I had the distinct honor of speaking at the University of South Carolina’s It’s On Us gala event. A young woman named Mary Copeland Cain – who co-runs the campus chapter of the national It’s On Us movement to end campus sexual assault (and all sexual assault, really) – contacted me about speaking at the event and I immediately said yes. I seize upon almost any opportunity to speak to students. I sent along my head shot and a short bio, and began thinking of what I would want to say to the 250+ people expected at the event.
It had been a while since I had spoken to a large group about anti-sexual violence. Yes, I spoke at the Hawks event, but I was on a five-person panel and contributed all of five minutes to a 55-minute conversation. For this, I knew I had to capture the room, share my story, thank them and inspire them, and most of all, educate them further with what I’ve learned in the six years I’ve worked with victims. No small task.
What I’ve come to understand about myself is that I don’t need a written speech inasmuch as I need a framework and an emotional outline of where I am going to take my audience. I do not know any better way to connect with people on this difficult topic than by being 100 percent authentic. That means raw, angry, sad, humorous and flawed (read: profane). To be polished would rob them of what I owe them for standing there and listening to me when they could be any other place at that moment in time.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I always – and I mean, ALWAYS – get a catch in my voice at some point in my speaking. I never ever know when it is going to appear. I tell myself it is a permanent holdover from the effects of my assault. And there is nothing I can do about it. If I want to be all me for a speech, an awkward pause where I fight off tears is going to happen. It has happened ever single time I’ve ever spoken on this topic. Every time. And the day it stops, I should probably cease doing speaking engagements.
My favorite part of speaking is what comes after – meeting people who run the gamut of victims/survivors, advocates, supporters, etc. This event did not disappoint. I met a woman who runs Lighthouse For Life which helps victims of child sex trafficking become whole again. And I met a woman who teaches self-defense class to South Carolina students. I met a young man who has channeled the pain of his mother’s rape into work with the It’s On Us initiative. I met parents whose daughters were affected by this vicious crime. And I loved all of it. I did. I really love connecting with people this way. It’s cathartic for them and me.
I was reminded of just how awesome people can be in response to something awful. And I also learned that we are in good hands with the next generation of victim advocates. I mean, the work that Mary Copeland (powder blue dress in the above photo) and her friend Lindsay Bratun (third one in from the right in the above photo) have done at South Carolina is nothing short of OUTSTANDING and it gives me hope. Lastly, after surveying the room that night, I realized college kids, in general, dress far better now and have way more style than I ever did in college. Even their shoes are fantastic. And it taught me that I have to elevate my game if I want to continue to hang in their well-heeled presence. That is a challenge I am more than happy to take on.