'This is what public safety looks like': Survivors Speak 2018

Survivors Speak California is an annual convention where hundreds of crime survivors from across California gather at the State Capitol in Sacramento to raise their voices about their trauma and find healing by taking action. They are joined by dozens of crime survivors from 10 different states who plan to take their learnings from Survivors Speak California to their respective communities.

A New Way of Life (ANWOL) residents and staff members and All of Us or None (AOUON) members have participated in this annual event since it began five years ago. This year’s trip was organized by Lisa James, AOUON community organizer, and included 12 participants.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect because the last experience I had with a group of survivors was pretty intense, and it was more of the unhealthy, name-blaming, keep-people-locked-up kind of stuff,” Lisa said.

Survivors Speak created an environment that fostered healing, alongside workshops and learning opportunities.

“There was an agenda where people held themselves accountable for the traumas that they may have caused as well as looked at how they too were victims. Those that were also victims were in that space to say that they would rather see their offenders rehabilitated and healed,” Lisa explained.

The overall focus of Survivors Speak was on identifying opportunities for the participants to turn trauma into advocacy and collective healing. The Survivors Speak environment helped the group connect with their inner pain and coping mechanisms. There were workshops related to healing. But the women were also taught how to connect with their legislative leaders and advocate for themselves.

“It was all based on bringing people together and helping them understand how their voices could help in ways that would bring more services to those who have been victims and services to those who are incarcerated. This is what public safety looks like,” Lisa said.

In an effort to get the women of the ANWOL homes to engage with new housemates, Lisa paired each woman with a housemate she didn’t know that well. This worked out well and allowed the residents of ANWOL to connect with each other on new levels.

Each woman was free to choose which sessions she would attend and what other activities she would participate in. For some of the women, this was a transformative experience of freedom.

“When you transition from an environment where you’re caged up basically, when you’re limited to what you can do and how you can move and then being able to have an experience in a hotel like that, it takes away some of those limitations. I could see how they were just free to move and make decisions on their own. That liberty empowered them,” Lisa explained.

The women were no doubt impacted by the atmosphere, which allowed them to feel the safety to talk openly about their lives and stories in some of the workshops they participated in.

“It’s an eye opener for the women,” said Tiffany Johnson, ANWOL co-director. “It allows them to see that they don’t have to be victims to their trauma and that there are many people who embrace them and are there to support healing, not only of self but healing of communities and families.”

“I could hear them talking with each other about how they enjoyed being able to be in that space. You could tell that the event impacted them in positive ways, and watching them bond was amazing,” Lisa added.

One segment that stood out for a lot of the women was the speech given by Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement.

“She said that all she had been through in her life made her want to be embedded in this work because she had to make sense of it. Being a part of this work and a part of the #MeToo movement meant that she could now become an advocate and help young girls get through the trauma and sexual abuse they’ve gone through,” said Ingrid Archie, ANWOL civic engagement coordinator.

“It was kind of good to hear that because a lot of us get into this work because we’re survivors of something and we want it all to make sense.”

As reported in a Vera Institute of Justice 2016 study, “since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold – from under 8,000 to nearly 11,000 – and now accounts for approximately half of all women behind bars in the United States.” These numbers do not include the number of women in prisons, which The Sentencing Project reported as increasing at a rate 50% higher than men since 1980.

The Vera Institute of Justice study also reported that incarcerated women are “disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use.”

As more and more women are sent to prison and jail, it’s important to understand the impact abuse has had on their lives. Most incarcerated women have been victimized prior to their incarceration and have faced difficulties identifying and finding healthy avenues to heal from their traumatic experiences. For these women to see themselves as people who survived trauma, rather than former criminals, is a powerful step toward addressing the abuse-to-prison pipeline and changing the narrative surrounding incarcerated women.