This month’s Pixel Project Inspirational Interview is with Brooke Axtell who is the Director of Communications and Engagement for Allies Against Slavery, a non-profit devoted to ending human trafficking. She also founded Survivor Healing and Empowerment (S.H.E.), a healing community for survivors of rape, abuse and sex-trafficking. Brooke spoke on domestic violence at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Her speech has been shared around the world. Her work as a writer, speaker, performing artist and activist has been featured in many media outlets, including the New York Times, LA Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal and CNN. Brooke has published several award-winning poetry books and released three CDs of original music to critical acclaim.
The second part of her Inspirational Interview will be published on 1 June 2015.
1. Could you please tell us more about the community you founded – Survivor Healing and Empowerment (S.H.E.) – and why community is so vital in the healing process of survivors?
SHE is a healing community for survivors of rape, abuse and sex trafficking. I created SHE to give survivors a safe point of contact to share their stories and ask for support. As a survivor, who has been vocal and devoted to a healing path, I offer an alternative for those who do not want to engage with law enforcement or traditional social services. Survivor communities are vital and life-saving. They remind us we are not alone in our struggle. I hear from many women who disclose that they have never told anyone about their experiences of abuse. I am the first person they confide in. When they are ready, I can refer them to other resources for their recovery.
I also provide survivor support through Allies Against Slavery, a non-profit devoted to ending human trafficking in Austin, Texas. Through Allies, I have seen how essential it is for survivors to have a confidante and mentor who can help them take their place within a compassionate community.
2. You are not just an activist and a speaker; you are a singer-songwriter, you are a poet. Is writing cathartic for you? How valuable is it for survivors of abuse to have a creative outlet?
Creative expression has been a refuge for me. It helps me transmute pain into healing power. It is a way of reclaiming experiences that were beyond my control by freeing me to define what those events will me to me. I could not stop the violence, but I can decide how I will interpret and respond to the violence.
I see my trauma as a form of knowledge and I have chosen to channel my knowledge into compassion: compassion for myself and others. Writing reminds me that I am crafting the narrative of my life and continuously restores my sense of dignity, affirming the value of my voice and my agency as a women. When I mentor other survivors in their writing, I witness this same reclamation of power.
3. Terminology is crucial and you advocate for survivors of sexual assault. The media still tends to use the word ‘victim’. Why is it so important that people adjust their language when talking about women who have been assaulted?
We need to give those who have been subjected to sexual violence the space to be self-defining. Identifying as a survivor rather than a victim allows us to assert our innate strength and resilience. Instead of being reduced to a victim by the actions of a perpetrator, we move beyond the trauma into a celebration of our own courage.
4. After your performance with Katy Perry at the Grammy’s, there was some controversy on social media over the fact that an anti-VAW message was being presented at an award show where artistes who had perpetrated violence towards women were nominated for awards, as a result your message was labelled “hypocritical”. However, perpetrators do not just attend award shows, they live in our neighbourhoods and some of them are never caught, and the ones that are, rarely receive the kinds of sentences we hope for. How can society better hold perpetrators accountable?
I did not see anyone label my message as hypocritical. In fact, I was flooded with messages from women telling me how much my speech resonated with them.
I did see critique from survivors and advocates around the Grammy’s providing a platform for the issue when perpetrators have been honored for their music. I empathise with this concern, yet I actually think it was a bold move to bring this conversation into a space where they knew abusers would have to listen. It is only the first step, but an essential one. If we want Grammy nominations to be based on more than perceived artistic merit, if we want only ethical artists to be honoured, then we need to express that collectively and advocate for it in a strategic way. In the case of the music industry, we can choose to boycott the work of abusers and support artistes who reflect our ideals. We can also advocate for all institutions to have a zero tolerance policy for violence and implement measures for internal accountability beginning with our own communities.
5. You said something really striking during your Grammy performance: “Your voice will save you.” We constantly encourage women and girls to speak up but how can we become better listeners?
We can become better listeners by cultivating compassion and challenging the cultural messages that support victim-blaming. We can treat women and girls with dignity and respect by bearing witness to their stories without judgement, instead of telling them how they should act or feel. They are the experts on their own experience. They do not need to be told how to navigate their own lives, but encouraged to trust their own wisdom and desires.
Survivors are often told, “Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you press charges? Why didn’t you leave?” What people should ask is, “How can I support you now?”