As college students—passionate about social issues, curious about the world and critical about the society in which we live—we all aspire to one day effect change.
While many of us see our impact on the world as a kind of far-off work in progress, on February 12 Project Unbreakable’s founder Grace Brown reminded students that one person can make a difference.
Grace Brown founded Project Unbreakable in October 2011 with the mission of giving a voice to survivors of sexual assault. To this end, Brown takes photographs of these survivors holding a poster with a quote from their attackers.
Though the project is only two years old, it is something Brown has been working towards since she was a high school student.
“Though I wasn’t affected by sexual assault, I made it my mission at age 16 to end sexual violence. I would sit at my lunch table and share a statistic every day with my peers,” Brown recounted, “It worked for a little but, I noticed my peers would take it in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea,’ but a few minutes later we would be back to talking about trivial things. One day my best friend turned to me and said, ‘You should give up; you’re never going to change sexual assault.’”
Though initially Brown was met with some discouragement, she remained steadfast in her goal.
Shifting her approach, Brown decided to marry her love of photography with her goals to help women and started a series, photographing 50 women who changed her life. While this new development represented a turning point in her project, the major catalyst for Project Unbreakable occurred when Brown moved to New York City.
“I soon realized how common catcalls were in the city. One day, after one of these things had happened I went into one of my classes and told my friends. A guy said, ‘You must have misunderstood him.” I wanted to do a project about women holding posters with catcalls that had been yelled at them to show him that this was something that was happening,” she said.
Brown began working on this new photography project, posting every photo she took on the internet and receiving hundreds of responses which surprised Brown with their positivity.
“I walked on eggshells when doing this project—I expected getting a ton of backlash, hatred,” she said.
Instead, people responded thanking Brown or asking her to participate. Brown soon realized she had happened on something unexpected.
“I wanted to create a project that created awareness for sexual assault but I also stumbled upon a new way of healing for sexual assault survivors,” she said.
Soon, Brown’s project evolved into what Project Unbreakable is today, though her project is constantly changing based on the response of those she photographs and others who reach out to her.
In addition to her own photographs of sexual assault survivors, she now accepts anyone to post their own photos on her blog. Other new facets of the project include allowing survivors to write words on their poster from someone other than their attackers and giving survivors the opportunity to show their faces in the photographs.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but showing a face puts a face behind a statistic. The statistic becomes real when here’s a person behind the poster,” said Brown. Identifying oneself can also be a source for empowerment for the survivor.
For Bailey O’Malley ’15, seeing Brown’s photographs was especially revealing.
“It was really eye opening to hear Grace Brown talk about Project Unbreakable, because while we’ve all heard horrible statistics about sexual assault, seeing the stories or faces behind the numbers definitely gives them a bigger impact,” she said.
While Sonia Jacinto ’13 noted it is often assumed Vassar students have a complete awareness surrounding issues of sexual assault, she realized this consciousness is not something that should be taken for granted.
“Programs, projects, and movements such as CARES SpeakOuts and BreakTheSilence are vital spaces, in my opinion, for people such as myself that need to find a haven where their stories will be heard without more attempts to silence. While these are well known in the circles I find myself in, I am often hit with the realization, whenever I’m outside of those circles, that not everyone is aware of their existence or that not everyone realizes the necessity for their existence,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
Jacinto went on to express appreciation for Brown’s visit to Vassar.
She said, “Grace waited incredibly patiently as I sat for an hour in the Jade Parlor just staring at the white poster board trying to decide what to write. It was in that time that I realized how absurd, to put it lightly, it was that I had options in choosing what I could write.”
She went on to say, “I ended up sharing three different experiences because I couldn’t choose just one. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this project as well as for the on and off campus recognition of personal violation that does exist.”
Not only was Jacinto thankful for the opportunity to participate in Project Unbreakable, but also for the inspiration she provided for her on a number of levels.
“Spending half of the day with Grace was something completely unexpected but highly valued. I shared with her my experiences as a survivor, as a photographer, as a blogger, as an activist, as a nontraditional student, etc., and she shared hers with me. As someone working on a few different photography and zine projects of her own, it was motivating for me to see that activism and consciousness-raising through art and DIY methods could make such an impact,” said Jacinto.
She continued, “Her visit and our conversations provided reassurance that there are people who are paying attention and wanting to take their own passions and apply them to real world issues and activism.”
O’Malley echoed her sentiments, concluding, “The fact that Grace is roughly my age was a great reminder that I can make a difference now –I don’t have to wait around an opportunity, or look for another project to take me on—I can take the initiative.”