Such great heights: Over the hill and still climbing

This year is a kind of a big deal for community based sexual violence programs. Several of the nation’s oldest centers are celebrating their 40th Anniversaries. This includes WOAR in Philadelphia, PAAR in Pittsburgh, and the DC Rape Crisis Center, among many other notable organizations. I read a commentary yesterday on the milestones that WOAR specifically can celebrate after 40 hard years of courageous work. Before the advent of these invaluable community organizations, women were running operations out of their kitchens, there were no laws or protections for many victims, and in many spaces the word “rape” would never have been uttered.

At times, I get frustrated about how far we still have to go. I get angry when advocates have to make polite phone calls to legislators or reporters about how to speak about sexual violence in a sensitive and appropriate way. Political commentary about terms like “legitimate rape” (for goodness sake!) peppered blogs, screens, and radio reports leading up to November’s elections. There are days when it seems like every inch forward means you get knocked two back! You may share some of these same exasperated sentiments.

Despite this, I remind myself that there is a lot to be proud of in these 40+ years of activism. When I first started working at a community sexual assault program, I remember sitting spellbound in a coworker’s office. She’d been in the work for decades and chronicled some of the major milestones along the way. She talked about daring women who made speeches on the street about rape, bringing the conversation out of kitchens and into the public spotlight. She burned with honor and pride at knowing women who carried toothbrushes with them at all times in case they went to jail for maintaining confidentiality in the face of a subpoena. More than anything, she talked about the fire for change that sparked this movement and keeps it fueled, hopefully for decades to come.

I love this fire, and this history. Anytime that a seasoned advocate takes the time to reflect and share stories with me, I try hard to stop and value the living history that breathes life into the work I do today. Women’s work throughout history has commonly been rewritten by those with more social power and privilege. It is so important that we take this history back; that we write and speak and create our own narratives as a movement. This preserves our past. This honors our future. This helps us to learn from challenges and obstacles so that we may overcome in the present.

If you’ve been in the work for a while, take a breather and share a story with someone who’s getting started. Inspire others with the fire that brought you here! At the same time, try not to let challenges you’ve faced keep you from supporting new efforts. I have many experiences of feeling shut down or out by supervisors or older advocates who’d seen an idea fail the first time it was tried. This could be the time that it works!

If you’re new to the work, ask questions. Find out about the work and the milestones that your coworkers have celebrated. Find ways to record and honor the amazing work that’s happened so far. Use this information to plan your next big idea!

In peace and fire,



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