Oklahoma is thick stretches of green and wide blue skies. Trees bursting with leaves, wild flowers swaying in the breeze and lush grasses line the highways we travel on. Cloudless skies whose only company is the sun. The highway slowly winds its way through velvety green swatches of forest and every hill we crest opens up into a view of the tops of forest for miles.
We are making our way to the east coast, where we will spend 10 days traveling to Atlanta, Washington D.C, Durham, West Chester, NYC, Providence, Northampton and Albany, before we head to the Midwest. I know I will have my work cut out for me once we cross into the east. We have days where we are swinging into multiple cities to meet with one or two storytellers and we aren’t staying longer than 24-48 hours in most places.
I had never planned a cross-country road trip before this and it has certainly been a juggling act. There were days where scheduling cities, recording places, storytellers, lodging and driving routes was enough to scramble my brain. Waiting for storytellers to confirm with me, so that we could plan the different segments of our trip that were all interdependent on each other, was a kind of quiet, simmering anxiety. There were many curve balls thrown our way: lodging that fell through at the last minute; the surprising challenge of finding (very) quiet spaces to record in busy cities that worked for storytellers; planning access as a queer physically disabled woman of color; cancelations and changes in schedules; and cities we thought we would be traveling to, getting replaced by new cities we never thought would be on our route.
I didn’t do this all on my own. I had the help of my amazing partner, who basically planned the entire actual travel route, booked almost all of our lodging and helped troubleshoot endless logistics. She is still operating as mission control for us while we’re on the road. I also have my good friend as co-pilot, who is helping me with access the entire trip and being great company on the road. It was so serendipitous that she was able to come with me for a month away from our lives, loved ones and homes. I appreciate and love them both so much.
One constant thread in this project has been storytellers consistently telling me that their story is “not that important” or “I’m not sure my story is what you’re looking for” or “there’s not really much to tell, but if it will help other people, I am happy to.” It has played out like Groundhog Day, like an unrealized script. Inevitably, all of the stories have been so useful and some of them have blown me away as responses to child sexual abuse (CSA).
There was a grandmother in the Midwest who was, understandably, nervous and told me over and over again that she didn’t know how useful her story would be. When I met her for the recording, she said she almost canceled the session. Her story turned out to be a magnificent intergenerational story about surviving and then preventing CSA. She shared about her own experiences as a survivor and then later as a parent and then grandparent working to protect her children and grandchildren. She shared about conversations she has had with her grandchildren about their bodies and consent. When we finished, I told her how lucky her children and grandchildren are to have a grandmother like her.
I think about the invisible, and often unacknowledged, work people like her do every day to try and resist CSA and break generational cycles of violence. These are the kind of stories that this project was created for. These are the small actions that can have big impacts, like ripples in a pond. These are the stories that can seem like they are not worth telling, but are the foundation of our work to end CSA. Campaigns, policies and laws are one thing, but the majority of the work to end generational cycles of violence will be done around our kitchen tables, in the car on the way to and from school, over the phone lines with our loved ones and in the sacred trusted spaces between those we have a responsibility to protect or push.
We all have stories to tell and they are valuable, no matter if we believe that or not. The story of the grandmother I met is both one of a survivor and a bystander—and when it comes to CSA, bystander stories are critically important because it is up to bystanders to protect children and youth in their lives. It is not children or youth’s responsibility to stop sexual violence and abuse they are facing, though the burden often falls on them in the absence of protective and supportive adults. Bystanders play a fundamental role in stopping or perpetuating CSA and we need more of their stories—the useful, the regretful and the painful.
Our stories can be tools for transformation, if we will only understand them as such. I think about that grandmother often, since I met her. I think about the work she is carrying forward on her own, in her own family and life. I think about her commitment and love for her children and grandchildren and how it moves her to have hard conversations and love fiercely, again and again. She is an amazing spirit and I will never forget her.