Small Seeds

[ Image of white beans scattered on a white background with the words such as "love," "trust," "courage," "grow," handwritten on them in black with dotted patterns. Photo by Mia Mingus]

[Image of white beans scattered on a white background with the words such as "love," "trust," "courage," "grow," handwritten on them in black with dotted patterns. Photo by Mia Mingus]

Many people think that the stories I’m collecting will be huge, sweeping success stories. Stories where everything turns out good and everyone is safe, healed, accountable and forgiven. Stories where “justice” is as clear as the Caribbean water I grew up next to. Where everything works out for the best, leaving an easy road map to follow.

 

And while these stories, though harder to find, certainly exist the majority of the stories I am finding are not full-blown success stories, but rather complicated stories of saturated heartbreak and nagging hope with small victories scattered through out.

 

Small victories. The moments that don’t seem like much, but stand in stark contrast against the backdrop of the overwhelming isolation, denial and silence that colors most work to address CSA. Though it can be hard, it is important to acknowledge the small victories and successes within our stories. Small victories mean something and should not be swept under the rug or minimized.

 

After spending my life as a child and youth growing up around direct service work to address domestic and sexual violence, and then later as an adult doing transformative justice work to end child sexual abuse (CSA), I know that small victories mean a lot. They are the small seeds we can harvest to plant for the next season and collect again and again, yielding crop that can withstand the climate that surrounds child sexual abuse.

 

After over a decade of working to build transformative community responses to child sexual abuse, I know that small victories can have the greatest impact and continue to be our markers of progress. They are small guideposts that we can use to get through the worst of the storm. A compass for where we want to go next.

 

And even calling them “small” is misleading because given the current landscape of child sexual abuse, they are no small feat.

 

When CSA survivors disclose about their abuse, often doing so when they are children and youth, and are believed—that is a small victory in a world where most survivors of sexual violence are not believed at all when they come forward.

 

When a family or family member not only believes a survivor about their abuse, but also supports them against the common backlash from family, friends and/or communities—that is a small victory in a world where many survivors face such backlash on their own.

 

When an abuser acknowledges the abuse they’ve done—that is a small victory when so many abusers deny the violence they’ve done and worse, often blame survivors and bystanders.

 

These may seem small to those outside of this work—I get it. The longing inside of us for large-scale change is very real and important, especially in the face of so much fear and unbelievable violence against the most vulnerable members of our communities. Sometimes I think about it as an ecosystem. If you’ve never seen the desert, you might think there is little to no life amidst the dry sand and rocks. But to those who live there, they have learned to recognize all the many different kinds of life that exists. They have learned to not only wait for the occasional rain to fall from the sky, but to find water in many different forms—forms that are not always recognizable to others.

 

This is how I think about small victories in this work. The longer you are part of the work, the more you begin to understand that the downpours that soak through the ground are glorious, but there are also many more examples of life to be found.

 

In conversation after conversation, I pull out these small victories, excavated from the rubble of pain. I search for them—the three tiny shells found on an empty beach. I hold them out to remind us of the promise of next year’s crop, and the year after that, and the year after that. The promise of the bounty that we are growing for future generations.

 

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So Many Stories and FAQ

[Image of green and red vines growing on the side of a building. P  hoto by Mia Mingus  ]

[Image of green and red vines growing on the side of a building. Photo by Mia Mingus]

It has been almost six months since I started this project and almost everyday I get connected with another possible story for LBP. I thought I would blog more than I have in the past four months, but I have spent most of my time finding stories. Or in many cases, the stories have found me.

 

Everywhere I go, in political and social spaces, someone has a connection to a story—or two, or four, or eight. So many stories.

 

Even though I have been doing work around child sexual abuse (CSA) for over a decade now, I am still amazed at how many stories are out there. And not only the sheer number of people impacted by CSA, but the amount of people who have disclosed about their experience of CSA to their family, friends, and communities, since so many people (survivors, offenders and bystanders) never tell anyone. As a CSA (and other forms of violence) survivor, I am continually moved at the courage it takes to come forward about surviving violence and abuse, especially in a world where so often survivors, especially survivors of sexual violence, are not believed and face hostility, blame, shame, undermining, isolation, criminalization, demonization, ignorance and being used for other people’s agendas.

 

Many of these stories have never been shared outside of the initial disclosure, save a therapist, counselor or healer. Most of these stories have been buried away and many are not even thought of as “responses”—they were simply what people did to care for each other. They were simply the way people chose to love each other, often in the face of great danger and fear.

 

There are of course, many stories where people did not chose love or care. These are the majority of the stories surrounding child sexual abuse responses. These stories are filled with most often, those around us responding with denial, collusion, fear, silence, deceit, unhelpful rage, more violence and blame. These stories too, are often not thought of as "responses," but instead thought of as “just the way things are” or “what you’d expect to happen.” It is important to remember that just as love and care are choices, so too are fear and silence.

 

These stories are important as well, as they are the more common reality of CSA and we cannot turn away from that reality. Not only can these stories teach us about how not to respond, but they also give us valuable information about child sexual abuse itself and the many reasons it continues, despite our best efforts. These stories are enormously important to document as well because they can help us to better fight, stop and ultimately end CSA.

 

As I have been connecting with more and more people and more and more stories, I have also gotten a lot of questions, so I have started a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page that I can continue to add to. I hope it is useful in answering some of your questions too. 

 

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Living Bridges

I named this project after the living bridges of Meghalaya, India. I stumbled upon them unexpectedly late one night, scrolling through the internet and have been captivated by them ever since.

 

This, I thought, this is what we are trying to do. We are trying to grow a living bridge across the river of violence and abuse that our communities face.

 

Everything about these bridges moves and inspires me. Everything about them reminds me of our work to end child sexual abuse. The seeming impossibility of both. I imagine the first person to dream of growing a tree across a river and the first time they described the idea to someone else. Yes, we can do this! We will grow a tree across the river. It will take generations, but will last for generations to come.

 

When I tell people I do work to end child sexual abuse without using state systems (e.g. police, prisons, the foster care system, the criminal legal system, etc.), many people shoot me unbelieving, questioning, incredulous looks. I get lots of, that’s nice or interrogating, how will that ever work?

 

And I always think of those living bridges.

 

How, in the beginning, before the bridge takes shape, it looks nothing like a bridge, nothing like our dreams, but slowly—very slowly—it begins to take shape. I imagine the moment that it looks less like a tree and more like a bridge; less like our everyday and more like our dreams.

 

There are moments like that in this work as well. They are small, but deeply transformative, hurling us into new worlds that won’t ever let us be the same again. These moments come to us once we are submerged in the work; once we have decided to grow a tree across a river, with no map or blueprint, with no precedent that it could ever be done. We move forward out of sheer need and a black hole kind of desire for something more; with only our hungry desperation and focused persistence that fragile roots grow into branches, branches into trees, and trees into bridges that will one day carry us past where we are and what we know.

 

I imagine the people who came before me in this work and their dreams. Their steadfast determination and moments of defiance at a world that only knows bridges made of steel and concrete, wire and bolts. I imagine the legacy of child sexual abuse survivors that I am a part of who did not want the steel and concrete of cages, but instead longed for the forest and its wisdom.

 

I imagine those bridges, stretching out through the open air held only by the collective dreams and labor of people who create what they need with what they have.

 

I imagine those bridges, holding steady as the rivers swell and fall beneath them, their roots digging in deeper and deeper after each monsoon season passes.

 

This project is a small part of the bridge that we are growing to end child sexual abuse—to end sexual violence. It is documenting the bridges others tried to grow and the people who turned toward the forest in themselves and each other. These stories are part of our collective bridge, they are what I hope we can offer to others who have only had dreams of the forest. Or who have been laughed at or silenced by concrete, steel and cages.

 

A living bridge.

 

Ending child sexual abuse.

 

A world free of intimate and sexual violence. A world free of state (sanctioned) violence. A world free of genocide, abuse, oppression, war and torture. A world without prisons.

 

Healing. Accountability. Safety. Justice. Home.

 

Liberation. Love.

 

Living bridges. 

Image of a living bridge in Maghalaya, India. Photographer unknown. 

Image of a living bridge in Maghalaya, India. Photographer unknown. 

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What Matters Most To Us

[Photo of the ocean with the horizon in the background and waves breaking over large rocks in the foreground. Photo by Mia Mingus.]

[Photo of the ocean with the horizon in the background and waves breaking over large rocks in the foreground. Photo by Mia Mingus.]

This week I was able to connect with two collective CSA response stories. One is a story about successful prevention of CSA in a family and the other is a collective response in navigating the damage done by the systems of criminalization that surround CSA. Both stories give me a tremendous amount of hope of what can be possible when we are clear about our values, grounded in love and aligned with what matters most to us. Both stories involve adults who acted protectively for the children and youth in their lives and who took risks to help create more safety and trust. In many ways, these two stories bookend the spectrum of CSA and CSA responses: the work to directly confront and prevent child sexual abuse in real time and dealing with the after-effects of a damaging state-system-based approach to CSA.

For both stories, I wonder, what made those responses possible? What supported the actions of the people involved? What were the barriers? What can we learn from each response that might help our work in organizing to end CSA and building the kinds of relationships that keep children and youth safe?

What are the risks that we will need to take in order to keep all children safe? How do we confront and prevent child sexual abuse in our lives? What are the skills we will need in order to build the kind of relationships needed to respond well to intimate and sexual violence within our communities? What are the values we need to practice in our organizing to not only respond, but to end sexual violence in all of its forms, whether it is coming from a police officer, a boss, priest, soldier, senator, coach, principal, doctor, friend, lover or family member?

I dream of a world where rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse are considered historical forms of violence--things that we used to do, but do not do anymore. I imagine future generations after us talking about them as a cruel way we used to be before we collectively worked to transform. I think of child sexual abuse that way too--something that used to happen; something we decided we would fight with every cell of our bodies until it ends; something that required us to work at the intersections of systemic and personal transformation; individual, collective and generational healing; humility and courage; and body, heart, mind and spirit. As we always say in this work, “you can’t think your way through child sexual abuse.”

As the world continues to spin, and so many brave hearts continue to take to the streets to confront state violence head-on, I think about what it would take for us to not only be safe from state violence, but also from the violence we inflict on one another, in our own communities, in our own homes. What would it be like if we could fight the systems that seek to erase us and, at the very least, not have the insidiousness of intimate and sexual violence between each other? I think about the brave hearts who are also confronting intimate and sexual violence head-on, in real time, in their families and communities, often risking the things that are most important to them: their relationships, families, communities and belonging.

I believe our stories of how we have responded to CSA--in big and small ways with all of our mistakes and regrets--can help us build the kinds of responses we will need to end child sexual abuse and sexual violence in general. Not only talking about the initial violence, but how we were able to respond to it--or not. The things that happened after the assault and abuse. The things that happened when we disclosed our abuse, as well as the things that made us decide to not disclose. How did we keep ourselves and each other safe, even in small ways, in the midst of, before and after violence? What did we wish could have happened? What did we long for? what did we need most?

Yes, there is so much we need that we don’t yet have, but I also hope these stories can reveal how much we already have and are doing. The ways we are preventing abuse, The ways we are creating what we need with what we have. The ways that we are interrupting generational cycles of abuse and blazing trails towards a world without sexual violence. The ways that we are not only resisting the world we don’t want, but actively building the world we desire.

 

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Our Stories Are Never Just Ours

[Photo of a leaf being held up against the sun by two fingers. The sun's light shines through the small cracks and holes in the leaf, creating a glowing effect. In the background is a blue sky and the silhouette of hills. Photo taken by Mia Mingus.]

[Photo of a leaf being held up against the sun by two fingers. The sun's light shines through the small cracks and holes in the leaf, creating a glowing effect. In the background is a blue sky and the silhouette of hills. Photo taken by Mia Mingus.]

It has been two and a half months since I began this project. Over that time, I have had countless conversations and meetings with people: teas, coffee, lunches, afternoon calls, evening video chats and stolen moments at social gatherings. People have emailed me and pulled me aside here and there in whispers, “I think I might have a story for you” or “you should talk to my friend."

People I have never spoken with about child sexual abuse have come forth with people they know who might have a story to share. Friends have offered to connect me with friends of theirs who are part of the seemingly endless tidal impact of child sexual abuse.

Everyone knows someone. And everyone has a story to tell.

I knew from the beginning it would not be the finding of the stories that would be hard (virtually everyone has a connection), but instead it would be the sharing of the stories. Understandably, people are nervous, scared and hesitant to share their stories. The stigma, shame and guilt of child sexual abuse is overwhelming. Telling stories from our childhood are some of the hardest to tell because the stories from our childhood are often times never just ours. Telling those stories involve revealing not just vulnerable information about us, but the people we grew up with as well. Our families, our intimate networks and communities, our hometowns, our relationships, our collective secrets. It involves revealing who we used to be and who did or didn’t protect us; who did or didn’t have our backs. It involves going back to places that we have left behind, or in some cases, made our peace with.

It can feel like a breaking of trust or betrayal to tell the very things that have so fundamentally shaped our lives because they are the things we have constantly been taught not to share. And even though the stories collected here on the Living Bridges Project are anonymous, the anxiety of someone finding out can be enough to stop us.

This is one of the ways that child sexual abuse (and many other forms of intimate violence) continues. Because our lives are so interdependent and bound up with others, especially when we are young, it can be hard to pull apart “our stories” from “their stories.” Telling our truth involves telling pieces of other people’s lives—people we may love and care about, people we may still have to see everyday, who may help us pay our bills, or take care of our children. People who are our connection to our peoples, legacies, traditions, lands and ancestors. People who might have wanted to do better than they did, who wished they had supported us or spoken up in our defense. People who sacrificed for us. People who may never change or people we still hope might change, even after all these years.

So I reach out and wait. Reach out and wait. I listen and hope, but always—always—I understand. I understand the fear, the risks, the decisions to take care of ourselves. I understand the reasons that make it hard for us to tell our stories. I understand the “I’ve made my peace with it and don’t want to go back there;” the “I have to ask my friend and my mother if they are ok with me sharing my story;” the “I can’t tell this story while he’s still alive;” the “my kids don’t know yet;” the “I need someone else’s voice to be recorded telling my story;” the “I need some time to think about it.”

Always, always, I understand. I understand. I understand.

For some this is a release, a closure. For others it is a reckoning, a collision.

No matter the reason, I understand, more than you know. And I long for a world where we don’t have to be afraid to tell our stories, to tell our truths.