Lessons learned from my advocacy & the "Plywood" model
(NB - this talk was delivered on January 28, 2017 at the Kol v'Oz Global Summit on Child Sexual Abuse at the United Jewish Association (UJA) in New York City. My thanks to Tamara Schoor, Manny Waks, and Damon Kovelsky for their assistance and support.)
I’d first like to express my great thanks and respect for the mission of Kol v'Oz and reaffirm my feelings of friendship and abiding respect for both Manny and Tamara. I also want to express my thanks to all the organizations and persons whose support and generosity have made this wonderful event possible. Lastly I want to say how deeply honored I am to have been invited to speak this morning with all of you.
By means of a brief introduction, as mentioned, my name is Christopher Anderson, and I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, and a wide range of other adverse childhood experiences. While I’m not Jewish myself (although Manny and I are still discussing this as I do have maternal ancestors who were Jewish), I do have a recent connection to the UJA. If anyone here was present at the recent UJA benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center you may recognize me as the stagehand who escorted Dr. Ruth to and from the stage and who she said was the tallest and handsomest guy in the room.
Now in addition to being singled out for praise by notable figures such as Dr. Ruth, I also had the honor to be Executive Director of an organization named MaleSurvivor for four years. I recently stepped down this past September from that role, but remain on the board of directors. MaleSurvivor is the largest organization dedicated to raising awareness of male sexual abuse, and we provide hope, healing, and support to thousands of male survivors and their loved ones every year. We host the largest online peer-led discussion forums specifically for male sexual abuse survivors, with over 100,000 visitors annually from all over the world. We also have a strong presence on social media platforms. We run professionally facilitated healing retreats that have helped over 1300 attendees over the past 15 years, and we have hosted conferences and provided training to many thousands of professionals around the world. I invite you all to visit www.malesurvivor.org to learn more about our work.
As ED, I spent much of my time speaking around the country to audiences about male sexual abuse. Current research suggests as many as 1 in 4 men and boys are sexually abused at some point in time in their lives. I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone in this room that our response to what truly is a public health crisis for men and boys is inexcusably and woefully insufficient. One spark of hope is actually the awareness that sexual abuse of boys remains a chronic and urgent issue within the Jewish community, and that is largely thanks to the outstanding courage and tireless work of Manny, and many other advocates and survivors in this room and within the larger Jewish community. I know only too well how difficult are the struggles many of you as survivors and advocates battle on a daily basis. I want to say to each of you who are working to help shatter to silence and bring justice and compassionate support to any and all victims that you have my boundless love, true admiration, and pledged support.
"Why is it that fighting for what is good should so often lead us to feeling so bad?"
I still serve on the board of MaleSurvivor, and have a particular interest in overseeing collaborative partnerships with researchers and clinicians. Just this past Friday, in fact, in partnership with Dr. Joan Cook and her team at Yale University School Of Medicine, I facilitated a discussion between a group of male survivors and some of the country’s leading researchers in sexual violence, trauma, and neurobiology. Our meeting was made possible by a grant from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute. The goal of this grant is to better incorporate the perspectives of male survivors into the development of assessment tools, and to identify research topics that are impactful to us. We hope this will lead to wider awareness of male sexual victimization, better treatment options, and ultimately spur more men to come forward to seek help and speak about their needs. We will be sharing our findings at professional conferences and in print over the next two years. And of course we hope this will spark more collaboration and partnership between researchers, survivors, and (one hopes) funders. Too often social scientists, advocates, policy makers, and the public are all talking past one another. But this kind of partnership between professionals and stakeholders is exactly the kind of collaboration I believe is woefully lacking in many efforts to address social ills, and it is a theme I’ll return to in a few minutes.
For now it’s high time I got to the real topic for my talk this morning. I want to share with you two brief lessons I’ve learned in my advocacy career. First I’d like to talk about how advocacy can and will take the best out of us and why, for that reason it is so important to be mindful of the principles of self-care. After that, I want to talk briefly about plywood. Yes, plywood, and why I think something this staple of modern woodworking and construction offers us a model for contemplating how we can build stronger and more effective collaborations.
First, let’s talk a little more about self-care. I hope I’m not embarrassing either Tamara or Manny, but I’ll be so bold as to say that self-care has been a common point of discussion amongst the three of us for some time. As I said earlier, I recently stepped back from my role as Executive Director. In no small part this decision was driven by a need to take care of myself. This wasn’t an easy decision to make in the moment, but in time I have come to see this was truly the right decision for me and for the organization. In large part it was because, and I’m not ashamed to admit this, I wasn’t up to the challenge any longer. I had been worn down to the point of ineffectiveness as a leader. However I don’t see this as a failure, or an indictment of my skills or capability (at least now, some months later I can say this). Rather I see this as simply part of the lifecycle any person engaged in advocacy can and should expect.
As any advocate can tell you, being on the front lines of an issue like sexual abuse is exhausting work that often triggers a sense of powerlessness and frustration. We are daily battling not only the injustice and suffering that we see all around us, but also powerful forces of emotional and physical deterioration on the inside. Even when engaging in good self-care and taking frequent breaks from the work of advocacy (a practice rarely adhered to by almost every advocate, clinician, attorney, and survivor I’ve met), it’s impossible to be in the presence of trauma and not be impacted by the toll trauma takes on us as humans. In much the same way a knife edge can be dulled, making it much harder to slice and chop effectively, so too can our brains and hearts by worn down by this work. Over time it can be become difficult to the point of risking our health to keep fighting through that dullness of spirit to accomplish even simple tasks related to our advocacy.
Advocating for changes that will benefit survivors – such as eliminating archaic and counterproductive Statutes of Limitation that create safe havens for serial perpetrators; fighting for justice and compensation that would allow survivors a greater chance to heal; or even simply trying to get the funding necessary to keep the lights on for small organizations like Kol V’oz and MaleSurvivor – demands we fight battles that can seem daunting, especially when we connect the importance of succeeding in our work to the health and wellbeing of others. But why? Why is it that fighting for what is good should so often lead us to feeling so bad? It is simply because the battle itself leads us inexorably, inevitably, and inescapably to feelings of powerlessness. It is critical to remember that trauma is, at it’s most basic level, the simple set of responses our bodies and minds produce to any experience of powerlessness. Consciously connecting the impact of our work directly to the wellbeing of others is risky and can inevitably drain us of joy, of purpose, and of our willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and to others whenever we fail, as we are guaranteed to do at times.
When I began my advocacy work I stumbled onto an important insight early on that I believe saved me from falling into a trap that I have seen far too many colleagues and friends fall into. Obviously, many people as part of their own healing are motivated to take action in response to the traumas and injustices they have witnessed and or experienced. And that is a good and noble response. To echo Margaret Mead’s words, this response to suffering is a source of motivation that leads to necessary change in our world. Too often, however, this motivation leads to a breakdown in boundaries between our work on a given issue and our work on ourselves as human beings. Put another way, while our work can and should be informed by our healing, it can never be the means by which we heal ourselves. For people who fail to understand this distinction, the battles of advocacy are too often draining as the slow process of change grinds away at their humanity. Otherwise passionate and valuable advocates have become harsh and embittered by the inevitable setbacks that always occur when we facing entrenched powers, institutional and systemic blocks to progress, and also the mundane challenges of “normal” life such as parenting, financial stress, and health woes.
No matter how well informed we are about trauma, and no matter how inured we think we may be to the stories we hear, the truth is that it is impossible to be a human being who possesses compassion (a trait I would think is a pre-requisite to engaging in any advocacy) and not be impacted by trauma itself. If you are not continually engaging in self care and taking breaks from exposure to trauma on a regular basis, you will more than likely face the same difficult choice I faced this past fall – keep going and serve the needs of others who are asking for your leadership, or take a step back and ensure you are yourself ok. If you have ever felt this pressure please let me share with you that it is absolutely ok, and it fact it may be necessary to step back. And stepping back need not mean ceasing one’s work entirely. As you see from my work with Yale, there are still ways I am engaged and contributing to the work while not being the central person on whom so much depends.
It is of critical importance that we identify this issue of fatigue and be willing to speak openly about it amongst ourselves. If, as is so often the case, we simply refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of occasional failures and burnout, we are setting our organizations and ourselves up to fail while leaving the vulnerable populations we serve at greater risk. Further, we are making it harder to combine and collaborate our efforts in ways that are critical to success in the long term.
And the necessity of collaboration is my second major point this morning. And it’s why I want to talk to you about plywood. I brought with me this morning some small pieces of plywood that I want to share with you all. I invite you to pass around these pieces and just feel them in your hands. Note your initial impressions about them. And if you can, try to bend these blocks in your hands before passing them on to others.
One of the biggest challenges I identified when I started my work as an advocate for male survivors, was the siloing of issues. Advocates for any cause often find themselves skeptical of people who champion other causes. A sense of the limitations we all battle often gives rise to an unconscious belief that progress is a zero-sum game, where the gains of any one group will limit the resources available to others, and further that these gains must also come at the expense of some groups that need to be taken down a notch or two. Sometimes this skepticism of people with differing agendas can become hostile. For example, when people raise the critique that a given movement fails to be inclusive of the hardships of certain populations, there is often a strong pushback dismissing and/or silencing what is perceived to be dissent within the ranks. Using my direct experiences as an example, I have faced criticism and sometimes been ostracized by leaders in the women’s rights, civil rights, human trafficking, and juvenile justice movements when raising the point that male victimization issues and the voices of male survivors are often unfairly ignored in their work. At the same time, I’ve also been guilty of not opening dialogue with groups or persons whom I believed to be unlikely to be receptive of me.
But allow me return to the plywood, which I hope has made it around the room by now. If you’ve handled one of the pieces I’ve brought with me this morning, you’ll hopefully have noticed how strong the wood feels. Not only does each thin block have a kind of heft and solid density to it, it has a cohesive strength that makes it resistant to bending and breakage. What is it that gives plywood this quality?
Plywood is what is called a composite material. In short this means multiple layers of stuff are bound together into a single material. In this case the stuff is thin sheets or veneers of solid wood. These sheets are stacked or layered on top of one another and bound together into a single sheet with an adhesive. Now, most of you know that wood has a pattern of grain to it. This grain is actually created by the growth rings of a tree. You can look at the top of any of these blocks and see the grain pattern. Wood has strength across the grain and plabilty along the grain. When plywood is formed, sheets of veneer that aren’t much thicker than a piece of thick paper (thin enough in fact that most people could easily tear a single veneer ply apart with their hands) are laid atop one another with the grains alternating their direction in each layer. Thus the grains of each sheet of wood form a kind of lattice that, when glued together, create a thin material that reinforces itself. This means a given sheet of plywood will possess greater strength and durability than a slice of wood of similar thickness does.
Now, why am I going on about the basics of wood construction materials to you today at a conference on child sexual abuse? Because I think this piece of plywood offers us a powerful illustration of the importance of creating a “composite movement” for social change. It may surprise some of you to know that my primary area of interest and concern isn’t the prevention of child sexual abuse (although it is pretty high up on my list of important issues). Rather the topics I am most passionately driven to speak out about are trauma in general and the challenges of male survivors in particular. This passion is as much a core part of my identity as is the direction of grain in a piece of wood; the experiences I’ve endured have left their mark and pattern on me just in the same way that the growth rings on trees leave their trace.
For years I have felt the need to stifle and suppress this central issue. I see the harm that violently misogynistic groups of men’s rights advocates have done, and I’ve heard the pain of people who have been hurt by men. I have been counseled more than once to ensure that my advocacy for male victim’s issues not merely be in alignment with the goals of other advocacy groups, but that I accept that addressing male victims’ needs must take a back seat to certain other issues that are deemed of more pressing importance to social justice. But, even if I grant that prioritizing of certain issues is done with the best of intentions, it succeeds only at what I consider to be the unconscionable cost of silencing and marginalizing male victims (a problem that I have little doubt has exacerbated current political and social tensions). Further, this ranking of groups of victims into more and less important gives rise to charges of hypocrisy and double standards that are difficult for advocates of other issues to defend themselves against.
And in the end, they shouldn’t have to. There is no reason that I as a staunch and ethical advocate with a primary focus on issues surrounding male victimization should feel ashamed in any way of my work. If the lines of effort in my work point towards slightly different ends than those of advocates who are seeking to better protect children, or the disabled, or refugees from war-torn countries, there is no reason my work should be seen to be in conflict with or antithetical to those other goals. In fact, I would argue that creating collaborative and composite partnerships among dedicated and effective partners whose work helps different groups and confronts different challenges in a constantly changing, diversifying, and interconnected world makes for more resilient and effective advocacy across a wide range of issues. Not every advocate can or should be expected to meet the needs of any given individual trauma survivor. The person who is passionate about helping protect children shouldn’t be forced to show a comprehensive familiarity with the challenges that male victims of domestic violence face, and vice versa. It also eases the strain on individuals in any given area of focus by allowing for broader connections and friendships across interests. Some of my deepest and most rewarding friendships are with people who are not uniquely interested in male survivor issues, but who recognize the impossibility of making broad progress without helping male victims, such as Victor Vieth and Shira Berkovits. Would that all the advocates I have met had the kind of compassion and wisdom that they have shared with me. These alliances and contacts not only help renew us as humans in our most difficult moments, they can often provide contacts that can help us better accomplish our particular goals as advocates.
Thus, the lattice of expertise and resources available in truly composite partnerships make for stronger and more durable organizations that can better serve the needs of traumatized individuals and communities by more nimbly accessing expertise in any of a number of different areas of victims services. So as I end my comments today, consider if you will the humble piece of plywood, and ask yourself who are the other people and organizations that can be a part of the composite material you build your advocacy out of.