Kamilah Willingham at the 2015 National Sexual Assault Conference


(applause) – So now, please join me in
welcoming Kamilah Willingham one of the young activists who is here and helping
us to shape our future. (applause and cheering) – Thank you. Wow, it is surreal to be here and amazing to see all of you out here doing this incredible work. I am simply in awe of all that
we’ve accomplished recently of all that you guys have accomplished over the past 40 years. It’s, sorry, I’m just getting over, it’s surreal to take the stage after these women who’ve
broken down barriers that I can’t even imagine having to face. Women who’ve, (applause) Yeah. You know for 40 plus years
these women did not stumble into this progress, they fought for it and they built it from the
ground up, so thank you. (applause) You’ve given us the tools, the language, and the frameworks to do the
work that we’re doing now and to continue to do in the future. And as you can see, we are
rapidly gaining momentum thanks in large part to your work. I’m so incredibly inspired
by what we’ve all overcome as a movement, and I know
I’m not the only one. Over the last year or so, I have met some amazing student activists. They’re fierce, they’re determined, they’re demanding action. And there’s now a national
spotlight on the issue of campus sexual assault. And award-winning filmmakers and authors have devoted themselves to the issue, joining students’ demands for change. State and national lawmakers
are responding to the issue. The White House is here and on board. It’s a pretty incredible moment and there’s so much
that we can do with it. Of course we still have
a very long way to go. But looking at how far
we’ve come, I’m confident that we can overcome anything. I’m sure that many of you, like me, have some unfortunate overlaps
between your professional identities and your personal experiences. I found my home in the
anti-violence movement before I was assaulted. But afterwards there were times when I felt like I couldn’t,
or that I shouldn’t do the work because it was too personal. And then I realized, it’s
always been personal. We’ve all encountered to varying extents some pretty glaring injustices. Many of us have found ourselves facing or even standing right in the middle of some outrageous cultural blind spots and I think we’re all here
with the same attitude: this isn’t about me. This isn’t
about the survivors I know, it’s not about my loved ones. This is about a better
future for all of us. We’re all here because we know
that something has to change, That our society, our laws,
and our culture can do better. (applause) Thank you. So my personal commitment is,
as long as I’m feeling strong and as long as I have the support that I need to carry forward, I’m going to do what I can
to be part of that change. I’m now working at the
California Women’s Law Center, surrounded by people who
inspire me every day, and led by the incredible Betsy Butler, who I think I saw a minute
ago. Hi Betsy. (laughs) (applause) Before I came to this position,
I worked for an organization called Just Detention International,
who’s also here today. (applause) Yeah, they deserve that applause. So that organization as you may know is focused on a very specific
issue, ending prisoner rape or sexual assault in detention. Before I applied for that job I didn’t know much about the
issue. I knew that it happened. I knew that it was treated as punchline. And I knew that if I’d ever
felt like I’d encountered violently oppressive gender norms or feeling like I was invisible, the feeling that nobody would believe me because I didn’t fit into the archetype of the “perfect victim,” I
knew that at Just Detention we’d see these oppressive
forces work almost uninhibited. One of the things that
struck me the most at JDI was the sheer volume of survivors of sexual assault in detention, some of whom were in
situations of ongoing abuse and they were just so
desperate to be heard even though it might put
their lives in danger. What gave me the courage to share my story was knowing that people
were finally listening and that I had a chance to be heard. While JDI gives prisoners the hope that some people are listening,
we know it’s not the same. Right? I think we could acknowledge that. We have a long way to go before prisoners who have been sexually assaulted are afforded the same
visibility, the same outrage as college students who have
been sexually assaulted. (applause) It’s a terrible truth but it’s one that we can’t afford to ignore. All survivors are not created equally. Some stories, as always, even in this incredibly progressive space are privileged over others. (applause) So I can’t think about what happened to me without also thinking
about some of the ways in which I was incredibly privileged in how all it played out. I was assaulted in an
incredibly elite space. I was a Harvard law student. My assailant was a Harvard law student. What’s become painfully clear
to me is that people tend to care a lot about what
happens in elite spaces. Otherwise, I’m not sure I
would have been in this film. I’m not sure I would be here. If anyone still clings to the
notion of a perfect victim and they do, I think we all know that, I am not it. I could not be that if I tried. I stand before you here,
I’m just gonna say it, I’m an angry black woman. (loud applause) Thank you. So yeah, I’m angry and I’m not perfect. I drank, I danced, I did drugs. I probably flirted relentlessly. And I am fully aware that those factors make my victimization unpalatable to some. And to that I say, if you have
a hard time dealing with me I don’t know if you’ve seen these other student activists out here, but you’ve got another thing coming. (laughter) I didn’t respond to my assault like a perfect victim, either, because who knows what
that means these days. I didn’t kick, I didn’t
scream, say no three times and click my heels, or
whatever else it takes for fact finders to
recognize a woman’s agency. (cheering and applause) Did I mention I’m an angry black woman? (laughter) And even now there’s this
tiny voice in my head going, “Shut up, Kamilah, you’re
going to lose your credibility if you show that you’re human.” But I can’t. I just so sick of the notion that we have to pull back on our agency and shrink down our identities so that we can fit into
this tiny little box that represents what a
perfect, presentable, innocent, truly sympathetic victim looks like. Take, for example, every
time a young black person gets shot or mysteriously
dies in police custody. Our hearts sink. And we barely have a chance to
process our collective grief before the inevitable questions
start coming in the media. Was he a marijuana user? Why was she provoking the officer? Didn’t he have a history
of run-ins with the police? That’s how oppression works. Certain types of people are painted as somehow complicit in
their own victimization. (supportive yell) (applause) Complicit, or just asking for
it, by virtue of who they are because there’s this brutal
reluctance to acknowledge what happens to others,
the pain of others, the lived experiences of others when it’s been easier for so
long to just silence them. And sometimes these silences
are employed strategically, “for the greater good.”
We’ve all seen that happen. But the ultimate result is erasure. We have to keep in mind
that political movements, especially highly charged
ones, have a way of fracturing. We need to guard against that fracturing by embracing and
appreciating our differences and seeking understanding of experiences that we may not relate to. We know that no one
can do this work alone. We know that you can’t
fight rape in a vacuum because rape doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If you address sexual assault as an issue in and of itself alone,
rather than the contexts in which it occurs, you will never cease to marginalize certain people. We need to embrace the
complexity of sexual assault, the circumstances in which it occurs, and the people it affects, if
we’re going to create change that refuses to leave out
the people who frankly are used to being left out
of social justice movements. Because of the work of
the activists, scholars, and incredible leaders
who have paved the way I believe that this young,
loud, and empowered generation of activists understands
that you can’t truly address or effectively fight sexual
assault or any outrage without addressing the
intersecting layers of oppression that enable this violence
and silence its victims. (cheering and applause) And thanks to the pioneers
who came before us, we grew up with the language
of intersectionality. I think the new wave
of activists are fed up with strategic silences and are fighting to build
inclusive and lasting movements. Right now, the work of incredible
activists has landed us with an insanely politically
fortunate moment. People who have been sexually
assaulted more and more are speaking out about their experiences. What’s amazing about this moment is that the world seems
to actually be listening. The momentum that these
amazing men and women have built is stunning. And more and more people are
willing to share the burden of sexual assault
victims’ pain and outrage and to fight for change. In the past it must have seemed impossible that the public would take
on this fight to this extent, but it’s happening now
before all of our eyes. For example, several years
ago a number of women came forward and said that
they were sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. It was hardly
a footnote in his career. Nobody listened, it seemed. And then we came into this moment, a couple more women came forward and they empowered, inspired a few more and now I’ve lost count,
what is it, 48, 49, 50 women? Standing together, telling their stories, demanding recognition
of what happened to them and to so many others. It means something that we’re hearing so many survivors’ voices right now. And the more we hear,
the more other survivors feel comfortable coming out
and unburdening themselves of the pain that they might
have been carrying alone. There are those who will attack
us, try to knock us down, and invalidate our experiences. But you can’t invalidate all of us. So there is strength in numbers. (applause) At the same time, I really want this to be a distinct moment in history. We’re feeling strong enough
to come out as survivors, to share the burden of our pain
and outrage with the public. And I think it is a
powerful moment to recognize but it shouldn’t take
seeing or knowing someone who’s been raped for the public to care. Will people ever just care? Just because they should, and not because these
harm’s been proven to them, because they can put a face to it now, or several faces to it? I want our work to be to make
society remember this moment so that it never has to happen again. And for the record, (light applause) for the record I’m still angry. (laughter) And I think a lot of us in
this room are still angry. We have a lot of reasons to be angry. And I get that it’s a
turn-off for some people but I have learned to embrace that anger. It means that we don’t
accept the status quo. It means that we know that our culture and our institutions can do better. My anger makes me strong
and it makes me bold and that’s what I see in a lot
of today’s young activists. It may not be palatable to some, but I don’t think we care. (applause) We are far past ready to move beyond the “perfect victim” framework. So thank you all, advocates,
activists, allies, scholars, for the incredible work that you do. Thank you for continuing
to work courageously, collaboratively, and for creating
such an important change. Please always remember
to embrace the complexity of sexual assault in all
of its different contexts and to embrace the
complexity of our allies, rather than be discouraged by it. “A luta continua,” the struggle continues, but we’re in good company. Thank you.

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