Founder & President of The Army of Survivors
Episode 29: By Survivors, For Survivors
Lori talks with Grace French, founder and President of The Army of Survivors, whose mission is to bring awareness, accountability, and transparency to sexual violence against athletes at all levels.
Transcript of the Louder than Silence Podcast
Episode #29 – By Survivors, For Survivors
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’ve really stepped up to the plate and helped us out so if you’re needing any audiovisual, production, or even support and help with running an event, please give The Conference Experience a call. Their number is 720 323-3273 or you can check them out at theconferenceexperience.com
>> Lori: Hello everybody, welcome to the Louder Than Silence podcast. My name is Lori Poland and I’m the Executive Director for the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. Today it is my privilege to have Grace French join us. Grace is the President of a remarkable organization that I cannot wait for her to tell you guys about. Our partnership liaison at EndCAN was able to make a connection with her and we met her through a town hall meeting a couple of months ago and I’m just elated that you’re here Grace. Thank you for being here. Can you tell our listeners who you are and what you do?
>> Grace: Yeah and thank you so much Lori for having me. It’s really a privilege and an honor to meet you virtually and to be on this podcast. So like Lori said my name is Grace French. I am the Founder and President of an organization called the Army of Survivors. We were founded right after the Larry Nassar sentencing by a group of survivors of Larry Nassar. Our mission is to bring awareness, accountability, and transparency to sexual violence within athletics and against athletes at all levels so we are really working to change the system that allowed our abuse to happen in the first place.
>> Lori: That’s so beautiful and you know what’s interesting, Grace, when I heard the title of your organization – and I didn’t want to give it away earlier – but there are several podcasts where I say we need to build an army of survivors here because like so many other issues that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, the way that those issues came to light is the army of people who were survivors of that issue or people who’ve been impacted by it. I think the time has come for child abuse and neglect to move into the light and out of the darkness and out of the shadows of shame and fear and guilt and silence because that’s ultimately what the offenders and perpetrators seek and ask and request and demand of their victims. The pressure of that and the holding of those stories and experiences can be so damaging and so harmful to those impacted by it, not just survivors themselves but even our communities and our families and our relationships so I think it’s beautiful that you’ve done what you’ve done and I just truly want to thank you for doing the work that you do.
>> Grace: Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. To add on to that, there’s such a strength that comes with the community coming forward with your story and being able to do that with people standing by your side I think is what brings so many people – the empowerment that they feel when telling their story and that was one of the inspirations for our story, to be able to be with those people, standing next to survivors and victims as they come forward to make sure they weren’t standing there alone.
>> Lori: Yes. Well and off air we were talking, I was telling Grace ‘I always have these rich conversations off air and I need to just hit record.’ But off air we were talking about part of the focus for you that you’d mentioned in starting this organization is not to reinvent the wheel so help our listeners understand what drove this for you and how it’s different from other organizations that work with survivors and really help them stand together like you’re describing.
>> Grace: Yeah, like I said one of my goals was never to come and re-do work that other people are already doing. I think there’s value in being that connection between organizations that are doing that great work so I’m really looking for partnerships that can help with those parts of our mission that we may not have the most expertise on. So how can we use the experts and organizations that are already out there doing this work to come together to create solutions to broken systems rather than trying to do it all myself because as an organization, I don’t think any one organization can come out of the shadows and fix this problem by themselves. It’s got to be a collaboration across the nation, across the world, in order to fix an entire culture.
>> Lori: And it’s really just the way we look at it, right? It’s just the way we look at it, handle it, and respond to it that we’re asking people to think slightly differently about. We’re asking people to believe, we’re asking people to not minimize, we’re asking people to have our backs. We’re asking people to support and to be an ear, you know. We’re asking people to protect and look out for each other. We’re really not asking for people to change their worldview, we’re not asking them to go beyond their ethics and values and morals. I’ve truly never met anybody that thinks child abuse, specifically sexual abuse which is a lot of what you guys focus on, but I’ve never met anybody who’s like ‘yeah I think that’s okay.’ The odds are with us. There’s very few naysayers and that feels like, okay, we already have a lot of momentum here so now it’s just asking people to look at it a little bit differently and to respond to it a little bit differently and ultimately to keep our kids safe, right?
>> Grace: Yeah exactly.
>> Lori: So tell me what makes you guys different at Army of Survivors
>> Grace: I think one of the biggest things that I’ve focused on from the beginning is to bring in survivor voices throughout everything that we do. Our Board is a majority of Survivor voices, our volunteers are majority survivor voices so we have these people who are building an organization like they would’ve liked to have going through trauma, coming forward, what they would’ve like to see as their worlds were breaking down around them. So I think that empathy in having that community come together to build something by survivors, for survivors, is what makes us really special.
>> Lori: I love that. By survivors, for survivors. That is so beautiful. So tell me, can you help us understand some of the work you’re doing and some of the organizations and maybe even systems you’re looking at to respond differently and to put policies and protections in place for the survivors, or even really for athletes and young children who are engaged in these activities?
>> Grace: Really good question. So our activities really are held up by three sort of pillars we say – education, resources, and advocacy are our three focus areas. Within those we focus on prevention, intervention, and response to sexual violence within athletics. So on this sort of three by three matrix if you can imagine that in your mind, we really try to focus on breaking down cultural norms that may exist in sport that allow for perpetrators to thrive, that allow for educators and administrators in the sports world to ignore the signs of abuse. For example, one of the biggest things that we are educating on is alone time with coaches, is something that is normalized within sport but that’s an opportunity if coaches were a predator, for them to prey on a young athlete whose entire world is this sport and who’s afraid to speak up because they may lose their spot on the team, they may lose their identity as an athlete so they won’t say anything so the coach has that alone time. We often say to parents: make sure that if there’s alone time, and even if there isn’t, if there’s a team activity, a team sport, that you’re able to observe if wanted, you’re able to interrupt the practice if wanted. Those two really are the keys that we’re trying to get through with our education to our parents especially is interruptible and observable interactions with children in sport.
>> Lori: You know I have a little girl who started gymnastics at the age of two, she’s now 12 and she’s bumped up to the competitive level. In my town, in my community, in my small village, and in my home I can see the impact of your work and other organizations in your space. I can see the impact of all y’all’s work even within our own gym and the way they do private lessons and the way they do travel meets, just in so many different things. Just the way they handle everything, it’s so beautiful to see such a quick shift. I know it’s not happening everywhere, I know there’s still a lot to be done. Believe me I get it, absolutely. From one mom of an athlete and of a gymnast specifically because the Larry Nassar case was really something I just couldn’t pull my eyes away from and it just really hit home for me. As a parent it hadn’t even crossed my mind even though I’m a sex abuse survivor and I know so many people that are, and I know athletes that were and it just didn’t – there’s no way that would happen to my daughter in this community. And I realized, how naïve of me to believe that right? So thank you for your work and your messaging because just on a human to human level, not even an executive to executive level, just as a mom I just want to thank you because it was almost within months. It was so vastly different the way our gym changed all of their policies, all of their safety precautions and I’m so honored to know there’s groups like yours and SafeSport and Child USA, among so many. And voices like yours and voices like so many of the other Larry Nassar victims and victims of coaches in general, I have to thank all of you because had you not, who knows how many more children would not be protected and again I know there’s a lot of work to be done but you’ve already made a major impact and saved hundreds of thousands of students and I just think it’s beautiful, especially when I read your website where you say 7% of athletes are sexually abused.
>> Grace: You’re making me tear up, this is literally why I created this organization. I think there needs to be awareness about how big this problem was and still is. It’s not just at MSU or at the ranch or the other spaces that were in my case specifically. It’s a culture problem through sport, it’s a power dynamic between athletes and anybody above them so coaches, trainers, administration. So, it’s changing and empowering athletes so they feel they have a voice no matter where they are in their sport. It’s changing how we think about child athletes and elite athletes so they realize if something bad happens they can speak out and there will be no repercussions. They don’t have to fear that they’re going to lose that part of themselves that is a gymnast, that is a dancer, that is a diver.
>> Lori: If I may I want to just even come up to a 15,000 foot view because as the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect, we’ve been told it’s so vast, it’s such a huge population. Where do you even begin? I’ve had people say, I’ve had even other podcasters say [ending abuse] is not something that’s going to happen in my lifetime and they have job security and it breaks my heart because I wish that those of us that are fighting against it would truly know that it’s possible. I also want to say that I truly believe, just like so many other issues that I’ve been able to witness in the last 30 years, have completely come out of the shadows and out of the dark, something that we never ever once spoke about like suicide, like breast cancer, like LGBTQ rights. Some of those are medical issues, some of those are social issues and child abuse and neglect is both. To me it’s not even just about athletes, it’s about children and we’ve seen those other issues change by people having the courage and willingness and capability to stand together, even against the naysayers and even against the people threatening their lives and hanging them. I’m thinking about Rosa Parks and MLK and Susan B. Komen. Somebody did this work on her behalf and look at how impactful it’s been in just the breast cancer world alone in the last 20 years. I cannot help but think that you, Grace, you and your fellows have modeled for all of the other survivors even outside the athletic world, that we have a voice and that it is okay for us to use it and there is no fault on you or on us, no matter who says to be quiet and stop talking about this, get over it, you’re fine, that didn’t happen. Whatever the story is, by you standing up and by all of your peers standing up and by creating this Army of Survivors, you’ve not just led the way for the athletic world but you’ve led the way for so many others too. If 7% of athletes are sexually abused, I know the statistics of children who are being abused by everybody else is really high and I just want to thank you because you are modeling that it can be done and I am witness to that happening in my own world. I’m just excited for the next 20 years and I’m excited for us to have coffee or tea together in 20 years where we’re telling the world, toasting one another and saying ‘remember that day in the beginning of 2021 when we were sitting in our respective separate places online because we couldn’t even be together in person and we did this podcast and it was just the beginning. Look at what we’ve done now.’ The millions and millions of people who stand together and say that abuse is not okay and that protect the children of the world even when they’re not their own. So thank you Grace.
>> Grace: it’s such a privilege to be doing this work and I truly believe that by empowering one voice you can really add to the chorus of people all around the world calling for this and I think that’s so powerful to think about. If I can stand up or I can empower somebody to tell their story, that has a ripple effect that is adding so many voices beyond what you can even imagine. I never thought that by coming forward I would create a 501c(3). I never understood the power that I had within myself and I think that’s something I would encourage other survivors to reflect upon. You have that power within yourself. It’s just finding that courage to take that first step. That does not have to be telling your story to the world like I did. You can be asking for help, going to therapy, taking that first step. That’s empowering to yourself and can be empowering to the people around you.
>> Lori: Absolutely. Well Grace how can people find out how to support you and your work, how can they find you?
>> Grace: So the Army of Survivors is online at https://www.thearmyofsurvivors.org/ We are also on Facebook, Instagram and twitter under @thearmyofsurvivors so feel free to find me there and the organization there.
>> Lori: Wonderful. I’m saying this online because I want us to have so many witnesses. I am so excited about knowing you more and standing next to you, not as a survivor of athletic abuse because that isn’t my story but I’m certainly a survivor of abuse in various facets and I just am honored to call you a fellow survivor and I thank you for modeling how to do this with such grace and dignity. I look forward to being more involved and for our organizations to work together and for our united voices to just be amplified even more so thank you Grace for being here today.
>> Grace: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to continue to change the world with you.
>> Lori: Likewise, right? Who gets to say that on a Wednesday [laughs]
>> Grace: Exactly [laughs]
>> Lori: Oh we’re just changing the world today, it’s fine. Just gonna go to work and change the world. So cool. What an honor. Alright well ladies and gentlemen thank you all so much for listening in. This is Grace French with the Army of Survivors. My name is Lori Poland and I’m the Executive Director for the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. You’re listening to the Louder Than Silence podcast and this has just been so much fun. Stay tuned for our next one. Talk to you soon, bye bye.
>>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.