Unbreakable: Art activists honor sexual and domestic violence survivors and combat rape culture

The FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture headquarters overlooks the two blocks of North Avenue that were shut down on April 10 to display about a thousand quilt squares, each inscribed and embroidered with accounts of sexual and domestic violence and messages of support and solidarity for survivors. In many ways, the location was perfect: the busy blocks between Howard and Charles Streets drew tons of visitors who viewed and interacted with the quilt, even contributing their own squares. And with its high concentration of bars and clubs, that particular area is prone to incidents of sexual harassment and violence. If only for the few hours it was laid out on the street and the Ynot Lot, spelling out the words "NOT ALONE," the quilt changed that atmosphere completely.

Now, over a month later, the Monument Quilt is packed away in the FORCE studio on the second floor of the Motor House building in Station North, waiting to be displayed in the Baltimore Museum of Art for the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist exhibition from June 22 to July 31. Then, in August, the quilt will embark on a West Coast tour, which will include five stops for public display. The quilt will ultimately blanket the National Mall in Washington, DC, with six-thousand squares in the fall of 2017. After this final display, the quilt will return, in pieces, to communities around the country that contributed to its creation to be displayed in local institutions.

In the meantime, the Monument Quilt—which began as a project of FORCE in 2013—continues to grow. Survivors and allies regularly contribute new pieces through FORCE-led workshops and individually by mail. Volunteers convene in the studio multiple times a week to piece squares together, attach backing to protect the quilt, cut squares out of the uniformly bright red fabric to be inscribed with new messages, and help with various other elements of the ambitious project. The work is endless and more volunteers are always needed, says Hannah Brancato, who co-directs FORCE with Rebecca Nagle, with whom she founded the art activist group in Baltimore in 2010.

"It's like I leave class, come straight here, and whatever stress has happened that day, it's like, OK, I'm gonna go sew things," says Kiara James, a FORCE intern, project leader, and member of the national 30-person leadership team. "I feel better."

The process of putting the quilt together means reading hundreds of stories from survivors. James recalls one that she came across while sewing that was created by a girl who had been masturbated on by a stranger in a crowded bus. Nagle remembers another quilt square in which the creator had stitched in the garment she had been wearing when she was assaulted.

"[That] symbolizes what people do less tangibly, which is taking this burden as survivors that we've been carrying around and putting it into an object," she says. "Sometimes as an organizer of the project that burden, being in the quilt squares and being responsible for those quilt squares that contain those emotions and that energy, can feel really overwhelming and it can feel really heavy. And then other times it feels like this release and this freedom and it can feel really uplifting."

Other squares contain messages of support and sexual violence prevention. "Not Alone" covers multiple squares, as well as the slogan "2 DRUNK 2 TALK = 2 DRUNK 2 FUCK," which FORCE also made into shot glasses. This echoes FORCE's previous campaign, a viral parody of Victoria's Secret lingerie in which the originally rapey phrases like "Sure Thing!" printed on the back of Victoria's Secret PINK panties were replaced with FORCE slogans like "Ask First." Some of the Monument Quilt slogans like "You did not deserve it" and "Your voice matters" began appearing on bus ads, billboards, and posters across Baltimore in March in anticipation of the North Avenue display.

"There's a few quilt squares where they're like slogans or statements that have come out of them," says Brancato, "and to me that points to the fact that we need more platforms and venues to hear survivors stories in their own words."

Nagle and Brancato note that while individual responses to the quilt have been consistently positive, some institutions have expressed discomfort over the raw, graphic, and sometimes profane content of the quilt squares, worrying about children viewing it during public displays. But they reject the criticisms; it's important for families to discuss sexual and domestic violence openly in a country where one in five undergraduate women report experiencing sexual assault in college.

"It's freeing, at least in my mind, to be able to say exactly what you want to say exactly how you want to say it without someone telling you you can't say the word 'pussy' or you can't say 'this motherfucker right here,'" says James. "Sometimes certain language is a part of healing, like as a social work major, you get to learn how language and the way that you speak about situations changes the situation. So if a survivor is supposed to tell their story in a politically correct way or in a censored way, it's like, there's still this part of me that didn't get past that."

James, a student at Morgan State University, played a significant role in organizing a rally and quilt display held in Annapolis in February to advocate for the "Yes Means Yes" Maryland House Bill 1142, which would require all Maryland higher education institutions to include in their sexual assault policies the rule of affirmative consent. For years the emphasis has been "no means no," meaning that legally it is sexual assault if one person says no. But that makes instances where one partner is passed out or otherwise incapable of saying "no" challenging to pursue. The "yes means yes" bill clarifies that consent in a sexual encounter does not exist without clear, mutual, and voluntary agreement from all parties and that the mere absence of a "no" is not in itself consent. Morgan State University, Johns Hopkins University, St. Mary's College, and Frostburg State University are four of the 100-plus colleges in the U.S. currently under federal investigation for the mishandling of sexual assault cases. The bill, drafted by Del. Marice Morales, died in committee.

It wasn't until she became involved with the Quilt, James says, that she was able to begin to come to terms with her own assault that occurred five years ago. Nagle and Brancato also feel that their work with FORCE has helped them process their own experiences as survivors.

"Being able to be public or be an activist through your story and to connect with other survivors, it's a very different process than sitting in a chair across from an individual and talking it out," says Brancato. "Both are valid, but the point is there needs to be lots of options for healing, and right now there's not a lot of options for healing. So [the Monument Quilt] just gives people another choice for how to do it."

"A lot of models for healing that we have in our culture [are] about fixing the survivor," Nagle adds. "There's sort of all these myths. We don't say it this way, but I feel like what our culture tells survivors is that, well, now you're kind of broken, or like you're damaged and you need to do all this work to fix yourself, and you may never really fix yourself. We place the burden on the survivor—which is ludicrous. I'm not broken because I'm survivor; what's broken is the culture."

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