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Writing their stories: Reversing the culture of silence around gender-based violence

Decades before a sexual assault victim had the courage to fight back against her Stanford attacker in a powerful letter that made headlines around the globe, a young woman named Anne K. Ream was looking for other women who had also gone through the harrowing experience of sexual assault.

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Anne K. Ream founded the Voices and Faces Project as a way to empower survivors of gender based violence. The project’s writing workshop received a generous grant from the Ellie Fund at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Decades before a sexual assault victim had the courage to fight back against her Stanford attacker in a powerful letter that made headlines around the globe, a young woman named Anne K. Ream was looking for other women who had also gone through the harrowing experience of sexual assault.

"I remember thinking: if only one of these women had gone through what I have, I would feel I could be OK," said Ream. "But back then, [in the '90s] it was as if society had 'disappeared' these stories. We rarely knew the names of survivors, saw their faces, or had a sense of who they were as people." 

Ream is far from alone. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one of every six women in America has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

"This is an issue that affects millions of people," said Ream. "One of the most painful things for me to witness over and over is the burden of silence that has been placed on people and what it has done to them."

Ream has been steadily reversing that culture of silence, beginning with her book, Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors (produced with documentary photographer Patricia Evans.)

In 2006, Ream founded The Voices and Faces Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to create a national network of survivors willing to speak out about sexual violence to create social change.

Its signature program is a two-day writing workshop for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights violations called The Stories We Tell. 

 "We understood that stories are the most powerful tool for changing minds and hearts," said Ream.

The Ellie Fund at the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (JWF) understood that, too. 

For the second year, the Ellie Fund has allocated $25,000 to The Stories We Tell.  The workshops will be held in the fall at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie and the University of Chicago's Pozen Center for Human Rights.

"We are so grateful to the Ellie Fund for allowing us to make our workshops a regular thing in Chicago and for offering us support back when we were just starting out," said Ream. 

The Ellie Fund was established at the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago by JWF Lifetime Trustee Ellen "Ellie" Block to  support initiatives and programs that promote safety, security, equal rights, equal voice, and equal opportunity for girls and women.

She created the fund as part of her membership in the Women Moving Millions community-a global community of women philanthropists committed to donating $1 million or more for the advancement of women and girls. 

It both supports and extends JWF's reach and scope, according to JWF Executive Director Ellen B. Carmell.

For Block, the president of Nonsense, Inc., a gift and accessories art consultant business, the establishment of the Ellie Fund is a continuation of her work that began with children and families.

"It has become increasingly clear to me that a woman's ability to make transformative change for her children, her family, her community, and herself in any society, at any level, depends on her having a voice and the right to self-determination," she said.

Block was among a small group of visionary women on the board of the Jewish United Fund's  Women's Division who founded the Chicago Jewish Women's Foundation in 1997. JWF is now one of the largest Jewish Women's Foundations in the country.

What especially resonated with the Ellie Fund Advisory Committee was The Voices and Faces Project's understanding of the connection between testimony and social change.

 "The Voices and Faces Project's stories are critical to raising the consciousness of the public about how violence against women is occurring everywhere, every day, in every corner of our society," said Block. 

For a form of violence that is prevalent, hard to prevent, and often hidden, giving survivors a platform to share their stories makes it personal. 

"For most of us, understanding an issue from the perspective of what one person has gone through makes it easier to comprehend than hearing about what millions have gone through," said Carmell. 

Since launching the first Stories We Tell in 2011, the organization has run dozens of the two-day workshops across North America and its 225 alumni have gone on to use their storytelling skills in a variety of ways- from writing a young adult novel to lobbying on Capitol Hill. Voices and Faces currently houses the largest known archive of personal narratives by survivors of gender-based violence, with over 400 stories.

According to the workshop's creator and instructor, author R. Clifton Spargo, the aim is to make participants confident and skilled storytellers. "The mission of the project is to use testimony to influence policy and decision makers to ultimately create a groundswell and influence in gender-based violence," he said.

For Janet Goldblatt Holmes, a Jewish survivor of sexual violence from Canada, discovering The Voices and Faces Project back in 2006 was like a "door had opened and I was able to begin to deal at what had happened to me," referring to being date-raped 40 years ago at the age of 16.

Once she had finally broken her own "burden of silence" and the floodgates broke she found herself writing and writing. She soon became involved with the project and now serves as the writing workshop outreach coordinator. She also speaks about sexual violence to the Jewish community. 

As for Ream, the success of her project is the answer to her wish from long ago.

"I have spoken about this project in 48 states and four continents and I don't know if I've ever spoken at any event where a survivor of gender-based violence hasn't come up to me after and said, 'I've never shared this with anyone but …," she said. 

"Anne's project teaches us all about the importance of having a voice and the impact we can make when we use it," Block said.  If we all step forth and claim our voice for a better future, we will make a better world for our daughters, our sons, the Jewish world, and the world as a whole." 

For details on The Stories We Tell and to apply, visit www.voicesandfaces.org  or email: testimonial@voicesandfaces.org. The workshops will be free courtesy of the Ellie Fund.

The Jewish Women's Foundation is an independent project of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

 



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