Survivor Activism: Q&A

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Last week I was asked to be a guest speaker alongside Viv Gordon at the #CSAQT Twitter Space. It was a space beautifully held by Five (@sur5vors) and Lucy (@smile4wales), and despite my nerves, I really enjoyed it! (It also helped doing it with Viv as we have worked together quite a lot and I feel quite comfortable with her).

If you missed the Space or you’re interested in Survivor Activism, you can read some of my answers below – including my answers to questions we didn’t have time for. Thanks Five and Lucy for inviting me and for helping me overcome my fear of Twitter Spaces!

Can you introduce yourself – and your organisation and projects?

My name is Sophie and I’m a Survivor Activist, writer and founder of The Flying Child: a nonprofit organisation improving the awareness of child sexual abuse and the consequences of trauma. Our core aim is to normalise speaking about CSA. The Flying Child Project brings lived experience into the heart of professional settings, providing training in Education, Social Work and Healthcare. In 2023 The Flying Child will offer peer support groups for survivors within the local community and online.

My work aims to challenge the societal culture of silence around CSA. I advocate for appropriate specialist therapy and support as finding support for myself was very difficult with many services not having an understanding of trauma. 

How did you get into activism and running projects?

It was accidental and unplanned. A conversation with a Headteacher allowed me to recognise the the power of lived experience. It sparked the idea of The Flying Child Project, which eventually led to the set-up of The Flying Child CIC. At the same time I was writing my book and sending the manuscript to different people. One of these was Redzi Bernard, a producer who pitched my story to Radio 4. The Last Taboo was broadcast in September ’21 and it has opened doors for me.

What advice would you have for anyone else wanting to be an activist?

Try and build a good support network. Mine is my therapist, my friends, my colleague Anna who works alongside me. My husband has been really supportive and my adult children. 

Network. If you admire the work of others then reach out to them. Have conversations. I did this and a few responded. I was offered time for a chat, given encouragement and advice, and helped to understand different perspectives. 

When it came to planning the flying child project I had a couple of meetings with the DSL and Head of the school we were piloting in as I needed their perspective to create something that worked for the profession. There was no point in me rocking up and doing my activist bit if my lack of understanding alienated and shut them down in the process. I think trying to understand the perspectives of those whose attitudes you’re trying to shift, is really important .

Try not to feel intimidated by perceived size or success of the organisation or individual you’re speaking with – you might not have the same skill-set, or letters after your name but your skills and insight can be equally valuable. I learn from others and they learn from me. We are all human at end of day.

What disadvantages or things to watch out for are there?

Not everyone will have your best interests at heart. Especially in the media. Our stories sell papers, or they make newsworthy articles – so be cautious and think carefully before accepting requests. Listen to your instinct. Is it warning you off? Just because someone works in the same field doesn’t give them an automatic green light to you or your story. Trust is earned. I don’t expect people to say yes to me. It needs to be right for them. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences myself – but I’ve learned from these experiences.

Be prepared for the negative responses from people close to you. This was the biggest shock of all – I lost friends, only a minority but these were people I trusted. I lost them as a direct result of sharing my story with them. Initially I was devastated but now I use it to drive me forward. If one of my friends can’t meet my eye as we pass in the street, because I am a vocal survivor of CSA, then we have a huge societal issue. The stigma is real and responses like these are, in part why so many of us feel silenced. I want to see a society where responses like these are unacceptable – we are a marginalised group of people and we are discriminated against because we were victims of an abhorrent crime. This is wrong and it needs to change.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the start?

That you can say no. If you want to work in activism you don’t need to answer all requests. Again, listen to your gut instinct. Mine was suppressed as a result of CSA and listening to my instinct is still a new thing for me. Sometimes I get it wrong, override it and then regret it. When unsure it helps me to ask those close to me what they think. As a rule of thumb, you must do what feels comfortable.

I wish I’d known how much work Survivor Activism is. I work long hours, full-time for low financial gain. Some people frown upon any financial gain. That’s tough at times. It took a long time to recognise my own self-worth. I used to do a lot for free and now I rarely do because – yes, this is a vocation but it’s also my full-time work.

Most of my time is spent doing something around abuse and that can be emotionally tiring. Again – good support is vital. Mentors, people to go to for advice. I learn a lot from others, I still have a lot to learn – and I ask people for advice, often.

I wish I’d known how wonderful it would be. How empowering. Life-changing. Not just for others but for me too. I love my work.

What makes for good activism?

Collaboration and coproduction. Transparency. Presenting clear objectives. Ones others can relate to. Survivor engagement. Professional engagement. Transparent use of funds. Many people ask for donations for campaigns and projects, and I’m drawn to the ones that are transparent and not vague about where the funds will be directed.

What have you found that engages people?

Our stories engage people. Just standing in front of a professional or practitioner as a survivor is powerful. People tend to turn away from CSA and it’s harder to turn away from us, and therefore the subject, when we are standing right in front of them. Some people fear you have to be graphic if you tell your story, but I think it’s more powerful not to be graphic. I try to let people see that I am just a regular person, just like them. It’s powerful enough to say I was one of those children. But – it is really important to me to not shy away from certain words like rape and abuse -I don’t want to contribute to the culture of silence I’m aiming to challenge.

Acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings engages people. We don’t cast blame when we work with professionals – we acknowledge CSA is a horrible topic. It does make us feel awful inside and that’s normal – it’s okay to acknowledge it. What’s not ok is when someone hides from those feelings, buries their head in the sand and hopes they will never come across this problem – that it will just go away. When we do this, it’s easy to convince ourselves that CSA doesn’t happen in our community, network or school. CSA happens everywhere, it’s just very well hidden.

Creativity engages people including those who might otherwise not engage. The Last Taboo was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done and I had a moment of total fear and panic before it was broadcast. But – it was worth it because it engages people. I think it’s so engaging because it’s creatively presenting a topic that isn’t often presented like that. Anything that encourages someone to step inside our shoes, just for a moment, is good. When they see what life was like for children and is like for adult survivors, it evokes empathy, anger, a drive to influence change.

‘The black door breaking down’: The Last Taboo , BBC Radio 4

‘Once upon a time…’: The Last Taboo, BBC Radio 4

How do you keep up the momentum?

Passion. Lots of coffee! 

How do you self care to stop getting burned out?

I’m not great at self-care but others around me recognise I’m not good at it and help me recognise signs of burnout. I think I’m getting better at recognising the signs though. As a child I was used to overriding discomfort because I had no choice – and when I notice I’m ignoring thirst, hunger, I’m not getting enough sleep – stuff like that, I think it’s time to step back a bit or delegate tasks. 

My colleague Anna is a great support and I hope I am to her. We are very honest with each other about how we feel. Being with my children, my dog, crochet, reading, writing – coffee with a dear friend – that’s my self care.

What organisations/campaigns are you aware of that do activism well?

The Viv Gordon Company! Their projects and campaigns are fantastic and I can’t wait to see what else they come up with. I like the way certain charities work – SARSAS is a great example of an organisation that supports survivor-led organisations. Not all do this. Anyone who engages well with survivors gets my vote. Lads Like Us are another great example – survivor centered, a lot of engagement and very transparent and honest about their own reasons for doing it. Survivors Voices, MoMENtum Devon, The Green House… there are loads of fantastic people out there doing valuable and life-changing work and they inspire me. I’m relatively new and some of these have been around for a while so it’s exciting when our paths cross and we collaborate on a project.

I’m in awe of anyone who gets a campaign off the ground. It’s not just organisations – Individuals are doing incredible work in this area – people with no organisation, team or budget. Some are quite loud about it. Others are quietly getting on with it and moving mountains. Survivors are quite a determined bunch but I guess that’s no surprise.

Look at what we’ve survived.

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