When I enter Mennonite spaces, friends, colleagues, and sometimes complete strangers regularly approach me and say, “I need to talk to you about Our Stories Untold.” Or sometimes it’s, “I need to talk to you about SNAP.” This opening line is followed by impassioned questions and expressions of concern, the most frequent of which are these:
- “How could you really think that survivors of sexualized violence shouldn’t talk to their pastors/religious leaders or use campus counselors? I’m concerned you are scaring survivors away from resources that could help them, and you seem to be making an unwarranted judgment that all pastors and church-affiliated workers pose a threat to survivors.”
- “I’m sympathetic to the survivors who share their experiences through OSU, but why do OSU article writers have to speak with such a stringent and accusatory tone toward church institutions? It turns people away and makes it seem like nothing the church does will be enough for you. I’m concerned your method of communication hurts your cause.”
- “How can you say with such confidence that the right response to sexualized violence is to call the police? The state/legal system is itself extremely violent, not to mention racist. And, many survivors of sexual violence who do go to the police are retraumatized by the experience. In advocating that survivors go to the police, aren’t you addressing one form of violence by exacerbating another?”
I’ve had countless great (and some not-so-great) in-person conversations around questions like these. It strikes me, however, that offering a more public glimpse into how these conversations tend to go could be helpful for the broader community of folks wrestling with similar questions. In order to have these controversial conversations well, I sense that some clarifications are in needed, and these preliminary clarifications are the subject of this post.
Here we go:
Our Stories Untold is not an institution, which means (among other things) that we do not always, or even often, speak with one voice. Most often, our articles are written by single authors. When you see an article that is attributed to a specific individual, the article is meant to reflect that individual’s perspective, which may or may not be shared by other OSU authors or associates. Our job is to give space to survivors of sexual violence so that they/we can share their/our own experiences and convictions about what needs to be done to address this violence in our communities. This stands even for Barbra and me. We agree on a lot, but certainly not everything. The only time readers should assume that OSU is speaking with a unified voice is when the author of an article is identified as “Our Stories Untold” instead of “Hilary” or “Barbra” or someone else. Otherwise, what you read from either of us is not OSU’s official position. It is Hilary’s perspective or Barbra’s perspective or the perspective of one of the many other awesome people who write for us. This isn’t to dilute the authority of our individual voices. The point is that none of our voices should need to be backed by the name of a unified institution in order to be considered worthy of carrying weight. We are survivors speaking as survivors. Each of our voices is worthy of being heard, and no one of us speak for all the rest.
This is the first thing I explain when answering any of the questions above. OSU does not have an official position on whether survivors should or should not go to the police. Some of our articles take strong positions on the topic (in both directions, I might add), but OSU does not have a single voice on that topic or any other. We are a collective striving imperfectly and sincerely to value and amplify the differences of survivors as much as we value and speak to shared experience.
Admittedly, this is complicated. Barbra’s voice, mine, and Rachel’s before ours, more significantly shape the conversation fostered by OSU than the voices of others, and we have the power to decide who does and does not get to speak through the OSU platform. Our individual perspectives do include claims about sexualized violence broadly and about how religious communities and institutions ought to engage sexualized violence. I want readers to take our (sometimes similar and sometimes different) perspectives to heart and hear them as carrying the kind of authority that comes along with living lives permanently impacted by sexualized violence, having years of experience working with other survivors of that violence, and having professional expertise in matters of sexual violence, prevention, religion, theology, and so on. (You can read more about our individual sets of experience on our bio pages.) But this doesn’t mean that either one of our perspectives stands in absolute authority over the perspectives of other sexualized violence survivors – not by a long shot. When either of us speak, I want readers to hold what is said with the authority and respect it commands while simultaneously holding in mind that no one perspective is universal, representative of all survivors, or objectively correct. I want readers to hold this tension without using the latter part of it as an excuse to avoid hearing and being challenged by perspectives with which readers disagree.
There is not currently enough difference and diversity (especially theologically and racially) in OSU for all survivors to feel that it is a space of welcome and support. The voices that are a part of the mix now have influenced our network and the public perception of our network in certain directions (sometimes the public perceptions and reality match, other times not), and there is work to do to continue to cultivate this space as one that is for survivors of sexualized violence in all of our difference.
I see OSU as fostering a conversation. If you’re only seeing bits and pieces of the conversation being had in this space (especially if you’re only seeing the pieces that get national, controversial attention), you’re probably getting a skewed view of what the many voices of OSU represent and recommend. A good way to get a better sense for the whole conversation is to subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss out on the many and diverse contributions that fail to grab national attention.
Note also that we don’t speak with a single tone. Some of us are soft-spoken, and it is worth noting that articles written in this register are the most requested and – despite their depth of wisdom – the least circulated articles on our site. Some of us are provocative and bold. These articles get both the most criticism and the most support, likely because they are also the most widely read. Without them, many in the church would like us more, many survivors who connect with us wouldn’t know we exist, and the conversations OSU has prompted would likely not have gained momentum.
One last point of confusion that I want to clear up is around the relationship between Our Stories Untold and SNAP Mennonite. Many (Mennonite) people I meet don’t know the difference between the two, and this is understandable, because Barbra and I are involved in both. But! Our Stories Untold and SNAP Mennonite are not the same. We know each other and love each other and work together, but we’re not the same. One major difference of many is that while OSU speaks publicly through personal narratives and perspectives that stem from them, SNAP Mennonite speaks publicly through press releases that claim a unified voice and state an official group position. In other words, what you read through OSU should usually be read as a weighty claim or narrative of the person who wrote it. What you read from SNAP Mennonite should usually be read as weighty in that it is representative of the group’s position as a whole.
There are other important differences. (For example: Did you know that a major part of SNAP’s work across the globe is facilitating survivor support groups?) But, for now, I want to address the tendency for the public stances of SNAP Mennonite and OSU to be automatically conflated. Sometimes, when SNAP takes a position it is publicly assumed that OSU is taking the same position. This is often wrong. Individuals who connect with or write for OSU may take the same position, and their voices on the matter carry real weight, but Our Stories Untold as a whole rarely takes a position of its own as a unified network. OSU is about creating space for the life experiences and wisdom of survivors of sexualized violence to be heard and appreciated. Narrative and testimony are our roots. Our work becomes political and spills over into advocacy when the stories shared through OSU are not authentically heard in the communities that need to listen. Listening and hearing in this deep sense means letting the stories change you and responding to them with action that nurtures justice and respect and care for the survivors who have spoken. Urging communities toward the kind of transformation that comes with deep listening is part of what it means for us to create space for survivors’ stories to be heard.
I have not spoken directly to the questions that opened this post. I’ll do that in a series of posts to come. I hope, however, that this post helps to show that each question contains an assumption about OSU that doesn’t match our self-understanding. We don’t speak with a unified voice or a single tone. Each voice offered through OSU carries its own significant weight. There are agreements and disagreements among survivors that connect here on many of the subjects we engage. And as a network of support for survivors we aim to respect both differences and widespread agreement among survivors by striving to ever more adequately offer space for each to be spoken in full force.
The hard work of engaging the narratives and perspectives of OSU writers calls readers to approach this space as one that makes an authoritative claim while never forgetting that not all survivors of sexualized violence – not even those who speak through OSU – are the same.