The day Leonard Cohen died, I listened to his song, “Hallelujah”, performed by Grace Love. In college, I was obsessed with the album Grace by Jeff Buckley and it was his rendition of “Hallelujah” that first introduced me to this song. Cohen struggled with writing what turned out to be his most memorable song, and it did not become popular until much later, after many other artists covered it. It dawned on me that sometimes a pearl is left to be discovered after the thrashing tides bury the jewel delivered by life’s most difficult moments.
Over 20 years ago I found myself walking 5 miles back to my dorm room in the cold dark hours before the sun came up after an experience I would later understand as sexual assault. I was enraged at what had happened, and it was that anger that powered my feet to get back to my own bed. I was lucky that year to find a community of advocates, feminists, queer spaces, and other groups engaged in justice work. I found spaces where I could grapple with the relentless experiences of sexism I encountered, the weight of the privilege I carried, and eventually the meaning of the assault I had yet to acknowledge.
Many years later, my path led me to working at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance doing systems advocacy, prevention program development, and social change work. For 10 years, I was part of incredible projects that I believe had an impact in Virginia and the nation. This year, I made a professional transition to work in higher education as the director of a campus resource center for students who have experienced gender-based violence and harassment. It has been quite a change from doing “macro” level work to direct services and this significant professional transition has left me with a few reflections. Advocates who have the privilege to walk with survivors in the aftermath of assault or abuse have a unique understanding of how violence and trauma manifest; it weaves its way into muscles, marrow, and matter. All the education, models, tips, and tools that have been brilliantly created to assist in providing the most appropriate response can’t prepare us for what this role entails. This is the hardest job in our field; it requires deep empathy, compassion, and vulnerability– something our culture unfortunately teaches us to offer sparingly.
While I grapple with the sacredness of this role and balancing caring for others and caring for myself, I am struck by the vibrant energy of college students and the passion and understanding they have about the issues of sexual and interpersonal violence. At times I struggle with how slow progress is, but I am inspired and hopeful when surrounded by students. Far beyond my level of understanding when I was their age, they grasp the intersectionality of violence and sexism, racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and classism, and how they are woven into our culture. We all, in one way or another, are affected by the many ways in which violence and oppression show up in our institutions and culture. Like sand in the ocean, oppression has a way of invading us, entering our souls, irritating our lungs and our muscles.
The majority of students I work with are survivors of their own trauma, who harness their experiences not only into practical support when another person needs it, but collectively are part of a larger force responsible for the culture shift to the kind of community we envision for ourselves. It feels less shameful to be out as a survivor these days, which is a welcome change as we continue to break down the divide between “advocates” and “survivors,” a false division that erases the major contributions survivors have made in this movement and fails to acknowledge survivors as the driving force of this work.
We have a long way to get to the community we envision for ourselves. The constant rubbing of violence and oppression on our bodies and souls can make us raw and brittle. Fortunately the human spirit is resilient and quite possibly magical. It heals. Were it not for life’s sand paper, we may never reach another level of knowing and genius that comes from surviving. Like a pearl in nature, sometimes our most powerful gifts form as a response to an irritant or invader. As I walk around campus, work with students, and reflect on my own life, I am more and more encouraged about the state of our movement and where we go from here. I walk among a sea of pearls who will carry forward a legacy of strength, compassion, and love.
Liz Cascone is the Director of The Haven at William & Mary, a peer-based confidential, welcoming, and inclusive resource center for those impacted by sexual violence and harassment, relationship abuse and intimate partner violence, stalking, and other gender-based discrimination.
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