Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates since 2008, is clear about her pioneering organization’s legacy.
“RVA was started by and continues to be sustained by Rebellious women,” she says. Forty two years after the organization’s founding by a “bad-ass” OB/GYN, Majmudar says the “same spirit of rebellion and commitment” lives on in their staff and volunteers, who support victims and survivors of sexual violence through direct services, education and prevention. RVA is the only independent rape crisis center in Chicago and one of the few organizations of its size and scope nationally.
When I first met Sharmili nearly 20 years ago, she was co-founder of a groundbreaking group of South Asian queer women, a mentor to younger women of color struggling with coming out, and an artist whose quiet voice delivered jaw-droppingly poignant poems. She’s always been this Rebellious.
As head of our Rebelle Organization of the Month, the 42-year-old sat down for a conversation about how all of us can be agents of change to stop sexual violence, how men and male-identified folks can be part of the movement and what the media gets right – and wrong – in covering sexual violence.
KH: How did you get involved with RVA?
SM: I came to RVA as the executive director in January of 2008. And prior to that I was the community programs director at Sarah’s Inn domestic violence organization, based in Oak Park, (which) serves a lot of western suburbs as well as the Austin community. As the community programs director, I supervised all of our direct services to women, children, teens, as well as to men who were abusive.
What is one of the most rewarding parts of your job?
Recently, I was talking to a couple of young women who wanted to know what they could do at their school about the issue of sexual violence, and in talking to them, in providing some resources, really being able to see some, I think, some relief and some hope on what could be helpful to them and being able to provide that… Ultimately, our role is to support survivors and to end sexual violence, it’s really that simple. So anything I do that connects to doing those two things I find incredibly rewarding.
I think that it’s a very powerful privilege to be in the position to bear witness to people sharing their experiences of assault and trauma, and I also think it’s a really powerful privilege to get the opportunity to talk about it and to see light bulbs go off sometimes, people connecting the dots and understanding what their role might be in ending rape culture or in supporting a survivor, or just knowing what it is that they can do to essentially make our city a more compassionate, and just and safer place for people to live and work and go to school, all of those things. It’s all pretty amazing.
What kinds of things did you say to those young women?
A lot of what I said to them is what we tell everyone to tell people. We tell people there are three important things that you should know and say when someone discloses to you that they’re survivors of sexual violence: Number one is ‘I believe you,’ Number two is ‘it’s not your fault,’ and number three is ‘there are options and resources.’
We still live in a society that places so much of the burden around sexual violence on the people who are the victims and survivors of it, that for that burden to be removed, or for someone to be able to approach it like, ‘You don’t have to prove to me, I believe it, I get it, I’m going to do what I can to help you,’ is meaningful.
What are some of the hardest parts of your job?
I’m not a fan of state budget crises. In the work that we do, money directly equals mission for us. Because the work that we do is so direct, it means that it requires people to do it. The largest piece of our budget is supporting the salaries and benefits for our staff, and supporting our volunteers. When someone says, ‘Oh, you need to cut down your budget,’ there’s really nowhere to substantively cut from a budget like ours, except for going to either our ability to have a place that is appropriate to provide the services we do or the people to provide the services.
When you start talking about large-scale threats to funding, what you’re talking about is not being able to serve survivors. And that’s incredibly infuriating, especially when you think about how limited the services are across the state for survivors already. That’s really hard. We’ve been fortunate thus far, we’ve been able to not make cuts to services or staffing. We’ve had to make some other some smaller expense cuts, and we’ve really had to scale up our fundraising, and we’ve had to dip into our reserves, as well. That is very top of mind.
It’s hard to know that the people who have the most decision-making authority seem to disregard the vulnerability of the people who are most reliant on them figuring this out.
Other things that are hard is just as amazing as it is to bear witness to how extraordinary victims and survivors often are, how creative they are about figuring out how to heal, and how to get through a situation, how much they share their strength and struggles with one another and help each other get through things, all of that is amazing. It’s also just hard to know the ways in which we as human beings are capable of hurting one another. Very often with sexual violence, the person who’s doing the hurting is someone who the victim or survivor trusts, is someone who purports who love them, it’s someone where the level of betrayal is just so significant. And that’s a hard thing to reconcile. Especially as a mom who’s raising a boy, I think a lot about what am I doing to make sure that my son understands consent and boundaries and respect and all of those things. Not only for himself but on behalf of others as well.
How old is he now?
I’m very sympathetic to the fact a lot of parents don’t talk to their kids about sexual violence. Or they focus talking about it with their girls and they don’t talk about it with their boys. Or they don’t acknowledge how LGBTQ kids might be at increased risk of sexual violence.
These are hard things to talk about, but they’re so necessary, and I think the earlier we start, the easier it becomes because then you have put the foundation in place to build off of. So when you’re talking to a 4-year-old, about how, no, yanking on someone’s hair is not an appropriate way to show that you like them, or you want their attention, that idea of respecting someone’s body, you can build on that, up to when you’re in junior high, maybe when you’re starting to talk about dating more. And talking more about sexual violence certainly in that context as well.
It’s also hard that there are ways in which we have made incredible progress through the work of the rape crisis movement and yet we have pretty far to go. It’s hard to hear the same kinds of myths that we heard about 30, 40, 50 years ago being repeated today.
But it’s heartening to see, there was a pretty incredible response, for example, to Emily Doe’s victim impact statementfrom the Brock Turner case at Stanford, that really did make an impact on people, and there was a pretty significant groundswell of support for her. And her statement itself was so impactful and so detailed. I know for a lot of people it was hard to read, but at the same time, it got people talking, making some conversation that perhaps had not happened before.
So there is a way in which it seems like our popular culture is willing to address the issue more. We just saw two significant [movies] get acknowledged in the last year within the mainstream media, so ‘Spotlight,’ of course won the award for best movie at the Oscars and the ‘Hunting Grounds’ song by Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens To You’ was up for an Oscar as well, and there was that really powerful moment at the Oscars where all of the survivors got on stage, I think all of that could be, if we’re able to build upon it and use the momentum that comes from that, could be a turning point.
What does the mainstream media do right, and what do you wish they were doing better in covering sexual violence?
One of the things they do right, is that there actually is more coverage, I think that’s important. And it seems to have moved from being something that was just on a crime reporter’s beat to being a little bit more broader in scope. I think we’ve seen instances of media really doing deeper dive investigative pieces related to sexual violence.
I think the problem is that for the most part, it still does show up as a crime beat story. What that means is that it tends to be covered in a brief way, it tends to be fairly dependent on what the police share, if the police are involved, and that we still tell the story of sexual violence as though it’s about strangers in the bushes. Now, there are strangers in the buses that do commit sexual violence, and that is a real issue, but proportionally, the vast majority of sexual violence is committed by someone that the victim knows. And the proportion of media coverage does not reflect that. So what that does, at the very least, is perpetuate misinformation about what sexual violence is, and how it plays out, and who commits it.
The other issue overall is that the language that the media uses to describe sexual violence is often consensual language. So what I mean by that is they say, ‘Oh, this teacher was convicted of having sex with a 12-year-old.’ Actually, no, that teacher was convicted of sexual assault or sexual abuse of a minor. So when you say ‘convicted of having sex,’ ‘having sex’ implies consent, and that already is blurring lines that are actually clear. We see that. We see how when someone shares that they are the victim of sexual violence, we’ll see words like ‘confesses to,’ or ‘admits,’ which, again, carries the sense of responsibility or guilt associated with it.
I don’t think mainstream media talks to experts in the area of sexual violence enough. So they’ll report a story about sexual violence, they’ll quote the police, they may quote the prosecutor, they’ll quote the defense attorney, assuming that this case is moving forward in criminal court. But they won’t talk to a rape crisis center person, who can help shed light on what trauma looks like, how victims really behave as opposed to our image of how they behave. It continues to perpetuate this idea of what a real victim looks like versus what a real victim does look like, and what their behavior may look like, or how they may react. Some of it can sometimes seem counter-intuitive, too. It’s particularly important that people understand all of those pieces as well.
The media are an incredible partner in being able to educate and inform people around the issue of sexual violence, but not unless they ask those questions, and they talk to those people.
How has RVA changed since you’ve been there?
When I started we had 14 staff, we now have 24. So just in sheer size, we have grown, and that growth has definitely been in response to need. So having more counseling resources, having more advocates, doing more education work, all of that.
Some other things that have changed in the work and in RVA, we’ve really institutionalized a specific effort to engage men and male-identified folks. So we have a regular series called Men in the Movement, it’s a discussion series. And anyone and everyone is welcome to participate, regardless of your gender identify. But it really is centered around how gender, gender bias, social norms around gender play a part in perpetuating sexual violence as well as what we can do and what, more specifically, men and male-identified folks can do, like what is their role in ending sexual violence, and helping to support that, and really providing a space for those conversations and connecting those conversations then to some actions as well.
In 2013, the passage of Erin’s Law led to a real increase in requests for child sexual abuse prevention. This law in Illinois requires sexual abuse prevention education in elementary schools, and it’s an unfunded mandate. So schools have really had to rely on community resources to be able to provide that training and education. Our work easily doubled with 5- and 10-year-olds, especially, we just got so many requests from students.
Our work with colleges and universities has grown significantly. We do work at various levels with colleges and universities and campus communities. Everything from supporting students at a title 9 hearing, attending, speaking at and providing a crisis counselor at a Take Back the Night rally, working with administration around shaping their policies and procedures, providing training to faculty and staff, doing prevention education with college students. I mean we do a pretty full range of activities with higher education institutions.
What makes you Rebellious?
I’m not OK with the status quo, and I I think at some level for me being Rebellious is as much about rejecting the status quo as it is about believing that we can do better. There’s a real belief in our potential as human beings, as communities, as people who should and do care about one another. So I think that kindness can be Rebellion. I think compassion can be rebellion. And I think something as simple as speaking your truth can be Rebellion.
More on a very personal tip, I think that I’m often not what people expect. As an Indian woman, I think there’s still a certain cultural expectation about who I am or what I do, and so directing a rape crisis center doesn’t necessarily fit into that, being queer doesn’t necessarily fit into that.
What’s the most Rebellious thing you’ve ever done?
That’s such a great question! I think being one of the founding members of Khuli Zaban, which … is no longer in existence, but was a south Asian and then later also West Asian, lesbian, bi, trans, queer women’s group. That definitely felt like we were carving out space that did not exist for us at the time, so this is in the mid ‘90s, and you know subsequently coming out to my parents as well, that was pretty Rebellious. It was an incredible and powerful group of people that I met through KZ, and many of whom still remain really, really close friends of mine and who are doing really incredible work a well.
RVA was started by and continues to be sustained by Rebellious women. We were founded by Dr. Natalie Stephens, who was an OB/GYN, and who by all accounts was a bad-ass, just an incredible woman who was standing up for victims and survivors of sexual violence at a time when it was barely against the law. She corralled together a group of these incredible founding volunteers. And together they’re just like, ‘We’re going to teach ourselves what the impact of sexual violence is,’ this was just as PTSD was even coined as a concept or a term, and said ‘We are gonna be there for people because there’s no one else who’s looking out for just what that victim wants and what their individual agenda is.’
I think about everything that they were must have been up against, and how deep their commitment was, and it’s just incredibly inspiring. That same spirit of rebellion and commitment lives not only in our staff, who are just unbelievable, but also in our volunteers.
How You Can Create Change
Volunteer: “We are always on the search for more incredible volunteers. We have volunteer training four times a year. Most of our (200) volunteers do direct service work, but we also are always in search of Rebellious women and men to help with event planning, to be part of our Men in the Movement series, to join our board of directors.”
Spread the word about RVA’s services: “In terms of who is eligible for our services, it is anyone who has been a victim of sexual violence, as well as their loved ones. And I make a point of saying that because A—we don’t just serve women. We don’t just serve cis-gender folks, we serve trans folks, we serve men, we serve teens, in the hospital we serve kids, as well, unfortunately. And we also provide support and help to loved ones because we know that while the immediate impact is on the victim themselves, that impact really ripples out into their life, and their world and their community, and we want to make sure that we are helping that circle of support support that survivor. Sometimes that means that people need to process. And they need to deal with whatever their struggles are with understanding the impact or understanding their loved one’s behavior after they’ve been assaulted and, dealing with their own anger other emotions around it, guilt, etc. We try to take a very holistic approach to that.”
Participate in Standing Silent Witness, held on the last Friday of every April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (pictured above): “(The event is) our annual public demonstration in support of survivors and in solidarity with the silencing they experience in society. We are always looking for people to join us for that. It’s at noon for one hour downtown either at Daley or Federal Plaza.”
Donate: “We accept donations 24-7. You can donate through our website, you can donate through our Facebook page, you can even use things like old-fashioned mail. Cash, check, credit card, we take it all.”
Host an RVA representative speak to your organization: “We really are on the look for people who care about this and who want to learn more and want to make a difference. We talk to parent groups, we will do a talk at a library, we will come and talk to your congregation, whatever the group may be. All of us can be agents of change in this area, and RVA is happy to help you figure out what that means for you.”
Rape Victim Advocates can be reached through the Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline, (888) 293-2080, or online at www.rapevictimadvocates.org.
(Photos courtesy of Sharmili Majmudar)