Grace Cunningham: Resilient

Grace Cunningham: Resilient

Rohs Street Café is busy on a Wednesday afternoon. Some are enjoying their final homework-free days, chatting about the Target that just opened down the street and recalling the parties of the past weekend. Others are bent over laptops and notebooks. We wave as Grace Cunningham – clearly a regular here – walks in. The UC student and founder of Students for Survivors greets us with a bright smile.

Interview by Kiersten Feuchter. Photography by Aurore Fournier.

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Tell us about yourself.

I’m 21 years old. I am a fourth-ish-year sociology major at UC. I’m a survivor of sexual assault and the founder of Students for Survivors, which is a student-led movement at the University of Cincinnati dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault.

I founded it in August of 2016. I was raped and robbed at my apartment in November of 2015. I had gone through the criminal justice system, and basically, that was pretty traumatizing. My perpetrator ended up getting charged for stealing my property and nothing sexual assault-related, and I mean, the whole time, it was like I was treated as a suspect.

I felt that I needed do something. I was a UC student, so I ended up trying to press charges through Title IX, which is a law put in place to prevent gender-based discrimination in education. UC said they couldn’t do anything because my perpetrator was no longer a student. He was a former football player, was getting access to the private football fields, the whole nine yards, and they were basically like, “Hey, we can’t do anything for you. We can’t ban someone off the public campus.”

It happened three months after RECLAIM was disbanded. RECLAIM was a peer advocacy program nationally recognized by the White House. That was hard for me, ʼcause I was like, “Well, what if I could’ve had this program to help me through healing?” I hadn’t ever really had that conversation with someone that had also come out as a survivor, so through that process I felt very alone, looking for something that I couldn’t really grasp.

I had been going back and forth with the Title IX office. I saw my perpetrator on campus, and if he re-enrolled, UC could “do something,” so I reported again. It took them two weeks to respond. And I knew I couldn’t be the only student that was being treated this way.

I had met another woman who was a student, who was a survivor, and that was a very empowering moment in the sense, I guess, that we were talking about our experiences, but I could confide in someone and have that support. It kinda lit this fire in me that was like, I know how it feels to go through this. So that summer, I was trying to get involved. I ended up going to a meeting with the Women’s Center, and they were like, “Oh, we’re gonna plan Sexual Assault Awareness Week” and “We need to get this on the plate because people keep asking us what we’re doing for survivors,” and so their response was just having a week – and that would cover the resources and stuff for survivors. And I was like, “Hm. Okay, this is problematic.” It took me being in the room to be like, “What are you doing this week that’s survivor-centric?” Their events were all prevention, awareness – which is important, but when you’re doing this work, you can’t not center on survivors because that just continues the notion that you’re silencing them. You’re speaking over their experiences. You’re not valuing them for being a person.

So after that, I got together with one of my friends and was like, “What can we do?” So I ended up creating Students for Survivors with the intention to have a candlelight vigil the first or second week of classes, and then to table on campus and gather messages for survivors, which I had done previously with a former RECLAIM advocate. We used those messages that we created and read them at the vigil that Wednesday night, and so a big thing for that was fostering a safe space where survivors and people from the community could come together and just exist, and if people wanted to share their stories, they could. One person was like, “This is the first space I’ve ever had to share my story.” A big focus for us is the support aspect. We’re not therapists, we’re not any of that, but it’s just having a group where there are people who care, believe you, support you.

The other aspect is to hold UC accountable. To make sure they know, “Hey, we’re watching, and the way you’re handling sexual assault on your campus is completely inadequate.” With that, we ended up releasing a list of demands, providing them feasible ways that they could better support survivors.

Tell us about the importance of that word “survivor.”

That’s a big piece of our organization. A lot of times you hear the word “victim,” especially in court cases, and for me, personally, that word is triggering – this sense of hopelessness and despair, like this happened to me and all that I am is what happened to me. The word “survivor” is turning that around and saying, “Yes, this did happen to me; I survived it, and I’m still surviving each and every day.” It gives that sense of power back.

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I have a confession: I was a little nervous for this interview. I’ve never really talked about rape with someone who’s experienced it. I kept thinking, “What if I say the wrong thing?” But the more I thought about that, the more I realized I’m probably not the only one. And so I wonder if you’ve experienced that in your daily life. Is that an obstacle that needs to be worked through?

I’ve definitely experienced it firsthand. Ironically enough, my friend and I were sitting at this exact table: Someone from student government wanted to create a group, something to do with survivors, and he was like, “Well, I don’t think people in the group would want to talk to survivors.” And I was like, “All right, well, first off I think that’s a red flag and you probably shouldn’t create this group. But, you’ve probably talked to a lot of survivors and you just don’t know it.” And that was the first thing I said to him: “We’re people.”

People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to realize that it could happen to them. And especially as a woman, before it had happened to me, I didn’t know the full definition of what an assault was, or what consent was, and I think that’s a big thing, too. I distinctly remember going into a hospital to get a rape kit done, and my mom had gone up to the desk and she was like, “My daughter was raped last night,” and I was kinda like, “What? No. That couldn’t have happened to me.” It took me a while to frame it as rape. So I think a big part of Students for Survivors’ work, too, is allowing folks to have that conversation, and I think that’s hard for me, sometimes, to only be seen as a survivor.

That’s also part of what’s hard for me because I jumped right into advocacy work. I mean, it had been almost a year, but a year is not that long of a time period after an assault. But having this idea that I always have to be strong, or I always have to be able to talk about it, or I always have to identify myself in this way…I felt that my identity as just, you know, a human being – it wasn’t there. A big thing for me is recognizing that yes, I’m a survivor, but that’s not all of who I am; and yes, I’m doing advocacy work, but advocacy work isn’t my whole life. When a news article comes out I’m like, “Oh, what can SFS do to address this?” And sometimes you have to prioritize yourself and prioritize your self-care. It’s not all my job.

But, a big piece of SFS is to have that conversation. I met people who haven’t had any type of interactions with survivors – like newscasters. We’ve had some very problematic questions in interviews where people ask like victim-blaming stuff…I think a big piece is the fact that people just don’t know. That’s something that’s hard for me to grasp, but also something that’s important to realize is these people may not necessarily have bad intentions. A big piece is having that conversation to be like, “Hey. What you just said…this is victim blaming. This is something that survivors really struggle with. If you’re gonna interview more survivors in the future, don’t ask these kind of questions.”

After the Cincinnati Magazine article, did you get any blowback in relation to the misreporting in Rolling Stone a couple years ago?

This idea that people are making up assaults just plays into this idea of rape culture. There’s some small percentage of people making it up…I mean, why would someone make that up? I think that didn’t need to be put in that article. The article, too, used the word “alleged” the whole time, and I was like, “Why do you need to use this word ‘alleged?’” and they were like, “Well, ʼcause of our lawyers because it wasn’t found in criminal court,” and I was like, “Okay, but realize that the majority of cases that go to the court system don’t find perpetrators responsible.” That’s just how the criminal justice system is set up; it’s set up against survivors.

This idea that survivors are making this up… It’s just another factor put on top of the survivor’s experience.

So, not only from the get-go has my experience been questioned and belittled and trivialized, but then you also have these people that are like, “Well, most of the time people are just making it up” and “Did that really happen to you? What were you drinking? What were you wearing?”

All these questions that are insinuating that rape doesn’t happen or that rape has to happen in an alleyway with a stranger. The majority of rapes happen between people who know each other. It’s also portrayed in the media that way. You have Law & Order where it shows these people are getting convicted and charged, and that’s not reality. A big piece of SFS’ work is giving survivors that voice, allowing us to share that this is the harsh reality that we’re living through.

People are taught that it didn’t happen unless the person was charged. It’s like, well no, the reality is rapists are getting away with it all the time and the law doesn’t make it so that this happened or this didn’t happen.

That’s also a big thing for me and my healing journey. It took me a while to be like, “Okay, this still happened.” It’s still valid even though the criminal justice system didn’t take it seriously. A big part for me that was hard to grasp was the court valued my property: my stolen laptop and my iPad, a crime this person committed 10 to 15 minutes after raping me. Does that mean my body doesn’t have value to you?

It’s not my responsibility to get this person charged, but I felt that way. I still feel, in a sense, responsible. Is he doing it to other people? If I had done something differently… Those thoughts are really problematic and it’s me internalizing victim blaming and rape culture.

Can you tell us about the recent change in rape kit processing for Hamilton County and what that might mean for local survivors?

Basically, there’s a backlog of rape kits in the Hamilton County Coroner’s office, so they’re now sending them to the state, which is actually a good thing. The way the Enquirer wrote the article and the way that the city manager responded made it seem like it was like this terrible thing. Right now rape kits, at least for mine, it took four or five months to get tested. It wasn’t used as evidence in a grand jury. But sending them to the state, it’s now gonna be 21 to 25 days for it to be processed. So it’s a good thing.

But it’s also problematic – the fact that the coroner’s office was like, “Well, we have this opium epidemic,” so that’s getting prioritization. It does shed light on the problem that this crime is not seen as as serious of a crime compared to other crimes.

The thing is, too, with CPD: They don’t have any trauma-informed training, like how you should speak to a survivor, or ways of interviewing that are conducive to the fact that this person just went through a traumatic experience as opposed to re-traumatizing them. I tried to get a new investigator for my case, and they were like, “If you keep trying to get a new investigator, we’ll drop your case.”

I think it’s safe to say this would all be enough to make anyone crumble. How do you keep from becoming defeated?

It’s frustrating. It’s hard because not only are we fighting the system, but our lives are entangled in it. We’re fighting for our livelihood on this campus, and so I think that, for me, at least, one of the biggest pieces is having each other. Systematic change isn’t gonna happen overnight. We went into a meeting with the administration where we had shared our personal experiences and shared, “This is what we went through. This is how you are failing us,” and for them to just be like, “Well, that’s irrelevant. This is what we’re doing, and it’s good.” It’s like, you’re literally telling us what you’re doing and we’re telling you this is not adequate.

There are small things to be thankful for. One small feat that we did accomplish … They have a program called ARISE, and at the time when we first initiated the demands, it was only available to students that had been assaulted while they were a student. So, say you have a previous trauma – childhood trauma, or say you went to another university and you transferred into UC – you weren’t able to get that program. It wasn’t until sometime this past semester where that was opened up to all survivors. Which was good, but why did it take you this long?

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Another big thing for us is the Women Helping Women advocates. There’s two campus-based advocates who are amazing – Susan and Courtney. Just having two people on campus who are trained and survivor-focused and care and believe you, and you can stop in their office if you need anything; they have phone numbers you can call or text…but the thing is, they’re only Monday through Friday, 9-5. (There is the 24-hour helpline.) So, you have 40,000-plus students and you have two people who are not only providing that direct advocacy, but are also expected to sit in on university meetings. Yes, they’re amazing, but they’re overworked and understaffed. So, you have these two advocates so you can say you have these two advocates, but are you willing to make them institutionalized resources? They’re paid off a grant right now. Are you willing to have another person in that position?

If you could accomplish just one thing with SFS, what would it be?

There’s two that come to mind. Holding perpetrators accountable would be the first one, in the sense that this is a crime that’s taken seriously and that survivors are treated as humans and respected.

You can get kicked out for cheating on a test. You can get kicked off campus for smoking a cigarette, but you can’t get banned for raping someone.

The other thing would be having that sense of support institutionalized. One of our demands was creating this center. UK has an amazing Violence Intervention and Prevention Center where survivors can go. That could potentially lead to having peer advocacy again. Having peers on campus who are willing to be there…it gives that perspective that it’s not just some person who’s been put into place by the institution. It’s having that sense of “this is someone who is gonna be there all the time and someone who is similar to me.”

Tell us about your goals and dreams. College is all about “what’s next?” That was sort of interrupted for you; where are you at with the question of what the future holds?

It’s weird, ʼcause I haven’t really thought about the future because I’ve been at such a place where I’ve been living day to day. Where I am now, I’m kind of at a place where it’s like, “Oh, I can actually think about what I wanna do.” I’m enrolled full-time this fall, which is a big step. And I ended up moving out. I had moved back home when my trauma happened, so I moved back into a one bedroom in Clifton, which is a big step because my assault happened in a one bedroom in Clifton. At this point, my goal is to graduate from UC with a sociology degree, and I’m interested in education, but there’s also the idea of doing some type of advocacy work when I graduate, whether it be survivor-related or some type of social justice/advocacy work, because oppression is intersectional, and there are a lot of problems in the world.

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Something that I struggle with a lot is the sense that I’m never gonna escape my trauma.

And I think a big piece of what I have to tell myself is it’s not all of me. Yes, this happened to me, and it will always have happened to me.

There’s no going back and saying, “What if, should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.” I could sit here and go into a very dark place in my head, but it’s reminding myself… It’ll be two years in November, which is a really short period. When I think of where I was a year ago today, I’ve come a very long way. And the thing is, it’s okay to feel bad. It’s not gonna go away. A big thing that I struggle with is telling myself that I have to be okay all the time.

Actually, about a week ago, I ended up listening to the police recordings of my interview and the interview with my perpetrator. That was…terrible, first off. Basically, someone said he literally had consensual sex with me, and then he decided to say he didn’t have sex with me, but if he did, he didn’t remember. But in that moment, I was like, “Okay, everything you’ve felt…PTSD, all of that, is completely valid.” And in that moment – I know this is really messed up – I was like, “One hundred percent. I was raped.” And yes, I’ve known it the whole time, but just having that sense of validation, and the sense of, not only did this happen, not only did this person sit there and lie, but then there was also the police and then there’s all this stuff with UC and in that moment I was so angry; I was so mad, so triggered, so upset, crying on the phone with my sister. And then I was like, “At the end of the day, I’m relieved that I listened to it.” Everything that I felt and continue to feel related to my trauma is completely valid.

What happened to you shaped you, but it doesn’t define who you are. What three adjectives would you choose to describe who you are today?

Empathetic, resilient, and powerful.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

My mom and my sister. My sister – she’s been amazing. When we were younger, we would butt heads all the time. She’s three-and-a-half years older than me. And then she went to college in St. Louis. It was probably three years ago when we started getting really close. She graduated with a women and gender studies major, with political science and French. She’s done a lot of work in St. Louis. She did a lot of stuff with Black Lives Matter and advocacy work for queer folks. She’s always been there as a support. She always reminds me to take a breath. She reminds me it’s okay to feel.

And my mom. My parents are divorced. I’m still close with my dad, but my mom, just being a single mom and supporting my sister and I has been a big influential factor. My mom’s been dating a man in prison; seeing my mom go through that and have that relationship…that’s not easy. My mom’s been through a lot through her life. I’ve always had very open communication with her; I can go to her about anything. With my trauma, she was the first person I texted after it happened, and she was immediately supportive. It was never, “What did you do?” It was, “Okay, how can I help you?”

Also, with my trauma, a big thing for me is how it’s affected her. There’s a big piece of me that felt like a burden for a really long time, ʼcause not only did my life change; her life changed, too. I can’t imagine having a daughter and that happening to her, and feeling helpless in the sense that I can’t do anything for her, and having those thoughts, you know: “What if I did something differently?” I know she has had those thoughts.

But, she’s been willing to do whatever it takes. A big piece is just having her as that support, but also as an inspiration, because of everything that she’s gone through. We’re very similar in the sense that we have this whole fighter attitude. We’re not gonna sit down and be like, “Okay, this is acceptable.” If something’s wrong, we’re gonna speak our minds. Seeing her work with her boyfriend, Gary…she’s done so much for him in the sense of fighting the system, fighting for what’s right. That’s part of where I see that if there’s something that’s wrong, I’ll say something about it and do something about it.

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