A year ago, I was brushing my hair, getting ready in the morning, and I got an idea.
The thought was simple: people survive. Most news stories on sexual and relationship violence I was reading at the time were rife with comments about how the victim’s life was over. Violence happens and now, she (or he) is done for. Life over. I didn’t like the equation. If 1 in 3 women experience violence in her lifetime, there are women everywhere who are not done for and don’t plan to be. They are walking testimonies of strength and courage, of the way people can refuse to succumb to the actions of an asshole.
Looking back on the thought now, it sounds familiar to an unreleased interview I took from an activist during a project in 2010. She told me, “We have to stop talking about sexual violence as murder. There are some people who talk about it as soul-murder. This means that if someone ever tells you, ‘I was a victim of sexual violence.’ You get, ‘Woah, ok, there’s a dead person here talking to me.’ Sexual violence is a horrible thing. It is, and it’s very hard to go through but the victim is still a person and still alive. It is the social stigma and it’s not rape itself that makes a victim not talk about the violence for five, ten, fifteen, thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s the society.”
Those who survive acts of violence — not only women, all people– are not bereft of life, ability, and joy. It’s possible to rejuvenate. I want to change the discourse from violence as a life-ending event. I wrote on the Facebook page on April 20th, “For Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, and anyone else who has felt defeated by violence and assault, we wish peace for their families and hope for change. Through unity and strength, we can change this culture of violence.” Violence doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion. Only by disempowering those impacted and minimizing the issue do we allow violence to win. Only then do those impacted despair. I want to say over and over and over again, You’re not done for. Hang on.
Like most ideas, this one needed me just to take one step to make it real. I reached out to two friends, Ambar and Jay, and asked them what they thought. They said, Let’s do it. Let’s turn a single room into an overpowering exhibit of human strength against violence.
A year later, it’s three hours into our anti-violence art studio and a week before our exhibit launches in a single-roomed gallery on Union Boulevard. I am walking back from washing paintbrushes in the kitchen at the Brown school and a woman is peering into the room from the hallway, through that small window on the door. Already at least a dozen people have already shuffled through the room, painted a canvas, left a name, and the paint drying. These people, who all are painting something in the name of a project for courage over violence, speak all different experiences and life, reasons to care, and set themselves to artwork with a calm readiness like they knew what to say in color.
I ask the woman at the window outside the room if she’s looking for something. “I’m just deciding if I want to go in.” She says. I tell her that even if she doesn’t want to paint anything, she can come in to look at what other people have painted and grab some food. She comes in. Somewhere near the food table she tells me, “I don’t know if I feel strong about it yet,” and tears almost spring forward. They’re in the quake of her voice. My heart sprang forward. I leaned in, “Paint for yourself only, not for any purpose, paint any feelings, paint out the pain.” It doesn’t matter if you feel strength or not right now. The painting doesn’t even need to go into the exhibit. She stayed. She painted. I sat with her at the end and she told me, “I’ll put my name on it. Put it in the exhibit.” Before she leaves, she says, “Thank you” and this time the tears make it out, bringing me to my feet to ask her for a hug, if she needs it. She does. Times like these I remember what it’s like to feel like you’re the most broken one in the room. In those moments, the funny thing is that, actually, you’re usually the strongest. You’re the strongest. We’re taught to think reacting to pain is weakness. We’re taught to think the broken days are fault lines opening up for failure. I want to build a world that recognizes that reactions to pain, tears, those feeling of brokenness are actually moments of strength. Yet, she told me, “I don’t feel strong yet” and asked me if she still had a reason to paint.
The tears are why we paint. The paintings are how we say you don’t need to scream or press charges to win a trial. You don’t need to go through a rape kit or do a single thing to be strong. You just need to be you. The person you never chose to be but you are. Come cry and paint. Put the pain into a world that wants to change.
Since we started this campaign, Jay, Ambar and I have sent out hundreds of letters, sent about as many emails, and put the hours in to reach out, reach out, reach out and tell the world about the conversation we’re trying to start. It didn’t feel real until I was hugging a woman in our art event on Tuesday, until I held the pieces in my hand, until dozens of people began to believe in us too. When I saw tears, when I counted the paintings– over 40 of them–and when they began to stack up in my living room, waiting to be hung up, the tears hit me too. Nothing feels like change until it does. It happens all at once. Somehow visions and late nights turned into a room full of courage and men and women saying, no, violence is not the end of the story.
About a week before the exhibit my friend Morgan tells me that I helped to save her. She tags @my_nameisstrong. I am speechless, not because I’m surprised by her strength. I am speechless because on the morning she called me crying on her way to the hospital, I didn’t know what to do. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to scream not again, not my friend, just stop for once this time, let us alone, violence. I said, I love you. I said, You are strong, and I can’t stop texting her telling her she’s my inspiration. She’ll never stop being one of the many strongest women I know. The world doesn’t stop because of assault and violence. Neither do the people who are impacted by assault. We don’t stop. Not friends, not family, not classmates, not survivors. We’ll do something about this, and we’ll start by filling a room with artwork.