In her poem, "The Summer Day," Mary Oliver asks a simple and profound question, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I'm reflecting on my decision 20 years ago to spend my life among amazing advocates, activists and survivors dedicated to bringing the issue of sexual violence out of the shadows and into the light. Anti-sexual violence work faces the darkest aspects of human behavior and our collective reactions to those behaviors with the hope of personal and societal transformation.
The handful of years that I spent directly supporting survivors left an indelible imprint on my soul. Deeply inspiring, it also was traumatizing to come face-to-face with that depth of human suffering. I went on to work in the public policy arena in hopes of making a bigger change and, truthfully, also because facing the stories of trauma on a daily basis flattened me.
For the past 15 years, I've asked policymakers to make advocates' work easier by increasing funding for rape crisis centers. I spent 10 years advocating at the Florida Legislature, and the past five years advocating with Congress.
One of the programs the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence works hardest to increase funding for is The Sexual Assault Services Program (SASP) at the Office on Violence Against Women. Created in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization of 2005, SASP is the first federal funding source dedicated to providing direct services to survivors of sexual assault.
We've celebrated small funding victories as the program increased to an all-time high of $27 million in 2014, but that means that each state gets around half a million dollars; if it were evenly divided, each rape crisis center would get around $20,000. Here's why rape crisis centers need more than that:
- Rape crisis centers are woefully underfunded: 75 percent lost funding in 2012, and one-third have a waiting list for such basic services as counseling.
- Rape crisis centers employ some of the most gutsy, compassionate and committed people I know.
- Rape crisis centers want to bring their expertise into institutions by working with churches, the military, prisons and campuses.
- There are survivors -- youth victims who live on the street, for example -- who will never go to "traditional" rape crisis centers, and advocates need funding to go to them.
- Culturally specific programs (such as the Hmong American Women's Association in Milwaukee, United Somali Women of Maine, M.U.J.E.R. in South Florida, MaleSurvivor, and FORGE) are developing more effective responses to sexual assault, but many communities lack these services.
- More programs (such as TEWA United Women in New Mexico, and Orange County Rape Crisis Center in North Carolina) are focused on holistic services to help survivors heal mind, body and spirit. We know a lot about sexual trauma, and rape crisis centers can apply research to services and justice system responses, but they can't do that.
- Strong, compassionate services are essential, but just focusing on services and the criminal justice system won't create the change we need to end sexual violence. For this reason, we need to change the fact that three out of four rape crisis centers can't afford to meet their communities' demand for prevention programs.
Recently, I was talking with the prevention team from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. I had tears in my eyes as I heard about their rigorous, decade-long project to support state rape crisis centers with the most cutting-edge prevention approaches. The main funding source for this effort is the federal Rape Prevention & Education Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This year, Texas will lose $600,000, because of funding changes designed to give smaller states more resources for preventing sexual violence. States of any size working to change and educate communities need support.
And what most breaks my heart about this approach to funding is that, for the first time in my 20 years of doing this work, I can see that sexual violence is truly coming out of the shadows and that communities are ready to address the problem.
Courageous survivors from State College, Pa., to Steubenville, Ohio, came forward, and their cases shone a national spotlight on the problem of sexual violence. In January, President Barack Obama gave a historic speech about sexual violence. That was the first time I have ever heard a president talk directly about sexual violence.
Now more than ever, we need Congress to invest in anti-sexual violence programs.
Recent contributions by young activists have me all revved up about the next leg of the journey. They remind us we can't talk about ending rape without confronting the cultural paradigms, sexism and gender socialization, that enable it. So along with foremothers like June Jordan, I am deeply grateful to Zerlina Maxwell for creating #rapecultureiswhen on Twitter. And I will look to young activists like those at FEMINISTING, sherights, and Know Your IX to shine the light and lead the way.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.