Empowering Survivors, Curing Stigma: Trauma-Informed Advocacy for Survivors Living with Mental Illness

This May marks the 69th anniversary of Mental Health Month in the United States. The purpose of Mental Health Month is to increase awareness of mental health issues and to empower individuals who live with mental health issues; to challenge stigma; and to help those who suffer heal emotional and psychological wounds.[1]

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence can have significant mental health consequences for survivors.[2] As attorneys and advocates who work with survivors, it is our responsibility to be aware of the signs of trauma in our clients, to ensure that our representation does not worsen the harm done to a client or create additional harms, and to zealously advocate on our clients’ behalf. Many, if not most, survivors who live with mental health, substance use, or trauma-related issues are fully capable of engaging in survivor-driven representation. These clients can make informed decisions about their case, and can understand, deliberate upon, and reach conclusions about matters affecting their own well-being.[3]

Wellness Cairns

There are myriad ways that advocates and attorneys can challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness and offer concrete assistance to survivors who have experienced trauma resulting from multiple victimizations. Attorneys for survivors who are dealing with mental health issues can assist clients by:

  • Recognizing that survivors may be unable to recall all the details of the abuse or violence;
  • Providing options and the time and space for survivors to make fully informed decisions;
  • Validating the survivor’s feelings throughout the process;
  • Being responsive to a survivor’s requests for information and support, even if she asks for the same information several times;
  • Partnering with survivors to identify alternative coping strategies if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors;
  • Finding supports for developing alternative or additional coping strategies;
  • Connecting survivors who are experiencing a mental health crisis with a trusted mental health referral/resource;
  • Offering support to survivors who are using alcohol and/or drugs by safety planning and strategizing to the greatest extent possible at the time (including assessing risks and developing strategies that mitigate the risks posed by alcohol and drug use) and encouraging them to contact you again;
  • Gaining an understanding of the ways in which a client’s unique challenges may impact her ability to engage in the advocacy process;
  • Tailoring interviewing and counseling approaches to meet the needs of and maximize the self-determination of each individual client;
  • Developing a basic understanding of trauma-related and mental health conditions that survivors may experience;
  • Being skilled in listening and asking questions to understand a survivor’s perspective and needs; and
  • Understanding what information and options to offer to meet those needs.[4]

Survivor-driven advocacy requires that attorneys tailor their advocacy approach to meet the unique needs of survivors. It is within the context of a respectful, survivor-driven relationship that lawyers can provide opportunities for survivors experiencing trauma and mental health challenges to access the resources they need and to exercise greater control over their own lives.


Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors (PES) at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. You can reach Janice and the rest of the PES team at legal@vsdvalliance.org.


[1] Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may (last visited May 4, 2018).

[2] See, e.g., the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/ (last visited May 4, 2018).

[3] See, e.g., Comment 1 to Rule 1.14 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, available at http://www.vsb.org/pro-guidelines/index.php/main/print_view (last visited May 4, 2018).

[4] See Seighman, Mary M., et al., “Representing Domestic Violence Survivors Who Are Experiencing Trauma and Other Mental Health Challenges: A Handbook for Attorneys” (2011), available at http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AttorneyHandbookMay282012.pdf (last visited May 4, 2018).

Meet the Action Alliance’s new Prevention Director, Kat Monusky!

The Action Alliance is excited to welcome Kat Monusky to the team as our new Prevention and Community Wellness Director!

Kat has been working as the Prevention Program Coordinator at WCSAP—the Washington State Sexual Assault Coalition–for 7 years, during which time she has changed the landscape and evolution of prevention in Washington State. In this role, one of Kat’s priorities has been to bring the voices of local programs to statewide and national processes, and to make the significant funding and programming shifts necessary to ensure that coalition prevention work is responsive to the needs of local programs.

Kat has dreamed up and managed a variety of new statewide prevention initiatives from start to finish, including a multi-year pilot project on child sexual abuse prevention to push local programs out of their comfort zones and toward best practices and a new statewide Prevention Mentor Program. She has managed Washington’s large-scale, statewide Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign for seven years, including the creation and distribution of materials, along with managing the WCSAP SAAM website and social media.

Kat and pups

In the realm of writing and publications, Kat has developed content for over 40 Prevention Tips, ‘special edition’ resources, and prevention pages of the WCSAP website. She has also been in charge of producing 11 volumes of WCSAP’s nationally-recognized “Partners in Social Change” (PISC) journal.

Kat’s connection to the work originated in Virginia. She was a survivor advocate while attending VCU as an undergraduate and in graduate school, and joined the Action Alliance Prevention Team as an intern in 2010. As Kat says, “My career began in working directly with survivors, and that experience keeps me grounded in the anti-violence and anti-oppression frameworks that guide my work.”

About her new position, Kat says, “I’m so grateful to have been able to learn from and grow with the amazing network of preventionists and advocates in Washington State. But I’m also so excited to return to Virginia and join the fantastic team at the Action Alliance! Looking forward to learning about the unique social change efforts that run through Virginia, and hopefully to meet many of you soon.”


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

On an Unjust Justice System: Innocent Until Proven Poor

Our country’s system of cash bail doesn’t work like you were probably taught. Every year, millions of people are coerced into paying money bail after they’re arrested in order to remain free while their cases are processed. Even though these individuals are still innocent in the eyes of the law, they and their families or communities are forced to pay non-refundable ten percent deposits to for-profit bail bonds companies. Rather than helping to ensure that defendants return to court for future court hearings (a reminder phone call works just as well), the cash bail system fuels mass incarceration and disproportionately impacts Black and low-income communities. 

Oftentimes, young children are fed certain beliefs to give them a basic understanding of how the world works. They are told that doctors make them feel better when they are sick, that prison is where bad people go so they don’t harm others, that their teachers are always to be trusted, that the justice system rights wrongs and makes the world a more just place.

As we grow older, it is imperative that we question the beliefs we were taught and analyze them for ourselves to search for the truth – if any – within them. Today, I ask you to challenge your beliefs about the “justice” system and its accompanying money bail system.

How many people does this affect?

Here in the land of the free, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails – of these people, 70 percent have yet to be convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. Who are they, you may ask, and why are they there? According to data from the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), fewer than 30 percent of those currently locked up in local jails were arrested for violent crimes. And the reason they are still there? It has a lot to do with the United States’ system of money bail.

Through the money bail system, defendants are required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee that they will attend future court hearings. Defendants who are unable to come up with that money, however, can be incarcerated from the time of their arrests until their cases are resolved or dismissed in court – a process that can, sometimes, take up to 10 years. The Pretrial Justice Initiative found that most people detained pretrial will receive “dismissals, no jail time, or a jail sentence less than time served in pretrial detention.” It seems that the “constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off.”

Bail amounts are often equivalent to a full year’s income

According to PPI’s research, which uses Bureau of Justice Statistics data, the median annual income for people in jail, prior to incarceration, was $15,109 – this is less than half (48 percent) of the median for people of similar ages who are not incarcerated. Since those in jail are drastically poorer than non-incarcerated individuals, it is oftentimes extremely difficult for them to pay the required bail amount. In fact, the nationwide median bail amount is almost equivalent to a full year’s income for the typical person unable to meet a bail bond.

Also important to note in these statistics is the fact that Black women had the lowest incomes prior to incarceration. This means that the money bail system especially harms Black women, as they are the least likely to be able to afford their bail amount. Many may have heard the story of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in custody in July 2015, after being unable to afford the $515 amount. Sadly, this story is not hers alone. In that same month, five additional Black women died in jails around the country waiting to post bail, the majority on minor shoplifting charges.

The money bail system further disadvantages people of color, as data presented by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that Hispanic men had a 19-percent higher bail than white men, while black men had bail amounts 35 percent higher than white men.

Cash bail often triggers housing, employment and custody crises

The bail system further exacerbates a system of poverty. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 71 percent of inmates were employed when they were arrested. As stated in the aforementioned article by Brave New Films, “there is no way to calculate how many of those people will lose their jobs because they can’t afford to bail out and will fail to come to work, or how many will lose their housing as a result of the downward spiral.” Additionally, people can also lose custody of their children during this jail time – thus leaving entire families more vulnerable to violence.

Huge profits for bail bonds corporations; a cycle of poverty for individuals

Like most instances of injustice, this has dire consequences not only on those directly affected, but on family members as well. One practice for families that cannot afford bail is to enter into financial agreements with bail-bonds corporations. A practice that is only present in the United States and the Philippines, these for-profit bail businesses require individuals to pay a non-refundable portion of the total bail amount to a bail-bonds company. Even if there’s no conviction, defendants and their families will never get that money back. Not only do these bail bonds “often leave families paying loan installments and fees even after a case is resolved,” but they can even result in property loss if a house or other asset was selected as collateral.

4

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

Cash bail can/should be eliminated

Instead of utilizing the money bail system, which further disadvantages people of color, especially Black women, courts could adopt non-financial forms of release, such as release on own recognizance – in which a person is released “after promising, in writing, to appear in court for all upcoming proceedings.” Additionally, instead of arresting people, police could issue more citations – “orders to appear before a judge on a given date to defend against a stated charge” without having to serve jail time or be subjected to pay money bail. It is also worth noting that jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

You can help us TAKE ACTION

As we rethink our own beliefs about money bail, let us not forget those who are currently suffering the consequences of this unjust system. Currently, the Action Alliance is supporting Southerners on New Ground (SONG)’s Black Mamas Bail Out Action – a project to free as many Black women as possible (cis and trans) to bring them home to their families for Mother’s Day. Join us today in supporting this cause and reuniting families for Mother’s Day.

On May 10, the Action Alliance will host, “Getting Our People Free: What is Bail Reform and Why Do We Need It?”. This teach-in will be held 5pm-7pm at the Action Alliance office and is co-sponsored by the Richmond Chapter of Southerners on New Ground. Join us for community, conversation, snacks, and to learn more about how to end money bail.

Cover image source: https://www.injusticewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/FullSizeRender-1170×889.jpg


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

Healthcare is a Human Right

Ignoring medical need is violence.” – Coretta Scott King

As Virginia’s General Assembly began a special session last Wednesday to approve a state budget, all eyes were on Medicaid expansion. While we continue our fight to #SupportSurvivors and #ExpandMedicaidVA, it is imperative we remember that the latter is critical for the former.

From STI/HIV testing and treatment to forensic rape exams conducted by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and ongoing visits with primary care physicians or counselors, survivors of sexual violence need access to a range of medical services not only in the immediate aftermath of violence, but over the span of their lives. These physical and mental healthcare services reduce the effects of trauma and help survivors rebuild their lives.

Although Medicaid currently provides health insurance coverage for almost one million Virginians, hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia remain uninsured. If Virginia does not expand Medicaid, many will remain in a coverage gap – having incomes above the Medicaid eligibility limits (in 2017, the limit was at or below $28,180 for a family of three), but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits.

For survivors who fall in this coverage gap and are left without health insurance, there may not always be many options to receive the proper care and medical attention they need. In fact, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the estimated lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 per survivor, or a population economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion over survivors’ lifetimes (based on data indicating >25 million U.S. adults have been raped) with $1.2 trillion being attributed to medical costs. If Medicaid is expanded, 400,000 Virginians could get access to quality, affordable health insurance, which would result in more access to life-saving medical services for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence.

93 percent

Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

Furthermore, Medicaid benefits include family planning services, comprehensive maternity care, treatment for chronic conditions, treatment for breast and cervical cancer, and long-term care services and supports. Additional services covered by many state Medicaid programs also include case management, transportation, and childbirth and infant education services. This means that if Medicaid is expanded, the burden on sexual and domestic violence programs to fulfill these needs would be reduced.

Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

In fact, in 2016, 93% of survivors accessing sexual and domestic violence services reported receiving help with healthcare coverage/costs. This not only shows that healthcare is among the top priorities for survivors in Virginia, but further illustrates how Medicaid expansion may reduce the service burden for local sexual and domestic violence agencies.

Additionally, according to a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women who have experienced domestic violence are 8o% more likely to have a stroke, 70% more likely to have heart disease, and 60% more likely to have asthma than women who have not experienced domestic violence. If Medicaid is expanded in Virginia, more survivors of violence would have access to the life-saving medical services they need.

Regardless of income, all survivors of violence should be able to receive the medical and mental health services needed to help them heal. Expanding access to healthcare means better safety and wellness for survivors. Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

Featured image source: Associated Press


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite

What really happened during the 2018 Session? An advocate’s guide to politics and new legislation in VA

The 2018 Virginia General Assembly (GA) adjourned “sine die” on March 10th – with legislators having passed 919 of the original 2,778 bills that were introduced during their 60-day session. A lot happened in those 60-days. But with all eyes turned to the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion, one thing that didn’t happen was an agreed-upon state budget. Given this, House and Senate members will reconvene in Richmond for a governor-advised special session beginning April 11th. During this time, lawmakers will focus on the specific task of producing a $115 billion-dollar, two-year budget for the Commonwealth.

The following is an update on what really happened and how it really happened in the 2018 GA session, with a few sprinkled in predictions for where we’re headed and how that direction might impact everyday advocates, survivors of violence, and the communities and families that we serve in our work to respond to and prevent sexual and intimate partner violence in Virginia.

The political backdrop

With civic engagement and public protest on the rise in 2017, Virginia’s electoral base produced an unprecedented change in the makeup of the state legislature. Voters brought 19 new faces to the halls and committee and subcommittee rooms of the GA in 2018, with an overwhelming majority of these new faces being younger, browner, more immigrant, more LGBTQ, and more gender diverse. In both the House of Delegates and in our Governor’s Office, these new faces appear to be more reflective of and responsive to the various communities that make up our Commonwealth. These faces are also, overwhelmingly, Democrat. The 2017 elections brought the House of Delegates to a much more balanced split of 51 Republican seats to 49 Democrat seats. Needless to say, there was a vastly different energy abuzz in the GA this session. And with this new energy abuzz, there were also a set of new politics, voting strategies, and trends that quickly began to emerge within our legislature.

Data captured by Virginia’s Public Access Project (VPAP), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization providing insight into politics in Virginia, provides us with a clearer picture of the impact of this nearly even House split in 2018.  Looking at rates of recorded party-line votes – these are votes where Republicans or Democrats voted unanimously on an issue – we find that House Republicans were 57% more likely to vote party-line in 2018 than they were in 2017. That’s a jump from 20% Republican party-line votes in 2017 to 77% Republican party-line votes in 2018. Democrats, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to vote independently.

B

Source: Virginia’s Legislative Information Service, URL: https://www.vpap.org/visuals/visual/party-line-votes/

While some political forecasters predicted more bipartisan collaboration in 2018, this wasn’t always how things panned out. Given the nearly house split and the new trends in committee and subcommittee party-line voting, those bills that sought to do things like make reporting easier and more trauma-informed for sexual assault survivors on campus, or require consent education as part of the Family Life Education curriculum, or protect LGBTQ Virginians from housing and employment discrimination – all wonderful steps in the direction of achieving equity and cultural change – were either defeated or significantly changed as a result of party politics and voting practices. Though our legislature may not be entirely ready for sweeping social change, the good news is that they did agree on a handful of bills that would be beneficial to survivors and the advocates who serve them. Let’s take a look at a few of those now.

Highlights from this session: laws impacting advocates and survivors

Changing VA’s Family Life Education Curriculum: Consent, Sexting, & Boundaries

Right now, education on the “law and meaning of consent” are permissive elements of the Virginia Family Life Education (FLE) Curriculum. Meaning that should a parent allow their child to participate in FLE programming in a public-school system that includes consent education teaching about consent might show up in school-based instruction. Building on their bills that made this possible in previous years, Delegate Filler-Corn and Senator McClellan set out to make the “law and meaning of consent” a mandatory part of Family Life Education in 2018. Unfortunately, these efforts were blocked, on party-line votes, by a House Education Subcommittee. However, the Senate and House did pass a bill that requires any high school FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention of sexual harassment using electronic means (read: sexting and digital harassment) and the importance of personal privacy and boundaries (read: bullying, harassment, and bodily autonomy). This bill also permits any FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention, recognition, and awareness of child abduction, child abuse, child sexual exploitation, and child sexual abuse (read: Erin’s Law). Just like the issue of consent education, any instruction on child abduction, abuse, or sexual exploitation is permitted but not required. The bottom line: these are improvements to the code, but we’ve still got some work to do!

Dismantling VA’s school-to-prison-pipeline

Early on in the session, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus announced a series of bills intended to curb the school-to-prison-pipeline and promote conditions that ensure every child reaches their full potential. Of the four major bills introduced, two of them were passed. Students in pre-k through third grade are now protected from being suspended for more than 3 days or expelled from attendance at school (with exceptions for “certain criminal acts”). Similarly, another bill reduces the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days (with certain exceptions). These bills set us in the right direction and offer our lawmakers the opportunity to engage in discussion with those communities and advocates who are directly impacted by the school-to-prison-pipeline or trauma-to-prison-pipeline. That’s a good thing.

Reducing perpetrator access to firearms

Unfortunately, bills like Delegate Levine’s HB405 – intended to prohibit a person convicted of sexual battery or assault and battery against a family or household member from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm – were cast as unnecessary firearms restrictions and subject to strict party-line votes in the House and Senate. Bills to encourage universal background checks, close gun-show loopholes, and ban bump stocks met a similar fate. These bills were typically defeated in committee and subcommittee rooms or were never voted on at all.

#MeToo: Sexual harassment training for the Legislative Branch

DLike many other state legislatures around the country and amidst the cultural wave of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Virginia’s legislature moved to adopt sexual harassment training as a requirement for the Legislative Branch every two years beginning in 2019. While the discussion over the what, when, and how of this training was highly debated on the House floor, the end result is a move in the direction of responding to and preventing sexual harassment in the legislature (pictured here are House Democrat and Republican leaders, Delegate Watts and Delegate Gilbert discussing the legislative response to #MeToo). This is an area of focus that we hope our lawmakers will expand on and learn from in future sessions, in an effort to build truly comprehensive sexual harassment prevention and response strategies. For examples of what this might look like – and what our Policy Team has been using in our ongoing communications with partners and lawmakers alike – see the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault’s timely white paper, Assessing Sexual Harassment Response and Prevention Strategies After #MeToo.

Resources, cell phone service, and lifted age restrictions for petitioners of protective orders

Building on prominent conversations from previous sessions, Senator Wexton’s original SB426 called for the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and court clerks in the Commonwealth to distribute information on the local sexual and domestic violence agency, community service board, and other social services to petitioners of protective orders (emergency, preliminary, and permanent POs). A great idea, highlighting the power of advocacy in restoring hope and saving lives in our communities, but one that also, unfortunately, created fiscal impact. After a series of twists and turns, this bill became one that would require court clerks to distribute DCJS’ Protective Orders in VA – A Guide for Victims and Domestic Violence Victims in VA – Understanding the Legal Process for Victims of Family Abuse to petitioners of protective orders statewide.

Another change to protective order statute this session – and one that we have reservations about – enables judges to grant petitioners of family abuse protective orders (and where appropriate, any household member of the petitioner) exclusive use and possession of a cellular device. While this new law certainly comes from a place of good intentions – ensuring that survivors of violence don’t lose access to their cellular device, including important data stored on that device – it also has the unintended consequence of allowing the respondent of a protective order access to everything that comes along with maintaining that cellular device: plan information including incoming and outgoing calls/texts, GPS, etc. In this increasingly digital age, it’s not uncommon for us to see a survivor be harassed, manipulated, and stalked through electronic means. Given this, the final bill also includes a brief caveat stating that “the court may enjoin the respondent from using a cellular telephone or other electronic device to locate the petitioner”. We are confident that survivors who are working with advocates in the process of petitioning for a family abuse protective order will be informed about these concerns and will be able to work with their advocate to determine what is best for them/their safety as part of a larger safety planning process.

Another interesting bill (HB1212), carried by Delegate Cline, changes Virginia code to allow a minor to designate a “next friend” in court pleadings and motions. This bill allows a “next friend” – which can be a parent, legal guardian, or individual designated to serve as the authorized representative of an individual who has been determined to lack capacity to consent or authorize the disclosure of information – to sign pleadings, motions, or other papers required by the court. Previously under Virginia law, a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of themselves and a parent of a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of their children. This was obviously a barrier to minors – and particularly those from low-income families – pursuing and accessing protective orders (or similar pleadings and motions) within the court system. This small change in the code should make it easier for both parents of minors without an attorney AND minors without an attorney to file for protection orders in Virginia.

Looking forward

As we prepare for lawmakers to reconvene in Richmond, finalize our state budget, and decide on whether or not to expand Medicaid in Virginia, the Action Alliance Policy Team will be working with our members, partners, and lobbyists to amplify the voice of survivors in the ongoing work of this special session and the roll-out of new legislation in 2018. With the intersections of domestic and sexual violence, poverty, and access to healthcare being such prominent issues with which our movement grapples, we anticipate program and survivor voices being important ones for our legislators to hear from. Be on the lookout (via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) for action alerts and calls for support from our Policy Team in the upcoming weeks! Please also be on the lookout for a full end-of-session report made available to membership by mid-April.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. Since 2007, Jonathan has worked in the anti-violence and public health fields in various capacities – coordinating primary prevention projects for a state coalition, managing Rape Prevention & Education funds for a state health department, supporting prevention and outreach projects on a college campus, and consulting with national resource centers on violence prevention and anti-oppression work. Jonathan is a sociologist by training and an outspoken advocate for Southern social justice work, LGBTQ youth empowerment initiatives, the movement for black lives, and any space in which people are re-envisioning a world free from violence and oppression. Jonathan is also a pop-culture + pizza + animal lover living in Richmond, Virginia with his partner, their 2 dogs, and a one-eyed cat.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

On Conscious Living: Ending a System of Human Trafficking

Last month, students from around the world participated in my #MyFreedomDay to celebrate freedom and raise awareness about modern-day slavery.

At the Bangalore International School in India, students in the third and fourth grades talked about what freedom means to them.

At the Saint Mary of the Hills school in Argentina, students composed a song about freedom.

At the International School of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, students signed a petition urging governments to take action to help stop modern-day slavery and human rights abuses.

If there’s something we can learn from these concerned students, it’s their care and their desire to raise awareness and take action into bringing about a world of safety and freedom. Though young, they remind us of the innate goodness of humanity, thereby planting the seeds of hope for a better future and inspiring us adults to take action.

When it comes to human trafficking, people sometimes tend to feel detached from the issue. Since – according to their misconceptions – it’s not happening in their backyards, they feel that there isn’t anything they can do about it. That, of course, is not quite true. In fact, since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has reported 40,200 cases of human trafficking – the majority of which are sex trafficking cases – in the United States. Here in Richmond, Virginia, we are ranked the ninth highest in the country for the most reported cases per capita of human trafficking, according to a report published in 2017 by the National Human Trafficking Hotline. And it’s not just about where it occurs or how close it is to us or how much at risk we personally are; it’s about how we can unknowingly be complicit in a system that upholds human trafficking.

For example, when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation of children, it’s important to recognize how we end up contributing to the problem in our daily lives and what steps we can take to dismantle our own harmful contributions. The solution starts with self-awareness—recognizing our own biases, our own flaws, and where we need to improve on ourselves.

CSEC

This diagram shows how various behaviors and other forms of oppression can ultimately lead Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). Life of Freedom Center: https://www.lofcenter.org

Another way to reduce our indirect, but harmful, impact on this issue is by being conscious consumers who are mindful of what brands or companies we are supporting. According to the United States Department of Labor, there are over 370 line items believed to have been produced by child labor or forced labor. In fact, popular clothing companies such as Adidas, Gap, and H&M were believed to have ties to slave labor, according to an article published in Salon. Sadly, this applies to a long list of companies, ranging from Walmart to Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks – who, through prison slavery, exploit people’s labor for profit just like human trafficking does – to Nestle. The same goes for sex trafficking, as well, which has an estimated 4.5 million victims worldwide. For example, are we conscious of whether we visit and support strip clubs where workers are forced to provide commercial sex to customers? Are we researching to make sure we’re not supporting illicit massage businesses that force human trafficking victims to engage in commercial sex?

As citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to be mindful of which practices and which industries our time and money are supporting and ask ourselves if we are – albeit unintentionally – complicit in contributing to modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Whether it’s through using methods such as boycotting and buycotting to become more deliberate consumers or by doing our part to raise awareness about human trafficking (like the active students who participated in #MyFreedomDay), there are always ways we can help – if even in the tiniest bit – to end human trafficking. One of the most powerful methods to go about enacting change is by addressing the root of the problem.

Like all forms of oppression, human trafficking is intersectional. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there are various recurring vulnerabilities among victims of trafficking, especially sex trafficking. For example, immigration status is a recurring vulnerability; strip club networks often target victims of particular cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Those in vulnerable financial situations, such as individuals who have debt or family debts, are often targets for sex trafficking as well.

This pattern is not unique to the United States, of course; the same goes for those targeted for sex trafficking all around the world. In Italy, migrants from Nigeria who come in pursuit of educational and economic equality are highly at risk for sex trafficking. Even in Canada, the indigenous population makes up just 4% of the nation, yet 50% of those trafficked for sex due to a legacy of poverty and racism. However, by empowering individuals from marginalized communities, supporting immigrant and indigenous people’s rights, and continuing to stand up for racial justice, as well as economic justice, we can help prevent more people from falling into human trafficking.

Lastly, it is important to ensure that there are always safe havens for survivors of trafficking and for those who come from marginalized populations at a risk to be trafficked. It’s not just about providing physical places of refuge, but about creating a society that is, at large, a place of security and freedom. It’s about all of us becoming safe havens ourselves, about becoming individuals who use our own privileges and power to bring about a safer and more just world.

Which practices have your time and money supported this week? What have you done today to empower other individuals? And what will you do tomorrow to embody a safe haven within yourself?

Featured image: CNN: https://www.cnn.com/specials/world/myfreedomday


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change. 

America’s Shame: A Black Mother’s Fight for Life

“When I woke up, they were handing me my little girl and all I could see were these big pretty eyes. At this point, I’m thinking the worst is over; we’re going to go home, be a family, join her brother. Everything is going to be ok!”

Like many new mothers, my mom thought that the worst was over after the delivery, but she soon found out that her journey was just beginning.

With a 5-year-old son at home, my mother and grandmother packed their things and headed to the hospital as labor pains began to strike on New Year’s Day, 1995. The plan was to have birth by cesarean delivery, not that she had much choice.

Despite the fact that she had already one healthy child through vaginal delivery, her new obstetrician insisted that was not an option this time around. Due to a condition he described as being untreatable and not conducive to vaginal delivery, she would need to undergo surgery.

She would have to trust that surgery to a new doctor, in a hospital she was unfamiliar with. Despite having a college education and five years as a federal employee under her belt, her medical insurance gave her few options for a doctor, so she made a random selection; a selection she would soon regret.

Every year about 700 mothers in the US die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes and while maternal death rates decline in every other industrialized country, they continue to increase in the US, especially amongst Black mothers (who die at 3-4 times the rate of white mothers). That year, while giving birth to me, my mom almost became one of those 700 mothers.

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Though I knew of her experience from the stories my grandmother occasionally told while tears formed in her eyes, for the first time I was able to hear every detail as my mom remembered living them 23 years ago.

As my mom recalled the experience to me, she, like many Black women, remembered feeling like she was devalued by the doctors that she put so much trust in.

“I’m in the room and I can actually feel them cutting into my stomach for the C-section,” she hesitantly started. “I yelled out in pain. I remember the murmuring that was going on in the room as if it was just yesterday. Someone asked ‘oh my gosh, is anyone here with her?’ and someone responded ‘her mom’s in the waiting room.’ All I remember after that is them [sedating] me some more.

After all of that, when I later talked to my mom I found out that even though they did acknowledge that someone was in the waiting room, waiting on me, no one ever went to talk to her about what happened. She had no idea about what had gone on in the delivery room… I feel that the hospital staff was murmuring amongst themselves and asking who was there with me as if ‘if no one was here then it wouldn’t matter.’”

Despite this traumatizing surgery, my mom was just glad to have me in her arms and was eager to return home to my brother. As the weeks went by, my mom anticipated the moment she could get back to life as a mother, wife, and career woman, but she never expected to have those plans delayed.

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More than half of maternal deaths occur in the postpartum period – within one year of giving birth. For American women in general, postpartum care is often dangerously inadequate. Being so overwhelmed in the health and care of the newest addition to their family, many new mothers attend no more than a single appointment four to six weeks after going home.

“Normally we were allowed up to six weeks [of maternity leave]. And that’s exactly what I had done, I was prepared to go back to work. But the week before I was scheduled to go back to work, I had pain in my body.

I was rushed back to the Emergency Room at the hospital that I had the baby and they determined that I acquired an infection from the C-section… As a result of that, they had to remove my appendix and my right ovary, which caused me to be in the hospital for at least a week.

When I arrived at the hospital, I requested to see my obstetrician. I never saw him again, he never visited me at the hospital. They sent me home again and I thought I would be fine.

Again, I’m preparing to return to work. The week before I was supposed to return, I had pain all on the right side of my body; to the point that I couldn’t stand up. We called the ambulance again and I remember them asking my mom, ‘where do you want us to take her this time?’

This time my mom made a decision to go a different hospital. Before I left, I’ll never forget it, I looked at my now six-year-old son as if it would be the last time that I would see him because I wasn’t sure if I would make it back home.

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This situation led to over three months of my mom being in and out of the hospital and having three surgeries, the last one making a difference between life and death. The cycle finally ended when my grandmother made the decision to take my mom to a different hospital, where they not only assisted in her full recovery but also confirmed that the “untreatable condition” that she was previously diagnosed with, was actually a misdiagnosis and that she could have given birth naturally – which is exactly what she did ten years later when we were blessed with my little sister, Kayla.

Every year, hundreds of mothers’ lives are cut short and hundreds of children are deprived of a relationship with their mothers due to circumstances that are often preventable. While many of these mothers are Black, have low incomes, and/or live in rural areas, a 2016 report of five years of data found that Black, college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were still more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.

Malpractice, possible prejudices, and limited access to resources have often been cited as the causes for so many Black and low-income mothers’ deaths, but they may not be the only culprits. A recent article from Vox on the postpartum death of Erica Gardner names chronic stress as a possible reason why maternal mortality disproportionately affects Black women, despite their income or education level.

The article notes how day-to-day stressors such as poverty, limited or infrequent access to health care, harsher discipline in schools, and lower pay can contribute to a lifetime of high stress among Black women. And while that chronic stress, driven by racism and discrimination plays a large role, particularly stressful incidents such as the trauma of police violence could be having an even more dangerous effect on Black mothers.

Christen Smith, an associate professor of Africa and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, was quoted in the article stating, “when we think of police lethality, we typically consider the immediate body count: the people that die from bullets and baton blows. The death toll gives the impression that black men are the disproportionate victims of police killings. But these numbers do not reveal the slow death that Black women experience.”

Despite the fact that we experience chronic stress and are more likely to report having serious psychological distress, mental health is still a taboo subject in the Black community and we are often told that it is just a state of mind. I spoke with Shatara Monet, the founder of Virginia-based nonprofit Queens Uniting to Empower Every Nation (QUEEN), who shared just how detrimental these cultural perceptions of mental health can be on Black mothers.

“Most Black women have a stigma placed on them that they have to be strong no matter what they go through… As a community we have created a culture where mental health is not important and where we must keep pushing and do what we’ve got to do. When mental health issues are suppressed or not treated, the reactions that may occur could be destructive to Black families. It is okay to not be okay and to seek the help needed to overcome.”

QUEEN encourages women of color to discuss mental health and their sisterhood of advocates encourages healing through self-love and care.

Many other organizations, both nationally and locally, have come together to address maternal mortality such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), which was co-founded by SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective and the Center for Reproductive Rights in June 2015 to advance the human right to safe and respectful maternal health care.

These organizations are leading a new wave of the reproductive justice movement that is putting Black women and their families at the forefront. To help others understand the importance of this movement and how easy it is to get involved and make a change, the BMMA offers a toolkit that can be accessed through their website.

 


Sources:

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why

https://fusion.tv/video/390130/death-by-delivery/


Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.

Our Quest for a Safer World: Taking Every Instance of Violence Seriously

On February 14, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and carried out a mass shooting that left 17 people dead and more than 14 hospitalized. Soon after, reports began to emerge by those who knew the murderer – Nikolas Cruz – stating that he had been stalking a girl at the school. Another student said that Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend and was expelled from the high school after fighting with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. And another student said that he ended his friendship with Cruz more than a year ago, when the latter started “going after” and threatening one of his female friends.

But it’s not just Parkland—Cruz’s violence against women and his history of dating violence are not isolated incidents merely unique to him. According to Everytown for Gun Safety’s analysis of FBI data on mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the majority of mass shootings in the United States—57% of them—involved the perpetrator shooting an intimate partner or family member, and in at least 16% of the cases, the perpetrator had a prior charge of domestic violence.

In the past three years since 2015, this trend has only continued, as exemplified in the following incidents, just to name a couple:

While the connection between intimate partner violence and mass shootings seems clear to many of us, responses to the issue have been troublesome. Similar to those who have been arguing that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers, some people claim that arming survivors of intimate partner violence will prevent them from being assaulted or killed. This train of thought, however, is problematic for a few reasons.

According to data found by Futures Without Violence, “access to firearms increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times more than in instances where there are no weapons, according to a recent study.” In fact, according to data found from a July 2014 testimony before the US Senate, gun access was found to be the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner. Regardless of who owns the weapon, adding firearms to situations of intimate partner violence only increases the likelihood of fatalities.

Instead of putting the responsibility of prevention in the wrong place by expecting victims to arm themselves – which additionally puts survivors of intimate partner violence at a high risk for being sentenced to long prison terms when they defend their lives using a firearm – it is important to focus on preventing perpetration and holding offenders accountable.

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Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

As we think about those who lost their lives last month in Florida—and the dozens more who have suffered mass shootings in the two weeks since – it is important that we work to change unhealthy societal norms, end the belittlement of sexual and domestic violence survivors, and take every incident of violence seriously.

“…perhaps it’s time our society started to think of physical abuse, possessiveness and men’s entitlement to act in those ways toward women as terroristic, violent and radical,” wrote the Rolling Stone’s Soraya Chemaly, in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. “…so too should we consider domestic violence a form of daily terror. Three women a day are killed by intimate partners in the United States, and the majority of women murdered are murdered by men they know. There needs to be a dissolution between what we think of athes “domestic” violence, traditionally protected by patriarchal privacy norms and perpetrated by men against “their” women, and “public” violence, traditionally understood as male-on-male. Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

“…Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

In doing so, we will further our quest not only for a world free of sexual and domestic violence, but for a world where fewer families will grieve the losses of their loved ones to senseless killing.

Featured image: Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Gerald Herbert/AP: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/article/The-Latest-Florida-school-shooting-suspect-12615831.php


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change. 

Recognizing Non-Verbal Consent: It’s Not That Hard

Let’s play a little game:

I’ve got some pictures here of nonverbal cues and actions. You look at them and categorize them under “Is open to having a conversation right now” or “Is closed to having a conversation right now.”

I think it’s fitting to say that none of these people want to have a conversation. The signs in the first image that they don’t want to talk include the furrowed brow, bitten lip, and the fact that they’re looking away from the person taking the photo. The second is someone whose arms are crossed with their head turned down. The third shows someone turned away and actually putting their hand out to push away or stop someone.

Let’s do this exercise again: categorize these images under “enjoys what they’re doing” or “doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing.”

Again, I think it’s safe to say that none of those people were enjoying what they were doing. The first image shows a person who disliked whatever they were drinking, made clear by their scrunched eyes and pursed lips. The second shows someone physically in pain, as indicated by being hunched over and grasping at their chest. The third shows people clearly disinterested and tired, as indicated by their hanging heads.

We’re expected to, and capable of, picking up on nonverbal indicators every day. A presenter is expected to survey a room to determine if the audience is engaged, and if they are not, the presenter is expected to modify their presentation. When our significant others come home and slump onto the couch with a haggard expression, we get the sense that they’ve had a long and hard day. We can usually identify physical signs of intoxication, like slurred speech and stumbling, without having seen someone consume alcohol.

Of course, we cannot be sure without asking. Someone may look angry and we might assume it is directed towards us for something we did but upon further conversation, we may come to understand that they were actually feeling frightened or defensive. Or they may be angry, but with somebody else. Or they may be angry with us, but for a reason we knew nothing about. There tends to be more than meets the eye, so asking questions and having an open dialogue with someone is critical to getting a complete picture of how they’re thinking and feeling.

Last month the world was briefly abuzz on the heels of Babe.net’s story about Aziz Ansari. I won’t be doing a full summary now, but here are some basics: Babe.net approached the anonymous Grace about a night she had with Aziz Ansari and Grace recounted their date and subsequent sexual interactions. Grace detailed the many times she expressed her lack of consent through non-verbal means; removing her hand from his groin after he repeatedly moved it there, pulling away, and ceasing movement altogether, including not moving her lips when being kissed. She also talked about the numerous ways she showed her lack of consent verbally: asking him to slow down and chill, responding with “next time” when asked repeatedly “how do you want me to f**k you”, and flat out saying “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”

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Grace eventually left, feeling hurt and violated, and informed Ansari via text that he made her feel extremely uncomfortable and ignored her verbal and non-verbal indications. Ansari apologized via text, saying he “clearly misread things in the moment” and was “truly sorry”.

In a public statement, he said:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

With this article came a flood of commentary, from news stories to op-ed pieces to Facebook posts. But I remember the first response I saw. It was an opinion piece from the New York Times titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

As the title alludes, the author believes that because Grace didn’t explicitly say “no”, Aziz could not have been expected to know that she didn’t want to engage in any sexual activities. The author goes on to say the simple fact that she was naked with him in his apartment was enough to assume that Ansari was going to try and have sex with her. It is arduous, problematic work, on par with mind-reading, for Ansari (or people in general) to figure out what these complex gestures and expressions mean. And a lot of people seemed to agree with the author’s assertion.

Let’s revisit our first three photos: viewing these images, I want you to contemplate a different question: Does it look like any of the people in these images want to engage in sexual activity?

How about this second set of photos: if the surroundings of these images had been changed to intimate settings, would it seem like any of these people were enjoying the sexual interactions they were having?

While these are stock Google images, the point remains: the same nonverbal cues we recognize in everyday situations are present in sexual situations.

If I go in to kiss someone and they physically respond like this:

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I know I shouldn’t continue trying to kiss them.

If I’m having sexual intercourse with someone and they make this face:

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I can safely assume they’re uncomfortable or hurting and I should stop.

The next step after recognizing these cues and ceasing activity is to ask your partner if they are okay. We need to take steps to determine what those nonverbal cues mean. Are they in pain? Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel pressured? Do they need to take a break? Do you need to stop altogether?

Equally important to asking is not demanding an answer that makes you happy. Just because you want to continue does not mean your partner wants to, and they should not feel pressured to put their feelings aside because you’re going to be upset if you stop.

Here’s the thing: I would love to live in a world where people express all their thoughts and feelings directly. I want to empower people to say when they’re comfortable and when they’re not, whether that’s in the workplace, at home, or in sexual situations. But it’s not a one-sided job. We need to ask our partners what they want and how they are. We need to recognize that there’s more than one way to say “no” and express discomfort.  We need to listen to our partners’ wants and needs and respect when they need things to change.

And to begin fostering a culture of affirmative consent and sexual pleasure, we need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Ongoing, enthusiastic consent requires you to ask, listen, and respect.

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Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.

 

The Super Bowl, Suppression, and Survivorship

In the late hours of Sunday, February 4th, and the early hours of the following Monday, the Eagles fans took to the streets of Philadelphia to celebrate their hometown’s first-ever Super Bowl win. A lot happened—cars were flipped, police and civilians were injured, street poles were ripped out of the ground, fires were started, and property was destroyed. What’s even more noticeable, however, is what didn’t happen—authorities did not fire tear gas or shoot at the unruly crowds, police dogs were not brought in, and media outlets did not use rhetoric laced with negative connotation to describe the rioting football fans.

Instead, although the Philadelphia Police Department’s presence was heavy, the city congratulated the Eagles, the mayor—as well as the city’s fire commissioner—encouraged fans to celebrate safely, and the police sergeant said it would be great if fans could go home. While this may seem like the expected and natural response—I mean, police exist to keep citizens safe, after all, right?—it serves a sharp contrast to ways police responded to similar gatherings of large crowds of predominantly people of color.

In fact, that very same morning before the Super Bowl, Minneapolis police arrested people gathered to protest police brutality. While the protest and the celebration riots occurred within 24 hours of each other, responses were strikingly different—especially considering that the Black Lives Matter protest was not harmful to any civilians or property.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. For years, protests against police brutality, racism, and sexism have garnered violent police responses – even when the protests themselves are peaceful. It appears that outraged responses to people of color protesting are not a matter of public safety, but rather another tactic to suppress the voices of people of color. One needs to look no further than responses to athletes simply kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality to see that even the most peaceful forms of protest by people of color or in support of people of color are still condemned and shut down.

Just as people of color are automatically faced with blame, white folks are almost immediately given the benefit of the doubt for their actions. The large groups of white folk rioting after the Super Bowl were not immediately assumed to be “thugs” or “terrorists”—instead they were thought of as passionate sport fans, perhaps a little overzealous at most.

When people of color and allies are constantly met with more police brutality and racially charged rhetoric by media outlets, and frequent blame, they are robbed of their voices and their opportunities to speak out time and time again. A culture where people of color’s voices are constantly suppressed leaves us with several problems as a society—namely, a cycle of more violence against people of color.

Over time, with white people not being held to the same level of accountability and with people of color silenced, the power scale gets further tipped for the favor of white people. This power difference increases the risk factor for sexual violence and intimate partner violence, as it creates the opportunity for abuse of power. Silencing the voices of people of color when they stand up for justice only makes it even more difficult for people of color who are survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence to speak up about their experiences and receive support. This becomes even more agonizing when the abuser holds more power and is therefore less likely to be held accountable.

As a society, we should strive for a culture of racial equity that holds all individuals to the same degree of accountability and ensures that all voices—especially those of survivors—are heard loud and clear.

Featured image: Getty Images: https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a15839429/eagles-fans-crisco-poles-fight/


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.