: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation, which was demonstrated through the boldness and strength of the many speakers throughout the week.
The conference began with keynote addresses from two powerful survivors with vastly different backgrounds, Annabella Aguirre and Tarana Burke. Annabella told the audience about her journey from Guatemala to the United States, and her victimization while working as a janitor after settling in Los Angeles. Because of her status as an undocumented immigrant, she was unable to seek assistance, and endured sexual assault in the workplace in order to provide for her children. Today, she has overcome adversity to become an activist and founding member of ¡Ya Basta! (Spanish for “Enough is Enough”), a coalition to end sexual violence against workers in janitorial services.
The second keynote speaker, Tarana Burke, is the founder of the “me too.” Movement, a campaign using the idea of “empowerment through empathy” to help survivors heal. Burke has worked in social justice and Black arts and culture for over twenty-five years. In the fall of 2017, “me too.” became internationally known after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Harvey Weinstein and many other powerful figures. This was the first NSAC since the “me too.” Movement’s introduction into mainstream culture, which Burke noted in her address.
“This is a unique historical opportunity…an opportunity to advance our work,” Burke told the enormous audience of advocates and activists. “We have a big job to do, and sometimes it feels like it’s getting bigger every day.”
Burke reiterated this message in her workshop later that day. During the session, she spoke of her own background in community organizing. As a youth leader in Alabama, she realized the majority of girls she was working with had been sexual victimized, yet no platforms existed to raise awareness of sexual violence in her community. She founded the “me too.” Movement in 2006, with the mission of organizing to end sexual violence, while also sharing resources with survivors.
“The phrase ‘me too’ gives survivors language to say really hard things in a really simple way,” she explained.
Burke encouraged the audience to reflect on our own communities, and determine what must be improved to help support survivors and prevent sexual violence from occurring. The “me too.” Organization will soon be launching a database of resources for sexual violence survivors that will be hosted on their website. Burke hopes to continue to spread the message of “me too.” and motivate individuals to come forward about their experiences.
“Take ownership of this movement,” Burke told the audience. “If each of us go back to our communities and remind people that ‘me too.’ is not just about celebrities, that will validate the movement and move us forward.”
Over the course of the conference, I heard from many different speakers at a variety of workshops related to sexual violence prevention and response. On day one, I attended a session hosted by University of Wisconsin researcher, Rose Hennessy, who shared her research findings on the effectiveness of current prevention programs, based on her review of 33 articles. Hennessy’s review revealed the efficacy of bystander intervention programs, including Bringing in the Bystander®, especially when combined with programming focused on preventing perpetration.
Later that day, I participated in a workshop facilitated by Heather Imrie of Catharsis Productions on creating effective prevention programming for college students. Her approach to engaging students in sexual prevention involves humor, story-telling, and inclusive language. She emphasized the importance of knowing your audience, and framing the prevention program content within the context of the larger community culture. .
“I always provide multiple examples relevant to the audience I’m working with,” Imrie explained. “You can also bring in allies from the community, such as coaches or student leaders, who can give you credibility in the eyes of the students you are working with.”
On Day Two of NSAC, the audience heard from three powerful young speakers – Kayteshia Wescott, Dalton Dagondon Tiegs, and Melody Minuet Klingenfuss, who each shared how they are creating change in their underserved communities. In my first workshop of the day, I learned more about ¡Ya Basta! and other organizations that are working with the labor movement to end sexual violence. The session panelists had unique backgrounds, but had a shared goal of representing workers who have been sexually assaulted or harassed in the workplace. As one panelist explained, women laborers who are being sexually assaulted often do not have the language to describe what is happening to them. They may tell an advocate, “I’m tired of having sex at work,” instead of saying, “I was raped by my superior.”
Through their activism, ¡Ya Basta! and other organizations have successfully helped to pass laws in California to address the issue of sexual violence in the workplace. These include Bill AB 2079, which adds protections for sexual violence among janitorial workers, including a peer-led prevention training program that is required for all employees in the industry. The panelists emphasized the importance of connecting the labor and sexual violence movements, to protect all people regardless of their job, race, nationality, or immigration status.
During the conference, I met many incredible people from across the U.S., including a Crisis Center Advocate from Wyoming, a Community College Title IX Coordinator from Texas, and a Social Work Professor from the University of Guam. I was humbled to be surrounded by so many strong advocates and allies to learn from. While each individual had their own unique experiences and reasons for attending NSAC, we all shared the collective vision for a world free of sexual violence. As closing speaker, Farah Tanis, said so eloquently, “We have to twist the trauma of all forms of violence out of our bodies and communities, knowing that as we free ourselves, not only do we free our ancestors, but we free the generations to come.”
My NSAC experience taught me so much, and I am excited to share what I learned with my colleagues at Prevention Innovations Research Center, where we work every day to end sexual and relationship violence and stalking through research and practice. I gained new information about best strategies for prevention programming, survivor resources, and organizations like ¡Ya Basta!, who are fighting to end sexual violence in communities across the country. I will also carry with me the stories of the amazing speakers, who inspire me to keep going, even when this work is challenging. While ending sexual violence might seem like a daunting goal, NSAC reminded me that it is possible, and we are now closer than ever before.
Becca Howard, PIRC Project Manager
Becca is a PIRC Project Manager, and works on a variety of projects related to ending sexual and relationship violence and stalking. Her research focuses on the impact of sexual violence on survivors’ educational and economic attainment. She is passionate about social justice and ending violence in our communities.