Reflections on SAAM

By Racheal Hebert, LCSW
STAR Founder, President & CEO

As April comes to a close, we take a look back on how far we’ve come and what is left to be done.

April 2019 marks the 18th year that we have collectively honored this month as sexual assault awareness month (SAAM). The purpose of SAAM has always been to highlight the work of advocates and allies in the anti-sexual violence movement, shed light on survivors’ experiences and stories, and inspire social action to identify solutions to prevent and end sexual violence.

Over the past few years, and especially since the Me Too hashtag went viral on social media in November of 2017, public awareness of sexual violence has been at an all-time high. Survivors are speaking out about their experiences, holding institutions and individuals accountable, and demanding change at all levels of government. This is truly a time of change.

As the founder of STAR, I have worked in this movement for the past 11 years, first as an advocate and educator, then, as the years progressed, as an administrator and emerging thought leader. My personal journey with this work has been a rollercoaster ride. I am an activist at heart, which can be exhilarating, but also exhausting. At times, I have faced burnout and painful lows about the state of the movement, while at other times I am filled with hope and optimism.

One thing I know for sure, however, is that progress is happening right before my eyes. In the past decade, I have seen a shift in ways that the public acknowledges the prevalence of sexual violence, and the  ways that survivors and advocates are challenging oppressive systems and holding perpetrators accountable.

Reflecting on this, I decided to connect with other advocates I work with to get their thoughts. Lisa Mount, a long-time advocate and counselor offered some insightful thoughts.

“In the past 10 years I have started to see the community hitting the talking points for us and people coming.  Another change I have noticed is a much more inclusive strategy. I think it is great that the movement is making sure that we make this not so much a ‘women’s issue’ but a community issue that impacts all people.”

She went on to express:

“While the visibility in the media is good, it has a negative side as well. The coverage can often be victim blaming. People with good intentions trying to champion survivors that have come forward publicly have inadvertently made those that choose not to do so feel inadequate.”

Each year, April serves as a highlight and a benchmark to measure our progress as a movement over the past year.

At STAR, we see that the number of survivors served and services provided to our communities grows each year. In 2018, we served 1,107 clients and assisted 1,604 callers on our 24/7 hotline. Our services to survivors offer validation and support during a time when many feel isolated and dismissed.

“STAR has given me hope that I will get through this entire process. They’ve helped me to see that it doesn’t define me and given me the confidence to continue to overcome this obstacle. The workers at STAR are truly amazing in every way.” – survivor in Alexandria

We are also engaging the community in new and innovative ways. This past year we launched our video series, Truth Out Loud, which highlights survivors’ stories. We have hosted training workshops educating youth and adults on how to identify, prevent, and better respond to sexual violence. In 2018, we educated 3,673 youth and adults throughout our service areas.

“STAR has made a tremendous impact on my students’ knowledge on the topics of dating and sexual trauma. STAR’s interactive presentation through powerpoint, videos, and real life experiences keep students engaged and asking questions. Students learn about healthy relationships and how to spot red flags of unhealthy relationships. Most importantly, they learn how to identify sexual trauma and how to stand against it for themselves and others. I highly recommend this program!” — high school health education teacher, Baton Rouge

Of course, as with any social movement, there are setbacks that affect our progress.

Over the past year, while we have continued to observe a monumental shift, we have also faced a backlash and been reminded of how much further we have to go.

We witnessed the contentious hearing where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was compelled to testify in front of Congress to speak about the sexual assault she experienced as a teen at the hands of now-confirmed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.   

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed new Title IX regulations that would offer greater protections to students accused of sexual misconduct and weaken support for survivors on college campuses.

At STAR, demand for services grows exponentially each year, while funding continues to remain at stake and donations lag. From fiscal year 2017 to 2018, STAR served 29% more clients without any significant funding increase. Five out of six of the Louisiana Congressional Representatives voted against the Violence Against Women Act earlier this month, which raises the question of whether or not this movement’s progress is intentionally being stifled.

What happens now?

We keep fighting. We keep raising our voices and amplifying the voices of those who remain unheard. Progress has been made, and as we say at STAR: this work is a marathon, not a sprint.

At STAR, we tend to take a few weeks to recuperate after the extensive outreach and external work we do in April. Being so present in the community can take its toll on all of us. We will host retreats for our staff and focus on self-care. We will continue to work with survivors each day and bear witness to their experiences in a way that others may not ever know.

Still, this work cannot be carried by one organization alone. We rely on members of our community to support us by volunteering and donating. We count on the institutions that encounter survivors to strive to be trauma-informed and supportive. We expect our government to continue to support our work so that our much-needed services can remain free of charge to survivors in our communities. And, above all, we remain grateful to the survivors who seek us out and trust us to do what we do.

Donate today and help STAR continue to provide our free and confidential services to survivors of sexual trauma.

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