Executive Director, Breaking Silence
Episode 18: The Power of Being Believed
Alli Watt, Executive Director of Breaking Silence, discusses the importance of believing survivors when they share their stories of abuse. Alli explains the importance of empathy in eradicating child abuse and neglect, and how Breaking Silence uses immersive storytelling to cultivate empathy in the visitors of their exhibits.
Transcript of the Louder than Silence Podcast
Episode #18 – The Power of Being Believed
Transcribed by Adam Soisson
[Inspirational theme music plays.]
>> Lori: Thank you for joining us. In this podcast, we are real people, talking about real things. Child abuse and neglect: a topic that is all too often left in the shadows of silence, leaving survivors alone, fearful, and oftentimes without a voice. We’re having conversations to become Louder Than Silence. It is here, where we will invite you to join us and be the change needed to end child abuse and neglect.
>> Lori: This podcast is brought to you by our dear friends at the Conference Experience. The folks at the Conference Experience have really helped us out at EndCAN here for the last year and a half. They do incredible work, especially during COVID. They have really stepped up to the plate so if you’re needing any audio-visual, production, or even support and help with running an event please give the Conference Experience a call. Their number is 720-373-3273 or you can check them out at theconferenceexperience.com.
>> Lori: Hello everybody my name is Lori Poland. I am the Executive Director of the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. Today you are joining us for the Louder Than Silence podcast and it is a really, really cool day to be recording this podcast just because of our guest today. Her name is Alli Watt. Alli and I met a number of years ago. I know it’s mutual but I feel like it’s not, I feel like it’s so imbalanced with how much of an impact Alli’s had on my life. You can’t be in a conversation with Alli and not walk away pumped up. It’s just not even possible. That’s why I’m super excited that you’re here. Alli sits on the Board at EndCAN. Pretty much every Board meeting, every committee meeting, every meeting ever I’m on the side texting Alli asking her to say something. When Alli speaks, people listen. She dominates the world and Alli is a true example of being a Transcender. She is just a remarkable human being. That was a really loaded intro but welcome Alli Watt.
>> Alli: Thanks Lori. Wow, that was an intro for sure. Hopefully people will find this conversation engaging and wonderful. Yes, the feeling is very mutual. I’m sure if you’ve heard Lori talk it’s hard to not feel empathy and compassion and this move to not let abuse happen ever again. I’d say that’s a similar message and bond we both have, that we want this world to be a little more empathetic and a little less abusive and a little more inspired. That’s what we aim to do in all our adventures that we work on together so I’m happy to be here.
>> Lori: Well we’re happy to have you. So Alli, I think you’re a perfect example of somebody that is Louder Than Silence. I really want to clarify to our listeners that being Louder Than Silence does not necessarily mean speaking up and sharing your story and outing yourself in that way. It just means being Louder Than Silence. Alli is somebody that stands at the top of the cliff and is okay with sharing her experience and story and that makes her brave and courageous, but that doesn’t make anybody else less brave and courageous. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. You have this capacity, Alli, to share your experience with people and there are so many people that have a similar story to yours. If you’d be open to it I’d love for our listeners to kind of hear your why and what makes you tick behind this topic.
>> Alli: Absolutely. As you hit on, I’m a survivor myself. I’ve been kind of in the field since I was 16 when I disclosed my abuse. When I was 12 I was being abused by my cousin for many years as a child and it just really struck me the power of having people believe you. I’d say the core of my why is that I just really wanted every survivor, no matter what, to be believed. That’s what I got. The trajectory of where I am today changes a lot if that first person I talked to says, ‘It’s not that bad. I don’t think that’s a thing. Suck it up and move on.’ Instead I got, ‘this is a big deal, we’re going to do something about it and we’re going to help you. I don’t know what I’m going to do but we’re going to do something.’ It wasn’t even about having the right answer. That really struck me in that if I can go through and sort of teach that lesson to people that you don’t have to be a super hero. You don’t have to be more than exactly what you are and just advocate for people. That advocacy can be for yourself, like you said it’s not about being at the top of the cliff and jumping off and you’re not ready to disclose that. But if I can create a world where no matter the person who you choose to say that to is going to believe you, that jumping is going to feel more like you just jumped off the sidewalk and not into the Grand Canyon. That’s why I share my story as much as I do and as often as I do. Not really because the lessons I personally learned in my abuse but because of the shadows of behaviors of other people along my journey. I thin that’s what makes it relatable. When I talked about the different roles that people played, every person can look at that and relate to it. Maybe it is the survivor side of me, maybe it’s the advocate side of me, maybe it’s the nonprofit side of me. Maybe it’s my parents’ role in it. Whatever it may be, but I think the power of story is that we all relate to different characters and I want everybody to hear the full weight of my story so they can relate to something at some point along the way so that’s why I share.
>> Lori: Alli were you intentional when you did speak out? Were you intentional on who you went to first?
>> Alli: For sure. I went to a school counselor who was the first person I told. I had disclosed to some friends but we were in middle school and we didn’t know what anything I was even saying meant, besides that what was happening to anybody else that kind of clued me in. I realized this isn’t what you do in a family. I had a friend who was cutting himself so I had known and learned through that experience the mandatory reporting that teachers and counselors held and I really liked that. I knew I wanted to tell somebody that would be forced to do something and I told Mr. Shoe. It was the end of the day and I went into his office and told he I’m being abused and it’s by my cousin and I know you’re a mandatory reporter but I just need your help on how to tell my parents. That was my next step. I need some advice, I didn’t know how to do it. I was really, really scared but I also wanted the reassurance that it wasn’t going to live in silence. The moment I decided to talk I wanted to make sure it was going to be heard and that was my intention of who I chose to say my story to first.
>> Lori: Wow. I mean that’s so powerful and you have grown up being an advocate from your early teens you started advocating and speaking out. Even when the odds were against you and even when people said you need to stop and people said you’re ruining the family, even when people were accusing you of making it up or whatever it is. Whether that’s your story or ten million other people’s story, those are the things that happen a lot of the time. You grew up being an advocate and knowing that you have this charge abut you to watch me. I have this shirt that says “underestimate me that’ll be fun” and I think you need that shirt too because it’s so fitting for who you are. Tell our listeners about what you’ve chosen to do with your life and kind of what your career path has looked like.
>> Alli: So like you said, I’ve been an advocate since I was 16 which started off as like babysitting kids that had been abused while their parents are in group therapy. I think that moment was a big moment for me in realizing everyone impacted by your story needs support, needs community, needs to know that this isn’t so weird and gross and that it happens to so many people. That kind of became the heartbeat of my life. I wanted to normalize this. I wanted it to be as easy – and I’ll get to how I started a nonprofit – I want it to be like bar talk. I wanted it to be like sitting around like, ‘oh yeah I’m a survivor’ and others would be like, ‘Oh that’s really interesting tell me about that.’ This casual thing that happened because I didn’t want the weight and the guilt to exist inside me forever. I wanted to feel as normal as any of the other identities I own. So that kind of charged me to talking about it all the time. I was convinced if I talked about it all the time then it would normalize. It would normalize it for the people in my life, it would normalize it for me. Every time I shared my story, somebody would come into the conversation and also say, ‘I’m also a survivor. That also happened to me. I didn’t know it and I was listening to you and now I know what happened to me was wrong.’ It was maybe not 100% of the time but 95% of the time. I was like, got it. We’re not talking about this enough in reality. We need to talk about this more. I went to college at Colorado State University and I was hired to work on the Interpersonal Violence Prevention division inside the student government. It was basically like now we have to stop sexual assault and violence on CSU’s campus. Super easy, no problem [laughs]. I had wanted to do something more than having the typical speaker come or showing a video. I wanted to immerse people in stories just like I’d done my whole life in telling my own. So I decided to create an interactive exhibit that showcased the stories of survivors and we recreated the settings of where the abuse took place. It was a successful program at CSU. We won the Program of the Year. It was seen as something that didn’t exist in the survivor space which seemed weird to me that this immersive experience that is so prominent, that 1 in 4 people are experiencing these crimes and yet we don’t have something to talk about it, to relate to. So when I graduated I decided I was going to make that program into a nonprofit and I started a nonprofit that very aptly fit in everything we’re talking about which is called Breaking Silence. That was exactly the premise. We go around to college campuses and we showcase this exhibit and students walk through and hear the story of survivors as well as sex offenders. There’s one big key of our journey as a nonprofit is that we believe empathy derives from survivors sharing their stories and prevention derives from sex offenders sharing their stories and we need both. They need to live together and simultaneously so people at the end of the exhibit feel like ‘I don’t want that to ever happen to me and now I understand why it does and now I understand how I can stop it.’ So empathy to change is kind of our model. I’ve been the Executive Director of Breaking Silence for about eight years.
>> Lori: Wow. So I wrote down “I want this to be as normal as any other identity I own.” That’s a quote I’m going to put everywhere. Can I have that quote? I’ll totally give you all credit for it.
>> Alli: That’s great take it.
>> Lori: Huge. That’s the thing, every time I talk to you, you blow my mind Alli. So let’s talk about sex offenders. Nobody wants to talk about sex offenders and everybody hates sex offenders. The worst thing in the world you can possibly be is a sex offender. There isn’t anybody ever that can get behind and be okay with an adult hurting a child in a sexual way. But it happens every freaking day. We’re watching thousands of children, even during COVID, these busts of sex trafficking happening everywhere, just happening everywhere. So let’s talk about sex offenders. Because going through your exhibit, I had a turn in grad school when I took a diversity class. The assignment was you had to volunteer for 40 hours working with a population that you would never want to work with. I wanted to put every sex offender on an island, let them hurt each other. That’s what I believed before I did that assignment. Then I went and worked at a sex offender treatment place and I realized these people are survivors first. They first started as victims. They took a hard left, I took a hard right. Why? What’s the difference? You know what I mean? So I want to hear your words about sex offenders.
>> Alli: Yeah I think I was a lot like you. Also our experiences tell us our reality. My reality was that my sex offender was a piece of shit. I hope I can curse on here [laughs]. So I had put him in the category of all sex offenders. That if mine can’t grow and change, none of them can. It’s impossible, it’s a disease and you’re never going to change or be any different. I have a Board member who’s a sex offender therapist and I intentionally put her on the Board of Breaking Silence because I wanted to be challenged. My goal was not to feel comfortable. My goal was to end sexual and domestic violence and I’m not going to do that by feeling comfortable. If my whole Board was survivors and people who agreed with everything I was saying, we would never get anywhere. So Tonya was like, ‘you need to meet some of these people. I think your story is story and I want you to come talk to them because I think you’ll have an impact.’ So I said, ‘okay let’s do it.’ Nothing is harder or more terrifying than sharing your story to a bunch of sex offenders. It’s vulnerable.
>> Lori: My first time was really scary. There isn’t anybody in your life like, ‘oh that’s great.’ [laughs] My first time was in Fort Collins. There was like 180 men in the room and 2 women and there wasn’t one person I told that said it would be great. Everybody I told was like, ‘you need help. How do we stop this?’
>> Alli: So I think that experience of sort of what I think felt like walking into the lions den. Like you, what I heard and learned and saw, I just felt how much hurt there was and how deeply silenced they were. There’s something going on for these people that’s so much deeper than I realized and it kind of struck me. You and I say this all the time – hurt people hurt people. It was a room full of hurt people that had hurt people. This is it, this is the cycle that we’re stuck in right now. This is why this is going on over and over again. I dug deeper, I got to know one of the SOs very deeply. He is such an incredible spirit. He had done more work on himself than I think any human being, myself included, had done on themselves. SOs have to go to therapy three time a week. The work is deep and it’s intense. To be asked on a regular basis about the worst thing that you’ve ever done in your entire life.
>> Lori: And the worst things that ever happened to you in your entire life. They are looking at their victim stance and their pepetration and it’s hard work.
>> Alli: It’s such hard work.
>> Lori: And the isolation and the loneliness. And not all of them are rehabilitated, not at all right? But there are some that do really truly get so much out of it. Like the guy that’s part of your exhibit. Tell us about that.
>> Alli: Obviously working with an SO and writing their story was a brand new experience for me. I’d worked with victims, but it was the same process. He was afraid, he was vulnerable. Certain elements of his story really hurt him, continue to hurt him. You can feel it, you can hear it in the recording. I think the most compelling element of his story was how for the longest time he felt like a monster which meant he did monstrous things. It was about shifting his mind frame from “I’m a monster” to “I’m a human.” That is the most – it pulls my heart into a million pieces to thin any human being that looks themselves in the mirror and says they’re a monster, they’re unlovable, they’re the worst version of human being. I don’t want any person ever to feel that pain. Of course that led to more pain for more people. It doesn’t excuse his actions, don’t misunderstand me. But it does speak to, when you take responsibility, as weird and ironic as that feels, you feel less monstrous and more human. It’s human to admit our mistakes and it’s human to learn and grow. It’s not human to decide to ignore and push away and hide. That’s not what we’re built to do. So working with him changed me, it helped me heal in my own story. It helped me grow as a survivor and a leader in every way imaginable. My goal, again, wasn’t to feel comfortable. My goal was to end sexual assault and violence and that meant doing hard work for myself and doing hard work with others.
>> Lori: Wow. Yeah we’ve only just begun this conversation with Alli. This is her first podcast of many so I’ve voluntold her right now live on the air that’s what’s happening in the future because people need to hear your words Alli. You have such a way of putting things in a non-judgmental, in a shame-free, compassionate way and it’s beautiful. It’s great to hear you, it’s great to have you. Thank you so much for joining us. This is Alli Watt with Breaking Silence. She’s the Executive Director. Breaking Silence does a lot of work with EndCAN. We’re putting together a march to collectively bring together anybody and everybody that’s been impacted by child abuse and neglect. That’s not just victims but that’s friends of, cousins of, neighbors of, strangers of , everybody because all of us are impacted by this. We just know this. The only way this is going to change is if we do for child abuse and neglect what we’ve done with heart disease and diabetes and cancer and prematurity and all those things that may not be ameliorated yet but are certainly well on their way to being better and they are significantly better than they were 50 years ago and we need to do the same thing here. Ladies and gentlemen thank you again for joining us. I’m Lori Poland with the Louder Than Silence podcast. Alli thank you for being with us. You are amazing and we’ll be hearing from Alli again soon. You all have a great day.
>> Alli: Thank you. Take care.
[Inspirational theme music plays.]
>>Lori: I want to thank each of you again for joining us today and listening in. If you or someone you know is being abused, please call 1-800-4-A-CHILD. To learn more about EndCAN, visit www.endcan.org or find us on all social media platforms. Join us in being Louder than Silence and being a part of the change. Please leave a comment, like our podcast, or share with your friends. The more the word spreads, the more of a collective impact we can have. If you have a question or you know someone who would want to be a guest on our podcast, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again, and have a great day.