This fall, I had an amazing opportunity to give the keynote address at the 5th annual Safe & Healthy School Summit hosted by the Northwestern District Attorney’s office. I would be sharing the stage with some of my heroes, including Attorney General Maura Healey, and speaking to a room of accomplished school professionals. I had a lot of time to think and reflect on my remarks as I drove to the conference in Easthampton, and as my nerves and excitement about the day vibrated through my body, one question came to mind: “How did I get here?” Since my trusty GPS was ensuring I was on the right course in regards to my physical location, this question was one of a more existential nature.
Over the past 16 years, I’ve been incredibly blessed to get to speak in a variety of spaces to hundreds- probably thousands – of people. I realize that public speaking isn’t everyone’s favorite thing, and that most people wouldn’t relish the opportunity to speak on issues that have long been considered uncomfortable and taboo, like domestic and sexual violence. I started speaking publicly on these issues because of my personal connection to them. In the earliest years of my career my primary goal was to raise awareness and break the silence that shrouded these issues and left too many survivors suffering in silence and in shame. I would speak in any venue to any audience that was willing- or at the very least awake- to listen. In those early years, and in every year since, I’ve also had the opportunity to do a lot of listening. I’ve been honored to hear the stories of survivors, of friends and family members who are impacted by their loved one’s trauma, of community members striving to make their neighborhoods safer, and of professionals working to increase their capacity to respond to the needs of trauma survivors. I’ve learned so much more from these stories than I could ever hope to impart on audiences with my own. And so my speeches have changed over the years, and so has my mission.
Raising awareness about domestic and sexual violence is still imperative. Too often stories in the media remind us how much work we have left to do to create safer spaces and policies for survivors and to hold abusers accountable for their behavior. I realized a few years into my career that my mission of raising awareness wasn’t going to be enough to achieve the goal I most hoped to reach. If all I was working to do was to raise awareness about a problem, there was an underlying assumption that this problem would always exist. When it comes to the issues of domestic and sexual violence, I wholeheartedly believe that these are problems we can eradicate- or as we say here, “REACH Beyond.” I won’t pretend it will be easy, or that I’m even likely to see this reality in my own lifetime, but I have to believe that prevention is possible. I couldn’t do my job for so long if I wasn’t rooted in that belief. But what does prevention even look like? How do we create a world free of violence? There are lots of theories of prevention and different ideas and approaches to what an ideal prevention program should look like- and I believe they are all important. I don’t think there’s one formula, one approach that will work for everyone and every community. I also believe that we each have the ability to do a lot, with very small and subtle actions.
“How did I get here?” What led to this moment of asking myself existential questions while driving my car across Massachusetts to deliver a keynote on teen dating violence prevention wasn’t one event. I used to say in speeches that my own experience of assault is what lit the flame inside of me to do this work, but it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t the event- it was the incredible support I got from family, friends, and mentors that empowered me to believe that what happened to me wasn’t my fault and that I could make a difference in the lives of others, if that’s what I chose to do. It was the people who listened and believed me that allowed me to believe in myself.
When I got on stage and addressed the room that afternoon, I shared with them this theme of transformation. We often think about events as the catalyst of change, but what I’ve come to believe is that transformation is more often inspired by people. Many of the educators in attendance had chosen their career paths because of a teacher they had that encouraged and motivated them. They now have the opportunity to be transformational people in the lives of their students. Many of us have experienced hurt in our lives; our capacity to be resilient and to heal from these hurts is often impacted by the support we do -or don’t- receive from people around us. Having just one person who listens and believes us can have a tremendous effect on our ability to heal. And we all have the ability to be that person to support someone else.
As we enter a new year, I am reminded of how much we all need people who inspire and encourage us. This past year, there have been moments when I have felt overwhelmed by the pain that exists in our communities, nations, and world. It has been the kindness of those around me that has allowed me to move through my feelings of overwhelm and into action. Let us remember to be kind to one another, and may we never forget or minimize the power we have to transform the lives around us.
If you want to be a part of the transformational work of ending domestic violence and working for social justice this year, click here to learn more about volunteering with REACH.