If you’ve ever been caught up in a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit TV marathon, then you have something in common with Grace Brown. However, the difference between Grace and the majority of us who watch ten episodes in a row of Law and Order: SVU on a Sunday afternoon is that Grace used the stories she saw on SVU as a catalyst for her activism on behalf of survivors of sexual assault. Grace is the founder and photographer behind Project Unbreakable, a blog dedicated to empowering survivors of sexual assault by allowing them to reclaim the words that had been used against them by their attackers.
Grace’s commitment to survivors of sexual assault began with watching episodes of Law and Order: SVU between her freshman and sophomore years of high school. Law and Order: SVU led Grace to the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization created by actress Mariska Hargitay who plays Detective Olivia Benson on the show. Grace was “completely consumed” by the organization and its goal of helping to heal and empower sexual assault survivors. At school, she would share statistics about the sheer number of people impacted by sexual assault with her friends at the lunch table. During her senior year of high school, Grace also discovered her passion for photography. She began a photography project called Fifty Extraordinary Women, which profiled women who had positively impacted Grace’s life.
Grace’s engagement with sexual assault activism and talent for photography came together in October of 2011. When a friend shared her story of sexual assault with Grace, it “was the one that turned [her] world around.” The next day, she woke up with the idea for Project Unbreakable in her head. Since then, the project has taken off. The Project Unbreakable blog has between 13,000 and 14,000 followers and was named one of the top thirty Tumblr blogs to follow by TIME magazine. Now, Grace travels around the country giving presentations about sexual assault at universities and photographing survivors in cities across the nation. Grace said that she began Project Unbreakable without completely realizing its potential to heal—she had originally just wanted to represent the number of people who survive sexual assault. Now, she understands that Project Unbreakable is something more. “It’s a way to take a stand and have a voice, because our society tends to silence and shame survivors,” she says. “They are finally able to stand there and say, ‘yeah that happened to me, and I’m ok. I’m working through it.’”
Each Project Unbreakable image is of a survivor who has written the words that had been used by his or her attacker on a poster-sized piece of paper. While the words on each person’s poster vary, each one represents how a survivor can take back the words that had been originally spoken to disempower them. Grace explains that these interactions with survivors are quiet, but filled with emotion. “I hand them the paper and they write down the words. It’s sort of like a piece of their story is in that ink,” she describes. “Then I just take their photo, and at the end they thank me, but it’s not your normal ‘oh, thanks.’ It’s more drawn out, it lasts about fifteen to thirty seconds and I can really tell in their eyes that they actually are grateful. It’s a very fulfilling experience.” While these images cannot change what happened in the past, they can signify strength and healing for survivors of sexual assault.
Scrolling through the Project Unbreakable blog, you get a visual representation of how sexual assault affects people from all different backgrounds. Part of the goal of Project Unbreakable is to demonstrate how sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, or age. Grace’s photos can dispel stereotypes about who is impacted by sexual assault and assure survivors that they are not alone. “I photograph anyone,” she says. “I don’t care who they are, where they’re from, what their story is. There aren’t too many men in the project because there is still huge stigma behind male sexual assault, unfortunately. There are a handful of male participants, and those who do participate are very important.”
Another aspect of Grace’s activism is giving presentations about Project Unbreakable. I had the opportunity to see Grace speak at the University of Washington this past April. Throughout her presentation, she chose each word carefully, speaking softly yet with conviction and dedication. The audience listened in silence, intently absorbing her words and descriptions of each survivor’s story. Sexual assault is an extremely difficult topic to talk about, and Project Unbreakable works to start a conversation using survivors who are ready to share their experiences. Grace’s presentations and images help bring awareness to a subject that many people want to avoid. When asked about her overall goal for Project Unbreakable, Grace replied, “more awareness. More people talking about it—more people being able to talk about it— and more people feeling… ok. And feeling strong.”
This past May, Grace was honored at a gala held by Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. Previously, Grace had photographed the Foundation’s CEO, Maile Zambuto. Project Unbreakable photos were featured prominently at the event, and Grace describes the experience as being “surreal.” The Joyful Heart Foundation’s recognition of Grace’s work demonstrates the positive change that has come from her dedication to survivors of sexual assault. Grace’s journey with Project Unbreakable began when she was a high school sophomore watching episodes of Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit and has evolved into a powerful form of activism that combines her love of photography with her desire to empower survivors. “There are always going to be people that tell you it won’t work, but those are the people that just sit down,” Grace says. “You’ve got to stand up. Everyone has the capability of doing something. It’s just a matter of tapping into it.”
Project Unbreakable Blog: http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/
Project Unbreakable FAQ, with information about submissions: http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/post/18913383586/faq
Project Unbreakable Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/projectunbreakable
Project Unbreakable Twitter: https://twitter.com/projunbreakable
If you are have experienced sexual assault and need resources, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a free, confidential, 24/7 sexual assault hotline: 1-800 656-HOPE(4673). RAINN also has an online hotline: https://ohl.rainn.org/online/
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