Engaging in Survivor Advocacy as a Non-Survivor

By Sophia McMurry

Survivors are marginalized, stigmatized, silenced, and made to be invisible. Our voices have been disempowered. Our right to decision making has been violated. Trauma-informed means to tailor a program or service to the survivor-experience (i.e. the fact that our voices have been disempowered and our right to decision-making violated). Therefore, a trauma-informed space will never disempower survivors, silence our voices, or violate our decision-making. On the contrary, it will necessarily uplift our voices, recognize us as absolute authorities in survivor advocacy spaces, and center our needs and experiences alone. It will never center non-survivors. These are not suggestions. These are imperatives, or commands.

I want to discuss the ways in which non-survivors fail to recognize, uplift, and center survivors in advocacy spaces. The following are those that I notice most at UCLA, but this is by no means an exhaustive account.

  • Non-survivors are not entitled to survivor advocacy spaces. If you are a non-survivor, existing and participating in our advocacy spaces is a privilege that is earned through respect, understanding, knowledge, and successfully implementing trauma-informed and survivor-centered practices. If you fail to uphold these values and practices, you may not be welcome in our advocacy spaces. In-group members have complete and total authority over who gets to represent them. If you are an out-group member, you do not have that authority, and must respect the decisions made by in-group members. Additionally, do not assume positions, roles or responsibilities. Again, you are not entitled to them nor have the authority to assume them. Further, it prohibits survivors from assuming those positions (rightfully) and bulldozes us. If you do not respect these roles and decisions, then you are silencing our voices. Further, you are centering yourself, a non-survivor, in our advocacy spaces. Finally, you falsely assume yourself as an authority in our advocacy spaces. This is the opposite of trauma-informed and survivor-centered.
  • Do not ask or encourage that a survivor behave any particular way. You are not entitled to anyone’s emotional labor. As a survivor who is out in most advocacy spaces, I constantly hear, “Sophia, you should really speak up more. You have so many important things to say”, “Why don’t you hang out with us more?” and “I want you to stand up for yourself more in confrontations and difficult conversations.” Asking such questions is demanding that there is a correct, valuable way for me to exist. This way of existence only pleases you and reaffirms your ignorant idea of how a “healed” person should behave. I, nor any person (survivor or not), do not owe you attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and actions that please you. I am perfectly content and happy with my somewhat quiet lifestyle. It makes me feel safe. It makes me happy. I feel fulfilled. To demand otherwise is to deny me a right to organize my life in the ways that make me happy. It is to deny me my right to decision making. It is to silence my voice. It is to place your needs and desires above my own. It is the opposite of being trauma-informed.
  • There should be absolutely no campaigning or elections for leadership positions in survivor-advocacy spaces. To permit campaigns and elections would involve pitting survivors against other survivors for opportunities to lead their group, vocalize their groups’ needs, and make decisions. Inciting such competition would imply that some survivors are more deserving of these opportunities than other survivors. Every survivor is entitled to opportunities to lead others, vocalize their needs, and make decisions. These opportunities should not be restricted to a select few. Such a hierarchy would fail to uplift all survivors’ voices and recognize each and every survivor as an equal authority in survivor advocacy spaces. Further, it would entail comparing our traumatic experiences and the status of our healing. Not only is this offensive, but it also invalidates our experiences and our processes of healing. This offense becomes further compounded if survivors are expected to compete against non-survivors for leadership positions. Again, in-group members have absolute authority in their advocacy spaces. As such, survivors should always have priority in assuming leadership positions. As demonstrated, implementing campaigns or elections for leadership positions in survivor-advocacy spaces would fail to be trauma-informed. Survivor advocacy spaces should be non-hierarchical feminist organizations, wherein each survivor is valued and given choices to exercise their autonomy and unique self-expression.
  • If you are a non-survivor, your opinions and intuitions about survivors/trauma/sexual assault are not automatically valid. When approaching disagreements, debates, or confusion, do not assert yourself as an authority. Do not assume that you are right and the survivor is wrong. This occurs when you question the premises and merits of a survivor’s opinion or perspective. If you are confused or do not yet fully understand the opinion or view held by a survivor, first ask them if they are willing to answer some of your questions (again, you are not entitled to anyone’s intellectual labor. Consent is everything). If they say yes, then ask them clarifying questions or ask them to elaborate. By using this approach, you recognize and respect the survivor’s intellectual and emotional sovereignty. They get to decide if, when, and how they approach conversations around survivor-centered issues. Further, you should not assume you are right and they are wrong. You should approach these conversations with an understanding that you lack knowledge and insight into the living experience of being a survivor.
  • If your advocacy is contingent on your direct participation or recognition, then you’re centering non-survivors in survivor advocacy. Sometimes, the best way to help our community will not involve your direct participation in planning or hosting events, conducting research, or public speaking.Instead, it will involve using your time, resources, and energy to support and promote the events, workshops, and organizations already established. This form of advocacy is not as flashy, nor does it immediately soothe your guilt or look as good on a resume. But, it gives back to survivors in ways that are most important and beneficial to us. Failing to do this would be to insert yourself unnecessarily and inappropriately in a space that you are not entitled to. It would be to use your privilege, resources, and energy to best serve yourself. You would effectively take our platform to uplift yourself, a non-survivor. Finally, if you are a non-survivor, your advocacy must always be immediately informed by the needs of survivors. What you think we need is not always what we need. If you are not sure of where to go to get this information, then participating in survivor advocacy spaces is not for you. Further, if you do not respect what survivors need, then you are undermining our capacities for decision making and silencing our voices. Again, this is the opposite of trauma-informed.

If you are a non-survivor participating in survivor advocacy spaces, the burden rests on you to hold yourself accountable to these imperatives. Failure to do so would be offensive and morally wrong. If you have questions or concerns, but don’t know how to get them answered, submit them to our “Anonymous Asks” page. Our team of trauma-informed peer educators will get back to you.

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