Last week I had the chance to check something off my bucket list and hear Grace Brown, the creator of Project Unbreakable, speak about her experiences and motivations behind working with survivors of sexual assault. The event was sponsored by Campus Assault Response (C.A.R.E.), JMU’s 24/7 sexual assault and intimate partner violence helpline. In October of 2011 Grace began photographing survivors of sexual assault holding posters with quotes from their attackers. The images are powerful, thought provoking, and create a space for survivors to speak out about their experience with sexual assault. But even beyond that, the photos highlight the reality that in many cases,
As we entered Grafton I was thrilled for several reasons: 1. Grace Brown was somewhere in this room. 2. I looked up at the screen and saw the photo that drew me into the project – an anonymous survivor holding a poster with the words “you wanted it, though” drawn carefully in black marker. But most importantly, the Grafton auditorium was packed, and I knew what all of us were about to experience.
I have followed Project Unbreakable for what feels like a beautifully long time. The project was founded in october of 2011, and I must have found them just a few months later and followed their every move. I remember the project moving from being a photo project to a continued project, and Grace taking the project on the road and photographing survivors all over the country. I was excited when she traveled abroad, and wanted desperately to apply when she posted that she was hiring interns. I ordered their wristband, wore it proudly, and signed up for the newsletter in a giddy email to Kaelyn, the new Director of Project Unbreakable. (To which I received an equally excited response!) Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard they were coming to speak at JMU.
Grace and Kaelyn spoke with open-hearted compassion about their experiences both inside and outside of the project. Grace told us that she was inspired to start this project after a friend told her about her experience with sexual assault. She told us that her although her only initial goal was to raise awareness and spark conversations, she found that the project gave survivors a new way to heal. Kaelyn talk about the fact that not only are these individuals speaking out and being visible and making an impact, but that many survivors have found empowerment in taking back the words that were once used against them. She shared about her experience being a part of the project as a participant, and spoke eloquently when she defined consent as, “Consent is not the avoidance of no, it’s the confirmation of yes.”
In addition to creating public space for speaking out about experiences with sexual assault, Project Unbreakable has opened up a much needed discussion about the reality that sexual violence is often perpetrated by friends, acquaintances, and significant others. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 2 out of 3 assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, and 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance. Kaelyn spoke about the way media most often shows sexual assaults as violent attacks committed by strangers in public spaces, while this stereotype is only true for a fraction of survivors.
Grace added that since she began this work two and a half years ago she has noticed a change in the way we talk about sexual assault in society – that it is discussed more often, more comfortably, and in a way that is more in-line with the reality of sexual assault.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s crazy to see the shift in just a few years.”
I, too, have noticed this shift. Sometimes I wonder if I have just customized my news feed content in a way that brings discussion about sexual violence and other feminist issues to the front of my consciousness, or that maybe coming to college has opened up spaces in my own life. But in hearing Grace’s closing words I am comforted to know that this shift is real, tangible, and is felt by someone else in the world. This is not to say that we don’t have a long way to go – we absolutely do. A very, very long way. But I am comforted to hear that we are moving forward, and I believe wholeheartedly that Project Unbreakable has been a driving force in creating the space to have continued dialogue about the realities of sexual assault.