What does it mean to be a survivor? Why is it important to speak out? How do we share our experiences while protecting our emotional and mental health? Can we create a safe space for survivors of all backgrounds to share and celebrate their stories?
These were some of the questions that guided our survivor leaders as they organized and led Sanctuary’s first-ever Survivor Leadership Conference in October.
Hosted by Gibney Dance, the Conference aimed to celebrate survivors’ journeys, strengthen resiliency and build survivor leadership within Sanctuary. Drawing on these questions and common goals, Conference organizers developed a program as empowering as it was healing.
The day’s events began at noon with a delicious buffet lunch catered by survivors and conference participants. As attendees filtered in and settled down, Sanctuary’s Executive Director Hon. Judy H. Kluger welcomed everyone and introduced Gwen Wright, Executive Director of the NY State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Gwen’s deeply personal speech about her abuse, escape and evolution as a survivor leader set the tone for the afternoon.
Panel discussions throughout the day covered a range of topics and were interspersed with self-care exercises and art-therapy projects. The first panel, moderated by a Sanctuary board member and survivor leader, highlighted the diversity of survivor experience through powerful testimony. Panelists spoke of their experiences as survivors of sex trafficking, forced marriage, breast ironing, and domestic violence in heterosexual, as well as same-sex relationships, and shared how they are each working to raise awareness through community, education, art and nonprofit advocacy.
The second panel delved further into the process many survivors go through in realizing and nurturing their inner leader. Between panel discussions, attendees wrote notes on a Sanctuary tapestry, snapped a few photos for the survivor-led selfie project and practiced meditation to ease the weight of the day’s discussions. Towards the end of the afternoon, staff members shared how survivors could get involved in survivor leadership opportunities at Sanctuary, including advocacy and outreach efforts, and the larger movement to end gender violence.
The conference came to close with a special interpretive dance performance by a survivor entitled Points of Change and the reciting of a poem titled, “Change,” by Sanctuary survivor and poet, Joan Hutton-Mills.
Sanctuary is grateful for the generous support of Gwen Wright, Gibney Dance, and Project Playdate (which oversaw childcare during the conference). A special thanks is of course due to Sanctuary staff, volunteers, our board members, and the survivors who organized and led this incredible event.
For over 30 years, Sanctuary has served those escaping abuse, helping them transform from victim to survivor. Moving forward, we will build on this experience, working closely with our survivors, to create an organization that not only helps victims become survivors but helps survivors become leaders. By harnessing their energy and knowledge we, as a movement, will transform society’s response to gender violence.