The following is a paper written for my doctoral program. I thought about trying to clean it up and publish it somewhere, but not sure where to submit it for consideration (suggestions welcome). In the meantime, I thought I’d share it here.
In open online spaces, we are not equally fragile. It is everyone’s responsibility to listen and care and support marginal voices. Whether or not they wish to speak. Whether or not they wish to be present. Whether or not they like what we do. (Bali, 2016, last paragraph)
Bali challenges us not only to actively seek out participation of marginalized groups but to carefully consider their needs, their vulnerabilities and their rights of participation.
Marginalized people from whom we seldom hear are survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. In the United States at least 25% of women and one out of seven men are affected (Breiding, 2011). In Canada, one in three women and one in six men report some form of sexual violence. Only 5% report to police. Moreover, almost half of the violent crimes against girls under the age of 12 are sexual in nature (SACHA, n.d.). These acts of violence have a range of negative consequences that ripple through our families and our schools.
The website whenIneededhelp.com is an attempt to create the safest possible space to gather the stories of abuse survivors about their experiences asking for help. Many of the stories are not positive. The site’s main goals are to empower abuse survivors by letting them know that they are not alone and enabling them to share their story if and when they are ready.
This work is situated within a larger context of re-thinking our responsibilities as activists among a group of critical pedagogues working in digital spaces. Beetham (2017) explained the urgency and importance of this work.
I talked about ‘digital citizenship’ as if it was mainly an issue for curriculum renewal – getting the right content into what is taught, and ensuring it gets to everyone. Now I think it may be a question of whether and how democratic institutions can survive. (para. 1)
She identified several different forms of digital political activism including petitions that have led to debates in parliament, healthcare interest groups and community actions. She concluded, “All of these forms of activism will be of increasing importance as public services and institutions become less secure” (para.12). Bali (2017) identified with five type of digital activism started by scholars: professional development for educators, work relating to digital citizenship, health activism, actions to empower students, and efforts to counter privilege and white supremacy culture in our institutions.
WhenIneededhelp.com site beginnings
D’Amour (2017) posits that “if we are to find our way to… the social justice and inclusivity we desire, such research will be marked, in part at least, by thoughtfully conceived, investigative excursions into and about our own self-stories” (p. 3). Early in 2016 I started a blog and Twitter account using a pseudonym to share my own experiences of abuse and the secondary trauma caused by time spent in the legal, social service and police systems. As I shared I met many other people with similar stories. Until that point I had always blamed myself for having navigated these systems “wrong.”
In November 2016, I started to think about how the technology and tools being developed at our university could be used to help gather and share stories of abuse survivors.
Creating this site is an effort to gather those stories in a safe(r) way so that others might feel less alone and to be aware of the risks of asking for help. I never want to discourage anyone who needs help to ask for it, but I do want them to be equipped with the knowledge they’ll need to best protect themselves from secondary abuse. Mostly I want them to know that they are not alone. (Dorey-Elias, 2016, para. 4)
Using the SPLOT Writer tool (Levine & Lamb, 2015) as a starting point, I developed a website where contributors could share their stories of secondary trauma without providing any personal information. All requirements to share any identifying information (names, emails or IP addresses) was eliminated, providing a high level of anonymity if desired. I have also tested the site to confirm that it can be accessed by users from secure browsers. In addition, I altered the original academic version of the instructions and supporting information in ways that focused on empowering users, including reminders about browsers security on their own computers and to think carefully about the types of personal information they might choose to share. All posts and comments are moderated in order to further protect authors and the site from abuse and all contributors receive a link to their post so that they can make changes at any time.
The contributors have been survivors of both domestic and child sexual abuse, both men and women, gay and straight. The themes of their writing includes conversion therapy, depression, doctors, family court, football abuse, mental health, PSTD, the police, shelters, stalking, stigma, suicide and more. As of July 2017 the main site has had over 2000 page views from countries around the world which makes my investment in building the site feel worthwhile.
If it helps one person: Martin’s story
When I started the site, I thought that if it helped one person tell their story then the effort would have been worthwhile. Martin became that one person. He wrote a long post of the sexual abuse he endured as a child and the impact that it had on his life and the life of his children over the next 30 years. He had never before shared his story. Twice he used edit link to make changes to his story: the first time to remove several names and the second time to remove his long personal story and replaced it was a short paragraph at the request of his ex-wife. He revised post states:
Due to unforeseen circumstances I have had to remove my previous post.
My life has been destroyed over and over again due to my child hood abuse so much so I have ended pushing away all my family and friends. destroying everyone I love. Now I’m on my own. I can only say you have to stop your suffering escalating any further by reporting it now. (para. 1)
Both in choosing to break his silence and when removing his post, Martin exerted his control and self-determination over his own story. His words also seem to echo Lorde (1984), “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (p. 41).
What I have learned
The whenIneededhelp.com site was an experiment through which much can be learned.
Open invitations aren’t open
After I created and launched the site, I sent out a series of open Twitter invitations to contribute. Based on the initial invitations to contribute, I received no responses. Instead, the first contribution came from a women that I approached personally. She shared a story via text message that I then loaded it to the site. In her story she said:
Since the shelter ran two houses after enough complaints about the worker, they sent her to the other house. Her behaviours continued but being in a house that’s known for very marginalized women, complaints went unheard. She’s still there. (Anonymous, 2016)
Since then approximately 75% of the site’s content has been posted after I have reached out to the author with a personal invitation. Although I was at first afraid to ask, in almost all cases the response has be overwhelmingly positive with the authors stating that they feel “honoured” to share their work on the site. Consequently I do not believe that open calls to participate can be considered a valid approach to soliciting participation by marginalized groups. Instead, developing a relationship and sending direct invitations are critical to fostering inclusion. In addition, a number of people reached out thanking me for the site and indicated that they would contribute but then have not followed through. I also see these non-contributors as a success in that they have recognized that they have the option to share is and then exercised their right not to.
Curating and protecting
Although the initial purpose of the site was to enable authors to post their work directly to the site, in reality many of the stories are reposted from other sites and Twitter. Thus the role of the site has, in many ways, become one of curation. For me, the act of gathering these single stories into a collection has been an active reminder that none of us are alone. Because violent sexual acts are often defined solely as individual acts by bad people, the organizations and systems that hold it in place are concealed (Sensoy, Ozlem, & DiAngelo, 2011). Many contributions cite directly the importance of sharing their thoughts with others like the following excerpt from a women struggling with severe mental health issues after leaving an abusive relationship.
I have been quiet for a while. This is why.
This is a necessarily long post and I make no apologies for that. It also discusses suicide and self harm. I don’t apologise for that either. These are things that need to be said.
It was written contemporaneously, although I am not posting it quite so. When I started writing it was intended as a diary entry to myself only, but became something else, and I think it’s worth sharing – I can’t be the only one affected by experiences like these.
I hope you are able to listen. (Anonymous, 2017)
When she added this post to her own site, she quickly became the target of a series of cruel comments that led her to remove the post and restrict access to her site. In contrast, on the whenIneededhelp.com site I moderate all comments. As a result, I can protect contributors by filtering out any awful words or comments on the site while still allowing the post to be completely open. It has in that way become the safer space I sought to build.
Adding the gallery
In running the site I have learned more about how the importance of art in healing and how the brain processes trauma. VanDerKolk (2017) explained that during trauma the Broca’s area, “the part of your brain that helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them, shuts down. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears. In response, I added gallery.whenIneededhelp.com using another SPLOT tool called The Collector (Levine & Lamb, 2015). While it has not been widely used, the collective results of the Gallery section are quite powerful (Figure 1).
Tasking risks leads to new ideas
Early in 2017 a previous contributor contacted me to see how the site was going. Despite contributing, she told me that she could not visit the site because it made her too angry. In hind sight it seemed problematic to have built a site that the contributors themselves found challenging to visit. Around the same time another woman who had thought about contributing expressed an interest in starting a small project of her own, but with a more positive focus. She leveraged her previous experience with Twitter poetry to create a bi-weekly prompt #SurvivorRealm. I have since included the feed in the site. Together, we agreed in a Tweet “#survivorrealm is space of healing. At whenINeededhelp.com you can share pain (all invited to add). Two sides working together.”
“I” versus “we”
When I created the site, it was an independent endeavor. Having started it under a pseudonym, I had no intentions of sharing this work largely to protect myself and my children. Over the year with the encouragement of others, I began to share my work. But it has remained “my” site and I hear it almost every time someone reaches out. “I’d like to post to your site.” In hindsight, taking an independent approach was a mistake (though I think at the time I lacked the confidence to engage others in the planning.) Spaces of curation are communal. They are by design the space of “we.” Moving forward, I would not move forward on a story curation effort alone.
In making the changes to add the Twitter feed and a trigger warning, the site has become ugly. Improving the layout is going to require rebuilding its underlying structure. Before undertaking that work I have paused to reflect on the best path forward. Gathering and curating these stories has been emotionally exhausting; I have slowly stopped reaching out to people to contribute. Moreover, the level of participation in the Twitter prompt #SurvivorRealm has been far higher and contributions there are going far beyond the prompts. I think this points to a preference among contributors to share using Twitter which may not be surprising given that the primary method of advertising the site has been Twitter. Put together, I wonder whether it is time to stop actively working on the site. At the same time more seems possible. This project started with a tool built at a university that was then used outside formal education spaces. I wonder about closing the loop and bringing the stories collected back into the university for educative and/or research purposes. This line of thought raises larger questions about the role of universities in knowledge generation, knowledge dissemination, and activism, questions worthy of far more conversation but also far outside the scope of this paper.
Since building and sharing this site, scholars from other institutions and I have started talking about the possibilities to use a similar approach to surface and curate other types of stories. One of the ideas we are discussing is a space for academic faculty to anonymously share their unease, frustrations and experiences working within post-secondary settings. In another instance, the stories are short (500 characters) glimpses into the everyday kindnesses that too often go unnoticed and creative remixes of those stories. Whether or not I continue to actively support the whenIneededhelp.com site, I have come to believe that curating untold stories is an important form of activism.
Anonymous (2016, November 21). Unheard complaints [web log post]. Retrieved from http://whenineededhelp.com/unheard-complaints/
Anonymous (2017, February 9). Falling down [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://whenineededhelp.com/falling-down/
Bali, M. (2016, September 4). Reproducing marginality [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://blog.mahabali.me/blog/pedagogy/critical-pedagogy/reproducing-marginality/
Bali, M. (2017, March 1). Open thread: What’s your (digital) activism? [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/open-thread-whats-your-digital-activism/63686
Beetham, H. (2017, February 22) Digital literacy and democracy [web log post]. Retrieved from: https://helenbeetham.com/2017/02/22/digital-literacy-and-democracy/
Breiding, M. J. et al. (2011). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence, stalking and intimate partner violence victimization – National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States. MMWR. 2014:63(No. SS08); 1-18 as cited on Center for Disease and Prevention (website), http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/consequences.html
D’Amour, L. (2017). Schooling to counterbalance technology. Unpublished manuscript.
Dorey-Elias, T. (2016). About [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://whenineededhelp.com/about/
Lamb, B., & Levine, A. (2015, February 17). A SPLOT of a presentation at TRU practices colloquium 2015 [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://cogdogblog.com/2015/02/a-splot-of-a-presentation-at-tru-teaching-practices-colloquium-2015/
Lorde, A. (1984). The transformation of silence into language and action. In A. Lorde (Ed.), Sister outsider: Essays and speeches (pp. 40-44). Crossing Press.
Martin (2017, January 22). Result of suffering in silence too long [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://whenineededhelp.com/result-of-suffering-in-silence-too-long/
Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton Ontario (SACHA). (n.d.). Sexual assault statistics. Retrieved from: http://sacha.ca/resources
Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. (2011). Is Everyone Really Equal? : An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2011.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (March 9, 2017). How Trauma Lodges in the Body, Being with Krista Tippett (transcript), https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body/