Speak About It Change Makers
Here at Speak About It, we acknowledge that our own work is built on the brave work of many activists, educators, and thinkers before us. Likewise, we work today in community with incredible violence prevention and consent advocates across the country.
The narratives of people of color, queer folks, trans folks, and other marginalized identities are often silenced, erased, or overshadowed in the broader social dialogue about sexual assault. For example, even in the age of #MeToo, many people of color are still working to have their stories heard with the same weight and same seriousness as their white peers.
We serve all students across all identities and want to ensure that all students feel their voices are represented and heard. The work of diverse activists and thinkers makes our work to build a culture of consent more inclusive and more effective. That work deserves to be celebrated.
So we want to share with you, our friends and followers, some of the Change Makers who have inspired us and keep inspiring us every day. We’ll update this post with new Change Makers twice a month.
Do you have someone you want to share with us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Change Maker #6: Amanda Nguyen
Amanda Nguyen is a Harvard graduate and the founder and executive director of RISE. Now at 27, an age where most millennials are just getting used to filing their own taxes, she’s a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. As a young, Asian-American woman fighting on a grassroots level for increased protections and rights for survivors of sexual assault, there’s no question that she is an important voice in the field of violence prevention and a true Speak About It Changemaker. (She's also training to be an astronaut, so we extra love her!)
Following her own assault in 2013, Nguyen was met with bureaucracy and nonsensical policies that did little to meet or serve her needs as she figured out how to seek justice. “When at Harvard, I was raped, and I went through the criminal justice system. I noticed these huge irregularities within the criminal justice system for rape survivors,”she said in an interview with Newsy this year.
Nguyen discovered that in Massachusetts, where she lived, the statute of limitations for a rape charge is 15 years, yet the state only held on to rape kits (usually the primary evidence in a reported assault) for six months. While she managed a full time job in DC and healing in the years following, Nguyen had to contend with the state every six months in order to get her kit kept on record. She couldn't believe she had to relive the event and the trauma month after month, just to leave the option of pressing charges open.
This experience motivated Nguyen to take her struggle public and to support other survivors who were left behind or failed by the system. In 2014, she founded RISE to educate, train, and empower survivors to fight for their civil rights.
Nguyen worked with experts and policymakers to draft the first Survivors' Bill of Rights, which passed unanimously through both chambers of Congress in 2016. (Only 21 bills in US history have been passed unanimously!) However, the new federal law only applies to rape cases tried in federal courts. The majority of cases are tried on a state level, which means significant work continues for Nguyen, RISE and her team.
Nguyen first helped successfully pass a survivor rights bill through the Massachusetts Congress, and continues to work with RISE to pass similar bills across each state, encouraging survivors and advocates to come forward and join the fight in their local communities. She has worked alongside celebrities and experts like actors Terry Crews and Evan Rachel Wood, testifying on Capitol Hill to encourage more states to adopt the Bill. As of November 2018, RISE has helped 19 states pass a Survivors' Bill of Rights.
Nguyen was nominated for the Nobel Prize by California legislators Mimi Walters and Zoe Lofgren, who were floored by Nguyen’s “unprecedented efforts in bringing equal protection under the law and basic human rights to all survivors of sexual assault, regardless of geography.” Recognition is a great accomplishment, but the fight is long from over. In Nguyen’s own words, “There is a long tradition in American of people taking their painful living truths and channeling it into justice.” Her work empowering other survivors shows evidence of this nationwide. Nguyen is not limiting her sights on America though. RISE is also hoping to get the United Nations to Adopt a Global Survivors’ Bill of Rights, as sexual violence is a global epidemic.
Change Maker #5: TERRY CREWS
Former NFL player and Brooklyn Nine Nine star, Terry Crews, is hoping to re-write the book on masculinity, especially when it comes to sexual violence. Earlier this year, as numerous women were coming forward with their stories about harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood, Crews joined in with his own story to tell. In an interview with NPR, he said he was inspired by the women’s strength to sacrifice everything and share their truths publicly. He felt an incredible empathy for them after seeing so many people question the validity of their stories. Judgement, doubt, and shame were all things he had experienced too, as a survivor with his own story of sexual assault in show business.
After going public, (you can read the full story on BuzzFeed), Crews faced push-back and criticism that was specifically racialized and gendered. He encountered people asking him why he didn’t fight back, describing his size, weight, and race as reasons why he couldn’t be a victim of sexual assault. He responded to his critics, saying in Bust Magazine, “I’m a 240-pound black man. If I’m defending myself and knock this guy out, there’s not going to be any mercy for me. Just ask all the brothers who’ve been shot down. I would’ve lost everything.”
Despite this painful vitriol, Crews was galvanized to work harder, to call out this kind of reaction what it was: evidence of toxic masculinity and straight up racism. Today, he aims to change people's preconceived notions about what survivors look like, while also tearing down the toxic culture that breeds assault and blames victims. “This is how toxic masculinity permeates culture. As I shared my story, I was told over and over that this was not abuse,” he said. “This was just a joke. This was just horseplay. But I can say one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation. And I chose to tell my story and share my experience to stand in solidarity with millions of other survivors around the world. That I know how hard it is to come forward, I know the shame associated with the assault. It happened to me.”
Since going public with his account and filing lawsuit against his assailant, Crews has become a strong spokesperson for male survivors of assault and for the #metoo movement as a whole. He was named a Person of the Year by Time Magazine, standing alongside dozens of other ‘Silence Breakers’ who helped usher in a new era of seeking justice for survivors of abuse.
Crews recently testified in Congress alongside activist (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Amanda Nguyen, sharing his story to advocate for the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights and to push Congress to fast track implementation of the bill which was signed into law in 2016.
Crews’ testimony powerfully exposes how toxic masculinity and racism feed sexual violence. We applaud his efforts to advocate for the rights of any and all survivors and victims. You can read his full testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary committee here.
Change Maker #4: MARSHA P. JOHNSON
This Pride month we're celebrating gay rights activist and trans-woman of color, Marsha P. Johnson!
Born to a working-class family in New Jersey in 1945, Marsha Johnson made her way to New York in her teens. A self proclaimed drag queen, sex worker, and trans-woman of color, she soon became a regular in the gay nightlife in Times Square and the Village in the 1960s. Many of her biographies mention her bouts of homelessness, experiences that led to her future work as an advocate for homeless queer youth. However, she is best known for her work as a “vanguard” in the Stonewall Riots, resisting and fending off police, alongside friend and fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera. Many attribute her as the first person to throw the brick, but stories vary when it comes to this detail. Johnson herself said she arrived later in the evening as the buildings were already burning. Either way. queer activists, especially online, are rightfully vaulting Jordan back into the limelight of history as one of the diverse faces and heroes of the Stonewall Riots.
After Stonewall, Johnson remained a figurehead in the Gay Liberation Front, advocating for inclusion of all people regardless of “sex, race, age and sexual behaviors." She fought hard for drag queens especially to be included in the movement. (The term transgender was not popular or commonly used during these times.)
Johnson's signature flashy, creative wardrobe filled with reclaimed garments and high-femme style combined with her captivating personality caught the attention of many, and she became a prominent and active leader in demonstrations throughout the 70s. Reporters and artists, including Andy Warhol, often interviewed and photographed her.
In 1970, at age 23, she and Rivera co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) a home and gathering place for trans youth. Many say Johnson acted as the "drag mom" for the house, an important and symbolic role in many black and Latinx queer communities. That same year the first Pride parade marched through the streets of New York to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, with both Rivera and Johnson involved.
Johnson struggled with mental illness throughout her life, and faced much mistreatment at the hands of many medical practitioners as a result. Despite spending significant time in and out of institutions, she maintained a vibrant and public life. She led sit-ins an demonstrations. She performed frequently at drag clubs with the performance troupe, Hot Peaches. In 1980, Marsha was asked to ride in the lead car in the New York Pride parade. At this time she had also started living with gay activist, Randy Wicks and began her involvement with ACT UP, working to support friends, lovers, and community members coping with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Johnson tragically drowned in the Hudson in July of 1992. At first her death was proclaimed a suicide, but investigations have recently been re-opened after fellow activists advocated for many years for authorities to take a deeper look and bring justice to Johnson's life and legacy.
Johnson is the name sake of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a newly formed initiative dedicated to providing structural support for Black transwomen. In recent years, her legacy has gained larger notoriety, but it has been a long struggle to give Johnson the recognition she deserves in the story of gay liberation. Her story is seen by many modern activists as emblematic of a larger cultural problem with the erasure of trans women of color from social movements, especially gay rights and gay history.
This Pride month, share Marsha's story with someone you know. And check out these great resources to learn more about her life.
- Obituary in New York Time's Overlooked series
- You Can't Have Pride Without Marsha P. Johnson - Israel Bishop, Medium
- Pay It No Mind - YouTube documentary about Marsha P. Johnson
- The Death & Life of Marsha P. Johnson - Netflix documenary
- Happy Birthday Marsha P. Johnson - by Reina Gosset, Crunk Feminist Collective
Change Maker #3: DR. DONNA ORIOWO
We met Dr. Donna Oriowo this past October at the National Sex Ed Conference, where she delivered the keynote address. Her remarks addressed the intersections of race and privilege in sex education. She urged audiences to engage with their discomfort around identity, and think critically about the privilege they bring into the classroom. She also encouraged educators to think about sex ed not as a monolith that applies to all people, but with nuance; to consider how even things like skin color, shade, and hair quality affect how someone is treated in the world, and therefore how they develop their sexual identity and what kind of education and affirmation they may need.
A graduate of Morgan State University and Widener University, Dr. Donna saw very few black sex therapists working in the field when she was first studying public health. As she finished her PhD in Human Sexuality, she wanted to fill a gap, and specifically address the needs and desires of black women and couples in her practice. She works as a private practice counselor, and loves working to empower black women to connect with their emotions, build their self esteem, and celebrate their sexuality.
“Let's work together to discover more about you, your sex(uality). And how it connects to your race, ethnicity, spirituality/religion," Dr. Donna writes on her website, inviting therapy clients to learn "how to navigate [your sexuality] when you are feeling depressed, anxious, or like your self esteem is just not where you need it to be." Dr. Donna is widely quoted across the internet on various subjects surrounding relationships, sexual health, and pleasure. She also speaks across the country and consults with sex educators, especially around issues of intersectionality.
Dr. Donna pushes educators to engage with the racist history of birth control and sex education in this country, and in doing so re-visit how we engage with young people of color in the conversation about sexuality. Black and brown students deserve to have access to pleasure-based, informative sex ed. In addition to individual clients, Dr. Donna works with sex ed professionals to develop intersectional curriculum and practices. This includes media literacy and empathy training. She also advocates that educators and researchers diversify the images and educational materials they use when teaching about sexuality. Showing anatomically diverse bodies in diagrams with different colors, shapes, and hair types helps more students connect to curriculum and understand their own bodies.
Want to learn more about Dr. Donna Oriowo? Check out her website, An Nod Right or follow her on Instagram!
Change Maker #2: ROSA PARKS
Take what you learned in second grade about a meek and gentle seamstress who was too tired to give up her bus seat and toss it out the window. The story of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Parks’ own biography, is much more complex. By that afternoon in 1955, Parks had been a veteran organizer and activist for years. A woman who drew inspiration from Marcus Garvey and Malcom X, she was on her way home from work to prepare for upcoming Alabama NAACP elections, of which she was the secretary. Her early organizing years were centered, in particular, around combating lynching and racist sexual violence against black communities.
As a sexual assault investigator for the NAACP, Rosa Parks took a central role in seeking justice for Recy Taylor (who’s story of assault you may remember from Oprah Winfrey’s moving remarks at this year’s Golden Globes). This piece, written in memoriam when Taylor passed away in 2017, tells her story and her struggle for justice, and details some of Parks' work on the case. Ms. Taylor was interviewed by NPR in 2011 here, where historian Danielle McGuire also talks about how Taylor’s story, and those hundreds of other black survivors of sexual violence, exemplify how intrinsically intertwined racism, white supremacy, and sexual violence truly are.
Parks was the lead investigator and change maker in numerous rape and lynching cases throughout her years as an organizer. Following Taylor’s assault, Parks worked tirelessly to seek answers and justice from the sheriff in Taylor’s hometown. Taylor’s own home was fire-bombed, and Parks was accused by the sheriff of being a “troublemaker” and essentially run out of town. Following this, Parks organized a national campaign, the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. The campaign garnered national attention, especially from black activists and writers like Langston Hughes and W.E.B DuBois.
Parks replicated similar campaigns for other victims too. Taylor never received justice from the court systems for the atrocities she suffered, but Parks' work to bring her story and others into the public eye was a bold, brave, and revolutionary act that left lasting marks on the civil rights movement. Later, Parks would build a defense committee for Joan Little, an inmate who killed the guard that sexually assaulted her in self-defense. Little was the first woman to use self-defense in a homicide case with success, much in part due to Parks' advocacy.
Parks work also provided an organizing platform for other civil rights struggles and demonstrations, both of the era and today. Likewise, many regard Rosa Parks as a grandmother of the #MeToo movement. Says #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke, "We can’t do this work without continuously referencing the work of Rosa Parks fighting against the sexual and racial violence that black women were subjected to.”
Change Maker #1: ROXANE GAY
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of fiction, essays, and cultural criticism today. Her biting wit and on-point Twitter game offer an incisive, inclusive and sometimes irreverent look into pop-culture, storytelling, and social justice. Her writing and commentary cover a range topics, from race and representation, to comic books and Beyonce. Her book of essays Bad Feminist is an affirming and intersectional series of pop culture critiques and personal essays, and offers an accessible entryway into modern feminism and social justice. Her writing on sexual violence, from personal narratives to astute essays are some of the most compassionate, complex and energizing writings on the subject. We also think it’s pretty much the coolest ever that she co-authored Marvel’s World of Wakanda series with Ta-Nehisi-Coates.
Plus in between writing and posting this blog post, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. And launched a pop-up magazine on Medium, Unruly Bodies. She’s unstoppable!
We got to see Roxane speak live at Bowdoing College last month, and were moved, charmed, and floored by her relatable wit and incredible insight. If you haven’t read any of Gay’s writing, or haven’t seen her drag her twitter haters...it’s a hundred and fifteen percent worth it. Plus, we’re looking forward to the vitally important essay collection she curated and edited, Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, coming out this May.
Jumpstart your Roxane Gay reading list with these articles:
- "If I was Conventionally Hot, I would be President" In conversation with humorist, Lindy West, The Guardian.
- Safer Spaces and campus culture in the NYTimes.
- On Problematic Pop Culture and the Roseanne reboot.
Speak About It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges to educate, entertain, and empower students to create positive change within their communities, advocate for and practice healthy relationship habits, and prevent sexual violence.
Copyright 2016 Speak About It, Inc. Website by Alexandra Valleau