Survivors’ needs are immense. They are complicated and many because anyone can become victimized regardless of race, gender, class and so on. People from marginalized communities are more vulnerable to violence due to systemic oppression.
Survivors’ needs can include short term shelter, proper investigation, education accommodation, restraining orders, plentiful affordable housing near their social support systems, culturally affirming mental and physical health care and more. These needs are demanding and far beyond what any one person can provided.
Then, there are the “difficult” survivors: Survivors who are incarcerated, queer, mentally ill, racialized, houseless, lower income, undocumented, who use substances, who kill their abusers. Survivors whose histories, identities, and bodies are marginalized. Survivors who are not afforded empathy and understanding, survivors who are more likely to be blamed for their circumstance and victimization. Survivors who are unsympathetic, unlikeable because their needs are so great and constrained by so many barriers, and therefore demand systemic solutions.
It is easy to say “believe survivors.” It is a whole other beast to materially support them.
I’ve worked with anti-violence advocates in Connecticut who work the 24/7 hotline, run support groups, do both short and long term counseling, advocate for and comfort survivors through police interviews, evidence collection exams, court appointments, navigate complicated housing, DCF, legal systems, advocate systemic change at every possible meeting and so much more.
And it’s simply not enough. They experience first hand the burden it is to be there for survivors, when every part of our systems eat away at any resilience and social and economic capital advocates and survivors might have. It becomes impossible not to fail survivors.
The political reality of creating a state that is safe for survivors requires dramatically changing almost all of our systems and relationships. It is exhausting, completely depleting work.
Our culture is one of violence. To be in solidarity with survivors is not only to know this, but to be committed to transforming this.
Our culture remains woefully ignorant of our obsession with violence, not to prevent it but to glorify it. The very roots of American society start with the genocide, victimization, dehumanization of Native and Indigenous people and enslaved Africans. Rather than acknowledge and rectify this history, we ignore it and reincarnate these violences into every aspect of our world, from policing to prisons to religious institutions to media to mass shootings to what goes on in our neighborhoods and homes.
When the survivors in our lives disclose their experience, we are challenged to look at our world differently, as a place that has sowed, grown, and even celebrated violence. When “difficult” survivors disclose their experiences, we are challenged to be better, personally and politically.
Maybe the person who has survived violence is living through systems that seem robust and protective to you. Maybe the survivor is incarcerated, institutionalized in a mental health facility, or in the foster care system. Maybe you have learned that these systems are necessary and protect those under its supervision. Maybe you are someone who has benefitted from these systems, you’ve worked for them, or just plainly feel safer because of them.
Maybe the person who committed this violence is someone you love, someone who has taken care of you, someone who pays your bills, is someone who has themself experienced violence.
Maybe you’ve been friends for years. Maybe they’re your parent, your favorite teacher — someone you trust and feel safe around.
Violence is complicated. People are complicated.
Being in community, in solidarity with survivors is difficult. It means acknowledging and understanding the ways that systems, (including prisons, residential facilities, and so on) and people, even our most loved ones, fail us and often use their power to abuse and hurt others. It means understanding the ways that we are complicit and colluding with power, how each of us have most definitely supported people and systems that thrive off of violence.
It means our politics, relationships, and communities need to change.
Our systems are designed to fail us and deteriorate the possibility of healthy and safe relationships. This is the underfunding of anti-violence and prevention programs, public education systems, and affordable housing. This is redlining, lack of economic opportunities and accessible healthcare. These are the policy decisions that prioritize violence and exploitation over prevention. Our systems and policies don’t foster healthy and safe relationships, so where does that leave us as individuals?
Survivor politics means advocating for a world where all of us are truly safer.
This means we prioritize people by making policies that fund basic necessities like housing, transportation, food, water, education, and employment so that survivors can escape violence and live healthier lives. Fund violence prevention education, local crisis centers, and wrap around healthcare instead of prisons to build a culture of care and community. Acknowledge and rectify our violent American origins. Make sexual and domestic violence obsolete by making it part of our everyday vocabulary, our everyday tensions. Sit with yourself and examine your power and how survivorship comes up in your life.
Think about the survivors in your life. Maybe think about yourself. What did you need to feel safe and protected in your relationships and communities?
Survivors aren’t likable, for good reason given that survivors make us confront the complicated realities and everyday-ness of violence. But they are in our lives. It isn’t easy to be in solidarity with survivors. It’s difficult, nuanced, and requires deep and constant self-examination and change; it’s deeply, inherently, political.
Nanee Sajeev of Trumbull is an Anti-Violence Advocate and member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.