Travel Log - Day 8: Our Stories Are Tools For Transformation

  [Photo of an open book with the words "WE ALL HAVE STORIES TO TELL" written on top of the text on the white pages. The open book lies on top of fallen brown leaves and sticks.]

[Photo of an open book with the words "WE ALL HAVE STORIES TO TELL" written on top of the text on the white pages. The open book lies on top of fallen brown leaves and sticks.]

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.

Travel Log: Crossing the Country

  [Photo from above of part of a wooden table filled with recording supplies such as an audio recorder, a remote, headphones and various papers and markers. The words, "storytelling is transformative" and "#LivingBridgesProject" are written in white in red boxes over the photo and a geo tag of "Los Angeles, California" is in white. Photo by  MM .]

[Photo from above of part of a wooden table filled with recording supplies such as an audio recorder, a remote, headphones and various papers and markers. The words, "storytelling is transformative" and "#LivingBridgesProject" are written in white in red boxes over the photo and a geo tag of "Los Angeles, California" is in white. Photo by MM.]

Day 6

 

Today we leave California and head out to the east coast. We drive for the next 4 days on our way to Atlanta, GA. The time feels like it is going by fast. It feels like we just got on the road and it’s almost been a week. LA and Riverside were our first stops and I collected stories, gave a training and spoke on a panel, all through a cloud of allergies. Folks have been so kind to us—thank you.

 

Now I sit in the passenger seat as the desert of Arizona flies by me. The colors are so beautiful and, knowing the South West, it is only going to get more breath-taking from here. I often think about work to end CSA and the desert. I have written about it here before. The sparseness, the spaciousness, the scope, the subtleties and the stark contrasts.

 

I grew up with the desert. A tropical desert, but a desert none-the-less. Driving from one end of St. Croix to the other the scenery changes from sandy beach, to lush rain forest, to sweeping hills, to rich vegetation, to open plains that light up in gold as the sun descends, to cacti and desert, to rocky cliffs surrounded by soft sand met by the warm waters of the Caribbean on one side and the cool Atlantic on the other.

 

That was on a tiny island, where the desert twists and squeezes into the hillsides of the Caribbean. Here, the desert lays out in front of you and continues to unfold seemingly endlessly. Here, there are no tropical breezes to lend a reprieve from the unrelenting sun and heat.

 

I am so grateful for this time to travel and collect stories. I am grateful to every single storyteller who is willing to share their story and worked with me as I planned this massive trip . I am grateful that I get this time to not only work, but also reflect and see the land and the sky change from beaches to desert to wide, open plains; from day to night.

 

This trip is a gift in so many ways.

 

Before we parted ways, the last story teller I recorded in LA told me how grateful she is to be able to contribute to this project, for herself and for others. I told her, no, no, thank you so much for being willing to share her story with me and so many others. 

 

It feels like a deep mutual and reciprocal appreciation, care, trust and respect with each storyteller. I will forever be grateful to all of the LBP storytellers for making this project possible. Thank you so much.

 

 

Day 7

 

Today we are headed to Oklahoma City for the night, on our way to Atlanta. As I write this, there’s a train to my left, filled with white and green, blue and orange cars; and the open plains of New Mexico to my right, stretching back to giant red, white and green striped plateaus in the distance. We pass occasional road signs and underpasses, while the music plays and conversation ebbs and flows. The faint outline of the moon lies in front of us, visible through the windshield, rising slowly in the eastern sky.

 

This is day 2 of a 4-day drive from LA to Atlanta, where I will collect more stories. I spent over a decade in Atlanta and it is still one of my favorite places in the country. I love the South and the good work being forwarded there. Atlanta was where I began my work to build transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, with the late Atlanta Transformative Justice Collaborative. I still feel incredibly lucky that I got the chance to be part of that work. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life and I will always have gratitude for it.

 

I still cannot believe that we have been on the road for a week now. “A month” seems like a long time, but now I wonder if it will all fly by as fast as this first week has. There were so many storytellers who I wanted to be able to reach before the year ends and driving across the country was the most efficient way to gather them.  I still have more storytellers who are contacting me, as well as some who were not able to make the May dates of this trip work, so I will continue to collect stories after this trip. I am hoping that I can spend this summer editing and posting some of the amazing stories I have been able to find.

 

This project will not end when the funding ends. I will continue to collect stories for the foreseeable future, though, it will take me longer, as I won’t have as much time to devote to it.

 

Thank you all for giving me this opportunity to do work I love and to get to drive across the country—a life long dream of mine. Thank you for sharing LBP information and for connecting so many storytellers to this project. Thank you for volunteering to transcribe and lending your support and kind words to work that can feel so lonely and unseen. This project has been possible because of the growing-community that has formed around it.  thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

Crafting Effective Responses

  [Photo of a road as it curves into the woods and fog. Photo by MM]

[Photo of a road as it curves into the woods and fog. Photo by MM]

I started doing work around child sexual abuse (CSA) over a decade ago, when I was living in Atlanta, GA. Since then, I have learned a lot about what it will take for us to truly build community-based responses to CSA that are not destructive. Responses that could secure immediate needs, such as stopping the violence and getting immediate safety from the abuse, healing for those impacted by the abuse, accountability for the abuse done, or a plan of how to move forward; without undermining long term goals such as preventing future incidences of violence and abuse, building and transferring out the skills necessary in responding to CSA, or ending the conditions that help CSA to continue (e.g. oppression, violence, isolation, fear, stigma). 

Over the years I have educated myself whenever and however I can about CSA--reading, watching and listening to anything I could. I have fallen down digital rabbit holes for hours clicking through an endless trail of articles and watched as many movies and documentaries as I could get access to. I have reached out to countless activists and artists whose work deals with CSA to learn about what they are doing and share about the work I am involved in. 

Educating ourselves about CSA is essential if we are going to be able to respond to it well.

Understanding how CSA continues to be passed down from generation to generation teaches us that our strategies for addressing and ending CSA must be generational. We will not end CSA--or any kind of violence or abuse--in one campaign or with one organization, for that matter. Understanding that CSA is simultaneously both hyper-visible and supported, even encouraged, while at the same time completely hidden and buried in secrets, teaches us that we must have multiple strategies moving at the same time. Community-based responses will not be the only way we will be able to end CSA, they must work in concert with campaigns to change policies, culture and practices. For example, responding to CSA within families is one thing, but if we are responding to CSA done by a school principle, state senator, priest, doctor or police officer we will need simultaneous campaigns that can run alongside our community intervention(s). This is especially true if the institution and/or state rushes to protect the abuser. 

Understanding how CSA is connected to and perpetuated by systems of oppression (and vice versa) means that we must also work to dismantle systems of oppression as well in our work. We cannot replicate oppression and oppressive dynamics in our work. Work to end CSA that relies on secrecy and lack of transparency, white supremacy, abuses of power, pitting communities and or survivors against each other, capitalism or silencing the voices and leadership of survivors will never be successful in ending CSA or significantly bringing CSA rates down. We have yet to find a demographic where CSA doesn't exist and yet every community insists that "CSA doesn't happen in our community." We must understand that even though CSA exists everywhere, the impact of CSA is different because of how different oppressed communities get targeted. Rich communities, for example, often have the resources to cover up their abuse or to pay their way out of consequences, where as poor(er) communities do not. 

Simply understanding the vast numbers of people impacted by CSA (estimates say there are more than 42 million adult survivors of CSA in this country alone) helps us to understand that addressing CSA is about far more than weeding out a bunch of "bad eggs." And because CSA continues to be one of the most underreported forms of violence, many say this number is actually higher. And given that, as with most sexual violence across the board, children and youth often know the person abusing them, we know that teaching only about "stranger danger" is not sufficient in adequately addressing CSA. 

Above all, educating ourselves and others about child sexual abuse helps us craft more effective responses to CSA that are grounded in the reality of CSA, rather than the myth of CSA.

And I get it, it is not easy to learn about, let alone think about, child sexual abuse. I get it. I get the urge to turn away from CSA. The urge to push it away and out of our minds, to just want to enjoy our lives and not have to think about the kinds of atrocities happening in our communities every day--and certainly not to the most vulnerable members of our communities. I know it's hard. There are many days that I don't want to think about CSA. I am not suggesting that to be effective we must think about CSA every day, all the time--that is not sustainable. However, we cannot continue as a society to keep ignoring CSA because of our own discomfort or fear. We cannot continue to wait until CSA is exploding in our lives to begin our work, we must start now and build a foundation of preparation and prevention. All of us. For all of us. 

 

Found in the Collecting

  [Photo of a small brown plant with white spikes that look like stars that'll the frame. Photo by MM]

[Photo of a small brown plant with white spikes that look like stars that'll the frame. Photo by MM]

When I first started this project, I felt like a detective, searching for clues and trying to follow leads. I was trying to find responses to child sexual abuse (CSA) that were or attempted to be supportive and even--possibly--transformative. However, over the last year of collecting stories, I have realized that many of these stories can only be found in the collecting, not always in the searching. 

Part of this project is about documenting collective responses to CSA, but another part of it is simply opening up the conversation about CSA, period; opening up and holding space to talk about CSA. For many storytellers, this is the first time they are telling their stories as adults. Many of them are processing their own stories in their telling. it is an honor to get to bear witness to this process, as many storytellers haven't revisited their experiences at all. For many people this project is one of the only places in their lives that they can talk about CSA.

I hear from storytellers over and over again, "I don't think my story is what you're looking for" or "there's nothing really to tell in my story," but once we sit down to record, their stories are exactly what LBP is looking for.

In To Be Brave, the storyteller initially framed their story as simply about their journey to heal as a survivor, but when we began recording, their story ended up revealing many different responses to CSA. I often think about the way that their partner and community was able to support and hold them in ways that deepened relationships and belonging. I think about the way that their sister in the story was willing to check-in with their mother and the ways that other survivors' bravery sparked their own--a never-ending magnificent response to violence and abuse. One of my favorite moments in To Be Brave, is in Part 2 and the small response by their boss' family and therapist. I love the complexity expressed by the storyteller in To Be Brave, and the desire to hold the humanity of everyone, including themselves, even in hard moments.

In Standing Her Ground, there is a dramatic response to CSA by the storyteller's teenage sister hiding them in a closet and successfully preventing more abuse from their abuser. It is an unexpected and formative moment that the storyteller shares they will never forget. I love that this story is a story about a survivor protecting another survivor--and children and youth trying to create their own safety. 

However, I am also finding that another part of this project is the revealing of the many conditions that allow for child sexual abuse to happen and continue. This is an important part of building transformative community responses to child sexual abuse: understanding how CSA happens and is enabled and perpetuated by conditions such as poverty, white supremacy, isolation, silence, misogyny, capitalism, ableism and so much more. The stories, Standing Her Ground and What Was Lostillustrate many of these conditions. In What Was Lost, the storyteller explains how immigration, language barriers and poverty were huge factors to their abuse and how long it continued. In Standing Her Ground, we hear how isolation, oppressive gender roles, white supremacy and immigration shaped the abuse they experienced, as well. In Ending the Secrecy, the storyteller talks about how being a person of color informed why they didn't think of calling the police as an option.

If we are serious about ending CSA, then we have to commit to it, rather than hoping that someone else, somewhere else will do it. We have to understand how child sexual abuse is connected to and used by systems of oppression. We have to understand how CSA is connected to other forms of violence and abuse. We have to listen to those who are most impacted by CSA and what would have helped them or supported them. We need to learn about the vast diversity of CSA experiences, beyond the sensationalized ones we are sold, and actively build our own capacities to be able to hold the complexity and contradictions within those experiences. We need to create new shared language that can clearly describe and convey what we mean. We can absolutely end child sexual abuse--of that, i am sure--but it will require that we commit to and invest in the long-term work it will take from us, our families, intimate networks and communities. 

To Be Brave

  [Image of redwood trees with the sun shining through. Photo by Mia Mingus]

[Image of redwood trees with the sun shining through. Photo by Mia Mingus]

The first Living Bridges Project story is up today, To Be Brave. I have been thinking a lot about bravery these past few months. Whether it is the bravery to share your story of child sexual abuse (CSA); or the bravery of protecting sacred land and facing-off with police shooting water cannons at you in freezing weather; or the bravery of reaching out for help in-real-time amidst violence and abuse.

There is a line that I came across while reading a now-forgotten article that reads: “a quest is different for everyone,” she said, “but the courage is the same.” I think about this often and I have the incredible honor of getting to witness it in every story I record. Courage is an important piece of this work. The stigma, silence, shame and fear that surround child sexual abuse is deep and palpable. We need courage in this work; we need to be brave.

Because it is hard to talk about child sexual abuse. I don’t say that to turn people away from this work, but I say it to not turn away from the reality of this work. It is hard to talk about child sexual abuse. Not only the subject matter, but also the things and people that swirl around it. Most of us would rather pretend child sexual abuse away or blame it all on a handful of “bad eggs” or simply try and avoid it completely. This is not easy work and we need to consciously practice a kind of bravery and courage that is purposeful and sustainable. As Audre Lorde reminds us, “we can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.”

To Be Brave is the story of a survivor who was able to respond to sexual assault as an adult because they were able to process their experience of CSA. In the audio, the storyteller talks about being brave and how other people’s bravery and vulnerability inspired their own. I was so moved by their story on many levels. The way that belonging is weaved throughout the story and the domino effect of courage and bravery in parts 1 and 2.

In many ways, the Living Bridges Project (LBP) is a way that I am being brave. Being an “out” survivor of CSA has not been a part of my political work for a long time. Not because it was a secret, but because it took me so long to come to terms with my own complicated experience of CSA within the medical industrial complex and then later by a community member. Over the last decade I have submerged myself in work to build transformative responses to child sexual abuse, but much of that work is (necessarily) confidential and largely not as visible or public. LBP is some of the first public political work I have done explicitly about child sexual abuse and I have had to summon steady courage again and again.

“A quest is different for everyone,” she said, “but the courage is the same.”

When I was recording To Be Brave, as with many of the stories that will be posted here, I cried with the storyteller as they shared. I sat afterwards alone in silence, listening to my heartbeat and swimming in thoughts and feelings. What makes it possible for us to say the things that are closest to our hearts, I wondered? What makes it possible to be brave when there is so much to fear and so much to lose? What allows people to act out of courage instead of fear?

To Be Brave is a story about courage. And hope. And vulnerability. And compassion. And care.

And I hope it will inspire others to be brave, too.

 

With love,

Mia